“Music played such an indelible role in my life growing up. It was the soundtrack to all these experiences, so I think music can change the world because it changes people and if you take one person affected by music and if they’re effectively changed, you extrapolate that over 7.2 billion people and it is, one song at time, slowly shifting and affecting culture. It’s like the silent assassin.”
Viv: This week we’re happy to welcome Ryan Tedder back to Art of the Song. Ryan is a singer, songwriter, and producer. Billboard magazine has dubbed him the “Undercover King of Pop”. A regular on stage to the Grammy Awards, he is a six-time nominee and winner in 2012 for his production work on Adele’s “One”. Ryan singles and albums have sold millions worldwide.
John: He has written or produced some of the best-selling singles of all time, including Beyoncé’s “Halo” and One Republic’s own “Apologize”. He’s also worked with Taylor Swift, U2, Maroon 5, and many others. We spoke with Ryan Tedder about the release of One Republic’s 2016 “Oh My My”.
Viv: Welcome back to Art of the Song! Music came to you in a private way from what I understand, harking back to our first interview. You definitely had music around you, you participated musically with your family, but how did you come to it on your own? Finding your own voice?
Ryan:It was rather difficult. I knew that I was obsessed with music on a different level than most people. I quietly had sung in the privacy of my own bedroom closet for years and years and years, trying to hit every note for the popular songs of that time that were on the radio, the albums that I had. Trying to sing like my heroes. One minute, I’d be trying to sound like Peter Gabriel or Liam Gallagher, the next minute I’d be trying to sing like Boyz to Men or Prince. Just years of doing that. I was doing that because I loved to do it. I had no idea at the time that I was quickly accumulating in excess of 10,000 hours of just musical absorption and practice and rehearsal. I didn’t realize. I wasn’t doing it with intent, with any kind of end game. I just loved doing it. Once I started writing songs around the age of 15 and then really started writing at 17/18 like proper arrangements, I was studying arrangements in my spare time, what were the patterns in huge records of the times? The Diane Warren songs, the Whitney Houston songs, Mariah Carey, Aerosmith, Beatles, you name it. It’s just taking them apart and trying to figure out what made them tick. Then I discovered this whole host of songwriters behind the scene that were making a living writing songs and it was like discovering Santa Claus is real. I realized, ok, that’s what I want to do. So, I had a very humble goal. I remember telling my mom at some point, “You know what, I’d love to be an artist, but I don’t know if I want to be a solo artist. I’d love to start a band, but I’m not sure what the sound would be.” My back-up plan was getting a publishing deal being a songwriter, and if I could score like 50 grand a year, I could live comfortably in Nashville and all would be right in the world. That was my goal. As I kept surpassing whatever goals I set, as type A people do, you just keep making the goal more and more ridiculous. Then, you quickly realize when you get old enough, you get to 30 and you realize the goal isn’t the point. The process is the point. Maybe I just love what I’m doing to no end and that’s enough. Some combination of goal-setting and just enjoying the process is where I live now, and I haven’t looked back. I haven’t had a real job since I was 21 or 22.
Viv: I love that you started out by saying that it was a little difficult at first, but you put in the hours on discovery. One of my questions was that I wanted to dig into how you have been able to write hit after hit after hit for such a diverse group of performers. Now, listening how you did your study, it’s making more sense to me.
