VMP Rising is our series where we partner with up-and-coming artists to press their music to vinyl and highlight artists we think are going to be the Next Big Thing. Today we’re featuring the debut release from Cleo Reed, Root Cause.
It’s a sunny afternoon in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Park, and Cleo Reed and I are enjoying the breeze and reminiscing about the DIY music scene of 2010s New York. What started out as an aside about the importance of the experimental trio Ratking turns into an impassioned stream-of-consciousness about sneaking into Ratking shows at 15 years old; summer weekends spent moshing at AfroPunk Festival in Brooklyn; time spent with their rock band Pretty Sick, who once clashed with New York rap collective sLUms in a battle of the bands; recording early demos with rapper-producer Ade Hakim. Though they grew up a classically trained musician, it’s easy to tell this era was the one that cemented their creative drive. “That whole community is a byproduct of the environment,” they say. “This is a whole scene that’s stepping into itself and coming of age right now. It’s beautiful.”
Reed is as much a product of the several environments that raised them as anyone. Born Ella Moore in Washington Heights, they spent the first five years of their life uptown before their parents divorced. While their father moved to Los Angeles, they and their journalist mother decamped to Washington D.C., where they lived until Reed finished the eighth grade. But they and their family didn’t exactly sit still for long. Reed would spend the school year in D.C. and summers in California with their father, and they and their mother traveled to Houston to see family and spent a good deal of time in the South. Around the time Reed started high school, they and their mother moved back to New York. “By the time I was 17 or 18, I had been to at least 15 states,” they say with pride. “I feel like it’s nice because as a New Yorker, we’re hidden from the world but also exposed to so much of it at the same time. That’s a part of my childhood I’m so proud of, being able to see so much of the US, for all its crazy and beautiful.”
Neither of their parents are musicians, but Reed gravitated toward music from the time they were five. Violin and drums were their earliest instruments, which they played in the DC Youth Orchestra, but they fell in love with the guitar when their father won them one at a raffle in Pasadena when they were eight, a moment they cite as “a huge [artistic] shift for me.” Reed became so attached to their guitar, that they remember an airline misplacing it on a trip with their mother to Houston and bursting into tears at the idea of losing it. “I was still crying after they found it,” they say with a laugh. “You would’ve thought my world was over. It was the first time I had a direct connection with an instrument in terms of my mind’s eye engaging with it in a passionate way. From then, my mom was like ‘Maybe you should do this music stuff.’”
Shortly after, music became their whole world. They still played in the orchestra but were writing and performing their own songs on the guitar by the time they were 12, and began producing for themself before too long. While in D.C., they took in musical influences from the orchestra they played in, street musicians, go-go music, and pop music at the time—the first concert they went to by themself was The Weeknd’s Kissland tour. Just before they began studying sound design at Berklee College of Music in Boston, they settled on a stage name cribbed from two members of their extended family: Cleo was their great grandmother’s last name and they and their mother have matching tattoos of swaying reeds in tribute to their ancestor Reed Vontreese. “Using my environment as an artistic reference is cool, but so is my history,” they say. “I know it’s not normal to have that level of history laying around—my family’s just very committed to themselves and giving their first-hand accounts. I just try to carry on that tradition.”
This is particularly true of the Black women and femmes in their life. Though their mother isn’t an artist, her career as a journalist—first for local politics at the Star-Ledger and the Washington Post, and now as the real estate section editor at the New York Times—was a huge source of inspiration. Audio engineer Abhita Austin taught them how to produce music (“it was my first time seeing a Black woman and feeling ‘Omg, I can do that!’”). These figures, combined with their classical training and crash course in all things pop, hip-hop, R&B, rock, and shoegaze formed the moodboard that would structure their musical talent. Their debut solo project Root Cause, released this past February 23rd, came together over their time at Berklee and is the result of them grappling with the kind of performance anxiety and identity issues that plague most college students: “When I was 18, I was having a lot of feelings about sharing publicly that were really hard. I felt the weight of the communities that I’ve walked through and I feel a social responsibility to be good and just with them. It’s because there’s so many different musical communities I had to perform in front of as a child; whether that’s performing for family, being in an orchestra, being in a rock band. All of those things made me feel more responsible to community than I might otherwise.”
Their music is both heavy and lighter than air, ethereal yet grounded like a chunk of meteorite fallen from space. Take the self-titled opening track from their solo debut Root Cause, which opens with their wails set against an echoing wall of overdubbed vocals and 808s thick enough to punch holes in cement. All the cacophony melts away to reveal floaty guitar strings and a blaring statement of purpose: “Save me quick ‘cause I done saved you niggas…Shadowing your pain from your palms of course/I guess that I’m the root cause.” Whatever doubt and uneasiness was looming above them is dashed here—Root Cause is the space for them to be uninhibited and free.
