Photo by Sarah Walor
Sam Reed’s alto voice is buoyant and boundless. With it, the Richmond native has been lifting crowds for decades, beginning, like all the best soul singers, in the sanctuary.
“My father is a pastor, I was raised singing in the church,” she says, flicking croissant crumbs from her fingers at Brewer’s Café in Manchester. With that firm musical foundation, Reed has earned a faithful fan base in Richmond, where she’s been singing professionally for nine years. Having honed her chops in local groups including Photosynthesizers and Dance Candy, Reed launched her first solo project last year, the album “This is Love.” It’s a musical study of the highs and lows of relationships, an R&B-flavored expression of affection, and a soulful tribute to the pains and pleasures of the heart. It was written, Reed says, when she was in a “lonely yet comfortable place,” during the coldest part of the year in 2015.
Because Reed’s muse visits her any time and anywhere, the album took shape gradually but naturally. “A lot of times, I start to hear the melody in my head first — it’s already a song to me,” she says. “I would get inspired in the kitchen, cooking something. Or, when I’d see the way a certain cloud looked as it floated by. Anything, really.” Of how some of the album’s 12 compositions were born, she says, “Devonne would send me a track and I’d ride around listening to it, letting it work into my psyche.”
She speaks of Devonne Harris, known to fans as DJ Harrison, co-founder of Richmond’s powerhouse indie label Jellowstone Records, whose artists have included a litany of the best-loved bands and musicians in town — Butcher Brown, Future Prospect, KINGS and Reed among them. Harris, a multi-instrumentalist and the lead producer for Reed’s album, says it was a year-and-a-half-long merging of their minds and music.
At work and play: Reed in the studio with Jellowstone Records’ Devonne Harris, who produced her debut solo effort, “This is Love,” in 2015 (Photo by Sarah Walor)
“I did my best to match her tone, whether the theme of the song was anger, or love, or whatever,” says Harris, who has known Reed for a decade or more. “So, she might call and sing a melody to me, and I would go back and figure out which instruments, which arrangement worked with the theme of each song.”
Songs like “True Value” and “Those Words” are free-flowing and warm; they’re the sweet musings of a person in love, and they make you feel good. But other tracks make you think and, maybe, remember past pains; their lyrics are laced with hard lessons. “Love Ain’t Free,” with its vintage R&B feel and saucy quips — “Love ain’t free/Do all the things you did to get me/to keep me” — teaches that yes, love is beautiful, but it’s sometimes brutal, and it always takes work to maintain.
“Falling in love is cake, it’s easy,” Reed says with a knowing smile. “Staying in love? That’s the hard part. That’s what [“Love Ain’t Free”] is about.” Learning that took her many years and tears; you hear the passion and pain of those authentic experiences reflected in these songs. Reed’s parents have been married 38 years, and their relationship inspired her while she was writing her album.
“They told me years ago that they’ve discovered the secret to making their marriage work: They both came to realize and accept that the other is crazy,” Reed says, laughing. “Honestly, they mean that you’re not going to be madly in love every day, and sometimes the person you love the most will make you the angriest and saddest and craziest. But, if it’s real and meant to last, you get through it. That’s the nature of love.”
On the album’s seventh offering, “Never Alone,” Reed collaborated with her husband, rapper Josh “Freeze” Reed. The real-life lovers’ styles complement each other: “I’m never alone,” she croons. “Beauty so divine, it’s right by your side,” he rhymes. Reed says making music with her other half is a true pleasure, but can we expect a joint project from the dynamic duo soon?
“If we do something together in the future, great. If we don’t, that’s great, too,” Reed says. “We have mutual musical respect for each other, we never limit each other in that way. Josh has his own things working — he’s an incredible rapper, performer, songwriter — and so do I.” She pauses, taking a sip of water. “But who knows what tomorrow holds, really? I don’t.”
Now at work on a new album, Reed says she’s easing the “this has to be good” pressure she put on herself when writing the last one.
“I never want to get complacent, but I won’t be as hard on myself this time,” she says. “I would like to say that it’ll be ready for the world by this time next year.”