Ryan:When you’re a kid, and you’re younger, success comes about. I’ve read a number of Malcom Gladwell books, which I love, and in his most recent one he dissects why are some people more successful at a certain field in an extreme way and why are others not. There are so many more factors that come into play than just talent. Talent is like 10 or 15 % at most I think in any specific thing. Obviously, your physiology and biology are also important. As much as I would want to be as good a basketball player as Black Mamba or as Kobe Bryant, I’m not 6’6 and I can’t jump 3 1/2 feet in the air. It doesn’t matter how much talent I have, I’m never going to be as good as him. So, the factor that comes into play is the randomness of your environment, the limitations of your environment, your upbringing. I was raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In Tulsa, why do I specifically do I write, or have I been lucky enough to write, “hits”, as opposed to really indie underground records. The reason is, in Tulsa, in the 1980’s and 90s, where I grew up, there were no cool radio stations. I grew up in a Gospel music listening family and the only thing that was allowed other than Gospel music was The Beatles, The Beach Boys, or whatever was on Top 40 radio. I couldn’t listen to crazy hip hop. We didn’t really have a hip-hop station. There were no edgy stations. I had no idea who Radiohead was or Dinosaur Jr, Pavement, Pixies…none of that made its way to Oklahoma. I was relegated to what was available and, since I love music, I consumed it like an addict, and I was consuming Top 40. Just take an only child with insane amounts of boredom and unlimited time because I had no distractions, combine it with a musical father, and having access to instruments, and then combine that with 10-15 years of making mixtapes off of Top 40 radio and singing every one of them and listening to them ad nauseum. That was the alchemy. That was the weird soup ingredients that led to where I’m at. I couldn’t control most of those things. If I had grown up in Boston near my family, I have a ton of family in New England, if I had grown up on the East Coast, I’d probably be doing something completely different. I don’t think music would have happened for me. So, it was environmental, it was luck, it was me just being obsessed. And honestly if I had had a brother. There’re all these things. If I had a brother, I would have had a playmate, I would have exhausted countless days and weeks and hours hanging out with him and I would not have been practicing piano, I would not have been writing songs, etc., etc. There’s a lot of things that led up to it, but I think that’s why, specifically, pop hits have found their way to me is because of that environment growing up.
Viv: I love that you said the pop hits have found their way to you. It sounds almost like you are collaborating with some other source.
Ryan:Well, I’m a firm believer in God and I believe in where songs come from. Not every song needs to be helping people and changing people’s lives. It’s not like I sat down and I’m trying to write a dance record for Selena Gomez or whatever and I’m thinking, “Ok, now how are we going to address the situation in Aleppo?”
Viv: Right. Sometimes it’s just good fun.
Ryan:Yeah, it’s just good fun. The world needs to dance and let it go. Now that I’ve wrapped the One Republic album, I’ve been working with a lot of other dance outfits: The Chainsmokers, and Kaigo, Alesso, and so on and so forth. I love records like that, but in the context of One Republic, I try to do stuff that has a certain catharsis to it that is alleviating somehow. Whether it’s the pressure of being human and getting up every day or heartbreak or loss or all these things. Within the confines of my own band is where I get to delve into deeper issues, more human substantial issues. Then, all the other stuff is just fun. I equated it earlier to I get the same kind of neurotic high writing records, trying to write hit songs that the world would want to hear, I get the same kind of high from that as I did playing Super Mario Brothers or James Bond on Nintendo when I was in middle school and in high school. It’s the same kind of rush. It feels like an adult version of a video game to me. As long as I have fun doing it, I don’t see a reason to stop. And as long as artists keep calling me to get in the room, I’ll have a place to work.
Viv: Now it seems that you spent an awful lot of time writing on the road. From where I sit, when people go out on tour, they’re not able to write out on the road. It seems that it’s two different hats. I was doing the research, which I have to say, it’s really fun to research an artist who had an extensive article in Billboard magazine and an extensive article in Forbes. It feels really cool to me. You’re wearing a lot of different hats, but it seems like it’s really inclusive for you. So, when you’re on tour you can still write. You’re talking about business end of things, and branding, as well as creating these beautiful, heartfelt songs, as well as just some rocking really good time songs just to dance to. How do you master that balance?
