Dreaming Out Loud

Let’s start with the facts: In November 2007, “Apologize,” the first single from Colorado rockers OneRepublic, became an unstoppable juggernaut — a ubiquitous monster smash that spent eight weeks at No. 1 on the Top 40 radio chart and shattered its all-time record for most spins in one week with 10,331. (That record was then broken by another song that the band’s frontman and lyricist Ryan Tedder had written, but we’ll get to that later.) “Apologize” — which originally took off through word-of-mouth on OneRepublic’s MySpace page, but broke big after hip-hop producer Timbaland included a remix of it on his album Shock Value — went No. 1 across the globe and has now sold more than six million copies worldwide. After spending nearly half a year in the Top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, “Apologize” is the second best-selling song of the decade.

“I think ‘Apologize’ connected with so many people because the emotion in it is real,” says Tedder, who wrote the song as a farewell to past relationships. “If you can connect lyrics that capture real emotion to a melody that you can’t get out of your head, it’s like catching lightning in a bottle.”

In OneRepublic’s case, lightning has struck more than once. Thanks to Tedder’s supple tenor, unforgettable melodies, and deeply felt lyrics, as well as the quintet’s dynamic group chemistry, OneRepublic has proven it is built to last with its debut album, 2007’s Dreaming Out Loud. The album, which was executive produced by Timbaland and produced by Greg Wells (Katy Perry, Mika, Rufus Wainwright), is a melody-minded mix of uplifting, piano-propelled rock, jaunty acoustic guitar-driven numbers, and beat-laden epic balladry (reflecting the two years Tedder spent learning the production ropes from Timbaland, four years before OneRepublic signed to his Mosley Music Group imprint via Interscope Records). Dreaming Out Loud has now spawned two subsequent hit singles, “Stop and Stare” (which has sold nearly 1.5 million digital downloads and logged several weeks in the Top 5 on the Hot AC chart) and “Say (All I Need).” A fourth, “Mercy,” will be released this fall to coincide with the band’s U.S. tour.

None of OneRepublic’s stunning success comes as a surprise to Tedder, a 29-year-old native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, who learned to play piano by ear at age 3, taught himself to sing at 12 by listening to his favorite Beatles, U2, and Peter Gabriel records, and made a living producing demos for other aspiring songwriters in Nashville by age 21. “This may sound kind of big-headed,” Tedder says, “but I honestly felt that if the band hadn’t done as well as it has, then I was a complete failure. I was offered two publishing deals within two months of being in Nashville. I could have just written songs and lived a carefree life, but I knew that I had to be an artist. I wanted to form a rock band and create my own sound.”

Tedder formed OneRepublic in 2003 in Colorado Springs with his high-school buddy Zach Filkins, who, though Iowa-born, had spent his formative years in Barcelona, Spain, where he studied classical guitar. “As a young boy I wanted to play loud, crazy, electric guitar,” Filkins says. “But after we moved to Spain when I was 7, my parents started listening to a lot of the classical Spanish-style guitar, and they thought that would be a better way for me to start learning. I took lessons for five years. I didn’t really get the electric thing going until Ryan and I formed the band. That’s when I finally got to plug in and be really loud.”

Dreaming of instant rock stardom, Tedder and Filkins moved to Los Angeles, where the only thing instant about their existence was the Ramen noodles. “I’m not proud of it, but to buy groceries I had to write bad checks,” Tedder says. Adds Filkins: “Those were really frustrating years. We thought we’d immediately get into the L.A. music scene and start playing shows, but it was six months before we even got our first show. Everything was more grueling than we had originally planned. You just hold onto the hope that you’ll make it if someone actually gives you a chance, and you’re just waiting for that chance. But Ryan and I have similar personalities. If it’s something we really want, we will do whatever it takes to make it happen.”

Given the band’s dire circumstances, various members came and went. Eventually Tedder and Filkins recruited guitarist Drew Brown and drummer Eddie Fisher, both of whom were of the belief that they weren’t cut out for anything other than being in a rock band. (Bassist/cellist Brent Kutzle joined in 2007.) Then known as Republic, the band finally got their big break when they signed to Columbia Records in 2004. They spent two years recording their debut album, which contained several of the singles that have since made them stars. However two months before the album was to be released in 2006, Columbia dropped them.

