Annotated Playlist: Ryan Tedder

Original airdate: 6/21/20

Spotify playlist and Apple Music playlist.

Ryan Tedder is an American producer-singer-songwriter-performer-instrumentalist who, for the last decade and a half, has been one of the most important pop hitmakers working (mostly) behind the scenes in the music industry. Tedder has written and produced songs for a lot of other artists—he has three Grammys from his work on Taylor Swift’s 1989 and Adele’s 21 and 25—but he also has his own band, OneRepublic.

According to his Wikipedia bio (this is low stakes, just take it as a source), Tedder started singing and playing instruments from a very young age. He graduated from college in 2001 with a degree in advertising and public relations, which is unrelated but interesting, and in 2002, he formed the five-person band OneRepublic, with one of the members being his high school classmate Zach Filkins. Tedder had been offered two different publishing deals as a songwriter before creating OneRepublic, but he decided to form the band to maintain some artistic independence.

Tedder also worked with legendary R&B producer Timbaland from 2002 to 2004, and when OneRepublic was dropped from their original label in 2006, they became the first rock band to be signed to Timbaland’s own record label imprint.

Timbaland – Apologize (ft. OneRepublic)

“Apologize” was OneRepublic’s debut single. The song was first released in 2006, but it became a hit when Timbaland remixed it for his own album in 2007: that remixed version peaked at #2 on the Hot 100 and helped make “Apologize” the 10th biggest song of the 2000s. Right out of the gate, Tedder proved his ability to write catchy yet emotionally stirring songs and also showed off his inclination for orchestral arrangements, which would become a recurring theme in his work (two members of OneRepublic play viola and cello).

Leona Lewis – Bleeding Love

OneRepublic put out their debut album, Dreaming Out Loud, in 2007, but Tedder had another crucial career achievement that same year with the release of “Bleeding Love,” a single that Tedder cowrote with Jesse McCartney and produced himself. Leona Lewis was the winner of the UK X Factor in 2006, and “Bleeding Love” was the lead single from her debut album—and, slightly unfortunately, it became the most successful song of her career. Tedder’s “Apologize” had set a record in 2007 for most radio spins in one week, until “Bleeding Love” broke that record five months later. It was the 17th biggest song of the 2000s, hit #1 on the US and UK singles charts, was the biggest song of 2007 in the UK, and was the second biggest song of 2008 in the US (we’re always a little slow to adopt European pop hits). Tedder burst into the pop music scene in a big way with “Apologize,” but “Bleeding Love” showed that he could also be a successful writer and producer for other artists.

Beyoncé – Halo

The official music video is much shorter than this streaming version

Between 2007 and 2009, Ryan Tedder also worked with artists like Hilary Duff, JLo, Ashley Tisdale, Natasha Bedingfield, Jordin Sparks, and Adam Lambert (essentially, he dove deep into adult contemporary). And in 2008, another one of the most successful singles of his songwriting and production career was released: Beyoncé’s “Halo.” I know it. You know it. It’s an emotional power ballad with huge drums: one of Tedder’s signature sounds (although I think the recording might be due for a remaster). After “Halo,” Tedder worked with Beyonce again in 2013, when he helped write and produce “XO” from her 2013 self-titled album.

Tedder also wrote and produced “Already Gone,” the lead single from Kelly Clarkson’s fourth studio album, and when that song was released in 2009, it was met with some skepticism for sounding very similar to “Halo.” Clarkson had actually tried to stop her label from releasing “Already Gone” as a single after hearing “Halo” a few months earlier, but couldn’t prevent it. The songs have the same big drums, swelling strings, mournful piano line, and overall the same undeniable feel: Clarkson accused Tedder of reusing his arrangement and making it look like she stole from Beyonce, which Tedder (unsurprisingly) denied. I’m going to give my own thoughts on that controversy after this next song (just bear with me) but as a baseline I do think they are uncomfortably similar.

Adele – Rumor Has It

In 2011, another one—another two, actually—of Tedder’s most important collaborations were released: he worked on two songs from Adele’s legendary album 21. Tedder cowrote “Turning Tables,” and cowrote and produced “Rumor Has It.” “Turning Tables” is a fairly standard but very pretty piano ballad, but “Rumor Has It” is surprisingly bluesy for a Tedder song (though it does have his big drums). Both of them are some of the best songs on 21 and iconic parts of Tedder’s discography.

