Ryan Tedder Interview: A Fan Of Music Talks About The Craft Of Songwriting

Ryan Tedder

hide captionRyan Tedder performs at the "Today" Show earlier this year with his band OneRepublic.

Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Ryan Tedder is probably best-known as the lead singer and songwriter for the chart-topping band, OneRepublic.

But he's also written, co-written, or produced tracks for Kelly Clarkson, Backstreet Boys, Leona Lewis, Jennifer Lopez, Beyonce, Rihanna, James Blunt, Carrie Underwood, Menudo — the list is staggering.

With so much work under his belt, he could perhaps be forgiven for maybe sort of inadvertantly kinda writing the same song twice, as he appears to have done with Beyonce's "Halo" and Kelly Clarkson's "Already Gone."

Nevertheless Tedder is a thoughtful — and not full of himself at all — 31-year old fan and student of a wide range of music. We enjoyed talking to him so much when we called to ask what makes a hook that we thought we'd post the entire interview.

What do you think makes a good hook?
Simplicity. I don't know if this is the right word: memorability. A simple concept: simple melody and one that I think packs an emotional punch. And the other element would be a basic human concept and you need to say it in a way that hasn't been said before.

So can you give us a good example of that?
"Unbreak My Heart," Toni Braxton's smash [written by Diane Warren]. No one had ever said it like that. People said, "Don't break my heart," "Don't hurt me." Taio Cruz will say, "I'm only gonna break break your heart.' But Toni Braxton, or rather Diane Warren, said "Unbreak my heart." Which to me was one of the cleverest ways of putting that.

Is the hook always the chorus?
No. The hook can be the track itself. Like in Coldplay, "Clocks," the hook was [hums the opening piano riff] — that was the hook. In [Black Eyed Peas'] "Boom Boom Pow," there is no hook. It is just one section after another of really catchy, infectious club music without any one section over-riding the next. In [OneRepublic's] upcoming single, "Good Life," the real hook is the post hook — it's what comes after it. We have this REALLY super simple whistle. I hadn't heard a whistle in a song in forever and that's all I kept hearing on the song so I just whistled this melody into the mic and it really is the hook — it's the catchiest part of the song.

So it doesn't always have to be the chorus. Definitely these days, with dance music being the single biggest thing in the world, the hook often times is the track itself. There's a song out right now that's a big hit called, "Like A G6" [by Far East Movement],  and the track itself is the hook.

Going back into the sixties and seventies, there've been a lot of songs where the musical part of the song was the hook — Rolling Stones or [The Beatles'] "Across the Universe" the hook is (hums the opening acoustic guitar riff) it's that guitar part." That is to me the hook of "Across the Universe." Of The Verve, I think "Bittersweet Symphony," the hook is obviously [hums the string orchestra intro that comes back as a bridge] — that's the hook.

That raises an interesting question: what's the difference between a hook and a riff?
I think a riff can be complementary but when you go from complimentary to primary, then it becomes the hook to me. And a lot of times it's completely inadvertent. "Walk This Way" [hums the opening guitar riff]: I mean that is just the riff but it's just as strong as the hook [the chorus/phrase, "Walk this way; talk this way"]. The introduction of [Guns N' Roses']  "Sweet Child of Mine" — Slash's guitar arpeggio [hums it] — it's a riff but you take that out of the song and you don't have "Sweet Child of Mine."

I think often times if a guitar riff is centered around the chorus or if it follows the chorus, then it often times turns into the actual hook. Whether it's a piano riff like "Clocks" — clearly the piano riff is the chorus. I mean, Coldplay's second album was phenomenal and I think one of the most alarming aspects of it is there were almost no actual choruses in the whole album. The music was the hook on almost every song. Or at least on the ones that I remember.

It's interesting you mentioned dance music a little bit earlier — one of the things that is associated with hooks over the course of time is repetition. How key is that?
That's super critical, hyper critical. That's the difference between indie bands and pop stars. The best music written is, I think, currently by most of the kind of under-the-surface young indie acts. That's the best music, in my opinion. I think the best songs are being written by the very under-stated, under-appreciated indie artists. The thing that separates them from mainstream success is they either consciously or unknowingly refuse to deliver on a big chorus.

There's an interview that Max Martin [producer for Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry, Pink, among many others] gave where he talked about writing "Since U Been Gone" [for Clarkson] and how it came from listening to a couple of indie acts and he kept getting so mad — like, "Why won't you just give us the chorus? You know everybody wants to hear it. We're waiting for it and you just don't deliver it." And so he said, "What if we just take the cool vibe and the verses of an indie-sounding rock band but then we actually give it a huge chorus." Then "Since U Been Gone" came as a result of that.