Ryan:Sometimes poorly, sometimes well. Life is the pursuit of happiness and balance, right? Unfortunately, historically, there is very oftentimes a commiserate amount of imbalance with success. So, you’ll read stories on people who are wildly more successful than myself. It’s incredible when you find the unicorn of a person who is balanced, or seemingly perfectly balanced, and successful. Guys like maybe Richard Branson. Running an airline, running a hotel empire, running everything and somehow hanging out and kite surfing and wind surfing 90% of the time. It defies logic. Then, you have guys like Elon Musk, and I’m using the extreme examples to make a point, a guy like Elon Musk who will admit, “I have zero balance in my life, whatsoever. I don’t have room for a wife. I don’t have time for leisurely activities. Going camping requires two private jets and a helicopter.” But look what he’s doing. He’s literally inventing the future. He’s a modern industrialist on par with guys like Edison, all the different Rockefellers, all the different titans of the 20th century. I think that finding balance is a day-by-day thing. Some days I nail it and I’m like, wow, I got so much done today. I hung out with the kids, went out on a date with the wife, and I got to watch Netflix. This is like an all-star day. Then you have days or weeks when you’re like I’m absolutely the worst dad. I’ve been gone for 7 days and haven’t even been able to FaceTime them the last three days. So, it ebbs and flows. But, for me, as far as on a business sense how do I find balance, I find that the things that you’re truly the most passionate about, they force themselves on you and they don’t really let go. Songwriting for me is a muscle and it’s not one that likes the be inactive for that long. If it’s inactive, just like anything else, like your hamstrings, you go out and try to run a marathon, you’re going to pull something. You’re not going to finish the marathon. Writing on the road I quickly realized the first hurdle, the most important hurdle that I’ve had to conquer in my career, was getting over that whole stigma and reluctance to write on the road. Most artists do not like writing on the road. It’s counterintuitive to what they want to do. On our first album, we put out “Apologize” and then “Stop and Stare” and that same year I had done “Bleeding Love” and the next year I did a bunch of records for Beyoncé and Kelly Clarkson and some country records with Carrie Underwood and Rascal Flatts, and I took the first six or nine months of our tour and I didn’t write. I just played video games and vegged out and whatever. Then, I got off the road and all these people started hitting me up for records and I didn’t have any. I examined what the average artist does on the road. I don’t care who you are, unless your Springsteen and you’re doing 3-4 hour shows, your average artist has from the time they wake up till they go on stage at 8-8:30 pm, let’s say they’re waking up around 10-11 am, which is typical when you’re on tour. You go to bed late, you wake up late. That’s like, 9-10 hours a day of useable time. For the life of me, I don’t know what most artists do. They hang out in the hotel or watch Netflix again or work out or whatever. So, I quickly was like I could learn a new language, I could get a master’s degree. There’re so many things I could do with the amount of time disposable on the road. I decided to hire an engineer, bring him on the road, set up a studio in every hotel room, get a mobile Airstream Studio that follows me on the road. I decided to keep the ball moving. Part of that is that I firm believer that an idle mind and idle hands never leads to anything good. When you’re a touring artist and you hear stories about drugs or alcohol abuse or affairs or in-fighting, so much of that has to do with excessive insane amounts of time where guys are left to their own devices in foreign cities. Not too much good can come from that, so I poured it into songwriting. To this day, that’s what I do, and it keeps me sharp. That means when I go to do a One Republic record, I’m aware of where production is and where trend in culture, sonically, musical, because you next really let your finger off the pulse. You just constantly stay sharp. Not every song is a hit. There are guys in my neighborhood that have written a lot more hits than I have. But the fact that I still get to write and produce for other artists on the road, and do One Republic, to me is I feel like I’ve won the lottery. The other day I was in the UK, we went in to do promo, a TV thing, so I got an email from Ed Sheeran a few days before that was like, “Where are you going to be this weekend?” And I was like, “Well, I’m going to be in the UK.” And he was like, “So am I! Come up to Suffolk and let’s write some songs!” So, I made my song a day earlier and banged out a bunch of song ideas. That’s how I operate. It depends on the artists, but the list goes on. If I have the spare time in the city and I have five hours. I had the guy from X Ambassadors come to the studio the other day. I was in writing for Selena Gomez and then I walked into a different room and I sat with Sam from X Ambassadors and he played me a bunch of their music and we started writing a song right there on the spot. So, it flows from one moment to the next. I don’t know how good of a balance that it, but that’s just always the way I’ve done it.