Tedder worked with Adele again on her 2015 album 25, cowriting and producing “Remedy” (and who knows if he has a credit on whatever new stuff she’s hopefully been working on).

Circling back to “Halo” and “Already Gone”—I don’t know whether Tedder consciously reused exact arrangements for both songs, but I think it’s a pretty clear case of him reusing general ideas. You see the same thing with “Rumor Has It” and “Love Runs Out” by OneRepublic (from 2013): both songs have the same bluesy beat, tambourine, dramatic “ooh” backing vocals, and shouted choruses. Obviously those aren’t specific enough to be damning on their own, but put together they create very similar products, and it seems evident to me that they come from the same producer working in the same headspace. So that’s my take on it: Tedder knows what works, and occasionally leans too far into tried and true models and ends up with unoriginal arrangements.

Colbie Caillat – Brighter Than the Sun

“Brighter Than the Sun” is the clearest dip into Adult Contemporary on this playlist, at least of the early-2010s dated AC that this song throws back to. It’s by Colbie Caillat, who had miscellaneous small hits in the late 2000s that I don’t know much about because I was too young to pay attention to them. But I did recognize this song, from 2011, when I scrolled through Tedder’s discography (he cowrote and produced it). 

A fun thing to listen for here, which will come up again later, is that part of what makes the song so fast-paced and interesting is that each section is introduced by a different combination of instruments—there’s handclaps, a tambourine, and a bunch of differently strummed guitars that shift around and keep your attention as the arrangement changes, even if you don’t notice it consciously (for instance, the intro to the second verse has a new guitar added that isn’t there for the first verse). Also, I think Ryan Tedder is the one doing background vocals at the end of the song.

Ellie Goulding – Burn

Other artists Tedder worked with between 2010-2013 include Demi Lovato, Maroon 5, Carrie Underwood, Christina Aguilera, and One Direction. He also worked with Ellie Goulding on “Burn,” which became Goulding’s first #1 on the UK Singles chart (and hit 13 on the US Hot 100) in 2013. He wrote it with OneRepublic bandmate Brent Kutzle and frequent writing collaborator Noel Zancanella, and the track was originally recorded by Leona Lewis before her management passed on it.

“Burn” highlights what I think is the most interesting part of Tedder’s work as a songwriter: he’s working in a very formulaic, mainstream pop space with his production and collaborators, but his lyrics often have vivid imagery and a slightly poetic bend to them that makes his writing stand out. You see it in the conceits of “Bleeding Love” and “Halo,” which center around, respectively, surreal and dreamy imagery, and in the lyrics of “Brighter Than the Sun” (“Lightning strikes the heart / Goes off like a gun / Brighter than the sun”—lots of mixed metaphors, but more ambitious than a lot of emotion-first pop lyrics). You’ll also see it in a lot of the music coming up, including “Burn,” which is admittedly pretty abstract but is still a good example of Tedder trying to center his tracks around poetic images rather than everyday narratives. We also get to hear a more synthpop-y take on his songwriting voice here (Greg Kurstin produced this, not Tedder).

OneRepublic – Counting Stars

OneRepublic put out their second album, Waking Up, in 2009. It did okay, but didn’t have any monster hit singles like “Apologize.” Then, in 2013, the band started the rollout for their third album, Native. And as you can probably guess because I’m bothering to dedicate a song to it, this rollout was more successful with the general public. The most successful song from it was actually the third single, “Counting Stars,” which Tedder wrote by himself and produced along with Noel Zancanella. It became one of the band’s most well-known and successful songs: it peaked at #2 in the US and #1 in the UK and has the 11th most watched music video of all time on YouTube (which is kinda insane because it’s a decent but not spectacular video). And, fun fact, it’s the 39th biggest song of the decade in both the US and UK—yeah, same position on both decade charts.

