How to write the perfect pop song, by Adele’s hitmaker
Ryan Tedder is the composer-producer the biggest stars turn to for a No 1 hit — and he has given them lots. Here are his top ten tips for a sure-fire chart smash.
Beyoncé, Adele, Taylor Swift, U2, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Madonna, Ed Sheeran, One Direction, Pharrell Williams, Ariana Grande, Peter Gabriel, Maroon 5, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Lopez, Gwen Stefani, Ellie Goulding, Backstreet Boys, Westlife, James Blunt, Kelly Clarkson, the Pussycat Dolls, Leona Lewis, Sugababes. It’s almost certainly easier to make a list of the contemporary pop stars Ryan Tedder hasn’t worked with. Dubbed “the undercover king of pop” by Billboard magazine, Tedder is one of an elite group of songwriter-producers to whom the A-list turn when they need a radio anthem.
The 37-year-old from Oklahoma doesn’t just do big songs — he does huge songs. Among his mega hits are Beyoncé’s double Grammy-winning power ballad Halo, which he co-wrote and co-produced; another power ballad, Lewis’s quadruple-platinum Bleeding Love, which he co-wrote and produced; and Apologize (“It’s too late to apologise, it’s too late . . .”), a No 1 in 16 countries for OneRepublic, the band that Tedder fronts (yes, he’s also a pop star himself). All three songs sold more than six million copies. By his standards, a million-seller is a dud.
We meet at his publicist’s office in central London, where Tedder talks in a caffeinated whirr about his obscene schedule. Two weeks ago he was working in Los Angeles with Stevie Wonder on his new duet with Ariana Grande. Yesterday he was writing in London with Ed Sheeran before staying up until the early hours finishing OneRepublic’s new album, Oh My My, which features collaborations with Peter Gabriel and Romy Madley Croft of the xx. Next week, he rejoins U2 in Ireland for sessions for their forthcoming album and after that he is with the chart-topping US dance duo the Chainsmokers in Hollywood. At some point he hopes to see his wife and two children at home in Los Angeles.
So how did this affable man from a strict Christian family in Tulsa become one of the most influential people in music? Here are Tedder’s ten golden rules for writing a modern pop smash.
1 Cut out the distractions
According to the writer Malcolm Gladwell’s oft-quoted theory, you need 10,000 hours of practice at your chosen discipline to get to the top. Tedder’s way of doing that was a tad extreme: he avoided sex, drink and drugs all the way through high school and college. “I told my best friend: ‘I’m done with girls until I’m 23.’ My friend said: ‘There’s no way you’re going to be able to do that.’ I said: ‘Dude, watch me.’ It was difficult. I was every bit as horny as the next 17-year-old, but I viewed it as an absolute waste of time. Without having those distractions and being an only child, I had buckets of time every single day. I think I probably got my 10,000 hours before I graduated high school.”
2 Does the song give me goosebumps?
“Do I have a physical reaction to it?” Tedder asks. “If I’m in with someone like Ellie Goulding, she wants people to feel tingly from the melody and the picture the lyrics are painting, an effervescence. I know what kind of melody or vibe is going to set her off.”
3 Catchiness is king . . .
Unsurprisingly, a memorable melody is paramount, Tedder says. “When I hear it does it make me go: ‘Oh my God, I gotta hear that again’?” On this front, he acknowledges his debt to the Swedish school of songwriting that has come to dominate contemporary pop, an übermelodic lineage that stretches from the current master, Tedder’s friend Max Martin (Britney Spears’s . . . Baby One More Time, Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl), to Martin’s Nineties mentor Denniz Pop (Ace of Base’s All That She Wants), and all the way back to Abba.
There is, Tedder says, a “mathematical structure” to a Swedish-style banger. Many of them draw on the tradition of schlager music, which emerged in northern and southeast Europe after the Second World War as a more sentimental response to American rock’n’roll. The fundamentals of schlager songs include a three-minute length and a big key change before the final chorus.