You know I'm the same way with my own band, OneRepublic. We're influenced by a lot of the lesser-known bands out there. We absorb what it is that's cool about them and what we love about them and it influences out music. And then we simply maybe are just a little more inclined to actually deliver on a chorus because I want people to sing along. I wanna see crowds, I wanna connect with people.

And you look at bands like U2 and Bruce Springsteen and those dudes are still able to deliver profoundly unique content and connect with — with humanity on a real and visceral and credible level. Yet they weren't afraid to deliver a huge chorus when it called for it. When you combine those two worlds, that's when things can go nuclear for an act and they can blow up. Like U2 or Bruce or more recently, Kings of Leon, Coldplay, etc.

Do the same principles apply now that have applied over the course of time? You were influenced very early on by the Beatles, Stevie Wonder.
Beach Boys.

Those kinds of structures, those kinds of approaches to songwriting — specifically delivering the hook — do those still apply now?
It does still apply now. The classic, quote/unquote, craft of songwriting still works; it still is relevant. I will go out on a limb and say it's the least relevant it's probably been in twenty years. It always will be relevant and music is a gigantic pendulum that swings back and forth.  And right now it has swung toward the — I don't even know how to classify it — everything is so dance oriented that frankly with people like me who — I learned how to write in Nashville and learned under songwriters who had Grammys when they were 20 and have every accolade that you can imagine. These were the guys who I was coming up under and very intimidated by and learned a lot from. And I learned a traditional craft and I studied Beatles lyrics and Bono's lyrics and song structure.

And now in 2010 — and most likely 2011 — you can almost throw that stuff out the window. There are still people doing it and there's still room for it but music has been so throttled by dance that I'm seeing song after song — some of the biggest songs in the world — that literally have no pattern, no format. Where you think the chorus is going to happen, there's literally NOTHING, just a musical bed. It's turning into lake a house DJ kind of rave but it's on the radio. Like you look at — again — "Boom Boom Pow" or you look at Akon's new single, "Angel," it sounds like you're in Ibiza and it's 3:30 in the morning and everybody's wearing glow sticks and jumping up and down. And I'm not saying that's a bad thing. I'm just saying it's reality. And what happened in the clubs in the late '90s and early 2000s, which was hip-hop, made its way into radio. Music always starts in the clubs. That's how disco happened. That's how Saturday Night Fever happened. And what's happening in clubs right now is essentially house music. And it has now finally made its way on to American radio after fifteen or twenty years. And that has fundamentally changed people's approach to songwriting and Top 40. There's probably going to be a lot of songwriters coming up now that don't learn the traditional arrangements or style of traditional songwriting. So I'm curious to see where it goes from here. I'm sure it'll swing back the other way at some point but right now it's in a very unique, different place than I've ever seen it.

What we're sort of hearing you saying is that — of the three elements that comprise a hook: melody, lyrics, and rhythm — the dominant element has shifted to rhythm now.
It has shifted to rhythm and repetition over everything. Now melody is still critical. Melody is the single most important thing to any song, period. I don't care what anybody says, it trumps everything. Not because that's my opinion but because I think it's actually indisputable fact. The human brain retains melody easier than it retains words. It's that simple.

You can go back through the '80s and '70s and when people start singing a chorus that you might know — you might remember the first three words but you can hum the entire chorus. And you might even be able to hum the verse because something about melody sticks to the head. I think it starts with nursery rhymes when you're a kid and it just kind of embeds [itself]. We're trained to remember that stuff. In elementary school and growing up in Sunday school, half my lessons were taught using simple little songs, like the Presidents of the U.S.A. and the fifty states. And that stuff sticks with you.

Stuff now is even simpler. It's just lowest common denominator, like, what is the most nursery-rhyme-simple melody you can come up with? Pick one phrase that somehow captures the essence of whatever that track is and just repeat it ad nauseum and then maybe squeeze in another line here and there and then call it a song. I started as a producer doing dance remixes and one of the first things I ever did was with Paul Oakenfold (British producer and trance DJ), like eight years ago. So I definitely get that world. But I will say that it's very counter-intuitive to my instincts as a songwriter. I want to sit down and I want something to emotionally move me. And I want to hear a story and I want to hear a sequence of events. You go and listen to Highway 61 Revisited and then you go and listen to the top ten on iTunes and it's almost like a culture shock. You can't say one is definitely better than the other — you can just say that you prefer one over the other. Obviously the more singer-songwritery stuff is always going to have more content than a dance track. But it is definitely about melody and rhythm right now and almost not at all about content or actual storytelling.

Thank you very much for your time — is there anything else you'd like to say?
Like I said, I think the pendulum always swings and I think that anybody who's studying songwriting would be remiss if they didn't learn the traditional craft of telling a story and conveying real emotion and trying to say it in a different way. I just think those are the most fundamental points. Regardless of where the pendulum swings, that will always be the center that pulls it back.

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