Its lyrics are, again, surprisingly artsy. Knowing the context of Tedder’s career, you can tell pretty easily that OneRepublic is a project for pursuing his own artistic interests, with a little less regard for chasing hits (although his instincts are strong enough that many OneRepublic songs end up hits anyway). Counting Stars is a wordy song with a fast melody, a prominent flute, and a folk-pop sound, none of which is particularly trendy for Top 40 pop. It’s a testament to Tedder’s and the band’s ear for hooks and generally compelling music that the single became a huge hit anyway, and I think it’s unusual sound probably helped it stand out in the end.

Taylor Swift – I Know Places

If I can put a Taylor Swift song into one of these producer/songwriter shows, I will. Tedder has worked with Swift on two songs off her 2014 album 1989—the track I picked was cowritten by Tedder and Swift and produced by them and Noel Zancanella. “I Know Places” has, unsurprisingly, a prominent piano in its production, and the lyrics are again interestingly poetic, describing a relationship with lots of metaphors. But it also sounds a bit more sinister and less earnest than Tedder’s productions often do, so it’s a nice bit of variety for this playlist.

Ella Henderson – Ghost

Ella Henderson’s initial career path is fairly similar to Leona Lewis (wow, did Tedder copy their career arrangements too?). Henderson competed on the X Factor in 2012, though she didn’t win (finished in sixth place), and signed to the (trash) label of Syco Records. Ryan Tedder cowrote and coproduced her 2014 debut single with Noel Zancanella, and it went on to be the biggest hit of Henderson’s career, reaching #1 in the UK.

However, her career does diverge from Lewis’s after that hit: Henderson put out her debut album in 2014, but hasn’t followed it up with another album since then. However, she did recently switch labels, and she’s featured on two songs by British DJs and put out a four-song EP since the fall of 2019, so hopefully she’ll be able to have a bit of a career resurgence.

Regarding “Ghost” itself, there’s more figurative language, and we have a return to the more acoustic and folk-pop side of his production. Ryan Tedder loves his rivers: there was a river in “Counting Stars” too.

Other artists that Tedder worked with between 2014 and 2017 include Olly Murs, Gwen Stefani, both Ellie Goulding, Demi Lovato, and Maroon 5 again, Hailee Steinfeld, Rachel Platten, Jessie Ware, and Ariana Grande (although Ariana apparently no longer likes the song she worked on with Tedder and thinks it’s boring).

Zedd – I Want You to Know ft. Selena Gomez

When I was putting together this playlist, “I Want You to Know” was the point where everything I’ve been pointing out about Tedder’s songwriting finally clicked. This track is from Zedd’s 2015 album: as an EDM song, where the focus is very much on the music, there’s a little more leeway to play around with unusual lyrics, and Tedder certainly does that here.

I feel the influences of so many songs I’ve already talked about in the lyrics. “You and me bleed the same light” reminds me of “Bleeding Love”; “You and me run the same course” calls back to the river images in “Counting Stars” and “Ghost”; the storm and light images generally remind me of imagery and metaphors about nature that Tedder’s used in songs like “Brighter Than the Sun.” And there are other, unique moments where Tedder (who cowrote this with Zedd and Kevin Nicholas Drew) experiments with fun, unusual language, like the chemistry line about a chain reaction. Knowing his signatures as a writer from the previous songs, I really appreciate that he seems to be going all out with playing with language and imagery in this track—discovering Tedder’s poetic songwriting impulses as I’ve worked on this playlist has been a fun experience!

OneRepublic – Kids

OneRepublic put out their fourth album, Oh My My, in 2016—it had three singles, which did okay but weren’t huge hits. This song, the second single from Oh My My, showcases a much more synthy side to the band’s sound than their previous albums had, which I personally enjoy.

Tedder has said (in relation to a song that’s coming up) that popular music in the last few years has much less patience for intros, and that he’s had to adapt his production to hook listeners in immediately rather than trusting them to sit through an intro. Well, like I said about “Counting Stars,” you can obviously hear on this specific song that Tedder isn’t as worried about chasing the general public’s attention, and has more patience for developing the song’s sound gradually (although, of course, Tedder’s quote is from 2019 and this song is from 2016. Some of OneRepublic’s newest music has been relatively short).