“When you get your first record deal, you think that the difficult part is over and that in six months you’re going to be on the radio and playing arenas,” Filkins says. “We were really naïve. We found out we’d been dropped the day after we’d played the Coachella Festival. So one day we felt like we were an up-and-coming massive band, and the next day it was like, ‘We have nothing to offer, our music sucks, we have no idea what good music even is.’ You start second-guessing everything when a label says, ‘You’re not worth keeping.’”

OneRepublic were on the verge of calling it quits when they began to notice an increase in activity on their MySpace page. “Maybe the music climate changed,” Filkins says, “but all of a sudden, we were getting six to ten thousand plays a day of the songs on our page. Plus we were getting e-mails from kids saying that because of one of our songs, they didn’t commit suicide or they got through their parents’ divorce. We finally connected with the audience. We said to ourselves, ‘Well, the label said we have nothing to offer, but the fans really seem to enjoy our music. We can’t quit now.’”

“That’s what music is about,” adds Tedder. “It’s about connecting with people and helping them deal with life and death, and love and divorce, and hate and envy — all the different emotions. Music is cathartic. It’s medicine. And I would like to be the guy on the block who is selling the highest-quality medicine, whether it’s with OneRepublic or otherwise, but preferably with the band.”

The “otherwise” Tedder is referring to is his other job as an in-demand go-to songwriter and producer for some of music’s best-selling pop, rock, and urban artists. Tedder co-wrote and produced “Bleeding Love,” the international smash single from British vocalist Leona Lewis, which spent four weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and broke the Top 40 radio spin record that OneRepublic held for “Apologize.” Tedder’s other credits include writing and singing on three tracks on Paul Oakenfold’s Grammy Award-nominated album A Lively Mind, co-writing and producing Natasha Bedingfield’s platinum single “Love Like This,” writing and producing Jennifer Lopez’s Top 40 hit “Do It Well,” and co-writing High School Musical star Ashley Tisdale’s gold single “He Said She Said.” Tedder has also written and produced tracks for upcoming albums from Beyoncé, Kelly Clarkson, James Morrison, and Chris Cornell, who returned the favor by making a cameo in the music video for “Say (All I Need).”

“Every time I work with a different artist I learn something new, as in ‘What is it that they do that we don’t,’” Tedder says. “There are many ways for me to apply what I’ve learned to OneRepublic. Writing and producing is my job, but I’m committed to the band — that’s the big picture. Writing songs for OneRepublic is the one medium where musically I get to say what I want to say and no one is telling me it has to be edited. They say ‘Just do what you do.’ That’s my one chance to do something that I feel is about artistic expression. We get to make songs that we love that are inspiring enough to play for 10 months out of the year.”

Having just completed an August tour supporting John Mayer, OneRepublic will hit the road for a six-week headlining tour of the U.S. in October 2008. With several new songs already written, they are looking forward to going into the studio to record the follow-up to Dreaming Out Loud. Though Tedder writes the lyrics and melodies, Filkins describes the process as everyone coming together and giving their input. “The most exciting songs are the ones that make you feel that you’re in a band,” he says, “just a bunch of people getting together and making music.”

OneRepublic is also looking forward to evolving on their next album. “We’re not going to discard what our fans like about us, but our heads are in a different place and the music is going to be a little bit different,” Filkins says. “I feel like the next album is going to be more eclectic, in the sense that it’ll have more pop-driven songs and more alternative-rock songs. I think it’s going to be more varied. We’re always going to maintain our desire for melody and strong emotional and lyrical content, but some songs are going to be more innovative.”

“The approach is not to write the next ‘Apologize,’” Tedder says. “That never works. I don’t ever try to replicate something I’ve done. I want to try something that’s new and different and bigger and better. As long as you keep your melodies simple and your lyrics meaningful, you can explore different territory and always find a place to evolve.”

(September 2008)