4 . . . unless you’re Beyoncé
Catchiness can go out of the window if you’re at the top of the tree, Tedder says: “With Beyoncé, the lyric and concept rules everything. Hits be damned: it’s about the lyrics being 100 per cent honest. Most artists still need songs the world wants to sing. She’s in a position where she doesn’t need hits. She’s like the pop Radiohead.” Adele has reached a similar level, he thinks. “She passed on a lot of hits for this album . Max Martin and I are both sitting on songs that could be massive. That is the power of Adele and Beyoncé: when you can cast aside hit after hit in exchange for pure honesty.”
5 Some things can’t be measured
“There’s a formula to not messing up a great idea,” Tedder says. “There isn’t a formula for the creation of the idea.” Although he can always recognise a great song, he can’t always explain where it came from. “It falls from the sky. It’s the ghost in the room.”
6 It helps to be hyperactive
Tedder’s friends think he’s “the most poster-child ADD person they’ve ever met”, but being “always on” and receptive to multiple influences can be an advantage in pop music. Stevie Wonder is similar, Tedder says: “Every time Stevie calls you he’s singing or playing piano in the background. He’ll go, ‘Hey, Ryan — da da da daaa — how you doin’ man?’ ”
Tedder believes his rampant networking is one of the things that attracted U2 to him: “I’m being brought in because I bounce around with a bunch of artists.” His catholic taste is also an advantage: “The music that I listen to and the music that I write and produce inform each other in the strangest of ways.” He cites two songs he co-wrote for Adele’s 21 album: when they came up with the raw, bluesy Rumour Has It he was listening to a lot of Muddy Waters, while for the piano-led melodrama of Turning Tables he was going through a random Counting Crows phase.
7 Life’s too short to work with people who suck
“I only work with people I genuinely listen to or like,” Tedder says. “Even if I’m not a card-carrying album-buyer of them, if I admire their talent, then I’ll make it happen.” If an artist proves to be an arse, however, he has been known to remove his name from their record. With one big name he “got in a lot of hot water for doing it, but there are certain levels of disrespect that, if you allow it to happen, you are responsible for perpetuating. So you have to shut it down.”
8 Once more with feeling
“I have to believe that you mean the song from every fibre of your being, whether you wrote it or not,” Tedder says. He is still surprised by the number of songs that fail that test, that sound as though their singers have no connection with the lyrics. The ultimate believable performance, Tedder thinks, is Sinéad O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U. “She didn’t write it — Prince did — but as a six-year-old, watching that video with her staring into the camera, I thought: ‘This girl has been through it.’ ”
For Tedder, subject matter must be tied to the real world. “I envy guys like Chris Martin [of Coldplay] and Matt Bellamy [of Muse], who can do concept albums,” he says. “I don’t think I could ever do a concept album. Everything has to be rooted in reality, otherwise I feel like I’m offering up a plate of bullshit to people.”
9 Don’t be afraid to savage the work of megastars
“It makes my hands sweat thinking about it,” Tedder says of his first meeting with U2, towards the end of work on their last album, Songs of Innocence. “It started as killing babies. Bono’s sitting next to me, [the drummer] Larry [Mullen] is sitting opposite. ‘We’re just going to play you stuff,’ they say. ‘Give us your immediate view, tear every song apart. What are the songs that you’d chase and what would you axe?’ ” Tedder must have done something right: he has been involved with the band’s next album from the beginning.
10 Find the balance between dirt and shine
One of Bono’s credos, Tedder says, is: “If one boot’s getting shined, the other needs to be in the mud.” Tedder gives the example of U2’s I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. “If I wrote a song now saying, ‘I have climbed the highest mountains/ I have run through the fields’, you’d think: ‘Come on! All those platitudes, that’s so tired.’ Then you sing: ‘But I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.’ Oh, there it is! The whole thing fits in place.”
OneRepublic’s Oh My My is released by Polydor on October 7.