Ryan Tedder opens a window onto the world of 'songwriting'…
Three of Ryan Tedder's songs are fucking amazing. Those songs in no particular order are 'Stop & Stare', 'Apologise' ('Apologize' for our American readers) and 'Bleeding Love', the literally quite good pop tune propelled to the top of the trans Atlantic hit parade by Leon A Lewis.
We thought it would be quite nice to talk to Ryan (pictured right with the rest of OneRepublic) about these fucking amazing songs and, as it turned out, we were right.
Questions: Peter Robinson
Answers: Ryan Tedder (obviously)
Hello Ryan Tedder. Where are you?
I'm at a hotel in the posh old school Landmark Hotel. I never quite get used to expensive hotels but as long as I don't see the bill I don't feel bad. It's particularly bad if you're in a band – I don't wear a suit and I never feel appropriate walking through the lobby. I wouldn't want to see people like me walking through the lobby.
If people know you're a musician it's alright because not being in a suit is, in a way, your suit.
That's very true.
Now that you've had a proper hit single as OneRepublic are you finding it less necessary to explain who you are to people?
Oh, it's a nightmare. My back history is so ridiculously convoluted and impossible to follow that it makes my own head hurt and we have spent the last six months explaining that I am not in fact Timbaland and that we're not a boyband. We're getting though.
If you see a childhood friend at a wedding and she says 'Hello, remember me, I'm working in plastic these days', what would you say you're doing?
You know, the best thing to say is that I'm a writer. Because then they won't ask questions. But if you say 'I'm a recording artist' it comes off as ridiculous, particularly when they inevitably don't know who I am. And if they do know how I am it's just as awkward.
Do you enjoy being recognised?
It's a novelty to me – I don't like it or dislike it.
At what point in 'the writing process' do you decide to keep a song or give it to someone else?
I can't believe this but I've never had one song ever where I've thought 'is this a OneRepublic song or a song for someone else?'. It's weird because you'd hear 'Apologise' and you'd think someone else could easily sing it… It's hard to explain but it's like Jekyll and Hyde. The two worlds are so mutually exclusive that it's almost apples and oranges for me. If I was Kanye West or whoever it would be one thing to cross genres because he can do that very easily, but for me working with Chris Cornell one week then Paul Oakenfold the next, or Leona, or whomever…
Do you like crossing genres like that?
I'm no respecter of genre. I started working like that because when I needed money I refused to take any jobs that weren't music related and I realised I could make a good living writing songs. When I first started doing it I'd been writing for myself for years but didn't know how to write for other people so to start with I'd look on the internet and find their bio and think about them… I'd listen to their earlier songs, I'd figure out the vocal range then I'd think 'right, if I'm her, I've just broken up or whatever, what am I feeling now?'. But when I'm writing a OneRepublic song it's different, because I start writing from a completely different perspective. For other people it's more of a challenge: it's 'can I nail a song that will capture what they're like?'.
Presumably with your profile being so high now you're getting all manner of pop superstar coming to you for songs. Would you give them OneRepublic tracks?
I'll be honest – I have looked. There have been a couple of times when I've considered it and then I've thought against it. We had 35 songs for the OneRepublic album which we narrowed down to 12 so there are 23 songs sitting there which all have good hooks and pleasant melodies and good lyrics. There have been two or three times when I've been asked to go through OneRepublic songs to look for materials and I've almost pitched them to other artists, but then I've thought about what those songs are about and what they mean to me and I just think there's no way in Hell I could ever give them to somebody else. I'd rather the song was a OneRepublic d‑side than end up on someone else's record.
Did you choose the 12 best songs for your OneRepublic album, or just 12 you thought would get on the radio?
We could have put out a much more out of the ordinary and alternative album, but we thought, 'we've got one shot at this – let's save the weird stuff for albums two and three'. We decided to be revolutionary and make something that was actually accessible. The songs themselves weren't crafted for mass appeal or anything like that – there was no effort in the creative songwriting process — but then when it came to the song choosing situation we literally thought, 'let's take the risk and pick the accessible songs'. The rest have been kept in reserve. Paul McCartney had it right: as long as the melody and the lyric is simple, the music can go where you want it to go. The first single, when we were on Columbia records, was going to be a song called 'Sleep'. It's five minutes long and with a minute-long musical diatribe of weirdness and we were being marketed as a serious and alternative band, which is hysterical now when you think of how people know us. It seems the idea now is to look as indie as possible and to act as much as possible like you don't give a shit. But you know what? We do give a shit. To take your fans on a journey you need to have fans in the first place.
