“I was really young when I left South Africa,” says Laura Reed, “but I had this vision that if I ever came back, I’d be singing for a huge crowd.”
Two decades later, Reed’s dream became a reality when she returned to the Sandton neighborhood of Johannesburg, where she grew up, and took the stage in front of 30,000 cheering music fans at the Joy of Jazz Festival. Reed was the special guest of harmonica icon Lee Oskar that night, and her star turn at the festival was an unforgettable highlight in a career that’s been chock full of them. Don’t let the fairytale moment fool you, though. Reed climbed her way to success from the ground up, building a devoted audience and earning high-profile fans through grit, determination, and relentless touring. She weathered tumultuous storms and embraced bold risks without ever sacrificing her artistic independence, betting on herself and her talent even when the odds seemed stacked against her. Now, on the eve of releasing her debut collection for Blue Rose Music, it’s clear that Laura Reed’s gamble is paying off.
Raised by a South African mother and an American father, Reed grew up listening to an eclectic mix of music from around the world. Her dad introduced her to Motown, blues, and country, while her mom shared Afropop and classic British rock. Stevie Wonder was a fixture in their home, as was the mysterious folksinger Rodriguez, who’d been all but forgotten in America while he was exalted as a legend in South Africa.
“My parents weren’t musicians, but they were writers,” says Reed. “They would tell me to pay attention to the lyrics, that the words could really make a song special.”
Reed relocated from Johannesburg to North Carolina while she was still just a child, but her family carried their culture and traditions (as well as their love of writing) with them wherever they went. At nine years old, Reed saw her first poem published in print, and at fourteen, she picked up her first guitar.
“I actually taught myself how to play on my own,” Reed explains. “At that age, I was always getting into trouble and being grounded, so I’d spend hours every day in my room just learning chords and deconstructing songs.”
Open mics and cover sets led to original recordings and homemade CDs, and before she’d even finished high school, it was clear what Reed was meant to do with the rest of her life. She took her singular blend of rock, blues, and funk on the road with her band, Deep Pocket, performing more than 200 pulse-pounding shows a year and making her own breaks along the way. George Clinton heard about Reed from New Orleans band members and were so taken that they suggested he bring her into the band, while Lee Oskar found the versatile musician on YouTube and invited her to be an ambassador for his ubiquitous harmonica brand. Reed would go on to collaborate with everyone from Killer Mike and Robert Randolph to Karl Denson and Jewel, sing the national anthem at Madison Square Garden twice, and share bills with Mali Music, India.Arie, Miguel, Valerie June and Anthony Hamilton among others.
When Deep Pocket broke up, Reed was living in Atlanta and ready to launch a solo career. Life seemed promising at the time: she’d landed a production deal, gotten married, and given birth to a beautiful baby boy. One night in the studio, though, she received a surprise visit from a childhood hero with some prophetic words.
“I was in singing with my back turned and suddenly someone grabbed me by my arm,” remembers Reed. “It was Whitney Houston. She was holding a small little dog and she told me to keep singing. I continued to sing and she grabbed my hand and started dancing with me. At the end, she asked my name and said, ‘You have great talent. You’re as real as collard greens.’ Then she looked in my eyes, really close to my face, and told me, ‘Never stop singing. It’s gonna get hard, but whatever happens, never stop.’”
Things did indeed get hard, harder than Reed had ever imagined. Her marriage and production deal both soured, and she soon found herself scraping by as a single mother on welfare, struggling just to make ends meet. With nowhere else to turn, she called famed producer Paul Worley (Dixie Chicks, Lady Antebellum), who’d become a fan and a mentor, and asked his advice.
“I played him some of my demos, and he told me, ‘Put your stuff in storage and get to Nashville,’” remembers Reed. He told me that my one-year-old and I could come live with him and his wife while I finished writing my album.”
Over the next six months, Reed poured her heart and soul into writing and recording what would become her solo debut, ‘The Awakening,’ reinventing herself personally and professionally with the help of GRAMMY-winning producer Shannon Sanders (John Legend, India.Arie). The songs earned her a major publishing deal, and upon its release, the record was a critical hit, with Blurt raving that it “showcases Reed’s astonishing pipes” and SoulBounce calling it “a refreshing blend of retro-leaning soul and pop with hints of gospel and R&B.” The album’s lead single, “Wake Up,” landed in rotation at Nashville’s Lightning 100, which led to public praise from the likes of Sheryl Crow and Debra Messing. Songs from the album, meanwhile, turned up in a slew of films and television shows, including Cold Light of Day (Sigourney Weaver, Henry Cavil), Chloe and Theo (Dakota Johnson, Mina Sorvino), and Alicia Keys’ The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete (Jennifer Hudson, Jordin Sparks).
The record also caught the attention of the burgeoning Blue Rose Music artist collective, who presented Reed with the unique opportunity to join their prestigious roster without sacrificing any of the fiercely independent spirit that had guided her from the start.
“I’m so strong willed that I need to have creative control wherever I go,” explains Reed, who now calls North Carolina home once again. “When I walked in to Blue Rose, I saw a room full of women for the first time in all my years in the music business, and I immediately felt at ease. It didn’t feel like signing a typical record deal. It felt like I was joining a team that understood me.”
With the team in place, Reed is poised to reach the biggest audiences of her career, and as she puts the finishing touches on her most exciting, adventurous material yet, it’s clear she’ll be turning even more dreams into reality.