Viv: There’s so much to be done in this world and if we all kept the kind of schedule you did, I think we’d be in a better place. So, thanks for the inspiration.
Ryan:It’s funny because I still have other stuff gnawing on me. So much of my time is truncated specifically into music, but there’s this whole other side. I love languages. I desperately want to learn another language. I bought Rosetta Stone and started doing German in my spare time. I want to get a master’s degree. It’s so funny. It can become insatiable because there is a lot of time and, as important as social media is, spending hours a day looking for validation from perfect strangers is probably the worst possible use of time. Unless you’re running your business via Twitter or Instagram or Snapchat. That’s the one thing I keep preaching. I love social media. I love it, I use it all the time. But that is also a giant gaping hole. It’s a time suck. I’m really glad that it did not exist when I was a teenager because, again, that might have been the straw that distracted me from writing songs. All hail boredom. It can lead to some incredible places.
John: So far, you’ve mentioned Malcolm Gladwell, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk, all of whom have really changed the world and continue to do so. Do you think that music has a role in changing the world?
Ryan:Oh, fundamentally. I had this conversation with a number of artists, the more old-school artists, the artists that were big in the 60s, 70s, and 80s that I’ve hung out with. They’re sentimental. They’re sadly sentimental about the lack of political viscosity in music today. There’s a lot of music saying a little. I don’t know what that means right now. I know that people want to escape. Music can change lives, music can change the world. During tumultuous periods of time, wars, specifically wars, music historically has been a huge part of culture in reflecting people that were anti-war. You have just as many songs that were actually written for soldiers that were coming home. One of the most famous songs in history was actually written for soldiers coming home from World War I. I’m spacing on the name of it, but it’s a song that everybody knows. Music has played a huge role. If you’ve ever watched a film that has moved you to tears, and just impacted you to no end…I get to watch a lot of movies because I screen movies. I do a lot of music for movies. We just did the theme song for “Collateral Beauty”, the Will Smith/Ed Norton/Helen Mirren/Keira Knightley, it’s like the laundry list of actors, that comes out Christmas Day. The song is called “Let’s Hurt Tonight”, it’s Track 1 off of our most recent album. It’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written. So, I get to watch the movie without music. I did another song for “Sing”, the people that did “Despicable Me” that’s coming out, oh my god, what is today? It’s coming out in two days. I wrote a song for Stevie Wonder and Ariana Grande and it’s a duet between them. It’s crazy. Stevie sounds like he’s 25. Ariana sounds like a million bucks. It’s the theme song to this movie. These films, I get to watch them without music, very often. I get to see scenes where it’s just dialogue and you would not believe how not impactful the most incredibly emotional scene is without music. You yank the music out of it, the tears don’t happen, you don’t get the goosebumps, you don’t feel it. It’s just two people having an argument. Or two people hugging it out. You add the John Williams strings or the Hans Zimmer, you add the Randy Newman song and all the sudden, you’re crying, and you’re covered in goosebumps. Music provides emotional viscosity in almost any environment or scenario. I was walking down the street in San Francisco a month or two ago listening to this really edgy funk record and I literally felt my posture straighten. I was walking taller and all of the sudden I had a strut. I felt like I was in my own music video walking through The Mission in San Fran. I remember thinking this is so funny. I remember this happening when I was thirteen. This is one of the reasons I got into music. I’d listen to it in different cities and in different environments and it created this larger-than-life feeling. It made me feel invincible. I wanted to make music that made other people feel invincible and made them feel elated or made them want to walk down the aisle or graduate or go cliff jumping. I wanted to create these little soundtracks to human experiences because music played such an indelible role to my life growing up. It was the soundtrack to all these experiences. So, I think music can change the world because it changes people. You take one person affected by music and if they’re effectively changed, you extrapolate that over 7.2 billion people and it is, one song at a time, slowly shifting and affecting culture. It’s like the silent assassin.
