Over the past two years, Ricky Reed has become one of the music industry’s go-to songwriters and producers, thanks to his scoring a string of hits with Jason Derulo (“Talk Dirty,” “Wiggle”), Pitbull (“Fireball”), Fifth Harmony (“Bo$$”), Jessie J (“Burnin’ Up”), Cobra Starship feat. Icona Pop (“Never Been In Love”), Robin Schulz (“Headlights”), and most recently newcomer Lunch Money Lewis (Bills EP) and newly minted chart-toppers Twenty One Pilots. (Reed executive-produced the duo’s No. 1 album Blurryface and produced eight of its 14 tracks.) The Bay Area native has also expanded beyond the pop and urban music worlds, proving his versatility by working with country stars Florida Georgia Line (“This Is How We Roll,” a remix featuring Derulo) and Tim McGraw (“The View”), as well as indie-rock-oriented bands like New Politics and Smallpools, and Colombian electro-folk band Bombeo Estéreo (new album Amanecer).
Reed is too humble to speculate about why he has achieved such stratospheric and rapid success, but it might have something to do with his process with artists. He encourages everyone he works with to dig deep into the core of who they are and what they care about in their writing. “I get in there and we get real shit on the table, even if the real shit is about partying and having fun,” he says. “We talk about it in a way where it really means something.” He cites such examples as encouraging Swedish female duo Icona Pop to explore their ideas about feminism and the essence of punk in their session together, and urging Lunch Money Lewis to be honest and heartfelt about his childhood experiences when they wrote Lewis’ track “Mama.” “You try to capture the air and the energy in the room and preserve it through the long process of mixing and comments from the label all the way till it reaches the listener,” he says. “If you can do that, that’s when you have an actual hit. We know in the room when it happens. It’s a crazy feeling.”
These days, Reed does most of his artist-whispering in the recording studio he’s built in a private two-story house up in the hills of Los Angeles’ Elysian Park neighborhood. There, in a verdant setting with massive succulents, pomegranate and citrus trees, and a wooden patio with a firepit and hammock, Reed teases out the secrets of pop’s creative elite. Greenery is present throughout the space, from the moss covering the ceiling and back wall of the control room to the living wall of plants that greets visitors in the front room. “I think it’s cool that if you’re playing piano or singing vocals that the sounds are reflecting off of living things,” he says. “In one sense, you can’t hear it. But in another, you actually can, because if those plants weren’t there, the room would be loud and slappy and reverberating. Living things in the recordings add more of the intangible. And, to me, the intangible is the difference between hit songs and just good songs.”
Reed has always had a discerning ear, going back to his childhood growing up in Pinole, CA, when his mom would test his musical knowledge with demanding quizzes. “We would play a game where we’d listen to the classic rock station in the Bay Area and she would have me guess who the artist was, like ‘Is this Crosby, Stills & Nash or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young?’” he says with a laugh. “She’d really stick it to me.” Reed grew up listening to Bay Area punk bands like Green Day and Operation Ivy and one year, received a guitar for Christmas. ”I had a falling out with a little high-school girlfriend and I basically put a band and a show at a coffeehouse together so I could sing covers of punk love songs for her. That, honestly, was the impetus behind it. Once I played that first live show, I had that feeling. That was it.”
In college at UC Berkeley, Reed formed his first real band, Facing New York, which toured across the U.S., Europe, and Japan. While recording their first album, which Reed describes as “this very heavy handed opus,” Reed felt the urge to blow off some steam with a lighter-hearted project and his band Wallpaper. was born. Fusing hip-hop, pop, and dance music with pointed, often satirical lyrics, Wallpaper. released an independent album, Doodoo Face, and three EP’s, including “#STUPiDFACEDD” (which spawned the hit title track and “Fucking Best Song Everrr”) before signing with Epic Records and releasing 2013’s Ricky Reed is Real.
It was while making Ricky Reed is Real that Reed began to think about writing and producing for other artists. “We were one of the bigger bands in the Bay Area and I was working as a dishwasher in the cafeteria at The Gap’s corporate headquarters,” he says. “My band was on the cover of all the big regional magazines and selling out big venues and I was like, ‘I still have a dishwashing job. What am I doing?’ That was when I thought, ‘Maybe I need to diversify.’” Reed began reaching out to people he knew in Los Angeles about getting into writing sessions. He was in the studio on one when an A&R executive came in and played him a song he had heard while on vacation in Tel Aviv. Reed flipped the horn sample, made the beat, and sent it off to the songwriters. Then he hit the road with Wallpaper. for The Warped Tour. During the tour, he got word that Jason Derulo had recorded vocals and the track was going to be released as his comeback single. “Talk Dirty” hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 40 chart, charted around the world, and has been certified 4x-platinum.
“At that point, I had been trying to pursue a career as an independent musician for 18 years,” he says. “Then one of the first things I produce for somebody else starts racing up the charts. I thought maybe it was a sign that I should do more of it. Not abandon the stuff that’s me as an artist, because I have things I need to say and get out of my system, but maybe shift the way I look at them. I can do cool, interesting stuff as an artist. I don’t need to try to be a rock star. I can just make music that I think is rad, release it, and let someone else be the rock star.”
In this way, Reed gets to achieve one of his life-long goals: to impact popular culture in a meaningful way. “That’s always been the goal,” he says. “I’m from the Bay Area. We see things through a very specific lens up there. Early on, I was trying to poke fun at popular culture with Wallpaper. Now I’m trying to get inside of it and help make music more enriching and valuable. But it’s the same brain that was dissatisfied with the status quo. It’s about learning more effective ways to affect change. That’s always been at the heart of it for me. It was never about vanity or fame. The goal was to have a podium. And I realized that now that I have one, I don’t want to squander it.”