Interview With John Ryan, Hit Songwriter & Producer For One Direction, Jason Derulo, John Legend and Pitbull

John Ryan
John Ryan

During the past five years, John Ryan has emerged as a top, pop songwriter & producer who’s had several hit singles. Perhaps best known for co-writing & co-producing four Top 10 pop hits for One Direction (“Best Song Ever,” “Story Of My Life,” “Drag Me Down” and “Perfect”), he has also co-written hits for Jason Derulo (“Wiggle”), Pitbull (“Fireball”) and John Legend (his new single, “Love Me Now”).

In this highly competitive era, where most songwriters would love to land just one cut with One Direction, Ryan (who is based in Los Angeles) has co-written a remarkable 27 cuts which have been released on One Direction’s last four albums (Take Me Home, Midnight Memories, Four and Made in the A.M.). In addition to the group’s four Top 10 hits listed above, Ryan co-wrote & co-produced the Top 20 hits “Midnight Memories” and “Steal My Girl.”

Ryan, who is from Pittsford, NY (a suburb of Rochester), learned to play guitar and piano at a young age. He also started writing songs, and he later attended the prestigious Berklee College of Music (in Boston, MA). After graduating from Berklee, Ryan moved to Los Angeles and began pursuing his career as a pro songwriter & producer. He first landed cuts with the U.K. boy band JLS, and subsequently collaborated with One Direction and Jason Derulo. In 2013, he signed a publishing contract with Big Deal Music & BMG Chrysalis. Ryan is managed by Damon Bunetta of Family Affair Productions, and he frequently works with hit writer/producer, Julian Bunetta.

Ryan has also co-written songs for Fifth Harmony, Cody Simpson, Nick Jonas, Emblem3 and Oily Murs. Notably, he’s also an artist. Ryan was the featured vocalist on Pitbull’s hit “Fireball,” and appeared in the popular video. Currently, he is writing & recording new material as an artist, under the moniker, JRY.

We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with John Ryan. He tells how he got started, and he discusses his hit collaborations with One Direction, plus his new single with John Legend.

DK: How did you get started with your music? I read that you attended Berklee College of Music.

John Ryan: I started at a very young age. I remember I wrote my first song when I was in third grade. I learned to play three or four guitar chords. I would sing, jam out to the Beach Boys, play the tennis rackets, really make a whole scene of it. Then, I finally learned how to play a couple chords and wrote my first song in third grade.

I took piano lessons and guitar during childhood and throughout high school. I made an album in the eighth grade that I was selling out of my locker. In high school, I was in several bands, including an instrumental jazz band. But, I also played a lot of sports. By the time I was 16 or 17, I had to choose between music and sports. Music came the most naturally and made me the happiest. Everything else I was studying or doing in my life didn’t bring me the euphoria, or satisfaction, that creating something out of nothing, did. Fortunately, I had parents who fully supported me. I was the baby in my family. My brother, Joe, and sister, Julie, had gone through college, so my parents were fully supportive of me attending music school. Berklee was the only place I applied and only place I went. My parents gave me the confidence I needed to apply and go and do it.

Jamie Scott, Julian Bunetta and John Ryan.
Pictured (l-r): hit songwriters Jamie Scott, Julian Bunetta and John Ryan.

At Berklee, you don’t learn about trapezoids and rhombuses; it’s just straight music. It was amazing. When I started there, I didn’t know a soul. The first week I was there, I met a bunch of people, who I am still very close with today. I had some bands in college, was always writing my own material, and then started to get into music production and made some great pop and urban tracks. My voice started to improve, and in the middle of Berklee, I met Damon (Bunetta, his manager). I sent him a bunch of reggae and pop ideas I had written.

I learned a lot at Berklee, especially the first two years. I didn’t know how much I was learning until I left. I always had music in my head, but could never explain it to anyone. I couldn’t say, “that’s a diminished chord.” I couldn’t speak the language, but I knew what it sounded like in my head. But I’m a big fan of studying. I was scared when I went to Berklee. I thought, “what if I get too into music theory? I might lose my instincts, because I’m going to know everything I’m playing.” But, it’s the exact opposite. You only get better.