Viv: Has parenthood shifted your creative process at all?
Ryan:Parenthood has shifted my creative process in that unfortunately I could be accused of being selfish with my time, probably most of my life because I am an only child. Making it in music or in film or any kind of crazy endeavor requires a certain degree of selfishness for at least a period of time. Then, you have to learn how to balance it and how to moderate it. Having kids has provided me way more inspiration. We had a song on our last album called “I Live” that became an anthem for a lot of people and raised a bunch of money for cystic fibrosis. The truth is, I wrote all the lyrics for my son at the time who was two. I was having this terribly depressing thought of I travel so much, I’m in so many airplanes, I’m in so many tiny airplanes, and I’m in all of these environments all the way around the world and, if anything should ever happen to me, I’ve never written anything for my kids. That’s where “I Lived” came about. When Flight MH370 went down, I took that exact flight. I’ve taken that exact flight between those two cities on that airline. I remember watching that. I was in the London Hotel when that happened watching that, just thinking, dear God, this is horrific. I was in a near cataclysmic event on a Russian airliner landing in St. Petersburg about five years ago. Two weeks after that happened, the Prime Minister of Poland flying into that same airport, his plane crashed, and everybody died. That didn’t mean that it was any closer to that happening to me, but you have enough of those little things happen and you start to view your life through a different aperture. Kids adjust your aperture like nothing else. So, now, my drive for being successful, at any point for an artist, it’s self-validation. We’re probably all running from some ridiculous insecurities. I sure I am. If I sat down with a doctor and he got all Freud on me, he’d be like, oh my god, you’re just wildly insecure and you’re just doing all of this to seek your own validation. Regardless, I think that now my pursuit of success at any level as it pertains specifically to One Republic or my band, I want to write bigger songs that connect with more people so we can play bigger shows, so we can play less shows. That’s literally where all this goes. My whole game plan for this band is to get it as big as we possibly can so I can do less. The larger venues you’re playing, the less shows you have to do. The less time you have to be gone from your family. The less cost prohibitive it is to bring your family on the road. There actually is some undercurrent of family economy that fuels my desire to write better songs because it affords you more time. It’s just the way it works in our industry. All that to say, I never really let off the gas. The last 18 months is the least amount of songs I’ve written for other artists in the last 10 years because I was doing nothing but One Republic. I did Adele, I did a little Ed Sheeran, and some dates with U2 and that was about it in 18 months. Which, for me, was basically musical anorexia. I just stopped writing for other people. Now, that the album’s done, I’m insatiable. I’ve worked on five projects. I’ve got five or six songs coming out just from the last month of writing. I’m eager to get back into it. As long as the family is kept in balance and I don’t feel like a complete deadbeat father and I’m holding up my end of the bargain, then I’m going to keep plugging away.
Viv: Tell us a little bit about the new record. How do you feel about it?
Ryan:I feel great about it. We’ll never do an album this big again. We’re probably going to release a smaller version of this album soon because it’s a ton of song. I was like, oh, it’s a ton of songs, then the Weekends (?) album drops and there’s 18 songs on it. Then I was like, oh, maybe it’s not so many songs. Bottom line is I personally think I’m not a glass half empty guy, I’m not a cynic, but I’m a realist. I think the album as we know it is dying in its current form. 15 songs all from one source with a common thread is not how people are digesting music today, specifically under the age of 40 or 30. You get down below 30 and you’re hard-pressed to find anybody that’s consuming music that way. The world is going to playlists. It absolutely is what’s happening. I already have it on good authority from a number of very famous artists who I won’t name that they are done doing albums. Or this next album is their “last” and they’re switching to just doing singles and maybe EPs. I feel like that’s where it’s headed. Our album is a playlist though so if you’re going to go out on a good note, we made an album that is as ADD as your average overstimulated, social media addicted, Gen Y/Millennial fill-in-the-blank. That’s the album we made because it reflects me. I’m musically ADD. I’ve been streaming since before that term was being thrown around. The first service that popped up around ’07/’08 in the US, my wife and I signed onto it and we’ve been streaming since like ’08. It’s just now really kicking in the U.S. with Spotify and Apple. I think that’s where it’s headed and the album we made is a signifier to me of that because the album itself is genre-less and it hops lanes with no regard for the dots. If you’re a traditional music critic, fortunately we’ve gotten some pretty good reviews on this album. It’s funny, I can spot the age of a musical critic based on how they critique this album. If you rip it apart for being all over the place or too diverse, the odds are you’re over a certain age.
