Ryan Tedder writes songs with Beyoncé, Adele, Kelly Clarkson and his own band OneRepublic. The songs are good and people like them. You’ve probably heard him talking about songwriting quite a lot, because it’s all he’s ever asked about.
But we had an inkling that Ryan might also be quite interesting even when he’s not talking about other artists, so we decided there would be one rule, and one rule only for our interview: no questions about songwriting.
We ended up talking about death quite a lot. String theory gets a mention.
Ryan Tedder, what sort of man are you?
I am an almost unfortunately-high-energied Type A. I’m going to be super bummed when I’m 90 and I’ve only got a few years left. When I was five years old I asked my mum: ‘What’s the oldest anyone’s ever lived?’ She said, ‘in the Bible or outside the Bible? Methuselah lived to 969. Outside the Bible, about 120’. So I decided I was going to live to 120. I get an inordinate amount of joy out of basic things, I’m constantly seeking out moments and trying to create moments.
Do you spend a lot of your time thinking about how much of your life you have left?
It’s a very strange feeling. I think it started when I hit 30. This race against time is one that definitely preys on your mind. Trying to be all things to all people is very difficult: being the leader of your family, being the leader of your band. With anyone I come into contact with, if it’s another artist, I feel responsible for their career, their life and their livelihood. I want things I do to positively impact the world. The single thing one can do to kill me is waste my time. Spending half a day when you’re supposed to be doing X and you end up doing Y for no reason. I’ve had family members drop dead. Literally. (Clicks fingers) Out of nowhere.
When was that?
A couple of years ago. It was a relative by marriage. Oh, actually my grandfather dropped dead, too, from an aneurism. With that generation, our grandparents, the ones who lasted got the luck of the draw. For us, Gen Y and millennials — I mean I’m a young Gen Y, but I’m constantly surrounded by millennials… I’m basically in the middle. My point is, whether you’re Gen Y or millennial, you have no excuse to not stay healthy. To not abuse whatever substance. We have no excuse not to live to be 100. Honestly. And if we’re gonna live longer, the quality of life needs to be fantastic. But people die at random each day. I drove by a motorcycle accident the other day. The guy didn’t make it. And when I pulled up the newspaper report, he was in his 30s. And I was thinking, well, I ride a scooter from time to time, and do some dumb shit occasionally. It could literally happen at any moment. The whole carpe diem thing, to me, as cheesy as it sounds, is a daily mantra.
Why did you pull up the news report on that accident?
I wanted to know who it was. A more recent story is that a few days ago, outside my hotel in New York, traffic came to a halt because a guy was shot. I was woken up by a train of fire trucks and ambulances. I found out that a guy, at 8:20am, had decided to stab somebody at the bottom of my hotel. And the person he’d decided to stab was a female cop. And he got shot dead. I found out that he’d had a bad night; he wasn’t crazy, he didn’t have a history of violence. He just had a bender. Then something snapped and he went after the wrong person and his life ended. I went about my business, I went to Z100, I did promo and press, we planned a wonderful dinner at the best Italian restaurant we could book. Life just went on. But throughout the entire day I was obsessing over what had happened. This guy had maybe 60 years left, and he had a bad day, and now he’s dead.
What does that say to you?
I mean, a) don’t stab police officers, but b) we are very fragile people. I had a thyroid issue, which I never talked about in the press, but now we’re talking about it. So — I had a huge lump on my thyroid when I was 31. I went to see a doctor because my throat was sore and while he checked me he found a huge lump on my thyroid gland. He said: “I’m calling an oncologist — you need to go in immediately.” If you hear the term ‘oncologist’, you just think, ‘cancer’. In my brain I was already writing my will and testament. I thought I was toast.
Is this before you had kids?
No, I’d just had my first. I went to see the doctor and the first thing he said was: ‘You and your wife are in luck — you’re both thin’.
He had this whole thing about being thin being the number one key to staying healthy. He said he’d seen people cure cancer just by losing weight.
Hang on a minute.
Oh I don’t know if it’s true. He was just telling me this. Anyway, he said: we’ve got to do a biopsy. Then another. And you have to wait two weeks for the results. Fortunately I’m a high energy person so I kept myself as busy as humanly possible for two weeks — I was in the studio with another act, working and writing. Anytime I’d walk over to the house and see my son, I’d hold him, and literally get emotional thinking ‘what if he never remembers me?’. What if this is THAT. Those two weeks shifted my perspective. And after two weeks the doctor phoned me and told me I didn’t have cancer: I just had a large cyst on my thyroid. But you have one experience like that and, well, for me, my entire paradigm shifted. Now every single day and every single moment and every single thing matters.
You had a two-week period where you were considering your own mortality, and you still went to the studio?
I had an artist who was already booked to come into town. I didn’t feel right saying, ‘guys, cancel your trip because I have some sort of growth on my thyroid’. I would have just sat in my house and stewed.
