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

When Ryan Tedder says he was raised in a charismatic environment, he doesn’t mean that his family was full of magnetic personalities. As he slouches on a plush leather couch in the den area of his studio, a rocks glass with two fingers of bourbon in his hand, he explains that “charismatic” is a Christian-based faith movement, something akin to Pentecostalism, but not exactly. As a child growing up in Oklahoma, Tedder was in church at least three times a week. He grew up singing in the church choir and alongside the gospel music his songwriter father played on the piano in their home.

Tedder’s parents allowed him few opportunities to listen to non-gospel music, but at some point he got his hands on the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Then he began collecting—and learning to play—piano sheet music from movie soundtracks like The Karate Kid, Part II and Young Guns. At 12, he added the drums to his repertoire. At 15, he began writing his own songs. “I obsessed over music and just loved it,” Tedder says. “But I never considered it as a career. Where I grew up you go to high school, you go to college, you find a wife in college, you get married, you have 2.3 kids, and if that hasn’t all happened by the time you’re 24, some people think there’s something wrong with you—or the assumption is that maybe you’re not into the opposite sex.”

There wasn’t anything amiss with Tedder; he simply wasn’t interested in the traditional track. In 1996 he made that clear, when, a little more than a decade after his parents divorced, the 17-year-old Tedder decided he wanted to move from his hometown in Oklahoma to Colorado to live with his aunt and uncle and be near his father. That meant a move west to Colorado Springs, where he embarked on his senior year of high school at Colorado Springs Christian School (CSCS).

Tedder was an instant sensation at CSCS, according to his high school classmate and longtime friend Matt Hall. The girls dug him. The choir teacher, Ms. Flanagan, loved him. He played drums in the talent show in front of a breathless audience. And although he didn’t make the basketball team, he managed a hat trick in his first soccer game. It was playing forward for the Lions, maybe more than anything else at CSCS, that had a lasting effect. On that team, Tedder met not only Hall, but also Zach Filkins, a young man with model good looks, a Christian upbringing, and a penchant for playing the guitar.

The two adolescents realized their shared love of music when Filkins gave Tedder a ride home from soccer practice one day. They talked about U2 and other legendary bands and how one day they would like to achieve that kind of musical career. Together they started an act called This Beautiful Mess and played a few gigs in the Springs. But at the end of their senior years of high school, they went off to different colleges.

Back in Oklahoma, at Oral Roberts University, the largest charismatic Christian university in the world, Tedder majored in public relations and advertising. At least that’s what his diploma says. Based on the time he put into sneaking into the Timko-Barton Performance Hall’s piano rooms, he probably could have been a double major. He spent hours on the piano and the guitar deconstructing his favorite albums—like Eric Clapton and B.B. King’s Riding with the King—figuring out the chords and then trying to write new songs using those same chords. He was skipping classes—even meals—to write songs.

No one knew. Not friends. Not his roommate. He sang in secret. He was in the school choir, but his friends always thought it was odd that a person who didn’t seem overly musically inclined would be taking a singing class. When he was in one of the piano rooms he would tape a piece of notebook paper over the small window in the door so that no one could see him.

Tedder says there were two reasons he hid his passion. The first was that he believed there were so many bad singers and bad songs in the world that he didn’t want to add to the noise. He wanted to be certain he would be successful before he revealed himself. The second reason was more deep-seated: Being raised in a religious home, Tedder had been taught that there was a purpose for his life, and that because God had ordained that purpose, he should live the life expected of him—one that was pious and humble. “Deciding you want to go into the music business is about the most narcissistic thing in the world,” Tedder says. “I had this constant battle—and to some degree I still do.”

Internal struggle or not, Tedder felt confident enough in his singer-songwriter capabilities by the summer of 2000, before his senior year at ORU, to (once again, on the sly) enter a music competition in downtown Nashville. He played an original song—and won. The contest had been part of a national talent search—an early predecessor to the wave of American Idol–like shows that were to come—and four weeks later Tedder received a phone call that informed him he had been selected as one of five finalists nationwide. Those five finalists would be flown to New York City, where they would perform on MTV’s Total Request Live (TRL). The winner would receive a recording contract.

In front of emcee Lance Bass of ’N Sync, judges Pink and Brian McKnight, a studio audience, other music industry giants, and millions of TV viewers, the 21-year-old Tedder played an original song called “The Look.” Sporting a high-and-tight haircut and dressed in a blue collared shirt and baggy jeans, Tedder perched on a stool with an acoustic guitar and channeled angels on high. On display even then was Tedder’s effortless ability to hit the tall notes and captivate an audience. After he finished his performance, he told Bass he’d only been playing the guitar for about two-and-a-half years and that he’d learned listening to the Dave Matthews Band in college. He won the contest. “The next day I’m in the Dakota, in the apartment next to the place where John Lennon had lived, and I’m doing a song-writing session with this dude who played with Eagle-Eye Cherry,” Tedder says. “You remember that guy? It was wild.”

But as these things often go, the recording contract was a farce—the fine print actually said the winner would attain the possibility of a record deal—so Tedder headed back to school, where he quickly learned his secret was out. A friend at ORU had taped his MTV appearance—and showed it around. To everyone. Tedder could no longer hide. Not that he needed to anymore. He had played onstage, in front of other people, millions of other people in fact—and the reveal had been a success.