Looking like you give a shit is very unfashionable in some circles, isn't it?
Very unfashionable, yes. And what was very useful to me was the day I woke up and realised I wasn't Thom Yorke and OneRepublic weren't Radiohead. And that's fine. It's funny because I think a lot of bands struggle with getting their heads around that: the fact that Radiohead can somehow straddle between mass appeal and total credibility. We just thought 'to Hell with it' – and we wrote songs that can be sung up to the rafters. Everybody right now is trying to be indie and cool and we decided to be obvious.
Also Radiohead earned their right to be avant garde by having a huge radio hit in the first place.
Well 'Creep' sold 5m records. I don't care what people say – the rest of 'Pablo Honey' is far from dispensable but it's not the most memorable stuff to me or to critics. But they launched with a radio smash, and maybe one day we won't play 'Apologise' just like they won't play 'Creep'. One thing we don't ever want to do is lose the majority of fans we're earned, and one thing that can tie a career together from album to album, regardless of how much experimentation there is, is melody. At the end of the day people want to hear melody.
Melody, lyric, sound. Can you put those three in order of importance please?
I would say… Number one, melody. Number two, soundscape. Number three, lyrics. Melody will always be number one for me.
Do you have any emergency global Number One songs up your sleeve?
I would say yes. At any given point in time I have one or two songs for other people that I do believe are quite massive. I'd love to go on record right now with one of them but what I'll say is that a massive artist just cut one of them and everyone's freaking out on it. I told people I was sitting on a smash and now everyone's gone nuts.
What's the initial of the song title?
H. It's one word.
Can you fill us in on what exactly it is about the lyrics to 'Bleeding Love' which sound so unusual and attention-grabbing? They seem to have a really strange but captivating quality, as much because of how they sound as what they actually say.
I have a theory. And I was talking to another songwriter about this the other day. When I write a song I write the music first and then the music will tell me that lyrics are necessary and I'll start recording gibberish. I'll just sing nonsense, the first words that come into my head. But the phonetics – the consonants and vowels that come out of my mouth the first time I sing along to something – are absolutely critical to the final product of the song. It's like an energy thing. I will record gibberish then when I'm writing the lyrics afterwards I'll try and match the words to the sounds of what my subconscience was trying to say. The best writing I do is when I shut my brain off and sing gibberish.
Do you have an emotional connection with a song you've given to someone else once it leaves the building, or do you just let their label get on with it?
What I find difficult is… Well, there have been videos shot which were wrong. There have been songs I've done that I thought and still think are hit songs which the artist didn't deliver properly. Or in some cases weren't marketed properly. The hardest thing for me is a song you know is a hit – and for me that happens at least once a year – where a song I truly believe is a hit doesn't become what it was supposed to be, and that's usually to do with the artist. It's the right song on the wrong artist. It's like the song is crippled. But right now I'm so much more particular about who I work with. Until a year ago I was living from song to song – songs for movies, remixes, feast or famine – then things started happening and now I can afford to be more particular. I say no to 98%. You have to say no. The thing that makes you career are the times you say no, not the times you say yes. I think the most important thing artists can do is not package up bullshit in a pretty bow, because it still smells like bullshit. And that's the one thing that with the band I've sworn myself to. The moment you start to try doing something and you try too hard it becomes disingenuous.
Music fans can tell, can't they.
You absolutely can, man. There's no way in hell that I could get up on stage every night and deliver something that wasn't autobiographical and that I didn't personally connect with. I just don't know how anybody could do it.
You've made quite a good living out of people being able to do that.
It's funny, I have. That's the twist, isn't it? But that, to me, goes back to the craft of songwriting. I learned to write in Nashville, which is the epicentre of some of the best songwriting in the world. Lyrically and melodically that city's known for its songwriting. And thank God for songwriters or there wouldn't be Frank Sinatra. Or Elvis.
Or Hilary Duff.
Oh God (guffaws) let's not go there. Remember when I was talking about how I needed to make a living from songwriting? There you have it. Oh man, there's some stuff… At a later date I will go on record… When I give less of a shit about certain people. I'd love to write a tell all book about certain artists and how little they care.
Thank you very much, Ryan Tedder.