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Love Without Fear and Nights Like This: Conversations With Dan Wilson and Eli 'Paperboy' Reed

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A Conversation with Dan Wilson

Mike Ragogna: Love Without Fear: Dan, is that even possible?

Dan Wilson: [Laughs] I guess by even saying the phrase, it calls that question, doesn't it? Yeah, that's just sort of an ideal that I'd like to have, and anyone would like to have, and I guess the reason to title the record that is because that's a hard thing to get to.

MR: What got you in the writing mode for this project?

DW: I did this one kind of differently; I had been doing tons of collaborative songwriting in the years between Free Life and starting to work on Love Without Fear, and I had a working method, and I still do, where I write down the titles of songs, or phrases of lyrics, or staff markings of guitar riffs on 3x5 note cards, so I have a big pile of maybe 100 song ideas at once, all the time in my studio. And when I'm sitting down with someone to write or thinking about what to write for a particular project, I'll randomly go through the pile of cards until I find something inspiring, and then I'll write that song.

MR: Interesting.

DW: And the pile's gotten really huge -- it's probably up to about 200 song ideas, when I decided I would start writing this new album. I decided the way I'd do it was I'd act as though I was my own co-writer. I'd look through the note cards until I found an idea that I loved, and then I'd act as though it was a brand new idea from a collaborator to me, and I would finish it myself as though as I was my own co-writer. It worked really beautifully, and I did that for about two months and I got a big pile of songs, and I kind of cancelled everything and isolated myself, and set myself aside. I didn't do any sessions or see any friends, and it was a really, really interesting process.

MR: As a person who's writing an album that represents you, how do you whittle that down and come up with that exactly right collection of songs?

DW: I probably had 40 or 50 songs to choose from when I finally finished writing for this album, and there were a lot of good ones that I liked a lot, but they didn't sort of fit or coalesce together. They just didn't join the main group -- they were too eclectic or too out of the scene. On the last record, I really kind of developed a sound with Rick Rubin that's what I describe as the meeting point between Americana and Beatles-influenced pop. It's like a very melodic, very acoustic, instrument-based type of rock music. And on that record with Rick, we ended up removing a lot of really good material that just didn't fit that vibe, and I think that this time I wanted to push that further and get more into that particular musical "sweet spot." Because I think for me, focusing mostly on acoustical instruments but having some of the songs be really loud and rocking was an interesting challenge. It was also cool for me to really try to push that sound of the stuff that I worked on with Rick further into the lyrics. A lot of the lyrics of the songs that I love from the past are, like Hank Williams, really mournful-sounding stuff, really lonesome. Even "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," or "If You See Her, Say Hello" by Bob Dylan -- which is one of my favorite songs - are just really lonesome-sounding songs. I really think that mournful, lonesome, "blue" kind of lyrical vibe fits beautifully with the Americana/Beatles/timeless pop melodies.

MR: You include guest artists like Nickel Creek's Sean Watkins, plus Missy Higgins, and Blake Mills playing the baritone guitar. You know what you're doing vibe-wise, is it possible that's something you took with you after your Rick Rubin experience?

DW: Yeah, I think it is. There's another little thread here that I don't know how to pull this into the tale I'm spinning, but I did the whole record in Minneapolis, or most of it anyway, as a fully solo "Dan-Plays-All-The-Instruments," Elliot Smith or Paul McCartney type of recording, and it just didn't quite have the right feel. Meanwhile I had moved to L.A. for the second year or so of working on the album, and I'd been doing so many sessions with these musicians that I loved on projects that I produced for other people, so I was spending a lot of time with Aaron Redfield and Aaron Sterling (the drummers on the album), and I'd done some Pink tracks with Blake Mills -- you know, just spending a lot of time with my musical community in L.A. and enjoying them a lot, and I think when I sat with the finished "one-guy-solo-album" that I had done, it just didn't seem right, especially in light of the fact that I was entering all this incredible collaboration with these great musicians that I love. So I took some time off and I started the record again, and I did most of the songs with this batch of musicians that are my community in L.A. So only on "Even The Stars Are Sleeping," I played all the instruments but the strings, and on "We Belong Together," I played everything but the horns. So those are the two holdouts from the first version of the album.

MR: You went for the A-list of musicianship too.