DK: Was your original goal to be an artist, or were you more focused on being a writer/producer?

Ryan: I was always doing both (artist and writer/producer). I always wanted to be the artist, the rock star, the cool kid and front man of some hipster, indie project, or indie band, but I was also making rap beats and making weird experimental, instrumental music. I was always kind of doing both, which is sort of what I’m still doing now. I just don’t think about. I make it, and somehow it all finds a home.

DK: How did you decide to move to Los Angeles, and work with your manager Damon Bunetta?

Ryan: I met Damon while visiting L.A. in college in December 2008. It was a typical music industry story. I flew out to L.A. to visit some friends. I went to a party, and I was jamming the Beach Boys and Beatles during a sing-along type thing. Damon approached me and asked if I wrote my own stuff. We hit it off, exchanged numbers, and stayed in touch as I finished Berklee.

At the time, Damon, his brother, Julian (Bunetta), and dad, Peter, were expanding their company (Family Affair Productions) and looking to add another producer/writer/artist to the team.

When I graduated Berklee, the Bunetta’s offered me the opportunity to move out to L.A., live with them, give it (the industry) a shot, and see if we could all be a cohesive team. Five days after graduating Berklee, I moved to L.A., in with the Bunetta’s, became best friends with them, and have never looked back.

DK: What was your first big cut as a songwriter?

Here’s the video of One Direction’s hit, “Story Of My Life,” which
was co-written by John Ryan.

Ryan: I had a few good hits with JLS (“Do You Feel What I Feel”), who was a big boy band in the U.K., and then with Cody Simpson (“Got Me Good”). But shortly after that, the One Direction stuff really started. My first big cut with One Direction was “C’mon, C’mon.” It was huge being part of that project. I had three songs on their second album, and that was the start. I got to meet the boys, vibe, write, and record with them, and that really set up the next three years. We met, wrote some great songs, but we (Julian and me) weren’t the main writers and producers on the project at that point, but we hit it off with the boys, and by the time the next album, Midnight Memories, came around, we all made it together.

DK: You’ve had such a great run of hits, working with One Direction. How did you hook up with them, and what makes this collaboration work so well?

Ryan: I had a lot of friends (Julian included) that were working on the X Factor in the U.S. in 2012. A good friend of ours, (hit songwriter) Savan Kotecha, worked on One Direction’s first two records and he had worked on the X Factor as well. Savan told us about this great, new project, with a talented boy band out of England, who finished in the top 5 on the U.K. X Factor. At the time, there was a really big gap in the market for boy bands, so Julian and I got on board. We knew Jamie (Scott) had done a song on their first record so we said, “hey, this guy’s already been in with the project, let’s write some stuff with him and maybe something will come of it.” We wrote three great songs, super quick, super naturally, and they made it on the second record. We then flew out to London, met the boys, hit it off, and recorded the three songs.

Immediately, we thought there was a really great, natural chemistry not only between the One Direction guys, but also between One D guys, Julian, and me. By the time the third record (Midnight Memories) came around, we thought we all needed to get in the studio, jam, vibe, talk about ideas and write; it all just happened naturally. The floodgates were open, and we all just went pedal to the metal for the next three years.

I think it worked so well because we were all peers. It wasn’t like we were the songwriters and they were the big superstars. I learned a lot from them, being on the road and writing with them, and they learned a lot from us, being the more experienced songwriters. We could really utilize each other’s talents and strengths and were able to create something amazing together that I’m incredibly proud of.

The process with them was just like it would be with any friend. You’re hanging out, talking about relationships, problems, accomplishments, everything, all stirring it in the pot. When it’s 3 in the morning and you’re in the back of a tour bus talking about life, songs just happen on their own, you don’t really think about it. It was a very natural process. Every song came out of a story or an idea from the mere fact that we were just hanging out. We all became super close on the road. That sort of environment, and our relationship with the One Direction guys and each other, would just breed songs.

Here’s the video of the hit “Fireball” by Pitbull featuring John Ryan,
which was co-written by Ryan.

DK: Do you have a favorite among your hits with One Direction, and can you tell me how you co-wrote that song?

