A few years later, Reed enrolled in classes at the University of California, Berkeley to pursue a career as an artist, forming indie rock band Facing New York and hip-hop band Wallpaper, whose second album Ricky Reed Is Real inspired his moniker. The band achieved moderate commercial success, signing to Epic Records, playing Coachella and touring with acts like K.Flay and Awolnation.
Towards the end of his time with Wallpaper, though, Reed switched his focus to production for other artists. When a 2013 demo of his was picked up by Jason Derulo’s team -- eventually becoming the 2014 hit “Talk Dirty," which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 -- the success that followed laid the groundwork for Reed’s production career.
“I had this really interesting year in 2013," he says. "My own album that I'd worked so hard on and was so proud of didn't do what I thought it was going to do success-wise, my manager at the time passed away from an acute form of leukemia very suddenly, I met the love of my life [and then] I had a song that I produced for another artist surprisingly become a hit. I had some pretty discouraging events happen in my career as an artist, and a lot of very encouraging events in my life as a producer and as a human. My now-manager Larry Wade and I decided that maybe we would just go down the path of record producer for a year or two, just to see where it gets us. It got us to this exact moment.”
After the success of “Talk Dirty,” Reed was enlisted to help produce six tracks for Twenty One Pilots’ Billboard 200 No. 1 album Blurryface, as well as singles for Fifth Harmony and Halsey. His continued work and success with Atlantic Records artists led to a meeting with Atlantic CEO Craig Kallman, who offered Reed an imprint under Atlantic. In 2016, the two announced Reed's Nice Life Recordings -- named after Reed’s late manager.
Only a few months after the formation of Nice Life, Reed met then-up-and-coming artist Lizzo through mutual booking agent Matthew Morgan. On their first day together, Reed and Lizzo created the funky, hand-clapping track “Worship,” which ended up on the singer’s 2016 debut EP Coconut Oil. Reed signed Lizzo as the first Nice Life artist, and shortly after added producer Imad Royal to his roster.
Three years later, Lizzo’s 2017 song “Truth Hurts” experienced an unlikely resurgence thanks to a TikTok meme and a feature in Netflix’s movie Someone Great. The track, which Reed co-wrote and co-produced, spent seven non-consecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, tying Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” featuring Charli XCX as the longest-leading rap song by a female artist on the chart.
“Truth Hurts” shot Lizzo to superstardom, and Reed, now 37, earned the status of a big-name producer-writer. This year, he was one of the only names to top the Billboard Hot 100 Producers chart for multiple weeks, while simultaneously reaching No. 1 on the Hot 100 Songwriters chart.
After Reed’s prosperous year and ahead of the 2020 Grammys -- Reed is nominated for producer, album (Cuz I Love You), record, and song of the year (the latter are both for “Truth Hurts”) -- Billboard chatted with him about how his relationship with Lizzo has evolved, what it’s like to break a new artist in a streaming era and who he wants to work with next (hint: it's a former 1D member).
When you first met Lizzo, what was it about her that made you instantly decide to sign her?
She lights up the room. She makes you feel funnier, more interesting. She's an incredible person to be around, but when she sang for the first time on our first day, my jaw hit the floor. I couldn't believe her voice. It filled up the room.
You produced every song on Lizzo’s Coconut Oil EP and multiple Cuz I Love You tracks. Which one is your favorite?
My favorite deep cuts are probably "Crybaby" and "Lingerie.” Those were so much fun to make. But I have a soft spot for “Truth Hurts” and “Good as Hell.” When we made those, I knew how special they were. I remember with "Good as Hell," the first time she actually sang "feeling good as hell," it blew the hair off my head. We weren't even done writing the song and that was the moment when I was like, "This is going to be a thing."
"Truth Hurts," I remember that day she came into the studio and a person she had been on and off with had just really, really let her down in a major way. The whole beginning of that session was just venting about the situation with this guy and me taking down notes on what she was saying because the things she said were funny or outlandish. They ended up becoming the lyrics to the song.
What’s the best part about your relationship with Lizzo?
She has a lot of incredible ideas. Her vision is always 10 steps ahead of everyone else. I think the level of openness we have when we're in the middle of songwriting, just being able to let her speak her truth on records is really valuable. I don't have the relationship that I have with her with any other artist. It's pretty special.
When you first released “Truth Hurts,” you saw some success, but nothing like this year. Did you ever think it would get a resurgence?
No. I thought it was a hit when we made it and I thought it was going to connect. When it didn't, I was heartbroken. I had all the faith in the world that we were going to figure out how to break Lizzo, but I had no idea that that song or "Good As Hell" would have a resurgence several years after the release. I could have never seen that coming.
What song of hers do you hope has a resurgence next?
I'll just say that I’ve heard that "Water Me," one of our other tunes from 2017, is having a resurgence as we speak. We'll see where that goes. At this point, I don't know what to predict. I'm just trying to enjoy the ride.
How has it felt for you being such a big part of breaking a new artist?
A couple of years ago, I wrote a song with Christina Aguilera that was one of my favorite songs I ever wrote. It was really personal and I thought it was going to be one of the biggest moments in my career. But that moment came and went, and it didn't make the noise that I had expected it to. It was around then when I started to have this realization that working with superstars that I really look up to and admire, those are always career highlights and dreams realized. But being at ground zero with a new artist and rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty, working for years and years to break the mold and help usher in a new voice, a direly-needed voice like Lizzo's -- not just musically -- nothing has felt better. Nothing is more important. I’m so proud of the Lizzo album. This has been almost half a decade of hard work in the making. There's just nothing that can compare to that.
Looking into 2020, can you tease anything about new Lizzo music?
Nothing I can say now. She is literally the busiest human that I have ever known, but we're looking forward to getting back in the studio when the dust settles.
Do you have any plans to release music as a solo artist again?
I am working on music hopefully for a 2020 release. I've got a lot to say.
Is there a particular artist you’d like to work with in the new year?
I love Harry Styles. Whenever he starts to work on a new album, I'm his number one fan. Other than that, I've always been a big fan of James Blake. I'd love to work with him. I would like to work with DaBaby again. We had a song together, which was the "Truth Hurts" remix. I think he's a star and super dope, and going to be around for a long time.
Looking ahead, what do you still hope to accomplish with Nice Life?
We have music coming out at the top of the year from Junior Mesa, who put out his first EP in November, as well as another one of our artists John-Robert. There’s a couple more that I can't speak publicly about yet, but I'm going all in. If anything, the success that the label has had this year is just emboldening me to push harder, find more new voices that are on the sidelines trying to get into the conversation -- just empower bold, interesting musicians.