DW: Yeah, and Sean is a real secret weapon in the studio. He's so great, and Greg Leisz, too. There's a thing about Sara Bareilles on "Disappearing" that's interesting to me, and this kind of thing happened all the time: I had the song "Disappearing" written and finished, and it was very much just from the guy's (my) perspective. And she sang harmonies on a bunch of things and it was quite beautiful and then she ad-libs this thing at the very end where she sings, "Sometimes I feel like I'm disappearing." The whole beginning of the song is about "I feel like you're disappearing, I feel like you're disappearing," very much from my perspective, and at the very end, she just ad-libbed this thing where she almost took over, and even she feels like she's disappearing. It made the song so much more three-dimensional, so much more personal because she added her interpretation, this other angle. And this just kept happening over and over on the record. Even like "Too Much": the harmony vocal on "Too Much" is Natalie Maines, but it's Natalie Maines almost singing like a '60s country star, you know, a very super vulnerable and innocent sound in her voice. And that was a surprise. I didn't know that Natalie had that voice to offer, and it made that song way more heartbreaking than it might have been. That kind of stuff happened all the time.

MR: When you look back at the people who've recorded their own albums, you know, where they play all the instruments, sometimes, the soul isn't there. Artists like that who come to mind are culprits like Paul McCartney and Dan Fogelberg...wait, "culprit"'s not the right word... [laughs]

DW: That's a good word, I like that word!

MR: My point is those records were perfect, perfect, perfect, but they were somewhat sterile too. McCartney comes to mind...

DW: Yeah, I agree. I mean McCartney, when he was at his most sloppy and devil-may-care and doing his all-solo records, they could be amazing. Like "Maybe I'm Amazed" is tremendous, but yes, I agree and I think that it was tempting because it was like "I want to try this, because people I respect have done it," but then it was such a relief and it was so beautiful to get back with my people and have it be more just chemistry.

MR: How does performing and recording as Dan Wilson - when you get to finally be you - change how you feel personally when you do that, when you're playing live versus when you're having to get all the mechanics and production elements right? What is it like these days for you?

DW: Well, it's sort of like me performing is kind of the continuous thread in all this, that's something that holds it all together. Even maybe five or six years ago, I discovered this little "acid test" I've got now for whether a song I'm working on with a collaborator is good. I used to kind of go with the flow, like if we were working on some song that didn't sound great to me, or seemed kind of trivial to me, I would just kind of go with the flow and think well, maybe my collaborator's fans like trivial music, or maybe this kind of song that I don't like is something that their fans are going to like. But then those songs never went anywhere; nothing good ever happened to those songs that I was doubtful about. So I started to trust myself more in these collaborations. Then I discovered this little test which is while working on a song with somebody, and singing it to them to demonstrate an idea or show them what might happen, I would imagine that was singing it to an audience of mine. When I did that, I could sort of picture it, and if that felt really good, if I felt no doubt that my audience would like this song, then I would know okay, this is really good, I can believe in this, this is great. Whereas if I thought I wouldn't want to play this for my people, I wouldn't want to play this for my fans, then I would have to say to myself Well, you know what, it's probably actually not good, we need to start a different song. So I think in a way, even in my collaborating, it's super informed by my love of performing and my love of singing for people.

MR: From Love Without Fear, what is the most proud moment lyrically, and what's the most proud, maybe, progression or cadence, that you did musically on the package?

DW: In Love Without Fear? I can tell you. For the past several years I've been playing Duke Ellington in the mornings on the piano, and other jazz greats, just trying to teach myself about those chords and those ideas, and I've been trying to figure out a way to get some of those chords and musical ideas into my songs, and I think the bridge of "Disappearing" sounds very easy and melodic, but it's some heavy shit harmonically, and I feel like that's kind of the glimpse of Ellington in my work, and I'm really happy about that. And then lyrically, I feel like "A Song Can Be About Anything" is about as good as I'm going to get. There's something good about it.

MR: What do you think of the end result of your video?

DW: I'm super happy about it. It was really hard to do. The funny thing was I talked to the filmmaker, because halfway through I was really bummed; my director Noah Lamberth and I had filmed me singing the song "A Song Can Be About Anything" in all these angles with the intention of drawing pictures and making all the artwork around it, but as we were working on it, we couldn't get the balance between the drawings and my face. It was like the singing and portrait kept overshadowing the artwork. I was talking to a filmmaker about this problem, and she said "Oh, you need more shots of looking away. If you want to draw attention to the drawings, the portrait needs to not be looking at the camera." If Dan's eyes look away from the camera, then the viewer will look away from Dan and will look at the drawings. So once we got that bit of wisdom from the filmmaker, it was like "Oh, wow, we can totally make this cool balance between a video of me singing a song, and swirling, moving, fun cartoons and lettering."

MR: Oh, c'mon Dan. Can a song really be about anything? Now really...

DW: [laughs] Well, a couple of people have pointed out to me that, even though that song makes really great claims for that, in the end it's about love and broken hearts anyway, which is what they're all about - all the songs are about the same thing. I even know an 8-year-old who pointed that out to me, so it's pretty transparent.

