Ryan Tedder: A Hit-Maker With A Golden Touch

Jan 15, 2012
Originally published on January 15, 2012 5:45 pm

Ryan Tedder has achieved some success with his band OneRepublic, which has landed chart hits with the songs "Apologize" and "All The Right Moves." But he's also one of the most sought-after producers in the music world. He's up for a Grammy next month for his work on Adele's 21, and his past credits include mega singles for Beyonce, Kelly Clarkson and Leona Lewis.

Tedder says that writing pop songs is not unlike building a house: part established formula, part creative spark.

"If you're talking to an architect, he can look at a blank piece of paper, and once the initial design is there, the formula kicks in. Each room should have something unique and different about it — much the same way that in a song, every eight bars or so, a new piece of information should be introduced," Tedder says. "You want to be constantly building and taking away because it keeps your ears interested. It keeps your brain actively listening. That's formula — once you have a great idea, make sure you don't screw it up."

NPR's Guy Raz speaks with Tedder about his ups and downs as a professional songsmith. Listen to their conversation, then scroll down for a sampling of Tedder's greatest hits — both with OneRepublic and as a hired gun.

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Time now for music.


RAZ: This song is "Halo." It was one of Beyonce's biggest singles ever.


BEYONCE: (Singing) Remember those walls I built? Well, baby, they're tumbling down.

RAZ: The man who co-wrote and produced this song is Ryan Tedder. He's also the front man for his own band called OneRepublic. But Tedder is one of the most sought-after songwriters and producers for others in the industry right now. He's written hits for everyone from Kelly Clarkson to Adele, and this year, he's been nominated for a Grammy as Producer of the Year for his work on Adele's album "21."

Tedder's background is somewhat unusual in the world he now inhabits. He grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in a strict Pentecostal household.

RYAN TEDDER: Gosh, probably three-fourths of my aunts and uncles are missionaries. My grandfather was a pastor for many, many years.

RAZ: It was a Pentecostal home.

TEDDER: It was a Pentecostal home, yes. I kind of switched back and forth between public and Christian schools as I was growing up and went to a Pentecostal university as well.

RAZ: Oral Roberts.

TEDDER: Oral Roberts, yes.

RAZ: I can't imagine you meet too many Oral Roberts alums in the business that you're in now.


TEDDER: No. In my field, very few and far between. But there are, you know, a handful of us, a lot of people in, you know, production, behind the scenes, that type of thing.

RAZ: Now, Ryan, you are the front man for a very successful band OneRepublic. Aside from that, you've received two Grammy nominations this year. One is for Album of the Year by Adele, "21." You have a major production credit on that. The second is as Producer of the Year. Tell me about Adele, about this song that you are nominated for, "Rumor Has It."

TEDDER: Well, I did two songs with Adele: "Turning Tables" and "Rumor Has It." And "Rumor Has It" came about in Los Angeles. It was our second time to get together with me and Adele. She walked in, and she was already pissed off from a conversation she had had the night before with her ex, and she came up with this phrase rumor has it because people were saying that this is why they broke up or this happened and that happened and she was sick of hearing all the rumors surrounding their breakup.

So that was kind of the catalyst for the song. And I started playing this kind of dirty Louisiana porch stomping blues riff on a guitar, and she just started singing. And about three hours later, we had the song.


ADELE: (Singing) She is half your age, but I'm guessing that's the reason that you've stayed. I heard you been missing me. You've been telling people things you shouldn't be. Like when we creep out, she ain't around. Haven't you heard the rumors?

RAZ: You are one of the most in-demand songwriters out there. I want to ask you what the process of writing a hit song. Let's take the song "Bleeding Love" that you wrote for Leona Lewis.


LEONA LEWIS: (Singing) Closed off from love, I didn't need the pain. Once or twice was enough and it was all in vain. Time starts to pass before you know it you're frozen. Oh. But something happened for the...

RAZ: This is one of the most recognizable songs of the last five years, a huge international hit. You wrote this song.

TEDDER: Yes. Wrote and produced.

RAZ: Tell me. Walk me through the process of how you do it.

TEDDER: I sat down at my piano and turned on, like, an organ patch. And literally, I said to myself out loud, I was like, what would Prince do?


TEDDER: What would Prince do right now in whatever year it was, 2008, 2009? And I started playing those chords, the opening organ patch of "Bleeding Love," and then I quickly threw the drums together, and I had the melody walking into the session.


LEWIS: (Singing) You cut me open and I keep bleeding, keep, keep bleeding love. I keep bleeding, I keep, keep bleeding love. Keep bleeding, keep, keep bleeding love. You cut me open.

