How do you write three of the best-selling singles of all time for other people? AND keep your best stuff for your own band?
Ryan Tedder burst onto the music scene in 2006 with ‘Apologize’, the debut single from his band OneRepublic that became the biggest radio airplay hit in the history of the Mainstream Top 40 chart in North America. It had with 10,394 plays in one week, a record only broken by Leona Lewis’s ‘Bleeding Love’ – also co-written by Ryan Tedder.
Since then, he’s written ‘Halo’ for Beyonce, ‘Already Gone’ for Kelly Clarkson, ‘Battlefield’ for Jordin Sparks, ‘Neon Lights’ for Demi Lovato, as well as joining forces with Adele for ‘Turning Tables’ and ‘Rumour Has It’. Billboard Magazine has called him ‘The Undercover King of Pop’.
With the release of OneRepublic’s fourth album ‘Oh My My’, Ryan sits down with HuffPostUK and reveals how this debut global hit almost derailed his entire career, just how easy he finds it to pen a hit song, and what it really takes to be successful AND remain authentic…
Caroline Frost: I’ve just listened to your album.
Ryan Tedder: The whole thing? I haven’t even heard it.
CF: Tell me about working with Peter Gabriel.
RT: I worked with Birdie on her song ‘Wings’ last year, and that collaboration. Her manager only manages two or three people and one of them happens to be Peter Gabriel. I worship Peter Gabriel, he’s part of the reason I got into music.
We opened for Ed Sheeran at Wembley Stadium last year, I had a bit of time in London, went to Peter’s in the studio, had tea and dinner, hung out in the studio, played music. I told him, “You’re one of the single biggest influences on me, at some point in the near future there’s going to be a moment for a potential collaboration and when the right song comes along, I’ll email you.” About four months later, I emailed him. I said to him, “It’s a big ask, but would you consider?” And he said, “If I love the song.” I sent him an obvious Peter Gabriel-ly song, and he went for the non-obvious one. Then he recorded the vocals, and wrote the beautiful out-tro, and he emailed me yesterday, to say he’d heard the final mix, and he was happy with it.
CF: What was the first song that you heard that made you want to be a recording artist?
RT: Bizarrely, the closest answer I could give is probably Peter Gabriel. I was 14, and he did a double live album, recorded in Italy. My uncle lived in London, next door to Tears for Fears and was across the whole London scene for the 1990s, and that album was the thing I played the most, until it didn’t play any more. I was 14, and I was like, ‘Man that’s what I want to do. How this album makes me feel? What’s it like to be huge in Italy?’
The actual song was ‘Talk to Me’, but it was the whole feeling of the album. From the drums to the sound to the lyrics, that informed my whole musical ethos.
When life gives you the opportunity to check off a thing on the bucket list, you have to check them. The same happened with U2, that was a box check, and it’s happened again in the last three weeks. The first song I ever learned to play on the piano was ‘I Just Called to say I Love You’ and now I’ve ended up working with Stevie Wonder on a big track.
CF: If you could boil it down to one thing, what do you think has been the key to your commercial success?
RT: The je ne sais pas… I think that what I do specifically, and Max (Martin) has his skill set and so does Mark (Ronson), I think what I do is, we all have different currency. Max has his commercial pop currency, he’s the genius melody maker, Ronson is more the super hip and exciting music and crazy collaborations. I think my currency is emotional, and there you can hear the Peter Gabriel. It makes you feel.
CF: How do you stay true to your feelings while tapping into what you know works commercially?
RT: There’s nothing contrived. The only thing contrived is the production – you can over-produce to the point you kill a good idea, you can under-produce so that the song’s amazing but you’ll have folks at a radio station saying they won’t play it, so there’s this balance, and it has to be true.
I’m in an odd position because I write across so many genres for so many people and they all influence me, and if I’m going to write as honest an album as possible, it’s going to be layered. So this album took a long time… it came from me turning my phone off from working with other artists for two years, and saying, ‘I’m going to write so many songs, every day, and we’re going to troll through all of them, and find the most honest, exciting and true to me, that’s the album,’ so it ends up feeling more like a playlist. All of it has to come from an honest place, whether it’s talking to God or just singing about hanging out in Paris.
