Rock star, songwriter, hit producer—he does it all and makes it look easy 

By Michael Gallant

To call Ryan Tedder a master of musical trades is an understatement—the Grammy-winning wiz is an international rock-star-songwriter-producer phenom. Tedder’s most visible gig is as frontman of OneRepublic, but pull away the curtain and his superstar production and songwriting credits are revealed. He’s helmed landmark albums and penned hits for pop’s biggest A-listers, including Adele, Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Maroon 5, Leona Lewis, Adam Lambert, B.o.B., Kelly Clarkson, the Wanted, Gavin DeGraw, Natasha Bedingfield, Wiz Khalifa, Hilary Duff and many more.

The son of a family of musicians and missionaries, the Tulsa, Okla., native graduated from Oral Roberts University and landed his first record deal after winning an MTV singer-songwriter contest that attracted the attention of producer Timbaland, who took Tedder under his wing. It was during this period in the early 2000s that Tedder developed as an artist while writing and producing for other artists.

Meanwhile, Tedder’s work with OneRepublic became national news in 2007 with the massive hit “Apologize.” Timbaland’s remix of the tune pushed the song—and the band—into the international spotlight, helping “Apologize” garner a Grammy nod. Timbaland had signed the band to his Mosley Music Group label, which released their debut album Dreaming Out Loud and another hit single, “Stop and Stare.”

After recently releasing the band’s third studio album Native, Tedder reveals challenges the group faced. “I wanted to create something new and inspiring,” he says, “but it’s difficult because we’re not Mumford and Sons. With those groups you know for the most part what their albums are going to sound like. But we’re more of a moving target. Inspirations for Native came from everywhere, from Muddy Waters to hip-hop to Peter Gabriel.”

Musical inspiration in Tedder’s singular career also comes from everywhere, whether he’s touring and recording with OneRepublic or writing and producing with an array of artists. Tedder spoke with us about maintaining balance as one of today’s most cutting-edge producers.

What were the album’s challenges?

Staying fresh without copying what’s current—that’s nearly impossible to do, especially if you’re a producer who helps create a lot of what’s current. If you walk away from a project for even nine months, your entire cache of sounds and methodology can become outdated. It helps that there are certain fundamentals of production that work a lot of the time—tried and true techniques you can rely on.

Such as?

It all starts with a chorus. I get the chorus sounding as good as humanly possible and then work backward. At the end of the day, the verse is going to be a broke-down version of the chorus when it comes to drums and instrumentation. So I start with the biggest part of the song, getting the instruments as tight as possible and everything in its right place.

What’s next in the writing process?

It’s about creating chapters. About every four bars, I’ll introduce a fresh piece of information. Even if it’s the slightest thing—like high-hat on the two and four or some indefinably weird sound—the ear picks it up. The result is this constant build, and then the chorus explodes. For the second verse, you might reapproach things, strip the track down to nothing and bring it back slightly. But even in the second verse, I focus on creating new elements of sound every four bars. And each chorus has a slightly different sound or percussive element than the one before it, so there’s a subliminal build from first note to final chorus—and that final chorus is the apex.

Does this apply to everything?

It’s more macro generalization of production. It’s the fundamental approach I would take to any song in regards to radio. Although everything I’m saying can go out the window if you’re talking about acts like Arcade Fire, Elbow or Radiohead. Those rules don’t apply to more esoteric music.

Do you try to stay current?

You have to be careful not to chase what’s out there now. By the time you write or produce a song with that same sound and it gets pitched, placed, cut, recorded and released, it will sound dated. Producers need to be very cautious about that. You must have an angle, something different. Either the song itself has to be extraordinary—and then it doesn’t matter that the production is somewhat derivative—or you need elements in the production that are unique. It’s hard to do, since we’re all dealing with the same equipment, software and instruments. There are only so many notes that a human being can come up with, and they’ve all been written or recorded before.

How do you deal with that obstacle?

You stay inspired. I listen to a lot of new music, and that keeps me on my toes. I always try to mine for new music, and noncommercial music in particular. That’s where I find a lot of ideas. Regardless of whom you’re working with, you can adapt ideas from more underground cultures to help create a song to be commercially successful.

What’s an example?

Maroon 5’s single “Love Somebody.” The original idea was inspired by Robyn’s electronic music—songs like “Hang With Me” and “Call Your Girlfriend.” We loved the vibe, feel and the huge, emotional choruses. Another example is Adele’s “Rumour Has It.” That song exists because of Radiohead. I was a massive fan of their song “I Might Be Wrong,” and that was the inspiration behind my work with Adele. So many hit songs come from a songwriter sitting in a room and saying, “Man, I wish I could go back and write Peter Gabriel’s ‘In Your Eyes.’” Then they sit down with that song in their mind, and what comes out could be something extraordinary that was inspired by Peter Gabriel, even though it may sound nothing like it.

How about from the new album?

On “Can’t Stop,” I’m basically channeling Gabriel with the drums, weird synths and piano. The chorus is Annie Lennox—I’m a huge fan. Somebody in their 30s might get those references, but to an 18-year-old it just sounds new, and that’s all that matters. M83 was also a big inspiration for the album, and we even incorporate one of their songs into our set.

Do you have your own sound?

A lot of the hits I had prior to the last two years were me creating my own sound without realizing it. It was basically massive, percussive drums combined with the opposite end of the spectrum, which is beautiful, super-emotive, ethereal, cinematic music. I loved where those two worlds met, and I got there from years of listening to Peter Gabriel.

How’d you write Beyoncé’s “Halo”?

My Achilles tendon had exploded while I was on tour and I was put on bed rest. My wife was out of the house and she’d warned me to not work, but I was getting antsy. I called my friend Evan Bogart and said, “I have three hours at the house by myself. Let’s write something for Beyoncé,” since she’d hit me up a couple times and I wanted to deliver something. He showed up, and the first thing I started playing was the opening pad of “Halo”—that angelic-sounding, atmospheric sound.

How close was the demo to the final?

I get a call a week before they were mixing and mastering the album—while I was on tour—saying, “Beyoncé wants to do vocals, but we need a dissection of the song because she sang it in a different key.” It was pure panic. I locked myself in Germano Studios and worked on recreating the entire track because I hadn’t written down the patches I’d used or saved the settings. I had to dig through multiple keyboards and folders on hard drives to re-create the song from the ground up—and I did it in an afternoon. It’s infinitely harder to re-create something than create it for the first time.

What was it like working with a singer like Adam Lambert?

Adam is one of the most authentic, funny people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. His energy is amazing—and he’s also one of only three people that I’ve ever had blow out a microphone from the sheer power of his voice. We went through five or six before finding the right one—he was distorting the capsule with every one we tried.

How about Gavin DeGraw?

Gavin is one of my favorite singers, and he’s had some really good success, but he’s overlooked and should be way bigger than he is. He can pick up an acoustic guitar or sit at a piano with nothing else and just blow everybody in the room away with his singing, lyrics and talent. It can take the two of us forever to finish anything we start, but once it’s done, it’s great.

Any advice for aspiring producers?

These days most demos sound like final recordings, so it’s important to learn how to mix. If you’re going toe-to-toe with another songwriter or producer—with all things being equal—if you have the better sound, that’s going to make your chorus pop more to whoever’s listening. A great mix could be the deciding factor.


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