There’s a 20-second intro before Tedder’s vocals come in, the lyrics are pretty wordy and the melody is often fast (like “Counting Stars”), and the song has four different parts in its movement from verse to chorus. You could say that either the verse, the prechorus, or the chorus has two parts instead of the typical one, depending on how you split things up, but either way it makes the structure of “Kids” a little more involved than a typical pop song. But that’s fine! It’s anthemic, pretty, and fun, and it pulls the most out of Tedder’s vocals—he sounds confident and emotional, but the song is fast enough to avoid getting sappy. In terms of the history of Tedder’s work and hits, “Kids” is probably the least strictly necessary song on the playlist today, but I just really like it and wanted to include it as an example of the heights that his work can reach.

To close the chapter on OneRepublic songs for this post: the band is currently in the middle of their fifth album cycle, and the project, called Human, was supposed to come out back in May, but as of this posting it’s been delayed indefinitely for COVID reasons.

Other artists Tedder worked with in 2018 and 2019 include Camila Cabello, Shawn Mendes, Paul McCartney, Backstreet Boys, P!nk, 5 Seconds of Summer, and more. He also has a credit on a song from Lady Gaga’s new album, although fans think the initial sessions for “Sine From Above” were several years ago.

Ed Sheeran – Happier

“Happier” is probably the saddest song on the playlist (way to advertise it): usually when Tedder does ballads, they have some piece of love/hope/general musical positivity in them, but I think the mournful guitar plucks of Ed Sheeran overpowered him on this one.

This track is from Sheeran’s 2017 album Divide—I included “Happier” partly to make sure I had enough songs from the past few years, partly because it’s a simple ballad, and partly because of a fun piece of trivia I stumbled across on a video of Tedder performing this and “Halo” during a concert. He cowrote this song with Sheeran and Benny Blanco (the latter of whom was the sole producer) in Blanco’s New York apartment. According to Tedder, buried somewhere in this song is the sound of a dog barking. My best guess is in the second verse—after the line “nursing an empty bottle,” there’s a rogue noise. It doesn’t quite sound like a dog, it could have been an anomaly with an instrument, but anyway I think it’s a fun piece of trivia and you can listen for it!

Jonas Brothers – Sucker

You probably know this song, let’s not mess around: Tedder cowrote and produced “Sucker.” It’s honestly impressive how well the Jonas Brothers capitalized on the hype of their comeback, riding it all the way to their first ever #1 as a group in the spring of last year. “Sucker” hit #1 in 8 countries and was the 10th biggest song of 2019 in the US—in other words, Ryan Tedder still got it.

I pointed out earlier how the production of “Brighter Than the Sun” is always changing, often in subtle ways, to keep the listener interested—I mostly mentioned that to set up my discussion of this song. There’s a fantastic Variety interview with Tedder where he breaks down the production of “Sucker” and explains how he deliberately changed up the track after every four measures. It goes back to what I talked about for “Kids,” about intros and short attention spans and trying to keep listeners engaged. The interview is really worth a read, as he goes deep into the details of the writing and recording process—it’s great to learn about all the work that goes into a simple-sounding three minute pop song—but here are some initial things to listen for, most related to those constant four-measure changes:

  • The unusual chord progression, courtesy of coproducer Frank Dukes, that balances out the sweet melody and lyrics.
  • The added guitar parts in the second verse.
  • The whistling in the bridge (that’s Tedder whistling, and he said it took an hour and a lot of glasses of water to get it right). Also the drum solo in the bridge!
  • The last four measures, where the drums suddenly get very echoey (Tedder said he added that reverb last minute and no one said anything, so he kept it in).

As a result of making this playlist, I’ve honestly become way more interested in Ryan Tedder and his voice and sound as an artist. Like all the people I talk about in these kinds of shows, he has a great understanding of the rules of pop songwriting and producing, but he’s also willing to experiment with poetic imagery in his lyrics and play with less formulaic structure and more patient development of songs, especially in his work with OneRepublic. He has years and years of work ahead of him in the pop music industry, both with his band and with his behind the scenes work—and he certainly hasn’t faded in relevance yet, considering his most recent production #1 (“Sucker”) came in 2019, 12 years after his first with “Bleeding Love.”

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