‘Songland’ Has Faith That Pop Writing Collaborations Make for Good TV-Land, Too

"Music is the only thing that's consumed as much as or more than food," says Ryan Tedder, who likens the series to a great cooking show.

SONGLAND -- Pictured: (l-r) Shane McAnally, Ester Dean, Ryan Tedder -- (Photo by: Trae Patton/NBC)
Trae Patton/NBC

On a Tuesday afternoon in March at NBC Universal Studios, an episode of “Songland” is being filmed, with judges Ryan Tedder, Shane McAnally and Ester Dean evaluating and reworking aspiring songwriters’ original material. The nitty-gritty of debating what can be done with the tunes to make them work is fairly intense. But there are more relaxed moments, too, like when one of the contestants reveals that he was the lead singer for a Christian rock band, leading Tedder to wax nostalgic about the time he spent as a student at Oral Roberts University.

“My world ended up being all CCM for two years,” says the hit producer and OneRepublic singer. “I had my Beastie Boys records hidden.” “Like porn,” clarifies McAnally, who’s oft cited as Nashville’s most successful contemporary writer.

Later, Tedder enthuses about the freewheeling atmosphere of a pro writers’ room that’s being replicated for the cameras: “This is a playground for adults,” he enthuses. “We don’t get to go on swings. Well, maybe you do, Shane.” McAnally is right on track with a ribald riposte to that setup: “Maybe not like what you’re thinking of.”

These are the kinds of asides that establish that Tedder, McAnally and Dean — who’s penned hits for Rihanna and Nicki Minaj and appeared in the “Pitch Perfect” movies — have the all-important mentor chemistry that makes network executives nod their heads. But during the filming, there are several times as many exchanges that are strictly musical, with the kind of inside-baseball talk that is a musician’s dream and maybe an executive’s nightmare.

“Is it weird to do a chromatic thing?” asks a writing aspirant, standing before the panel. McAnally is full of praise: “Check that 2 minor to a 5 major — that is such a good note,” he says. Notes Dean, ”That’s my favorite sound in the world, that 808 bass.” Tedder has some critical notes: “You’re giving away your chorus in your pre-chorus. When the chorus hits, I want that to be the first time I hear that note.” He pulls out a guitar and starts suggesting some fixes: “A walk down to the G major, D major, D minor, F major …”

Needless to say, most of that nitty-gritty songwriting talk will land on the cutting room floor by the time this episode airs in June. But enough of it will survive to assure watching musicians and songwriters that the process that leads from a rough performance at the beginning of an episode to a finished product at episode’s end, sung by a pop star like the Jonas Brothers or John Legend, is the real thing and not a made-for-TV cheat.

But will it just be fellow songwriters watching? That has long been the question that bedeviled the show and kept it in development, for more than four years, as far as executive producer Audrey Morrissey (“The Voice”) has been involved, and more like six and a half by the count of Dave Stewart (Eurythmics), another exec producer, who recently looked up the first emails he exchanged with his lawyers about the idea.

No wonder that Morrissey and Stewart both liken the appeal of the creative collaborations that “Songland” portrays to something that has been established as working on TV for decades. “It’s like a team sport,” says Morrissey, between tapings, “the way they’re out there bouncing ideas back and forth.” In a separate backstage interview, Stewart says, “You can see their brains ticking, basically. It’s like watching three-dimensional thinking, which happens in only a few things, like sport.”

Tedder has his own non-sports analogy for the untapped appeal of a show like “Songland.” “With all the cooking shows that now proliferate on television, I’m sure 15 years ago, if you were to suggest to a network executive, “Hey, I want to do an entire 24-hour network based solely on the judging, cooking and consumption of food,’ they’d say, ‘Absolutely not — that’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard!’ And now here we are 15 years later, and it’s a billions-and-billions enterprise. Music is the only thing that’s consumed as much as or more than food. So it stands to reason that if you could crack the code on it, it’d be engaging and people would want to see it.”

Tedder recalls the slightly roundabout way he was brought into the project. “This whole thing started four years ago when Adam (Levine) was considering leaving ‘The Voice’ and, unbeknownst to me, I had been in the NBC batter’s box for Adam’s chair were he to leave. I didn’t know that but I get a call: ‘Hey, we think Adam’s leaving. He’s ready to do something different. You have 48 hours to decide.’ I was like, holy hell! And before I could even make a decision, I got a call later that day from Audrey Morrissey saying, ‘I’m so sorry — false alarm. He’s decided to stay, but we have this other show that you’re custom tailored for. It’s actually a better fit for you.’”

