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Eli Paperboy Reed Finds His 'Way Home' — To Gospel

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Eli Paperboy Reed Finds His 'Way Home' — To Gospel

Music Interviews

Eli Paperboy Reed Finds His 'Way Home' — To Gospel

Eli Paperboy Reed Finds His 'Way Home' — To Gospel

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/481296035/481667094" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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"Somebody once said — I don't know who it was — that gospel music is just the idea that everything is going to be all right," says Eli Paperboy Reed. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the artist

"Somebody once said — I don't know who it was — that gospel music is just the idea that everything is going to be all right," says Eli Paperboy Reed.

Courtesy of the artist

Life looked up for Eli Paperboy Reed a few years ago. He'd recorded an album of pop-soul songs for a major label, Warner Brothers. Reed was proud of the album, Nights Like This — but the label didn't promote it as expected and, not long after the album's release, dropped him. So what's a nice Jewish singer from Brookline, Mass., to do? Turn to gospel music, of course.

Reed came to gospel most recently by way of Harlem, where he's been teaching quartet singing to young men as part of a program called Gospel for Teens. He says those mentoring sessions have had a significant influence on his new album, My Way Home. NPR's Scott Simon spoke with Reed about Gospel for Teens and the importance of faith for his music; hear the conversation above, and read an edited version below.

Scott Simon: Can you tell us about your work in Harlem?

Eli Paperboy Reed: In 2013, I met Vy Higginsen, who runs a program in Harlem called Gospel For Teens, part of the Mama Foundation, and I essentially volunteered. And we did the first class that summer ... Since then I've been teaching teenage boys about gospel quartet music and harmony and the history of the music and everything in between.

Has anybody ever said, "What's some white guy from John F. Kennedy's old congressional district doing teaching gospel?"

The question has been asked, certainly. I grew up with gospel music — my father was a music critic for a time, and you would be very likely to hear Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers or Blind Boys of Mississippi or Mahalia Jackson around my house growing up. And I love quartet music — I think it's some of the most important music that has ever come out of this country, and often I think it's slighted in comparison with blues or jazz or country music as one of the foundational elements of American music.

People call your music "raw."

I think "raw" is a good word for it. I think the important thing is for it to be unadorned and direct. The use of really aggressive-sounding instrumentation — and, to some degree, distortion — are key elements of music that I love, in whatever genre. So I wanted to make a record that had that same sort of urgency.

Tell us what went into writing "My Way Home," the title song of the new album.

"My Way Home" was actually the first song that I wrote for this album, and it kind of steered me in the direction that I went. I had this relationship with Warner Brothers Records, and then I parted ways with them and essentially had a period of about six months where I didn't really have much going on, with the exception of teaching for Gospel for Teens.

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I just started writing more in the way that I used to write when I started doing this — just an acoustic guitar and a pad of paper — and those words kind of came to me. And it wasn't the cliché of the musician who was embittered with his corporate label — that's something that I don't really want to adhere to. So I wrote this song. It wasn't just about that; it was more about me being able to come back to the things that I loved about making music, and also about trying to find my way forward.

How important is faith, of some kind, to this kind of music?

I think it's very important. And I think that, obviously, religiosity comes in all shapes and sizes. I think that you can be a faithful person — I certainly consider myself a faithful person — without necessarily having to adhere to something to strict as a particular religion.

Somebody once said — I don't know who it was — that gospel music is just the idea that everything is going to be all right. And that doesn't have anything to do with a particular deity — just the idea that things have got to get better one day.