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Ryan Tedder on the Secrets of Leading Pop Fans Into Songland

Despite his band’s name, Ryan Tedder is a man of many, many republics. He’s the songwriter of the year in Variety‘s Hitmakers issue largely for his work as a producer-writer in ensuring, with “Sucker,” that the Jonas Brothers had the smoothest possible runway for their comeback to make a safe landing. But eclipsing even that is the impact he had with the TV series he’s been helping develop for years, NBC’s “Songland,” which proved that, as a matter of fact, America does want to know how the sausage is made, when it comes to hit songwriting — at least if it involves watching how fast Tedder’s synapses can fire in a huge studio that’s taken on the creative intimacy of a writers’ room.

The year 2020 looks to be his busiest ever, between the return of that recently dormant group we alluded to, OneRepublic, plus a season 2 for “Songland,” plus new albums he’s worked on for Sam Smith and Anitta, plus a movie musical he’s been working on with Margot Robbie, plus a Nickelodeon scripted series with Simon Fuller, plus… Well, we’ll let him tell it, after he’s filled us in about the heartbreak of watching Ed Sheeran write a better song than the one he came up with for him.

Is it important at all to you to land the lead single off an album?

I had played “Sucker” for Wendy Goldstein (Republic Records’ president of west coast creative, and the A&R point person for the Jonas Brothers’ comeback), and she calls me and says, “First single.” I go, what? She says, “This is going to be the first single, I can feel it. Now you have to convince the guys. They need to like it. You’ve got to record it and you’ve got to do a million other things. But I think this is the first single.” I don’t want to say I’m cynical, but I’ve just been told too many times by too many people, “Ryan, this is the first single.” It’s all bullshit until you turn on KISS-FM and you hear it. I actually get irritated when an artist or a manager tells me I have the first single, because 80% of the time, it doesn’t play out that way.

Benny Blanco and I were told by everybody that we had the first single on Ed Sheeran’s “Divide” with a song called “Happier” — it was rousing, just kind of driving, what you want to hear from Ed. It is on the album, and it eventually came out. But for three our four months, even though I never asked anybody, I kept getting text messages: “Guess what? It looks like the first single!” And then I happened to be staying at Ed’s house in London the day he wrote “Shape of You.” He wrote it in the afternoon and that night he played me the demo. He said, “Mate, it’s really, really pop. But what do you think?” And I just kind of like shook my head and I said, “What do I think? I am 99.9% positive I no longer have the first single.”

Until the song comes out, I don’t think anything, because I’ve been let down too many times. I’m lucky to have the job that I have. I’m so thankful that artists still want to write with me, and that I’m still able to come up with songs that connect with lots of people around the world. And I will continue to do that until the tide of favorability turns. But some of the (potentially) biggest songs I’ve written in my career have not come out, or have come out surrounded by so much noise and traffic, they never got the chance to become the hits that they were, whereas some of the songs that I had given up on completely and were sitting on my hard drive and had just been rejected so many times went on to become No. 1s. So I just go along for the ride. So with “Sucker,” I think I got told it was the first single three or four times, and my response each time was, “That’d be amazing. Let me know.” “LMK” with a smiling face — that’s my response. When I knew it was real, I was dropping my kids off at school in Santa Monica, listening to KISS-FM, and (the Jonas Brothers) were on Ryan Seacrest and premiered it right there, and they gave me a shout-out. And then it did what it did.

When songs that you think are hits don’t even get released, much less go to No. 1,  do you always get a good explanation of why they get canned, or remain album tracks?

There are a hundred different scenarios where that thing disappears, like sand in the wind. It just flies out of your hand because the artist gets cold feet, or somebody comes in and writes a different song the next day. Or how about this — and I’ve lost a lot of singles this way: The artist breaks up with the person that they were dating, and that’s who you wrote the song about. Or the artist wrote an “I’m over you, thank God, good riddance,” the ultimate kiss-off song, “I’m better without you,” and it’s a smash. And in the two weeks it takes you to get it finished in the production and get a mix on it, the artist gets back together with the person that you wrote the song about. I have had it happen, man, so many times. I’m so scared to write any kind of song with an artist that’s about their current relationship status, because nine times out of 10, it’s backfired on me. And you’re left with the song: “Well, crap, what do I do with this?

