Rocky road to the top
Ryan TEDDER, the frontman and founding member of the alt-rock band OneRepublic, is first and foremost a writer. He’s penned tunes for such pop starlets as Natasha Bedingfield and Hilary Duff, co-wrote with Jesse McCartney a U.K. chart-topping hit (“Bleeding Love”) for Leona Lewis, and collaborated with rappers Lil Jon and Bubba Sparxxx. OneRepublic’s high-profile cameo on Timbaland’s album “Shock Value,” a remix of the band’s string-soaked lament “Apologize,” which has been holding strong on the charts, is a testament to the versatility of Tedder’s compositional skills.
In OneRepublic, Tedder uses this talent to fine-tune the traditional ingredients for pop stardom (giant choruses, suave fauxhawks) and snip off anything or anyone that gets in the way. As modern rock becomes harder to sell in huge numbers, and professionalism is quickly overtaking spontaneity, the most popular new bands know that hits don’t come accidentally. The potential of OneRepublic’s debut album of meticulously earnest ballads, “Dreaming Out Loud” (released today), will depend on the 28-year-old Tedder’s ability to single-handedly script his band’s rise to fame.
As his story goes, OneRepublic was formed by high school buddies in a bucolic Colorado town and teased with early success upon moving to Los Angeles, only to be shattered by major-label politics. Then the band climbed the My- Space Unsigned charts and scored a life-raft record deal and remix from Tedder’s longtime mentor Timbaland.
That story leaves out a few of the realities of how a talented, sharp-dressing and fiercely ambitious songwriter reinvents himself and his band -- a route involving a fundamentalist Christian education, the affirmation of ‘N Sync’s Lance Bass and booting a longtime friend from the band for crimes of fashion.
“Nowadays, everything I do is very calculated,” Tedder said. “Back then, I’d see any opportunity and jump at it. But I swore to myself I wouldn’t do anything but music, that until OneRepublic paid my bills, if a director showed me a scene for a movie and asked me to write a song for it, I’d say ‘Cut me a check and I’ll do it.’ ”
Tedder seems to have covered all his bases: “Dreaming Out Loud” consistently hits the high points of ‘90s and ‘00s dorm-pop groups like Oasis and Coldplay with hints of modern soul and electronica gleaned from Tedder’s years writing and producing with Timbaland. But are a photogenic quintet of bandmates, a crafty songwriting and production mind and a thick Rolodex of industry contacts enough to will a rock band into popularity in 2007?
Like most every event in the life of OneRepublic, the friendship between Tedder (whose heavy eyes and sharp jaw evoke a less-creepy version of Spencer Pratt of “The Hills”) and co-founding guitarist Zach Filkins at Colorado Springs Christian School in 1996 began auspiciously. “Our senior year, Zach joined the soccer team,” Tedder said. “In his first game he gets on the field and scores three goals, and we said ‘Yeah, we’re going to keep him.’ ”
Tedder and Filkins parted ways after graduation, but kept in touch while Tedder pursued a solo career and publishing deal in Nashville. In 2000, he auditioned for an MTV-sponsored talent showcase sponsored by ‘N Sync’s Lance Bass. He played an original song, which won him the competition, a production deal from Bass’ Freelance Entertainment and a look from Interscope Records. Bass even extended an invitation for him to open up an ‘N Sync stadium tour. But soon everything took a nose dive -- the production deal with Freelance collapsed, Interscope never followed through and the tour didn’t happen.
Reversal of fortune
“Two weeks after that deal, I was waiting tables,” Tedder said. “Timbaland happened to see the video though, and he signed me to a production deal. I learned a hell of a lot about writing, but I had nothing to show for it.”
Tedder credits the Timbaland affiliation for fast-tracking his career, with the MTV showcase and solo contract being two of a few pockmarks. Numerous demos of Tedder singing tracks planned for other artists are floating around the Internet, but after OneRepublic’s success, he’s reluctant to point them out.
“It’s like how David Duchovny popped up in a porno,” Tedder said. “It’s all stuff I didn’t write for any one person, and then it ends up in the hands of the biggest cheeseball. When you’re a writer, you live and die by every cut you get. But I just passed on Clay Aiken.”
Similarly, Tedder’s college education at Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma (he graduated as a PR/advertising major in 2001) isn’t usually included in the OneRepublic biography.