There is maybe a cynicism because of my past as a writer. Cynical people could listen and say, well of course, this song is going to work because of that, because he’s doing something, but it doesn’t work that way.
I can go write an absolutely saccharine pop record with a really catchy lyric for another artist that could become a hit without meaning anything to me, but that’s more the science laboratory, that’s the other thing. With us, I have to sing it every night, I can’t get up on stage if it’s some bullshit story. I envy the Chris Martins who can look at some street art and write a whole album, I can’t do that because I don’t connect, which is why it takes so long, and that’s why I have to shut down from other artists, because otherwise I end up giving them my stories.
CF: For example, you gave arguably one of your best-ever songs to Adele?
RT: ‘Turning Tables’? Yes, but she sings it better. Stevie Wonder sings his song better. Just because a suit fits, doesn’t mean it looks good. You need a tailor. You want to get bespoke.
CF: Did your instant commercial success surprise you?
RT: How we were intended to break, the story that we wanted to tell as band, the carpet got yanked out from under us.
That song, ‘Apologize’, was the biggest double-edged sword ever. We were this alternative band, our first album that never came out, you could hear Buckley and Doves influences on it, when we got dropped that was the universe telling me, this isn’t going to work, this version of you isn’t happening, so we made a new album more accessible, but not a blatant pop album and then ‘Apologize’ happened. We went from Coachella and alternative radio stations in the US, to alternative radio stations not even talking to us because of this hit, which was pop. It was a remix!
‘Apologize’ was the icing. We had a cake, but the icing was so immense, that it drowned the cake, and so we had to… we almost broke up, we couldn’t be taken seriously any more, number one in 30 countries with our first record, and it didn’t even sound like a band, it sounded like a remix.
People will say boo hoo, but I wanted my life. I knew I could make money from songwriting, so how much and when was not really the question. I knew I’d do fine, but this was not the story. We, as a band, were on tour, and we had a conversation and said, if ‘Stop and Stare’ doesn’t connect, we’re done. I’m not going to be the one-hit wonder band that’s trying to come back after one song, always playing ‘Apologize’. We put everything on ‘Stop and Stare’, it was the most important song of our career, and if it hadn’t connected, we would have killed the project.
The commercial aspect became more critical than I ever wanted it to be. There’s a massive juxtaposition between the music we make and the music I listen to. The music I listen to informs the music we make enough. If I listened to pop all day, our album would be ‘Hello Kitty’. I listen to the far left which informs the far right. Somewhere in the middle is where we end up.
CF: How do you navigate playing the long game, career-wise?
RT: Any time you have a song that is directly connected to a very specific musical trend of the moment, you have immediately cut it off at the knees, doesn’t matter if it goes to number one in the world, if you’re too attached to a production style.
There are songs that I love right now, that six months from now, wouldn’t have a hope. Nothing is less cool than last summer’s dance-set. I get it… for all of these guys that are proliferating the airwaves with music, make hay while the sun is shining, right, so why wouldn’t you keep doing it?
Dance is occupying the largest chunk of our airspace, very few dance records has longevity, I would say Calvin’s ‘We Found Love’ is the only dance hit ten years from now you’d still want to hear.
The key things are lyrics and melody. ‘Thinking Out Loud’ will be played at weddings five years, ten years from now. ‘Stay with Me’ will be played years from now.
I find the songs that have the most human components in production are the ones that will stand the test of time.
CF: You’ve worked with so many musical stars, who remains your dream collaborator? Who’s the one who got away?
RT: Alive, we’d go over to St John’s Wood right now where Sir Paul McCartney is sitting.
Dead, I’d say… I was entering into the rarefied space to work with Michael Jackson and I fundamentally believe that that would have happened. That said, the music that I played the most and learned the most, came from Scott Joplin. I would kill to do a song scripted for a movie with Scott Joplin. He would be a dream collaborator, and I would like to go back to 1920 and hang out generally. I realise that’s probably not what you were expecting.