There are just so many interferences that prevent hits from being hits. It takes an act of God, a willing artist, and everybody getting out of their own way to have a song actually come out and go the distance. And then it takes a brilliant team behind it, a record label that cares and is protective, a manager that is smart and tenacious, and an artist that is willing to shake the hands and make all those radio station appearance. So every time I have anything crack the top 40 and start climbing, I’m pinching myself. And then you have to monitor them the whole way. If I see a song going backwards, I’ll be the first to catch it and email the promo team at the label: “Hey, why did we lose our bullet last week? is there an issue with the song? Is there anything I can do?” You have to dig in and help these songs along because they don’t always work themselves. Not every record is “Sucker,” where it researches through the roof and doesn’t go away. Every time I go into a room, I try to write that song. But here’s the truth. You take that song (and take away the Jonas reunion)… or you take “Senorita” and you remove Shawn (Mendes) and Camila (Cabello) and put two other artists on it, and you don’t have “Senorita,” and I’ve talked with all the writers involved on that song, too — they know it. It’s not just the song, it’s culturally what have you lined up? What is happening in the zeitgeist that is as important and sometimes even more important than the song itself? And never has that been more true than in 2019.

Variety is honoring you as songwriter of the year at our Hitmakers gathering, but it could just as easily be an award for producer, someone could argue. Are those roles completely wrapped up in one another, nowadays, or do you think of them as still distinct?

I would say they are two separate practices, but they are so intertwined in what I do, especially in today’s day and age with the way music is done, that probably two thirds of the time I’m writing and producing. And  production can lead you down a rabbit hole that never ends. I mean, there are days I wish that I had never started producing, honest to God, and that I was just a top liner, like my friends Justin Trainor and Ali Tamposi. I’m often jealous of them. They show up, they help write the song and then they’re like, “All right, that was amazing — see you next time!” And then I’m left with days and days of having to track instruments and program drums and all the nuances that make a record finished. There are a few exceptions to that. I work a lot with Andrew Watt, who just did the whole new Ozzy Osborne album and did “Senorita”; we wrote all the Five Seconds of Summer singles together, and we did Charlie Puth’s new single together. He’s a maniac and stays up until 5 the night of any session to finish the production on a song. Having a wife and kids, if I’m in L.A. and ever get invited to just write on a song and don’t have to worry about the production, I’m more than happy to jump in and do it.

“Songland” is an obvious reason why you’re perfect for a songwriter of the year honor: you spent part of the year explaining to millions of people what the craft entails. To some of us, the show seemed like a noble experiment, even if it just lasted one season. But it actually translated to a wider audience than those of us who geek out over songwriting.

It did not occur to me until the night episode 1 aired that I was like, “Oh, oh, oh shit. This needs to do well!” I literally never thought about it one single time: “Oh my God! Nielsen is this company that rates TV shows. They’re gonna rate our show. Ohhh, crap!” I literally had a panic attack the night of the first episode, because I was like, “What if this just bombs?” It never occurred to me that it could. It never occurred to me that it could be a smash, either. I never even contemplated that we would be up for review. I don’t know why for some reason I never thought of it. And so, I’m beyond stoked now that it did what it did, and that we’re charging into season 2 now.

I don’t think anything is ever just nailed, so we’re already tweaking and tweaking for season 2. But I think we succeeded in capturing the essence of what songwriting is in a songwriting session. My goal was (to have it be akin to) one of my favorite shows in the world, “Shark Tank.” I think the halo effect of “Shark Tank” around the U.S., the percussive effect, isn’t just the companies that succeeded off the show. That is a phenomenal byproduct, but the amount of knowledge that your average American now has on starting a business is immeasurable. It’s immeasurable on giving people the confidence to pursue their own creativity and their own dream and their own family-operated whatever. I think what “Songland” hopefully has accomplished and will continue to accomplish … In the music business, songwriting is the most overlooked, least appreciated, least compensated and arguably one of the highest risk endeavors you can do. And I wanted this show to pull back the covers on songwriters so everybody can see the importance of what they do and what they contribute.

We get accustomed to the daily routine of writing songs, but to people that don’t do it, it looks like sorcery. “How did you come up with that lyric on the fly? Where did that moment come from with somebody? Did you think of it off camera and then kind of just pretend that you came up with it?”

But the end game for the show… If we end up with a hit record for the artists on it, that’s awesome. We we had six iTunes No. 1s this first season; we had a Latin No. 1. But my number one goal is for the writers that come on the show, that are playing us their songs, is I want all of them to go on and get publishing deals and write hits, and have the show change those songwriters’ lives, economically, personally, creatively and on every level. To that end, I think the show has been a success.

Can you list off the records you had out recently or have in the works? Your year started with Paul McCartney pulling out another bonus track from the sessions you did with him for “Egypt Station.”

My favorite writing and recording session of my entire life was the couple of weeks I spent with Paul McCartney. Nothing comes close. Well, Adele’s amazing, U2 is amazing, without question, but the McCartney experience just leveled me. He didn’t even tell me he was releasing another song, and the first day of 2019, he drops another record that we did, which was the first song that we did, actually. I love that song — that’s McCartney playing the drums, playing the keys. I just had him running around the senior tracking everything because he’s just so talented.

