There are people who will tell you that writing a hit single is easy, that pop music has been dumbed down and all you need is a checklist of club-based phrases, a generic dance beat (tropical house should do it), a guest rapper (Sean Paul) and away you go. Sometimes those people are right – but, for every depressingly generic toe-tapper, there’s an immaculately realised, era-defining megabanger.

Ryan Tedder
Banging out bangers ... Ryan Tedder Photograph: IBL/REX/Shutterstock

In many ways, Ryan Tedder – who typically knocks out the latter – has Simon Cowell to thank for his position in the top tier of pop’s songwriting fraternity. Tedder formed OneRepublic in Colorado in 2002 as a sort of homage to Manchester bands such as Doves, but he was catapulted into the pop sphere five years later when Cowell picked Tedder’s song Bleeding Love for X Factor winner Leona Lewis. The song went on to sell more than 5m copies in the US alone. After following that with globe-straddling hits for Beyoncé (Halo), Ellie Goulding (Burn) and Adele (Rumour Has It), he is currently involved in the sessions for U2’s new album.

Inspired by his extracurricular songwriting, Tedder and OneRepublic ditched the indie stuff in favour of full-blown pop, culminating with 2013’s UK No 1 Counting Stars. With a new OneRepublic album due later this year, and current single Wherever I Go providing another example of his knack for a radio-dominating chorus, Tedder gives us his 10-point guide to creating a proper banger.

The artist should be the focus, not the producer

The night before I work with an artist, I read about them, I channel them. I’m desperately trying not to give them my sound. The producer Paul Epworth paid me one of the best compliments I’ve ever had: he had heard I was working with Adele on 21, and he was like: “Oh shit, he’s going to do Halo part two and it’s going to take over the whole thing.” But then when he heard Rumour Has It, he said he didn’t know it was me. There are so many producers who say: “My sound! My drums! My this!” They plant a stake and say: “This is my sound.” But so what if you own pop music for two years? That sound then becomes passé – the world moves on and you’re left pitching songs that sound like 2008. Nothing is less cool than sounding like last summer’s dance hit.

Tedder was the mastermind behind Beyoncé’s Halo.
Tedder was the mastermind behind Beyoncé’s Halo. Photograph: Getty Images/Kevin Mazur

Always match a song with the right singer

If you don’t get the right vocal take, you’re done, so never give the right song to the wrong singer. Max Martin, the producer and songwriter, has said how important that part of a song is. A couple of times, I’ve yanked songs from artists because, no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t get it right. If it’s not a 10, then it’s not worth doing.

People react to humanity in songs

Wherever I Go was one of the hardest songs to do because there’s a razor-thin line between oblique pop that’s super-programmed – often done brilliantly by a handful of amazing Swedes – and what OneRepublic is, and what a band is in 2016. For Wherever I Go, anything we would program we then had to redo live, but we would make it as tight as what’s around at the moment. Doing that puts humanity in the song and people react to that. I don’t want to always reference Adele, because it’s like pointing to the unicorn in the room, but obviously there’s humanity there. If I was staring at the Top 40 now, I could tell you which ones are intentional pop records that embrace their popness, and which ones are bucking the trend. Lukas Graham’s 7 Years bucked the trend.

Take from the past, but keep it authentic

It’s rare in modern music to hear a live hi-hat cymbal or drum featured on a record. Or even an electric guitar. We had that for years in the 80s and 90s, so certain things date a record, but whatever becomes throwback eventually becomes nostalgic – which itself eventually comes back. The 90s are huge right now. I see all these new bands wearing Nirvana T-shirts and I find it funny – name more than two songs, I dare you.

Avicii’s Wake Me Up was one of a few great folk pop songs.
Avicii’s Wake Me Up was one of a few great folk pop songs. Photograph: Getty Images

If you’re going to make EDM, take some time over the lyrics

Electronic dance music (EDM) has got into the water supply of everybody. I don’t care who you are: you could be the most folk act on Earth and somehow it is in your DNA now. But all the EDM guys – Zedd, Galantis, David Guetta, Diplo – they know the need to have quality lyrics. The reason Sia continues to have dance hits is because she writes these fantastic ballads that are set to EDM tracks. Once a year, I’ll write for an EDM producer, but they don’t send me dance tracks – they send me an acoustic or a piano track. They crave real songs. If you write to an EDM beat, you end up with a Pitbull record. He can get away with murder and write the same song over and over again lyrically – but, since he has his own vibe and style, it works.

Try to harness the creative chaos

Anyone who has been in a session with me would describe it as barely controlled chaos. It’s super-high-energy, without coffee. The spirit has entered the room and I’m doing anything I can to stop it from leaving. I was raised in church choirs, surrounded by music, so I’m genuinely chasing goosebumps. I’m operating at a very rapid pace, so I don’t immediately think about whether a lyric needs to be changed because under-18s might not understand it, for example. If I make a reference to Nikita Khrushchev [the former leader of the Soviet Union] because I like the Sting song Russians, I’ll get rid of it later because people will be like: “Who the hell is Khrushchev?” It’s not my job to give history lessons.

Be aware of what’s happening around you

I pay attention to what’s going on. I’m a culture vulture; I read incessantly. That informs more or less what not to talk about and maybe inadvertently allows me to see what feels cliched or dated. I know writers in LA who specifically drop in cultural references, or who namecheck whatever drink is popular, but I don’t do that shit. It’s cheesy.

Write about love, by all means – but be clever about it

I try to avoid cliches whenever possible. I always try to find the clever way to say something – ultimately, you’re talking about love in different forms. Let’s say the concept of a new song is that I’m madly in love with you and I’m free-falling from a 60ft building – and then at the end I say: “And I don’t want a parachute.” You need that turn of phrase. I come from a Nashville school of writing; I was getting my ass kicked by these brilliant songwriters when I was 19, always whipping out these incredible phrases. If I have a concept, a verse and a melody, then I’m desperately seeking the phrase – one that I can relate to and that people in general use, but don’t realise [the power of] it.

Tedder with his band OneRepublic.
Tedder with OneRepublic. Photograph: Record Company Handout

Try not to repeat yourself

If I sense that I’m doing something too often, I’ll back away. So, with four-to-the-floor beats, I realised OneRepublic had released three singles in a row that fit that template, so for the next 15 months I avoided it completely. It was played out. That’s why I can’t take folk pop any more – all the clapping and stomping. Before the Lumineers’ Ho Hey and Avicii’s Wake Me Up came out, we [as OneRepublic] already had Counting Stars, but I was sitting on it because I was feeling that was where music was going. Good ideas come in threes, so those songs all came at the same time.

When in doubt, copy the Scandinavians

I’m obsessed with the Scandinavian use of melody. The Americans and the British just borrow from each other. You guys yank from our gospel and urban culture, then we yank from your Mancunian bands and Brit rock. The Scandinavians, meanwhile, have been up there chilling and not giving two shits about what we’re doing.

  • Wherever I Go is taken from OneRepublic’s fourth studio album, which is out later this year

Contributor

Interview by Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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