Ryan: I’d probably say, “Story of My Life.” I was sitting in the room with Jamie Scott and Julian Bunetta and we had been working on the third album for maybe a week or two, had all this other great material and thought, “what if we did a little folky thing?” Jamie kind of started playing a few chords on the guitar and singing, and we recorded this voice memo. Julian, Jamie, and I sat in the room and wrote it super fast, laid the idea down, put it on the computer, and stowed it away. We thought it was a nice little folk diddy, but didn’t think it was for One Direction. At the end of the week we started listening to everything, playing some ideas for the boys, playing some ideas for the label, and then one of us thought, “hey, what was that thing we did at the end of last week?” We opened it up and said, “we wrote this thing, it’s not One Direction, but it’s pretty cool.” We listened back to it and thought, “wow, we could have something really special here.”

The most exciting part of it was the effortlessness. It sort of happened right under our nose without us knowing. We wrote this great thing…it was a spark, a moment. The lyrics, the magic, all kind of happened in less than an hour, and before we knew it, we had this great song. In some aspect, every hit is an accident in a certain way. That makes it really special. “Story of My Life” was definitely the first, big hit, top 10 radio hit, by far, and it’s still one of the biggest.

DK: As a songwriter, do you feel your strength is more topline (lyrics & melody), or is it more tracks & production?

Ryan: I would say topline. I’m the kind of writer that has too much energy, and is always changing lyrics or coming up with melodies in the room. I run full speed, on 100 all the time, so I’m always coming up with stuff, but definitely more melody, topline.

At this point it happens both ways. Sometimes I’ll make a track first and that will inspire the melody, or I’ll come up with a title, and start singing stuff with that title in it, and a melody will come on its own, sometimes it will just be a melody. Usually, melody comes the most natural to me. I was always listening to great songs growing up. I got into the Beatles super late, at 18 or 19, but the Beatles opened my mind to really great, pop, melodies, not just simple stuff, but melodies that were a little more complicated. I was learning music theory and learning chords, and I kind of grew up playing guitar and piano so my ear was always keen on making sure the melody was really great before anything else.

DK: You were featured as an artist on your hit “Fireball” with Pitbull. Are you planning to do more work as an artist?

Here’s the video of John Legend’s new single “Love Me Now,”
which was co-written by John Ryan.

Ryan: Yes, I am. The plan is to come out with some new material, under the moniker, JRY. I wrote, produced, and am featured on a song, “Sober,” which was recently released on DJ Snake’s album, Encore. But under the radar, I’m also making new material that I’m excited to play for everyone. I’m only going to put something out if I think it’s really great. I will always want to write hits for other people. I’m on super creative mode at all times, so if I make something that’s great, but doesn’t sound like me, I’ll give it to someone else. If I create something that comes naturally, and sounds like music I would sing, then I’ll keep it for myself. That’s the plan right now, just to co-exist as a songwriter, producer, and artist. I have too much music in me to not have both going at the same time.

DK: I like the new single you wrote with John Legend, “Love Me Now.” How did you hook up with him to write this song?

Ryan: Thank you! I’ve been a big fan of John’s for a long time. I came up with the idea for the song when I was in London. It was just a rough sketch on the keyboard with some melodies and lyrics.

But it was one of those songs where it didn’t float around for a long time. My rough demo was just a keyboard and a vocal. John (Legend) heard the song through the cosmos of the industry, loved the song, and hit me up about it. He loved the start, had a bunch of ideas, and really wanted to work on it and finish it up together. I have been a huge fan of John’s for a long time, so of course I said, 1,000% yes. For me, it was a no-brainer.

At that time I was super busy, he’s been super busy, so we slowly worked on it over the year, fine-tuning it, changing and playing around with chords and lyrics, and have slowly chipped away at it.

As we worked on other projects, we were able to work on “Love Me Now,” and knew for certain that no matter what happened on the end here, the song was going to turn out great. We just had to slowly keep chipping away at it. Finally, John and I both got to a point where we thought it was done. I spruced up the production, but tried to keep it pretty minimal. I loved it, he loved it, and the rest is history.

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima