Thursday, April 3, 2014

Laura Reed: Soulful Songbird Spreads Her Wings

South African-born singer/songwriter Laura Reed is a bright new light on the soul music scene and is definitely making her presence felt. The talented young artist has been captivating audiences with her powerful live performances, which showcase her amazing voice and impressive songwriting abilities. Reed brings her own unique style to the game and infuses her songs and performances with tons of passion and raw soul.  When you watch her perform onstage, you can’t help but be moved and inspired. These gifts have earned Reed a devoted international following, which continues to grow each day.

Reed currently resides in Nashville, Tennessee, where she recently signed a publishing deal with Sony/ATV. She collaborated with 2x Grammy-winning songwriter/producer Shannon Sanders (India.Arie, John Legend, Jonny Lang), on her upcoming album The Awakening. Reed and Sanders co-wrote all the tracks on the album, which Sanders also produced. The album is set for release this summer, according to Reed.

In July of last year, Reed released the uplifting track “Wake Up,” a single from The Awakening. The song is an irresistible slice of retro soul/pop. It was featured in the 2013 film The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete, which R&B superstar Alicia Keys scored and executive produced. The song was also featured on VH1’s hit reality show Hollywood Exes.

Reed discusses the themes in “Wake Up”:

“The song is about just kind of realizing that joy is a choice,” she explains.  “You know, it’s all about your perspective, and if you’re in love with someone, and they’re hurting you, and they’re making you feel bad, that’s not really love. You gotta wake up from that.”

And in February, Reed dropped “Naturally,” a seductive love song that showcases her considerable vocal chops.  She delivers a sultry, jazz-tinged vocal performance that will have you wearing out the repeat button.

Reed’s sound is a rich international gumbo of styles:

“The root of my sound is definitely soul,” she says. “Soul is where it’s coming from. It’s connecting to that source. And then there’s the world music influence, with me being from South Africa, and then I’ve actually had a lot of influence from Latin America; I spent a lot of time there. And I speak Portuguese, so I've also listened to a lot of Bossa Nova music. And there’s like that pop element and also a roots element, and there’s definitely some funk in there. So there’s a little bit of everything: American music, South African music and Brazilian. You know, it’s kind of combining all those things.”

Reed adds that her approach to her music is to not overthink it or to put it in a particular box and just let it be “organic and soulful.”

The singer/songwriter says that music has always been an integral part of her life, even back to when she was a toddler.

“I think I’ve just always been around it,” she says. “I grew up around a lot of singing, you know, just a lot of different types of music when I was in Johannesburg [South Africa]. It’s weird. I find home videos of when I was around two or three, and they asked me what I wanted to do, and I said that I wanted to be a singer.”

Reed was born in Johannesburg, South Africa but spent most of her life in North Carolina. Her mother is from Johannesburg, and her father is from Nashville, Tennessee. In 1990, her family moved to North Carolina when she was only five due to the volatile political climate in South Africa at the time. Nelson Mandela had just been released from prison after serving more than 27 years, and the country had begun the slow process of dismantling Apartheid.

“It was a little crazy in South Africa in the early ‘90s,” says Reed. “There was a lot of violence, and we were living right in the city, so we moved to where my father’s family was.  But, you know, it was still very much kind of a subculture. I had all my aunts and everybody. We moved them over here too, so I was still following a lot of the customs that we had in South Africa in the states.”

Some of Reed’s biggest musical influences were seminal blues and jazz legends.

“Yeah, I remember in high school while everyone else was listening to the radio, I was obsessed with people like Billie Holiday, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters,” Reed says.  “I was just really fascinated by early 20th century bluesmen and jazz.”

She adds that some of her other big influences were acclaimed artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye.

“With Aretha Franklin, I remember just being so impressed by the power of her voice,” Reed explains. “I would listen to her, and it kind of taught me how to sing from my diaphragm. So it’s all mimicry when you’re learning to sing. So I listened to Aretha Franklin, and I was like, ‘Okay, where is that coming from? Funny, okay, it’s just the gut.’ And Whitney Houston was like the first singer that I think I really like studied."