Camila just released a song that I did with her, “Cry for Me,” and from what I’ve been told, I’ve had a couple more (on the new album). And then I have a Thomas Rhett single coming up. I’m doing some country stuff. I’ve got a pretty big record on Kelsea Ballerini’s album coming out. Some more Diplo. I’ve been in with Marshmello off and on. I connected with Sam Smith in a very genuine, real way, and we’ve done a lot of songs in the last few months for his next project with Andrew Watt, Ali Tamposi and Louis Bell. What else do I have coming? I’m executive producing the next two Jonas Brothers albums. We’ve all but wrapped the first of them; we knocked it out fast. The songs we have lined up are mind-blowing for the next Jonas album.

I’m executive producing Anitta. She’s the biggest artist in the history of South America. She’s Brazilian. She’s crazy huge. She’s popularized the Baile funk style music, which she owns. We’re crossing her into America and the rest of the world in 2020 with her first Anglo album…And new OneRepublic. I think, knock on wood, it’s the biggest song that we’ve come across in a long time. We’re going to be dropping an album in the spring, doing a world tour, and we’re aiming to launch the lead-in into that album in January.

And your film and TV projects, like the one Margot Robbie is executive producing?

With Margot Robbie, the movie’s called “El Beso.” It’s based in Mexico; it pivots between 1920 and 2020, and we’re going for an all-Latin cast, or 99%. We’re casting right now. We literally wrapped the script last week. Her team is her and her husband, Tom, and Brian Unkeless, who I’ve known for 18 years, who produced “Hunger Games” and “I, Tonya.” It’s going to be Netflix, full theatrical release. We’re going to do the full “Roma”-like marketing plan, going full tilt on it, and targeting Christmas 2020, and that’s a musical. Think more like Baz Luhrmann and “Romeo and Juliet,” based in real Mexican folklore. It’s a tragedy, but we’ve got some pretty heavyweight actors involved, combining them with a couple international Latin stars. We have a soundtrack that I’m executive producing with Mauricio (Rengifo) and Andres (Torres), the guys that did “Despacito.” I’ll be busy knocking out songs for that throughout 2020, and I can’t wait to start filming.

And then I have a musical TV show — not a musical, but a music-oriented TV show that I created about a year ago that I’m doing on Nickelodeon with Simon Fuller that’s scripted. Our lead writer is Janae Bakken, who was the executive producer and lead writer for “Scrubs” and “Malcolm in the Middle.” The idea was based on a school that I wish existed when I was 14  — a boarding school for musically gifted kids that you audition to get into, like if you took Berkeley and Belmont and jammed them into a high school that was scholarship based. And I took a little bit of “Saved by the Bell,” and there might be a couple of little nods to “Glee,” but Nickelodeon’s never done anything like it. It was the first thing that Brian Robbins green-lit when he stepped back into Nickelodeon at the top of the year. I could not have a better partner than Simon in this. This is the type of show, if we do this right, that will last for 15 seasons. It’s a high school, so kids graduate, new kids come in, and we have a full-scale game plan surrounding all of the artists that will be launched off of this show.

You are churning on a lot of cylinders.

I always partner. This is very boring and probably not a fun topic forVariety, but I got heavily into commercial real estate years ago. Anything that I’ve (earned) in music, I take it out and I throw it into real estate. The first lesson I learned in commercial real estate, if you’re buying an office building or an apartment building or whatever, you never buy one by yourself. You always find strategic partners that have skin in the game, that know more than you do about what you’re trying to do. So every one of these things I’m doing, whether it’s the show on NBC or the film, I partner with people that have more experience and know more about it than I do, and that can be my proxy when I’m not there, and I can be there when they’re not there.

That speaks to your love of collaboration in general. You don’t always work with the same songwriting partners, but you can go into a writers’ room and make it work.

It’s like dating. You don’t only get back to the same person. Or it’s like speed dating. And you find a vibe or a lane and a wave that you get from certain people. After the first session I had with Andrew Watt, Ali Tamposi and Louis Bell, I knew that we were going to do a hundred songs together. We get each other’s chemistry; we know each other’s strengths. I work with a ton of people, but I get along great with Justin Trantor. We do excellent work together. Michael Pollack, who just wrote “Memories” for Maroon 5, he’s so easy, and we get each other now, so we’re doing Jonas Brothers and other stuff together.

You find little pockets of people, because what I’m not trying to do right now is introduce a bunch of new people into my world. I’m pushing against that because at this point, I have good friends. I know the talented people; I know who I like to write with. And it’s really no different than going to dinner. If I told you right now, “Hey, tonight, we’re getting a group of people, let’s go to Catch. Text four people you know, in the next 30 seconds,” you’re going to be able to think of the four people that you would want to have at that dinner. And that’s no different than songwriting. You just go: “Yeah, I like that guy. Yeah, I like that girl. Yeah, let’s do it.”

To read Tedder explain in detail the creative process that went into the making of the Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker,” click here. And for the full list of 2019 Hitmakers, click here

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