(Levine is credited as an executive producer on “Songland,” too, although his involvement has not been hands-on in its recent development. Tedder says that when OneRepublic performed on “The Voice” during the final week of the season, he spoke backstage to Levine, who revealed that he was about to depart that show. “He basically told me, ‘Man, I’ve just reached my end. It’s been amazing. All good things must come to an end.’ But really all he talked about was ‘Songland’ — he was ecstatic about it. So I know that he is absolutely going to be a champion of this moving forward.”)

McAnally says that knowing Tedder was involved as an executive producer was a huge draw for him: “Ryan is quite possibly the biggest songwriter-producer of our generation. I don’t really know who comes close to just the breadth of what he’s done in the pop world.” But he admits he would’ve lobbied for the job with no names attached. “I wanted it, and I was not secretive about it,” says McAnally, who just landed his 40th No. 1 country song as a producer and/or writer. “I wasn’t an obvious choice, because although I was probably the most obvious choice in Nashville, they weren’t sure they needed someone from Nashville. And so I just really stayed on it, and there were times when it sort of looked like it wasn’t going to be me, and I just kept showing up and making sure that they remembered me. At one point I did tell Audrey, as she was meeting with other people, ‘I just know I’m going to be on that show. I know what I will bring to it, because it’s what I do every day.’ I have a deeper understanding and love for songwriters than probably anybody I know. I have such an empathetic heart for people that do this, because I was hurt so many times and didn’t have any success for 14 years after moving to Nashville. So I just felt like I understood these people that were going to show up and bare their souls.”

On the surface, Tedder, McAnally and Dean fulfill multi-genre requirements of pop, country and urban, although none are exactly limited by these labels. Dean has written for country artists herself, and Tedder has multiple co-writing credits on the upcoming Thomas Rhett album out of Nashville. (“I know,” says McAnally, about Tedder horning in on his territory. “I was seriously like, get out of there!”) But the benefits of having at least a base genre, if one they’re not boxed in by, come into play with familiarity with some of the weekly guest stars.

Says McAnally, “I think when it came to the country episode with Old Dominion and Kelsea Ballerini, both artists that I work with a lot, my history with those artists helped. It may not make the edit, but I certainly would say in moments something like, ‘That would be cool in your world, Ester, but it would not work on country radio. And what we’re trying to do is cater a country hit.’ And she would go, ‘Great. Tell me exactly what you think.’ And that was the same thing with some of the artists that I hadn’t worked with, like will.i.am, because Ester has history with him. I would just look at her and say, ‘Will he say that? Because it sounds so quirky.’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, he will go all the way.’”

Assembling this panel involved tricky obstacles, according to Tedder, who says “it’s a lot harder to cast than, say, ‘The Voice’ season-a-billion or whatever season they’re on. It’s not tricky finding writers who have the discography and have enough hits that justify them being considered a quote-unquote master writer,” he says. “That part, I had a list the length of my arm. But when you’re talking about putting something on camera, a lot of songwriters don’t have type A personalities. You’re conditioned as a producer-songwriter to always be in the shadow of the recording artist, so you always play second fiddle. You’re almost subservient. You’re totally in a support role. And so it’s kind of like, you know, finding a sous chef that can run a restaurant, but he’s been a sous chef for 10 years, you know what I mean? Type B just doesn’t really fly, unless you’re doing some type of docu-series where you’re talking about how JPL has quietly been looking for aliens for 50 years, and you can get away with being rather reclined in your personality.

“And I’ve learned that on-air chemistry, especially non-scripted, is something you can’t fake,” Tedder continues. “Shane, Ester and myself and Ester have such a mutual respect for each other’s skill sets. I know that Shane’s ability to turn a phrase or his lyricism is second to none. Ester’s immediate instinctive melodic ideas and where she goes over a bed of music is always going to be cooler than 99% of the songwriters out there. All three of us have existed somewhat in our own genres to an extent. I mean, I wasn’t called on to deliver the edgiest record Rihanna or Beyoncé ever did; I was more like the big pop mid-tempos and that kind of thing. And Shane’s not called on to deliver the big urban pop record. But the three of us combined kind of cover just about everything. And the other thing I’ve realized about why this works is, when you’re a songwriter-producer, part and parcel of that role is not having an ego. The producers that end up with huge egos, eventually their hits dry up. I’m not going to name names, but there’s a handful where that’s the case and they no longer are getting sessions and no longer having hits, and I can tell you it’s not because they’re not talented. And when you’re playing support role to a major artist like Kacey Musgraves or Beyonce or Rihanna or Adele, you can’t be the biggest personality in the room.”.