And in addition to being a vocalist, Reed plays several instruments:  guitar, piano, percussion and blues harmonica. She had no formal music training and was completely self-taught. She says her first instrument was a pair of bongos.

 “I was like really into percussion, and I had all these little percussion instruments,” Reed says. “I was probably around 12, and I remember listening to my mom’s Santana records and would try and play along, just kind of getting the basics of rhythm.”

When Reed was 14, she began teaching herself how to play the guitar. She says this is when she really started getting serious about her music and would practice every day for a couple of hours.

“I was really into Muddy Waters and all that stuff,” says Reed. “And I was like learning these little simple licks and would play them over and over again, and once I felt I mastered them, I would kind of just add something else.”

Reed also started writing songs around this time and says her songwriting grew out of writing poetry.

 “I remember being very into writing when I was younger, and I wrote a lot of poetry,” she says. “So what I did is when I started playing guitar, I said, ‘Okay, I want to write my own songs.’ So I was taking these poems I was writing, and I was just changing them around. Basically, it was like I was singing my little poems on top of guitar, and that was kind of the beginning of my songwriting.”

At 15, Reed began performing at open mics at coffee shops around North Carolina. She says she initially had stage fright but was determined to overcome it.

“I decided, okay, I have to get over this,” Reed reflects. “So I went twice a week. I remember every Tuesday and Thursday, there was an open mic, and I would sign up early, so I’d be there; and for an extra five dollars, they would record your 15-minute set. They’d record it and give you the CD, so I’d take the CDs home, and I would study them,” she continues. “So, you know, on Wednesday, I would practice and tighten everything I had done on Tuesday and go back Thursday and try and do it better, and so on and so on. So for twice a week, for just weeks—it felt like years—I was doing this.”

Reed’s practice of performing at those open mics twice a week greatly sharpened her skills as a live performer and made her extremely comfortable onstage. She says she eventually got to the point where being onstage was as comfortable as being in her living room.

Throughout the rest of her teens, Reed continued to grow as an artist and performer. And when she was in her early 20s, she became the front person for the band Laura Reed & Deep Pocket. She met the band members when they were all students at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Formed in 2006, Laura Reed & Deep Pocket was a great live band whose sound encompassed soul, funk, blues, and world music.

“We started in Boone, and we went to Asheville [North Carolina], and then the band moved to Atlanta,” says Reed. “And during that time, it just expanded. We weren’t really in one place for very long. We literally were constantly on the road. And we all lived in one house,” she continues.  “We were working at this studio in Atlanta called Tree Sound Studios, and the owner of the studio had this big house, so basically he had this downstairs of his house that we all lived in. There were about five or six of us sharing this kitchen space, and we’d kind of come in and out when we weren’t on the road.”

In addition to touring, Laura Reed & Deep Pocket released a couple of albums. But after an impressive run, the band decided to call it quits around 2009, according to Reed.

 “We sort of hit a wall,” she says. “There were a lot of disagreements. What sort of happened is that half the band wanted to be in the studio, and half the band wanted to be on the road….Yeah, it was just one of those things that we went as far as we could together. But being in the band was a great experience, and everyone is friends now; and some of them are still doing music, and some of them aren’t.”

 After Deep Pocket disbanded, Reed continued to work with Tree Sound Studios in Atlanta and signed a production deal with them.

[Tree Sound] really wanted me to be a solo artist, and so when the band broke up, they were like, ‘Okay great, now we can really do more stuff, and we really just want you to be singing,’” says Reed.  “So they were trying to do some development with me. And I kind of started writing some stuff and then, you know, for various reasons, we had disagreements about the direction the music needed to go, and I remember I was feeling really unhappy and just kind of lost.”

So Reed decided to get in touch with her old friend and mentor Paul Worley, an acclaimed Grammy-winning producer based in Nashville who worked with big-name country artists such as the Dixie Chicks and Lady Antebellum. Reed had met Worley several years earlier when she was performing at a wedding in Atlanta. The talented young singer made an impression on Worley, and the two stayed in touch.