Root Cause didn’t begin life as a full-blown project. Most of its songs were spare ideas Reed recorded and produced while in school or hanging with friends at home, their preferred methos of drafts and demos fleshed out over time. Closing track “Letter To You” started out as an experiment with Ade Hakim recorded outside of their house. “Problem Kid” was written and recorded on a morning while they were studying abroad in Spain in 2018. By fall of 2019, they had six of the project’s seven original songs recorded in some capacity, but wasn’t on “some album mode shit” at the time. It took hearing the title track and second song “Pretty Baby” in order—they were originally one long song—for them to realize there was a thread connecting all these sounds together. “Once I’d start playing ‘Root Cause’ and ‘Pretty Baby’ in order, that was the first time I felt I was really hearing myself in my work,” they say. “It required a lot of solitude and not performing in school and putting my head down and crying; using the music as a vehicle for emotional release.”
Those raw conflicting emotions flow through every song on Root Cause. They jump between confidently snatching souls like Shang Tsung (“Pretty Baby”) to getting so “locked up in [their] mind,” they're “So worried ‘bout the destination, forgot to climb,” as they coo on lead single “Slip Away.” Both “Haunted” and “Breasts Got Big No. 2” are kiss-offs to greed and leering eyes at their developing body. The lyrics to every song flow like the writing in a diary, free to roam yet restrained by forces sent to oppose them. Having the voices of Black queer femmes around centers them, like on “Haunted,” which is partially powered by guest SIFA’s cathartic verses and “Pretty Baby,” both of which were co-written by friend and longtime collaborator Alanna.oh, who also provided guest vocals on "Pretty Baby" as well.
Once those themes became clearer to them, they spent the next three years from 2019 on arranging and mixing the project. “I spent a lot of time thinking about what it meant to be a solo artist stepping into this position and waking up and being disciplined and doing things that are creative and musical every day,” they explain. “As a performer, it takes a lot of strength and understanding of the systems we’re under and the sacrifices we have to make. I spent a lot of the pandemic with the album done thinking about that.” What had started as a cloud of ideas anxiously gnawing at them had turned into a full body of work they would play for close friends and teachers and tease out piecemeal at live events. Friends and collaborators from MIKE and Wiki to singer-songwriter-producer Nick Hakim heard the album early; but the one who solidified Reed’s belief that this was something special was veteran producer-songwriter Georgia Anne Muldrow, whom Reed met during a special two-hour one-on-one session at Berklee: “I played her the title track, ‘Pretty Baby,’ and ‘Slip Away’ in order and she was like ‘Listen, this is crazy. You gotta put this out.’ I burst into tears and called my mom.”
While Reed is willing to admit the amount of work they've put into bringing Root Cause to life—they wrote, produced, and mixed the entire album themself and played instruments on every song—they're not willing to single themself out as a member of the “Talented Tenth,” as they call it. If their family history and years spent cutting their teeth in 2010s New York’s independent music scene prove anything, it’s that community means everything to them. Five minutes don’t go by in our conversation without them mentioning how a collaborator inspired them to look at something different, how the input of producers like Ade Hakim and Darryl10k and songwriters like Alannah.oh unlocked a song’s true potential. “I can do everything myself, but I don’t wanna do anything alone,” they say. “The industry and public image will try to emphasize that I do this because I wanna be a 100 percenter. I have to be like ‘No.’ That’s not why I wanted to switch from violin to drums. I switched because I liked the kids in the drum classes that I would meet during the pizza break when I was six.”
That community-mindedness is selfless, but it wouldn’t be as potent if their talent couldn’t back it up. Root Cause wraps all of Reed’s insecurities, aspirations, and familia history in musical cloth worthy of their lineage. Reed’s vision has culminated into a project that’s both intimate and loud, expansive and singular, greater and braver than the sum of its parts. They used to play demos of the songs at live shows and would be terrified of people’s reactions since they were so new, even to them. But during a gig opening for Brooklyn rapper AKAI SOLO the day Root Cause was released, they approach their guitar and sampler with a sage calm, unleashing their energy in concentrated bursts as the crowd hangs on their every word. By the time the crowd joins them in singing the almost sheepish hook to “Slip Away,” their fears have done a complete 180. They're here in their natural element, their fear and their strength pushing them down the right path.
Dylan “CineMasai” Green is a rap and film journalist, a contributing editor at Pitchfork and the host of the Reel Notes podcast. His work has appeared in Okayplayer, Red Bull, DJBooth, Audiomack, The Face, Complex, The FADER and the dusty tombs of Facebook Notes. He's probably in a Wawa mumbling a BabyTron verse to himself.