If you’re only as good as your last hit, then Tedder is pretty good right now, having contributed to “Sucker,” the Jonas Brothers’ comeback hit. (YouTube teasers for some promo videos for the show actually use the phrase “’Sucker’s’ Ryan Tedder” in the headline.) Morrissey points out the brother trio as examples of a celebrity guest who rallied the contestants to tailor the songs they were bringing in to exactly where they’re at, which is part of the challenge of the show. “With the Jonas Brothers, two of them are married and one is engaged, and there was specifically a song that was more from a point of view about a single guy with lots of dates and lots of women, and they’re like, ‘Well, this isn’t really where we are in our lives’,” says Morrissey. “But they still found a way to change it so that it was really to their wives or fiancée.”

Morrissey concedes that one thing that sets “Songland” apart from “The Voice” is that it’s built on collaboration, with the competitive aspects seeming secondary. “It really replicates what goes on in the business where there are artists and people pitch them songs, and then they work on them more with producers and personalize them and get in there under the hood,” she says. “It’s not like people are coming on and being told, ‘Today you’ve got 24 hours to write a song about the beach.’ They already have their songs, and it’s about whether it’s a good fit with an artist and what they can bring to it. So part of the magic of the show is, that everyone who comes on — the guest artists and Ryan, Esther and Shane — feel so comfortable and because it really is what they do day in and day out. There’s no artifice to it.”

But if watching the show being filmed really feels like being a fly on the wall in a writers’ room, how much of that elongated process can possibly make it to the air, when a 30-minute session with the judges picking apart a song is getting condensed down to a couple of minutes?

“Well, here’s what’s interesting,” says Tedder. “When we shot the pilot and they did four different rounds of testing, from what little I know about testing, it was like a once-every-five-years-type reaction. But the only comment that came back insistently was that people wanted to see more. And I mean, (manager) Irving Azoff called me the second he saw the show. He said ‘I only have one comment —I want to see more of the process.’ I always refer to the cooking, myself: You let me in the kitchen. I want to be in the kitchen longer.” Although he concedes there was no way to fully satisfy that desire without going to 90-minute episodes, one thing they did lately arrive at was eliminating one of the five songwriter contestants from each episode so that the process involving the other four would get more airtime.

Tedder believes the process that goes into crafting the finished product in these shows is clear even with the condensation. “There are moments on some of these episodes where lyrics fall from the sky. You would think that we had cheated and come up with some new lyric off-camera and then just acted like we did it on camera, but it’s all happening in real time. And that’s the beauty of the show, those magic moments that happen in sessions that truly show somebody’s genius, whether it’s a songwriter or one of the three of us. Nobody’s a genius all the time, but when you operate in a creative space, you have moments, right? They may only last five seconds, but when you have 12 cameras rolling, the good news is we catch pretty much all of them.”

Does America want to know how the pop sausage is made? Yes, “Songland’s” creators obviously believe, and if nothing else, the series might finally serve as the explainer songwriters have long needed to show people what it is they actually do. Says Stewart, “I’ve always been cornered and asked, how did you and Annie (Lennox) write this one? I find it very hard to explain.” Now, he hopes, he can offer up “Songland” as Exhibit A and stop trying.

Back on set, McAnally is suggesting a contestant reorder his song: “Could this section move to the back of the chorus? I love when you move to the pre-chorus – I’m wondering if you could use it as the post-chorus.” Which leads Dean to explain another part of the appeal of the show, or songwriting in general in the modern age: “I believe in making puzzles out of stuff, just to see where it lands,” she says. As those puzzle pieces fall into place for one contestant’s reworked song, Tedder, in his glee, seems  unconcerned with whether the cameras are rolling, or the mics are on: “It’s gonna be mean as f—,” he cheerfully declares.