Ryan Tedder knows what Adele’s next album sounds like. And U2’s. And Taylor Swift’s. In fact, if the singer/songwriter/producer from Oklahoma isn’t involved in your favourite A-lister’s forthcoming music in one capacity or another (and he probably is), it stands a significantly lower chance of being a hit.
“My goal was always to connect on as big a level as humanly possible and I have no idea how far it could go,” he says, with entirely acceptable grandiosity.
It has, after all, gone pretty far already. The music industry bible Billboard recently named Tedder the top writer of the moment in the US, calculating that the 34-year-old made £1.5 million in 2013 from crafting international pop smashes for Beyoncé (XO), Ellie Goulding (Burn) and Maroon 5 (Love Somebody). Not to mention his own band, OneRepublic, whose song Counting Stars was one of the 10 biggest-selling singles of last year in the UK.
OneRepublic came long before he started writing for other people. He formed the quintet more than a decade ago with upbeat schoolfriend Zach Filkins. Filkins plays guitar while Tedder sings in a high voice that leaps easily into a pure falsetto. A later addition, bassist Brent Kutzle, co-writes with the frontman on songs that sit in Coldplay’s territory of emotional, overwhelmingly melodic, everyman anthems.
Last year’s third album, Native, has made them bigger than ever. They’re about to perform their second major London show this month when they form part of Roger Daltrey’s prestigious line-up of Teenage Cancer Trust gigs at the Albert Hall. London arena shows are next.
In baseball cap, sweaty top, shorts and fluorescent yellow Nikes, just back from a five-mile run around the streets of Birmingham, Tedder doesn’t look like the person around whom modern pop revolves. We meet on his tour bus, previously owned by Lady Gaga and Marilyn Manson, and he admits he’s the least likely person to be able to say he’s been in the same bed as that gruesome pair. It’s very purple.
The son of a gospel songwriter and a schoolteacher, permitted to listen only to Christian music as a child, Tedder was always a strange candidate to be taken under the wing of groundbreaking hip hop producer Timbaland. OneRepublic’s first hit, Apologize, appeared on Timbaland’s 2007 album, Shock Value, and Tedder’s star rose quickly from there with his extraordinary follow-up, Leona Lewis’s huge Bleeding Love.
He has a confident, businesslike vibe, talks quickly and is hard to interrupt once in full flow discussing his methods. He drinks tea and sucks a throat sweet while his inspirational pre-gig viewing, Mel Gibson’s horrifically violent tribal war film Apocalypto, plays over his shoulder. He frequently uses sports metaphors — a song that doesn’t connect with its audience is termed “a swing and a miss”. He might be the uncool Pharrell. Both men are currently mixing life as a frontman with work for others at such a prolific rate that they’re never out of the charts. But no one’s looking for Tedder to take them to the bleeding edge of contemporary pop or because he looks great in a massive hat. It’s his knack for writing a song that suits his artists, not himself.
He tells me that production legend Rick Rubin, who has worked with everyone from Beastie Boys to Johnny Cash, is his “Yoda” —“The job of a good producer isn’t to leave fingerprints everywhere. He’s a ghost.” That means Tedder can handle everything from Ellie Goulding’s digital dance sparkle to Adele’s timeless soul. Usually you’d approach a top songwriter for a specific sound but he’s unusually adaptable.
“Someone said to me once, ‘Be a Swiss army knife.’ This industry will make you extinct. It’ll roll you out the door. But if you’re a Swiss army knife there will be a use for you in every situation. People say, ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ — that’s bullshit.”
He wrote Rumour Has It and Turning Tables with Adele. He’s guarded about the follow-up to her global phenomenon, 21, but confirms that they have already been in the studio.
“I don’t know what the timetable is, I wish I did,” he says. “I’m not getting tied up on what the last album sounded like. I’m also painfully aware that she now has 30 million new fans. I hold her in the highest regard you could of any artist. Whatever aspect of what I do, that can help her to continue to be as great as she is, that’s what I’m trying to do. Goal number one is that it simply kicks so much ass.”
Lately he’s been on Taylor Swift duty, too. “She is by far the fastest writer I have worked with. It’s mind-numbing.” As for U2, he says he’s worked on their long-delayed 13th album as a late addition in a production capacity. He’s not writing with them. “Bono is without question the single-greatest modern-day lyricist out there,” he says. “I hear it on the new stuff too — just phenomenal. When I started OneRepublic, U2 were up there as a frame of reference. I use Bono’s lyrics as a how-to guide for being the lead singer in a band. I have the utmost respect for their fans and I would never in a million years try to capitulate to where modern radio is at.”
That’s the trick with Tedder. People think that if they employ him they’re guaranteed to be all over the radio, and they probably are, but he doesn’t try to sound like whatever’s getting excessive airplay. “The moment you sit down and think, ‘What should I write that’s gonna work on radio?’ you’ve already missed it. Your goal as a songwriter is to point pop culture in a direction as well as reflecting where it’s at.”
As an example he cites the song that’s thudding away upstairs on his bus right now, where he keeps a keyboard, a microphone, a giant Mac computer and a young co-writer with a goatee. It’s the next single by Mikky Ekko, best known for duetting with Rihanna on Stay. “It’s so bizarre, the thing we’ve done, so damn different from anything I’ve ever done, yet it takes one listen. I refuse to talk about anything else that is out right now. This song is already breaking a bunch of rules.”
He’s writing another one on the bus at the same time for an American pop starlet, while a brand new OneRepublic song, Love Runs Out, is being mastered elsewhere. Just before we speak he’s been getting texts from one of Swedish House Mafia about release dates for the dance anthem they’ve just written with Elton John. This is where other musicians fall down, he says, turning off the writing tap as soon as they go on tour.
“If Lewis Hamilton won a Formula 1 event, then didn’t set foot in a car for three months, he’d lose his next race,” he says, back on the sport analogies. “I think it’s the reason so many careers go south. It isn’t because they’re not great live or they don’t want it, it’s this on/off switch they have. Writing is a muscle that gets weak if you stop using it.”
In which case, Tedder is the pumped-up beefcake on the front of the bodybuilding magazine. Even on his run he’s listening to his new songs on headphones, checking that they work. If he was in LA, where he lives with wife Genevieve and three-year-old son Copeland, he’d give songs the car test, driving around with the windows down.
He mentions the time a prolific country songwriter, Craig Wiseman, was asked what he does when he gets writer’s block: “Well, I write another song.”
“That became my thing,” says Tedder. “The person who controls the song steers the ship.” And when the latest pop poppets or even, heaven forbid, Adele or U2 fall from fashion, you can bet he’ll still be around — in one guise or another.
OneRepublic’s Teenage Cancer Trust gig is at the Royal Albert Hall on Thursday March 27, teenagecancertrust.org