“I cocooned myself with kids there who had the same pseudo-cynical outlook,” Tedder said. “Both of my parents went there, and I grew up super Pentecostal. In Hollywood though, it’s actually edgy, like ‘You went to NYU? Well, I went to ORU.’ ”
Tedder and Filkins regrouped in Colorado to write songs, including the band’s first single, “Apologize,” a swooning, R&B-inflected; slow burn that amorous college kids and Timbaland could get behind. The pair moved to Los Angeles in 2003, where they rounded out the OneRepublic lineup and quickly signed with Columbia Records. There were still kinks to hammer out, like refining the live show and getting the band’s look -- a disheveled mix of GQ and Abercrombie indie rocker -- exactly right.
“The label said that if you want this deal, you have to get rid of your drummer,” Tedder said. “He looked like Travis Barker, he was rocking JNCO shorts and his playing style was very punk. He was the coolest guy ever but he didn’t fit.”
The band soon settled on its current lineup, with drummer Eddie Fisher, guitarist Drew Brown and bassist-cellist Brent Kutzel. But its self-titled album’s planned release date (June 6, 2006, or 6-6-06) didn’t bode well. Sure enough, after a Coachella gig, Columbia got cold feet and dropped the band. The members of OneRepublic imagined that their residency at the Key Club in the spring of 2006 would be their last shows together.
MySpace’s saving grace
But the band got an unexpected boost from MySpace, where daily listens of OneRepublic increased nearly fivefold during the Key Club shows (the current tally: more than 21 million MySpace plays). Yet again, labels came sniffing.
“We were thinking these are our last five shows, then four labels called us, including one guy from Columbia,” Tedder said, grinning at the irony of being courted by his former label. “I said ‘If you’re interested, go to the 5th floor and talk to Business Admin because you own it.’ I didn’t know if I had the strength to go through this again.”
But Timbaland saw an opportunity to add a rock band to the rap-heavy fold of his Universal imprint, Mosely Music Group, and debuted the band with his beat-heavy remix of “Apologize.” Though the pairing of one of pop’s great sonic innovators with such a straight-laced band as OneRepublic is unexpected, Timbaland saw them as kindred songwriters. “The band’s chemistry is amazing, but what is so exceptional about them is how musical they are,” Timbaland said. “I was just naturally drawn to ‘Apologize’ and wanted to add my touch.”
As the band prepares to release “Dreaming Out Loud,” the quintet is confident that sticking to its original guns -- indelible hooks, vague but enormous emotional crescendos and Tedder’s flexibly soulful voice -- was the right decision. Songs such as “Stop and Stare” and “All We Are” fully realize this vision of neatly scripted pop.
“We’re trying to connect to the largest demographic as humanly possible, and whatever format that is, we’ll take it,” Fisher said. Tedder agreed that “if I had to care about one thing, it’d be accessibility. What good is all the coverage in Filter Magazine if we have to break up because I can’t stand another meal at Taco Bell?”
That candidness about OneRepublic’s songwriting philosophy is the best and most trying thing about “Dreaming Out Loud.” Pop tunes such as Britney Spears’ “Toxic” or Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” stick because they pair inventive arrangements with indelible choruses, while rock bands such as Hinder and Daughtry feed a seemingly bottomless appetite for dour neo-grunge.
OneRepublic expertly plucks ideas from nearly every successful alt-rock band of the last 15 years, and the songs are airtight guitar-pop compositions. But will this snag attention in a Top-40 climate where the best songs are often the strangest, and mainstream rock has surrendered to Nickelback?
“Musically, we had enough versatility to swing the band any number of directions, as experimental or as pop as possible,” Tedder said. “Lots of bands say they want credibility, but we actually want to make a living too.”
Rock music is at its best when the struggle between pop craftsmanship and scrappy volatility yields something unexpected yet immediate. It’s too soon to tell if fans will find that Tedder’s master plan balanced the two sides or missed at both of them. But his band has learned that if the Sunset Strip isn’t paved with the gold the band imagined, it’s scattered with a few second chances.
“When you sharpen your teeth on the streets of Hollywood, it makes for a cool chapter to open and close,” Fisher said. “We’re happy the Cat Club chapter is closed now.”