Eli "Paperboy" Reed is only 25, but he has the voice and perspective of a cagey, soul-music veteran. "You can only sing for so long," he says on the phone from his hometown of Boston. "But you can be a songwriter until you die." Reed's second album, Roll with You, was released in 2008, and it's striking for his unbridled, Wilson Pickett-like wail, punchy horn charts and ten original songs that capture the ecstatic economy of rhythm & blues. Reed recently signed to Virgin, and a new record is due out this fall. He'll be bringing his six-piece soul band, the True Loves, back to St. Louis this week.
B-Sides: Where did you get the name "Paperboy"?
Eli "Paperboy" Reed: I lived in Mississippi for a time, and I used to wear a hat that belonged to my grandfather, sort of a newsboy hat. That was the nickname they gave me down there, and it stuck.
I thought it was because both you and paperboys are working in an antiquated medium.
I would hope not. I don't think so!
You started out busking in Harvard Square. What did you learn there?
I made rent that way. You gotta learn how to keep a crowd. Nobody has an incentive to stay. So you gotta have material for four hours, and I tried not to repeat songs. At the same time, you didn't have to care what anyone thought, so I just did what I wanted to do.
After high school, you went down to live in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Did you find what you were looking for?
I wasn't looking for anything, but I found something. I just went to go. I wasn't ready to go to college. I made some great friends and had a musical and life education. I hate to put it in those terms, but those friendships will last my whole life. It wasn't like, gotta go down to Mississippi and learn the blues. It wasn't anything like that. I was just surprised at how much music there was, how invested people were in the music. I was eighteen and living on my own for the first time. I spent literally every waking hour with musicians and friends, and just dove right in.
You've played gospel music in the past. Do you still spend Sundays in church?
If I had time, I would. I'm on the road too much. In Chicago and Boston, I would play gospel services. I loved the music, and it was a way to supplement my income, though I would have done it for free. I wish I had more time to do that.
What was the first soul record to blow your mind?
I was really interested in blues before soul. Then I heard the early Ray Charles Atlantic singles. My dad bought that box set. That gave me a new understanding of what the blues was about, how it could be pop in a way, in the broadest terms. I was, like, thirteen when I heard that. That was a big turning point.
One of the differences between the current soul revival and soul of the golden era is that we live in a post-rock world, and soul bands were competing with rock & roll.
I don't think so. I think they were creating pop music, which is a combination of all these different kinds of music. If you ask "Duck" Dunn [of the MGs] where he got his bass lines, he'll say Paul McCartney. It wasn't about competition with rock & roll. It was about listening to all kinds of sounds and creating a new canon of American music.
Classic soul and R&B bands are known for having uncompromising, demanding bandleaders.
That would be me. I have to be pretty tough. I lead the rehearsals and make sure everybody's got their act together. But all these guys are my best friends. We spend every hour together. But I also have to trust them to do what is right, but in their own way. Otherwise, they wouldn't be in the band.
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