“I called him out of the blue and just told him what was going on in Atlanta,” recalls Reed. “And he was like, ‘Well, how soon could you come to Nashville, because I can’t really help you in Atlanta. And if you come here, I promise we could get a good situation going on.’”

So Reed packed up all her things and drove out to Nashville the next morning and met Worley at the studio where he was working with Lady Antebellum. Worley saw something special in Reed and did everything he could to help her get her music career on the right path. After he checked with his wife, he had Reed move into the downstairs apartment of his home where she lived for six months.

“I remember he put the piano next to the bed and introduced me to some of the top writers and musicians in Nashville,” says Reed.  “He was like, ‘Alright, don’t worry about anything. You’re here, just write some great songs and write an album. He was like my guardian angel, and I was very lucky to have someone like that who I could call.”

Worley introduced Reed to songwriter/producer/singer Shannon Sanders. The two clicked and began writing songs together.

“Shannon kind of became my creative partner, and we ended up doing the whole album together,” says Reed.  “And so about three songs in, I got a publishing deal with EMI in Nashville, and EMI got bought by Sony, so now I’m officially a songwriter with Sony. It was truly awesome. You know, I felt very accomplished; it was the affirmation that I was heading in the right direction. And that was about a year ago I got signed.”

During her music career, Reed has had the opportunity to share the stage with renowned artists such as India.Arie, Miguel and Anthony Hamilton. And she has even worked Dr. Funkenstein himself, George Clinton, on several occasions. One of those occasions was when she became part of the massive funk project The Big Ol’ Nasty Getdown in which a number of talented musicians got together to celebrate funk music and raise awareness about the genre’s huge influence on contemporary music.  The comprehensive and ambitious project was made up of a rotating squadron of roughly 90 musicians from 50 touring bands.  Some of the members from the following bands were involved in the project: P-Funk, Graham Central Station, Fishbone, Kool & the Gang and Sun Ra Arkestra, to name a few.

The funk supergroup released an album in 2012 titled Volume 1. Reed was featured on two songs and sang background on several other tracks. One of the songs she’s featured on is the gorgeous ballad “I Will Wait For You” where she delivers a powerful, heartfelt vocal performance.  And she trades off on lead vocals with Kendra Foster on the smooth soul cut “Away From The World.” Reed says the actual recording of the album took place around 2008.

She fondly recalls her experience working on the project:

“It was incredible,” Reed says.  “I mean, for one thing, like I told you, I was listening to records and stuff when I was younger. And I had grown up listening to George Clinton. I never in my wildest dreams thought I was going to be in the studio working with him. I was immediately inspired working with all these creative people and music legends. I was there with Garry Shider and never realized how much of the P-Funk stuff he wrote. And I was the youngest one there, so they really took me under their wing; and me and George really hit it off. And I just got so much wisdom from him and Belita Woods and Kendra and all these amazing vocalists. I was honored to be part of it.”

Reed wrote all the lyrics to “I Will Wait For You” and co-wrote the lyrics for “Away From The World” with Foster.

“They were like, ‘You’re a great writer, and we have some instrumentals’” says Reed. “Why don’t you see what you can come up with?’ So I remember them giving me the instrumentals for “I Will Wait for You” and “Away From The World.”

Reed says she made an effort to not get distracted while working on her parts.

“Since I was the youngest, I really felt like I had to prove myself, really trying to just, you know, do my best and pay attention,” she says.  “There was lot of partying going on and people hanging out, and I was just like, ‘No, I really want to impress George.’’’

Reed and Clinton produced the vocals together on “I Will Wait For You,” and she says it was a great experience working with the funk legend in the studio.

“That was really cool,” says Reed. “I’m going in there and cutting stuff, and he’s giving me pointers and telling me to do different notes, and were sitting there listening to the mix together; it was just a very surreal moment. Wow, I’m here with someone who’s an icon that I’ve looked up to.”

Reed adds that she learned a lot about arranging vocal parts while working with Clinton.

“His whole method was that old-school Motown approach of one mic, and you had all the singers come in and do all the group vocals together, and you’re positioning people,” she says. “So he would go around, and we would do some of the background, and it sounded so full and operatic. You literally had about eight or nine of us, and he gave everybody a note, and he knew which note to give you,” she continues. “And he’d have everyone sing, and he’d come back out and adjust everybody, like we were just knobs. It was just super-interesting.”