How old were you when your grandfather died?
About 16 — it was the year Princess Di died. Stress is a big killer, but he didn’t worry about anything. You absolutely cannot control anything. So I’ve grown very adept at being placid. I’m high energy, but I’m placid about almost any event. You’ll rarely see my high-five myself. I’m always taking the Woody Allen approach: always think about the next script, don’t focus on what you just did. If you get caught up in your successes you can’t move forward. My grandfather would watch the news and he’d say: ‘I’m not worried. Why would you worry about something you can’t control?’ Humans expend so much energy worrying about things they simply cannot control. That’s my philosophy. And I think the scare that I had with the thyroid thing… Well, how I lived before, and how I live now, are two diametrically different lifestyles.
If you start going bald will you get a hair transplant?
ONE HUNDRED PER CENT. I can tell you, one hundred per cent, that I’m in support of vanity if it makes you feel better on a given day. If you can walk into a room more confident, get that hair transplant. If you think you need surgery, proceed with caution, but get the surgery.
Does your self-image impact how you interact with other people?
One hundred per cent. Yes. When I was on Grimmy’s show the other day I’d had two hours’ sleep, it was bright in the studio, it was being filmed. And I said to him: ‘Dude, I’m not that asshole, but if you want me to feel confident during this interview I need to wear these sunglasses, because I feel like a pile of dogshit.’ I weigh now what I weighed in high school, but I had a period — and of course, it was when we were breaking as a band — when it was my heaviest period. I didn’t know about nutrition, I didn’t understand that I didn’t have the same metabolism as when I was 18, I wasn’t exercising. It’s hard for me to look at some of those photos. You start wearing vests a lot. I don’t want to give away the singer’s secret, but you see a lot of vests appearing on guys in bands. Anything to distract from the fact you’ve put on 15 pounds. You’re throwing out distractions. “I’m gonna wear a bigger hat! I’m gonna wear all black all the time!”
What sort of person were you at high school — football team, library, what was going on?
I was both. I was everything. I played football, basketball, soccer and tennis. So at high school I was the guy who played all the sports, but you know the show Glee? Cory Monteith’s character, that was me. I back-door snuck into the theatre room and I was the lead actor in all the plays. I loved the competition of sports but I was passionate about theatre — musical theatre especially. I was the theatre geek. Half my family thought I was gay until I was in my mid-20s and finally had a longterm girlfriend. Which in Oklahoma, in the 90s, well, there were a lot of gay people — but nobody actually talked about it. Where I’m from it’s like finding a unicorn. It’s sad, and it’s changed now, but at the time I went 22 years without knowing I knew anyone who was gay. Even though I knew people who were gay, nobody was out. But anyway, I was friends with the popular kids, and I’d get invited to those parties, but I hung out with nerds.
When it came down to it, were you one of the cool people or were you one of the nerds?
I was, to be honest, so much of both that I couldn’t tell you. I’d sit and talk about black holes and string theory with one guy, then I’d wrap the conversation, walk across the cafeteria to the table with Ben, the captain of the football team, and Jessica, the captain of the cheerleading squad, and we’d have somewhat vapid conversations about nothing. And I enjoyed both. I never delineated between the two.
Why didn’t you have a longterm girlfriend until you were in your mid-20s?
(Sighs) I… Well, I had girlfriends, like two-month things, in middle school and high school. But I was a very sexually repressed person. And, I would say, a romantically repressed person. With how I was raised, in the church, sex was tantamount to drugs. Celibacy was the only option. Alcohol was off limits. I loved girls from a distance, obsessively, and I had one girl kind of break my heart in high school. I was madly in love with her. After two years of being best friends, she was like, ‘you’re the kind of guy I want to marry, but I want to date around’.
You don’t want to be the marriage guy when you’re in high school, do you.
I had multiple girls tell me: ‘I hope you’re the kind of guy I meet when I’m 24, but I’m gonna go and have fun’. But that one girl — well, it crushed me. I was so mad. For a good three or four years I viewed girls my own age as an abject, solid waste of time. All the time guys put into their girlfriends, I put into music. Meanwhile guys were getting girls pregnant, getting into serious relationships, one after the other abandoning their life’s ambition because of relationships. And by that point I was so focused that there was no girl in the world, no matter how sweet or how hot, who’d derail me. I decided that what I wanted to do with my life was ten times more important than getting laid next weekend. It was a decision. I remember telling my best friend: ‘While these guys are chasing tail, I’m going to play guitar and piano and write songs, I’m going to travel to Europe and that’s what I’m going to do.’
And now here we are.
That was a shit-tonne of information, wasn’t it?
OneRepublic’s ‘Wherever I Go’ is out now; their new album’s out later this year and there’s a really amazing song on it whose title begins with a ‘K’.