The Battle Hymn of OneRepublic

It’s been three years since Denver’s hottest pop band put out a new album. In 2012, OneRepublic finally holed up in a Cherry Creek studio to lay down tracks for its third LP. Will Native, which drops this fall, prove to be the band’s breakout record?

November 2012

It's not as if they need another keyboard. With 15 stored in a custom-built cabinet along the right-hand wall of the studio, the addition of the Yamaha SK-50D seems like overkill. Plus, the 32-year-old instrument looks out of place, especially next to the recording console, the massive in-wall speakers, and the four Apple computers loaded with music-editing software used by the guys from OneRepublic, the biggest band to come out of Colorado since the Fray. But guitar player Drew Brown, a soft-spoken young man with wavy red hair and plastic-rim glasses, is stoked about the new gear, which he picked up at a Denver estate sale for $700. • “Dude, Ryan, hey man, you gotta come see this thing,” Brown yells down the studio’s hallway. Ryan is Ryan Tedder, the group’s lead singer, songwriter, linchpin, and most public personality. In the past five or six years, Tedder has exploded as a songwriter and producer for musical icons like Adele, Beyoncé, Leona Lewis, Gavin DeGraw, and Colbie Caillat. He has become friends with some of the recording industry’s most elite players—and made at least one enemy in Kelly Clarkson, who believes a song Tedder co-wrote with her sounds too much like one he co-wrote with Beyoncé. Still, his blue eyes, sandy-blond hair, omnipresent stubble, and emotive stage presence have made him a hit with women, especially those who consider themselves OneRepublic fans.

While Brown waits for his bandmate to make his way to the inner sanctum of the studio, the guitarist pokes at a few keys, moves a few slider bars, and depresses a foot pedal just for fun. Five minutes later, Tedder bounces through the studio—which he had designed and built along with a new house in a gated Cherry Creek community in 2009—to find Brown. Wearing a T-shirt and a pair of pin-striped skinny jeans that sag a bit in the rear, Tedder steps up to the synthesizer, his hands moving over the buttons and slides and knobs like he’s owned the thing for years. Before striking the first key, Tedder looks at Brown with a devilish grin and says, “Check this out.”

Instead of the canticle-like, high-soaring music Tedder has been known to write for the band he helped found nine years ago in Colorado Springs, the partial ditty he knocks out on the old Yamaha sounds more like a trippy refrain from a kids cartoon, something you might hear on SpongeBob SquarePants. Tedder had covertly set the synth to “cat sounds,” meaning every key is ringing out with an eerie “meeooooow.”

It isn’t “Apologize,” the band’s 2007 breakout hit, and it isn’t “Good Life” or “Secrets,” popular songs from the band’s 2009 sophomore title, Waking Up. But even as he drops the feline yowling into lower and lower registers, Tedder’s talent is apparent. Although he was classically trained in piano from the age of three until 13, Tedder says he’s really just a good enough musician to get the job done. Maybe that’s true, but he’s just goofing around—with animal noises—and somehow it still kinda sounds…good.

They, of course, think this little musical interlude is hilarious. But the scene is also telling: Here are 30-year-old men who are supposed to be working, supposed to be taking music seriously, supposed to be toiling over a new record, yet they’re acting like giddy teenagers who don’t want to deal with the responsibility. Instead, they want to geek out over a new toy that makes cat noises. The ADHD is palpable. For at least 20 minutes, this silliness makes Tedder, Brown, and their producer, Noel Zancanella, forget that they are behind schedule on their long-awaited third album, that the LP needs to be a critical and commercial success, and that they can no longer afford to be distracted—by one-off concerts, side gigs, family obligations, or musical instruments from the early ’80s—if they are going to give their increasingly impatient fan base something new to listen to in 2012 and take their turn as the next big thing in music.