Reed did a couple of shows with The Big Ol’ Nasty Getdown. She also performed live with Clinton and P-Funk a few times. She and Clinton became really good friends. He nicknamed her “Baby Groove” and would sometimes invite her to his art studio, which was part of his recording studio, just to sit and watch him paint.

“He just really liked me and wanted me around, just the creative energy, so I would just hang out there and watch him paint,” says Reed. “And he’d be telling me stories about, you know, runnin’ around New York City with a Mohawk and different things. Yeah, it was a trip listening to him tell all these stories. And he’s got a huge heart and is just a ball of creativity.”

Reed says what she enjoys most about being a music artist is performing.

“For me, everything is preparation for that moment when you’re on stage singing to people,” she says. “You know, I love being in the studio. It’s fun, but to me the studio is like you’re trying to translate a moment. It’s like trying to eat something with the wrapper still on it; for me it’s never as good as how it is when I’m singing right there in front of you, being able to experience it with no filter. That’s my favorite part of it. I thrive off of it.”

In addition to being a gifted vocalist, Reed’s a talented songwriter. Her approach to writing varies depending on mood and inspiration.

“It really isn’t one way for me,” she explains. “A lot of times these day I’ll sit there at a piano, and I’ll just kind of start playing chords, and then like a song will come from that music; it will inspire something. But then there are times where I will just start a cappella; I’ll have this concept, and I’ll start singing this melody and these lyrics…. Sometimes it’s the concept that inspires the music, and sometimes the music inspires the concept.”

Although the guitar is usually her go-to instrument for writing songs, she’s recently been using the piano a lot in her songwriting, including many of the tracks on The Awakening.

Reed says since her move to Nashville, she’s gained a wealth of valuable knowledge about songwriting.

“Living in Nashville has taught me a lot as far as taking these moments and these different pieces of songs and really constructing them into something concise, you know, being able to tell the story in three minutes versus seven minutes,” she explains. “And really getting to the point in writing that strong song, so Nashville taught me how to take those moments and really focus them.”

She adds that in Nashville, she also learned the value of collaboration in songwriting.

“Before I got to Nashville, I wrote everything by myself, all the stuff I did with Deep Pocket and some other things were just written by me,” says Reed. “Whereas when I got to Nashville, it’s all about getting a group of people together, and you’ll see two or three peoples’ names on a song, and it’s kind of a more collaborative experience, which is really cool.”

Reed says co-writing all the songs on The Awakening with Shannon Sanders was kind of an “iron-sharpens iron” situation.

“He taught me a lot,” she says. “And apparently, I taught him some things as well, because he’s always been a structured writer; from the beginning, Shannon wrote differently. So I kind of added a little bit of a free, kind of organic element to that structure. Like I get song ideas in a couple of minutes sometimes when I’m in a creative mode; it’s like bam, bam, bam, bam," she continues. "It’s all raw concepts, so what’s good about being with him is that he takes these raw concepts, gets behind a piano, and all of a sudden, we kind of weave it into this kind of pop, catchy melody. So he kind of reins me in, because if you let me go, I’ll keep going."

Reed discusses some of the things she’d like to accomplish with her music:

“Well, I definitely want it to be heard,” she says. “That’s always a goal for the world to hear it and for people to be inspired by it. You know, the whole reason I got into this in the first place is that I wanted to inspire people with music, and to inspire them with my own personal testimony and to just make people feel good; they listen to my music when they want to be inspired, and they want something very honest and vulnerable. That's what I want to do with my music.”

The multitalented young artist has already made great strides in achieving her goal, just ask any of her many ardent admirers from around the world. So music lovers don't sleep on this soul dynamo. You'll  definitely be missing out.

 "Wake Up" video

Reed performing at Nashville Hootenanny

Reed performs Muddy Waters' blues classic "I Be's Troubled "

Related blog entry: Laura Reed Drops Inspirational Anthem "Better Days"

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