MR: You're going to start off your Words & Music tour out in Minneapolis, which is also the home of a few other pretty successful artists from over the years, so do you get tempted to invite the local heroes up there like Michael Johnson, Prince...?

DW: You know, I have my own sort of crew that I always seem to invite, from Semisonic and Trip Shakespeare days, and the people that played with me on Free Life are mostly from Minneapolis, so my little group in Minneapolis doesn't include Prince, Jimi Dams or Jerry Lewis, you know.

MR: Now speaking of Trip Shakespeare and Semisonic, everybody kind of seems to revisit their older groups at some point; do you ever get tempted to do that?

DW: I do get tempted to do that. It's just been really busy. I don't know when I would do it, but I certainly love the idea.

MR: What is your advice for new artists?

DW: Well, if you want to be a songwriter, you have to write a lot of songs. And it doesn't matter if they're good or bad, you just have to write a lot of them. And pretty soon more of them will be good, and then you'll get better and better. Don't work on the same three or four songs for like four years. Write a song a week or a song a day. And then the second thing is, get in front of an audience as soon as you can and play your music for people. Because they'll tell you, even without any words -- you'll know right away whether what you're doing is good, and the audience will teach you everything. Don't focus on getting your songs onto the playlists or laptops or phones of famous gatekeeper types. Get your songs in front of real people, audiences, as much as you can.

MR: What does the future bring? Are you working on a project beyond the tour, on the celebration of the album?

DW: You know, right now I'm very much focused on a bunch of music by a young artist named Birdy from Great Britain. I'm also scheming my next record, which I have some pretty good ideas for, and I think I'm also just going to field whatever comes my way in the next year. I think it's going to be interesting.

Transcribed by Emily Fotis

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A Conversation with Eli "Papreboy" Reed

Mike Ragogna: So this is your fourth album, but it's your first on Warner Brothers. What got you to the WB?

Eli "Paperboy" Reed: Well, it's a little bit of a story. I made a record in 2007 or 2008 for an indie label in Boston called Q Division Records that was called Roll With You, that was my first "break out" record and it allowed me to tour especially internationally a lot. On the strength of that I got signed to Capitol in 2010 and in 2010 we recorded the Come And Get It album and I recorded that with a great producer by the name of Mike Elizondo, and in the wake of the whole collapse of EMI Mike made his move over to Warner Brothers and became a staff producer/A&R guy at Warner Brothers. As soon as that happened he called me up and said, "Would you like to come over to Warner and make a record?" This time he was signed on more as the executive producer and let me and my good buddy Ryan Spraker who I wrote and produced most of this album with take the reins and be the people on the ground producing the album ourselves. This is the first time that I've actually produced a record completely independently.

MR: Wow, that's great. What's the creative relationship between you and Spraker?

EPR: Ryan and I have known each other for a long, long time. He was my guitarist who toured in my band, we've always worked together. We actually got to know each other because both of us were into country music and bluegrass around Boston and we started playing that music together. He comes from a punk and hardcore background, I come from the R&B and soul background, so in a way it's like we kind of run the gamut of styles between the two of us. Whenever we were on tour or whatever we would share a hotel room and be working on music. It kind of became a natural partnership, that we would start not just writing but also producing. As the years have gone by Ryan's gotten his own studio setup and he's kind of made the move into the production side of things as well as touring, he stopped touring with me a couple of years ago to stay at home and really work on music from that side of things. But it's been a really great collaboration. He definitely comes at things from a kind of broader perspective. When we started working together for this album, before then I had only ever written with Ryan on the acoustic guitars, but we made the conscious decision to branch out and work from different starting points whether it was a drum beat or a bass line or a loop or a synth line, those are different ways to spark an idea, and that opened up a whole new world of the possibilities of writing and producing music for me.

MR: Nice. So how do you describe your style?

EPR: Well I think that I was born and raised with soul music and gospel music and R&B and I can't get away from that, for better or for worse as a singer and as a stylist that's kind of ingrained in the way I approach things, especially as a singer. I think we were able to use that to our advantage because we can take things in a different direction, both songwriting-wise and production-wise and when I open my mouth to sing it will still bring it all back home in a way that I think is great and also provides a great juxtaposition in the way the songs or the production might sound. So that was kind of like the basis of the idea, we felt like we could push the limits of what I do as a stylist or an artist and I could still identify as Eli "Paperboy" Reed because of the way that I sound as a singer and the propensity that I have for certain kinds of melodies.

MR: You're like a mashup of ways to exist in the music business. You've experienced indie growth, you've experienced being signed to a label, you've experienced the collapse of a label, you've experienced switching labels, what kind of growth does that add to you?