TEDDER: I thought it was the biggest hit I'd ever written and gave it to the record label, and I - they straight up told me, this is not a hit record. And I literally thought, well, then I need to pick a new career because my ears are telling me that this is a really, really important song. Long story short, I put the song on a five-song demo CD, handed it to another guy at a British record label that I had been working with for another artist.

He happened to be the A&R of Leona Lewis and played it for Simon Cowell. And Clive Davis heard it, I think, probably the same day, and they both just kind of went nuts over it, called me and said, you know, Simon was like, I don't know who you are, but we have to have this song. You have to record it immediately. And the rest is history.

RAZ: My guest is the producer and musician Ryan Tedder. He's nominated for a Grammy for his work on Adele's "21," which was the best-selling album of 2011. He's also the front man for the band OneRepublic. I want to ask about a song that you've written for your own band, for OneRepublic, called "All the Right Moves."


ONEREPUBLIC: (Singing) All the right friends in all the right places. Oh, yeah, we're going down. They got all the right moves in all the right faces. So yeah, we're going down.

RAZ: Ryan Tedder, this song and all of your songs that have been hits, they have this, like, infectious hook, especially this song. Talk to me about how you make a good pop song. I mean, is there a formula?

TEDDER: There is a formula only to an extent. I can compare it to like building a house. If you're talking to an architect, he can look at a blank piece of paper, and once that initial design is there, then formula kicks in. You go, OK, well, each room should have something unique and different about it, much in the same way that with a song, every eight bars or so, a new piece of information should be introduced.

Like if you're producing, you know, the second verse comes in, you might want to introduce a tambourine or you might want to introduce a live bass. You want to be constantly building and taking away because it just keeps your ears interested, keeps your brain actively listening to it. So that's, quote, unquote "formula." That's figuring out the formula, OK, once you have a great idea, now I'm going to make sure I don't screw it up.

I'm going to make sure that it's got the right production. But the initial catalyst, the actual thought just kind of whipped out of thin air, I don't think there is a formula for that. If someone has it figured out, then they should let me know. I haven't figured out what that is.

RAZ: Phil Spector, of course, used to write music for others and perform as well.


RAZ: Is it more difficult to write music for someone else's voice, or is it more difficult to write songs that you know you are going to perform?

TEDDER: It's considerably more difficult for me to write something for me. With my own band, it gets really personal. And that's the hardest thing in the world to do is to peel back the layers. And I'm like, wait, it's real easy for me to write a song for Adam Levine and, you know, let him sing the words. But when I have to sing them, all of a sudden, it gets really serious. It gets really personal.

RAZ: What happens, or has it ever happened, that you've written a song that you thought, this is so good, but you've actually written it for somebody else and you thought, I want to keep this for myself?

TEDDER: Probably the only song that I would say maybe, and I mean maybe, is "Already Gone" by Kelly Clarkson.


KELLY CLARKSON: (Singing) I want you to know that it doesn't matter where we take this road, someone's got to go. And I want you to know you couldn't have loved me better but I want you to move on so I'm already gone. Looking at you makes it harder.

TEDDER: That song, to me, is still one of my absolute favorite lyrics and melodies I've ever been a part of. And in retrospect, I probably could have pushed that towards being a OneRepublic-sounding song for sure.

RAZ: Ryan, when you first tried to break into the business, were you a little bit self-conscious about your background? I mean, you're from Tulsa. You're a really nice guy and you seem very earnest. And it's a tough business. I mean, it's a business full of cynical and nasty people, and you grew up in a Christian household and went to Oral Roberts. I mean, did that ever work against you?

TEDDER: Well, I was acutely aware of how low my stock was in terms of, like, the cool factor, because when you're in the suburbs of Tulsa, you could not be further from Brooklyn if you tried.


TEDDER: So my thing was I just knew that I needed to be in a band, and I knew that I could write songs. So I put so much energy into songwriting because I thought, well, if I don't have the coolest look, if I'm not covered in tattoos, then at the very least, I can put together some words and some melodies and we can, you know, have a career.

RAZ: And paradoxically, now that you are well-known, your background is almost exotic, right?


TEDDER: Yeah. It is. No. What's funny is you can throw a rock and hit a, you know, (unintelligible) kid or a cool person but, you know, you would have to, like, bust out a magnifying glass to find a Pentecostal ORU grad with a degree in PR and advertising. You know, it's very, very weird. I'll just put it that way.


ADELE: (Singing) Close enough to start a war all that I have is on the floor.

RAZ: That's Ryan Tedder. He's the front man for the pop band OneRepublic. He's also the writer and producer behind dozens of hits for other artists, including the album "21" by Adele. You can hear some more of Ryan Tedder's greatest hits at Ryan Tedder, thank you so much.

TEDDER: Thank you.


ADELE: (Singing) I can't keep up with your turning tables. Under your thumb I can't breathe. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.