It’s early November, and high winds are whipping up tiny whirlwinds in the parking lot of a quadplex in Nederland where Ted Bruner lives with his partner, Tess Whitehurst.
At the door, offering reprieve from the gale, Bruner is all mid-Western politeness and boyish charm, his chin-length flaxen hair framing a winsome smile. The space is equally unassuming and warm, decked in bohemian tapestries and throw pillows, a cat dozing in a patch of sunshine.
But along a wall leading upstairs are indicators of a faster-paced life than one usually finds in this sleepy mountain town, accolades from Bruner’s career as a songwriter: platinum and gold records from his work with Katy Perry, Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, Bowling for Soup, and My Darkest Days.
Bruner’s leading the way to his home studio to preview a song he co-wrote with Canadian rock band Three Days Grace for their upcoming album, Explosions (May 6, RCA). When the track is released a few weeks later, it quickly becomes the fastest climbing single on Billboard’s rock radio airplay chart, gaining its heaviest airplay in the Denver and Colorado Springs markets.
But on this day in Bruner’s studio, “So Called Life” is still unreleased.
The track is heavy, both sonically and lyrically, lead singer Matt Walst yearning for “something to take my mind off this so-called life.” But the cloud’s break open ever so slightly by song’s end, a flourish of synthesizers that connote Bruner’s penchant for pop.
For the past year over Zoom, Bruner helped the four-piece band flesh out the track and four others that will appear on the new record.
“Ted’s like. . . well, he’s kind of like a therapist,” Walst says over a phone interview from his home outside of Toronto. “He’ll ask you personal questions because he wants to write about what’s real, what’s going on in your life. Whenever you can take what you’ve gone through and make it apply to other people’s experience, that’s the key to really engaging people in the music—if they can see themselves then it. I feel like Ted is super good at getting into that.”
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Bruner grew up “super sheltered” in suburban St. Louis Missouri, a “nerd” who liked experimenting with BBS software in the days before the internet.
But everything changed one winter day when he was 15.
“A highway patrolman called and asked if anyone else was home and I said no,” Bruner recalls over a latte at Salto Coffee. “And he said, ‘Your mom’s been involved in a fatal car crash—can you go somewhere?’ It just didn’t compute―this is a safe world.”
He walked to a friend’s house, past the swing sets and trampolines that made no sense in this new world, shock blurring his vision, desaturating the world’s color.
In the days following his mother’s death, Bruner searched through his older sister’s record collection and found a Styx cassette tape that became his armor against the world. He’d board the bus each morning for school, headphones on, Denis DeYoung’s voice blocking out everything else.
“You see the world through your cynical eyes,” DeYoung sang on the 1977 track “Fooling Yourself (The Angry Young Man).” “You’re a troubled young man I can tell / You’ve got it all in the palm of your hand / But your hand’s wet with sweat and your head needs a rest.”
The boy never asked, but Bruner’s dad bought him a keyboard, then an electric guitar, then a four-track mixer over the next couple of years. Music became young Ted’s therapy, leading him through high school and into college, where his alternative-rock band Colony began to flourish. The band landed a record deal with MCA at the turn of the century, just before the industry took a hard left and the label crashed. Bruner conjures lyrics from the band’s breakout song, “Breathe”:
Meet me in the ocean / Find me in the the water / Whatever’s on your mind / You better tell me before you sink to the bottom / Beneath the bluest sky / You and I float in circles / While all along the earth is rolling through another day in space / And the wind hits the water on my skin / And I feel better, better than I ever did / It’s all I want / Breathe
“I wanted to be REM, but I felt like I wasn’t Michael Stipe,” Bruner admits. “I just didn’t have that same stage presence. I loved writing the songs, but once we got on stage, I didn’t take it that seriously.”
But people had taken notice of his song craft. Colony had run its course, but Bruner was just beginning his journey as a songwriter with Rondor Music/Universal Publishing Group.
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A 29-year-old Bruner landed in Los Angeles in 2002, and quickly found himself in the studio with up-and-coming artists like pop punkers Plain White T’s and pop-country chanteuse Jessie James.
It was exciting—and exhausting.
“You’ll be in line for a coffee and somebody will go, ‘This guy works for such-and-such record company—you want to meet him?’” Bruner says. “It happens quick, and you have to take the good with the bad. You’re gonna get a lot of parking tickets. It’s gonna be hard to fucking survive sometimes, but a door will just fly open that never would have if you hadn’t been in L.A.”
Paired with Disney stars like Selena Gomez and Miley Cyrus, Bruner got to witness these artists navigate adolescence in the crucible of fame. For an artist like Gomez, whose single mother had struggled financially after a divorce, achieving stardom was a way out.
“I asked her how she managed going through breakups and stuff in public,” Bruner says. “And she was like, ‘Look, this is all put together for Disney. I grew up in a really rough area in Texas’ And so it was nothing for her to just get in front of the camera and flip the switch. Whereas for someone like me, I’d always been so sheltered and self-conscious.”
While Gomez couldn’t be reached for comment, in a 2011 E! special, she admitted that her mother had struggled:
“I remember my mom would run out of gas all of the time and we’d sit there and have to go through the car and get quarters and help her get gas.”
Bruner helped Gomez craft some of her first hits on her 2009 album Kiss & Tell.
Around the same time, Bruner got paired with a another wide-eyed pop songwriter, one who’d had recently been dropped from a label, a young woman from a deeply religious background with “Jesus” tattooed on the inside of her right wrist: Katy Perry.
“She was just so, so sad when I wrote with her,” Bruner says. “She told me that she had one foot out the fucking door, that L.A. was driving her fucking crazy.”
He encouraged her to channel her pain into her music, but Perry was hesitant to pen anything too dark, Bruner says, seeing the escapism of light-hearted pop as her only way forward. (Unsurprisingly, Perry could not be reached for comment.)
But one evening in the studio at Universal, Bruner says Perry was ready to explore her pain, and the two co-wrote the song “Lost,” which appeared on Perry’s platinum selling major label debut, One of the Boys:
Caught in the eye of a hurricane / Slowly waving goodbye like a pageant parade / So sick of this town pulling me down, oh / My mother says I should come back home / But can’t find the way ‘cause the way is gone / So if I pray am I just sending words into outer space?
Los Angeles eventually took its toll on Bruner as well. He found himself disillusioned, surrounded by “rich miserable people.”
In 2014, he and Tess made their way to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, where they’ve been ever since, Tess writing books about her own journey through trauma and finding spirituality, Bruner pitching out songs by the dozens to A&R guys until he gets a bite—like he did with Three Days Grace.
“Now I get baked on Colorado weed and sit there until I get emotional, until I hit a depth, and then I just write whatever pours out of me that day,” he says.
Doors don’t fly open the same way they did in Los Angeles, but he’s happy to trade it all for the ability to walk outside and see snow on the mountains in the summertime, to lock eyes with a deer as it walks past his condo.
He reminds himself that he’s just “an overgrown amoeba, a sentient collection of cells,” and that helps keep it all in perspective.
“That’s my saying: Spinning on a rock in space, orbiting a ball of fire,” he says. “It makes some people feel so small and I’m like, exactly. It just takes all the pressure off of you. Whatever is going on in your life doesn’t hold a candle to the infinite magnitude of the universe.”
Back out in the gale, ready to head down the mountain, a bumper sticker on a well-worn black sedan catches my eye: “Spinning on a rock in space, orbiting a ball of fire.”