EPR: I'm kind of amazed at how things have continued to work out, in a way. It was really sort of happenstance, a lot of it. Just to put it into perspective, when I went to South By Southwest for the first time in 2007 the first show that I ever played there was the first show that we ever played as a band outside of the northeast. I played in the afternoon at some weird bar and they were giving out free tacos, and because they were giving out free tacos the editor of Mojo magazine was there and he happened to see my show and like it and happened to buy a CD from me and because of that we ended up getting three or four different features in Mojo, and that really sparked the rise of my career in the UK and I got to go on Later... With Jools Holland and all of this other stuff happened just because of that one crazy coincidence. It's sort of a series of things like that, but I don't want to say that I haven't capitalized on it or worked hard, but in a way a lot of it had to do with dumb luck.

MR: Dumb luck and somebody spotting something they liked.

EPR: Exactly. If we hadn't been any good, he wouldn't have paid attention.

MR: You've also been collecting a lot of admirers on the way, you've been on two major labels in a row.

EPR: Right, which is something that doesn't happen very often these days.

MR: It's such a collapse, you are a rare breed. Speaking of rare breeds, I'm not familiar with why you're called "Paperboy."

EPR: When I graduated from high school I had this opportunity to go and potentially work for a radio station in Clarksdale, Mississippi. I decided that I didn't really want to go to college right then, it was not time for me and I was in love with blues and soul music so I decided to just pick up and go and I moved down there. Unfortunately really quickly the whole radio station idea fell by the wayside, but I stayed down there and I got to experience this amazing community of musicians and people that really embraced me and I learned a lot about performing and singing and all this stuff. This was the first time I lived outside of my parents' house, too. But I used to wear this newsboy scally cap all the time that was my grandfather's and I'd be waiting by the side of the stage to play in these little juke joints in Mississippi and the guys who were there would say,"Oh, there's the paperboy again, he's waiting to play."

MR: Do you mind that it stuck?

EPR: No comment. [laughs] It is what it is, I've sort of learned to live with it. There was a time when it bothered me a little bit but I feel like I've got to take it as it is.

MR: Is there a moment on this record that just really shows what you're all about?

EPR: Yeah, I think there's a few. There's a couple of songs that I think really encapsulate the combination of what we were trying to do with a modern pop sensibility and production but also the feel and excitement of soul music. The first song on the album is "Well Alright Now," which has these really weird electronic drums but it's also got this gospel quartet feel. The feel of it and the way the harmonies stack up, to me, is like a gospel record. The songs on the album that are my favorites are the ones with that really strong combination of elements of old and new. Another one of my favorites is "Grown Up," which I think does that, too. It's got this kind of funkyish hip hop beat but it's also got this seventies soul guitar line, all these different eras blending together. Then of course there's "Shock To The System" which is the single that we just put out which I think is really an amazing combination, it's like a sixties pop record but then it's got these big booming kick drums from modern music. I think you couldn't place it in an era, and that's my goal. I want to have something that people can relate to and not say, "That sounds like 1975" or even 2005, it sounds like now or it sounds like whenever.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

EPR: That's a tough one. Write. Write. Don't just perform, don't just sing, don't just play, write, because that's going to pay dividends over the long haul. That's where you're going to be able to pay the rent; writing; creation.

MR: Have you had placements in movies and television?

EPR: I have.

MR: So you know firsthand.

EPR: Exactly. That's the way that we pay the rent these days. I think people talk a lot about the demise of the music industry, I don't think that the music industry is dying in any way, I think there's actually a lot more ways to be able to exist financially, you just have to find ways to capitalize on them. So for me, I never thought about being a songwriter to get songs in movies and TV, it just sort of happened that way, and because of that I've been able to live a very comfortable lifestyle. In a way touring can often be a loss-leader. It's a strange world that we live in now when it comes to music but I would say if I could give any advice it's "Make your own thing and put your stamp on it and make sure you submit the paperwork to BMI as soon as possible."

MR: [laughs] Beautiful. So where are you heading?

EPR: I am leaving for a tour in Europe in about nine days and we'll be in Europe basically from April 24th through June 10th, something along those lines and that's the Nights Like This album release tour. I'm really excited about getting over there, I'm actually about to head to rehearsal after I get off the phone with you to start putting the final pieces together with the band. I think it's going to be great, I'm excited to get back on the road, it's been almost two years since I've done a full tour and that's really exciting for me, to be able to hit the road again with my guys and play live, because that's really the most fun for me.

MR: You've figured it out, haven't you?

EPR: I hope so. Ask me in 10 years.

Transcribed By Galen Hawthorne