Viv: How interesting.
Ryan:If you think that it’s just step-in-time with what’s happening, then I can guess you’re probably a little bit younger. Obviously, that’s a very generalized statement and it’s not gospel, but that’s the truth. Traditionalists, the long stories staff writers of Rolling Stone and magazines such as that, they’re the old guard. They are cynics. They get kind of gruff and inconsolable maybe about the idea of the album giving way, being subjugated by singles. But it is what it is, and I choose not to be cynical. I choose to embrace it and take what’s new and run with it because it’s not going to change. Right now, it’s like, what have you done for me this week? What’s new that you’ve created today? What’s new that’s going to keep my interest longer than the next five minutes before I flip to the next thing. If you get cynical about it, that’s kind of the beginning of the end. Anytime you’re in a creative endeavor. The moment cynicism creeps in, you are devolving yourself from that creative field. I think it’s exciting. I get to put out a bunch of new stuff all the time. This is the best album we’ve ever made for sure. It is the most diverse. It is the largest. I’m not saying it’s going to be the last, but how we’re going to distribute albums and how we’re going to release and what an album even is, by the time we get to our fifth album, that will have completely changed, and I couldn’t even begin to tell you. I think we’re just going to get down to dropping new songs that we feel great about as we see fit. You could call it the Drake model. You could call it the Spotify model. You could call it whatever, but that’s where I think it’s headed.
Viv: I think we, as human beings, naturally drift toward putting together a narrative that will fit our lives. To have something that’s diverse and flexible like your new album “Oh My My”, it very much allows us to have that flexibility of narrative and also flexibility of styling. Everybody needs to put together their own playlist in a way that suits their lives. I think that’s one of the things that people have gotten away with and why, maybe, albums are almost absolutely. Because people don’t pay attention to what the thru line is.
Ryan:No, they don’t. To be honest, look, I’m of the age where I straddle being a Millennial and Gen Y I think is the generation. So, I understand both sides of it. I’m maybe 2% sentimental about the idea that Oasis “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?”, which was a seminal album for anybody growing up in the 90s like myself. Oasis, the idea that “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?” might not happen in 2018. The idea that album would not be made is very sad to me, but it is what it is. To be honest, we made an extensive album because our last album sold 5 million copies. In an era where people aren’t really selling albums, we somehow managed to sell more than I ever thought possible on one album.
Viv: That’s nuts.
Ryan:So, the natural next step is to make another album, right? Little did we know in the 2 or 3 years since our last album the entire musical planet has shifted on its axis and albums, unless you’re Adele, who by the way sells to people over a certain age, she sells millions and millions to people over a certain age who still buy albums, unless you’re really leaning toward a certain demographic of consumer that’s older, not to put too fine a point on it, you’re kind of spinning a hamster wheel to kill yourself to make some giant album. We had to do it because our last album called for it. But I think moving forward we’re going to stay on our toes and be as malleable as we can be because that’s where the world’s at and what are we doing if we’re not connecting with culture and where the world is at. Blah blah blah.
Viv: That’s our job, right? Ryan Tedder, thank you so much for joining us for Art of the Song. It’s been a joy to talk with you.
Ryan:Likewise, thank you.