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Photo by Liz Bretz
Although Josh Radnor is best known for his acting (especially his starring role in the hit television series How I Met Your Mother), he is also a director (his 2010 film Happythankyoumoreplease won the Sundance Festival Audience Award) – and, relatively recently, he has also become a musician. He formed a duo, Radnor & Lee, with Australian singer-songwriter Ben Lee (who fronted alternative rock band Noise Addict before going on to release more than a dozen full-length solo albums and EPs). As Radnor & Lee, they released a critically acclaimed self-titled debut album in 2017 – and, on June 19, they released their follow-up album, Golden State (via Flower Moon Records). As with their first album, this latest release is full of lyrically clever acoustic-based songs, with both members sharing guitar and lead vocal/harmonizing duties. Calling from their homes in L.A., the pair make it clear that they may be bandmates now, but they are friends first and foremost.
Given the pandemic and all the other bad things going on, it might be a good time for you to release a new album and give people something positive to focus on instead…
BEN LEE: Some days I think that. It’s hard to make sense of it. At the end of the day, you can’t sit on work for too long. I think a lot of us [musicians] just reached a point where we’re like, “Let’s just put it out.”
JOSH RADNOR: It’s like when you step into jump rope. It’s like, “Wait, when’s it going to slow down? Is there going to be a moment of reprieve when things feel a little calmer?” We delayed it because the pandemic was so overwhelming. And then by the time June rolled around, things were ratcheted up in so many different ways. As people who care about Justice, we were really happy and excited about a lot of these things – but at the same time, we had this album that we love that we didn’t know when to put it out in the world. It was all very confusing. So we’re just happy that it’s out [now].
BEN LEE: To me, it’s a natural and important part of the process of making work. If you don’t share it to some degree, it feels like you’ve left the job unfinished. So yeah, [releasing an album] is usually exciting for me, but it always feels like a sigh of relief. Like, “Okay, and now we’ve communicated.”
JOSH RADNOR: Ben has so much more experience in actually putting music out into the world. But I’ve made a lot of stuff for many, many years, and there are many analogous things with just putting work out. I always find that there’s something so sweet and intimate about the making of the work. The bulk of writing it was one thing, me and Ben – but then it was me, Ben and Justin Stanley, our producer, in Justin’s studio. And it was sort of my favorite creative time I’ve ever had, just hunkered down in a dark space, creating this record – how we wanted it to sound, and having these “eureka” moments around it. I’ve directed two films – it kind of feels like the same thing. There’s excitement about sharing it with people and there’s also a little bit of sadness that it’s no longer just yours. Like Ben said, it’s definitely an inevitable and essential part of the creative process, but it’s also a little bit like dropping your kid off at kindergarten and thinking, “I hope they don’t get bullied – I hope they do well!” It’s vulnerable. If you make something and you’re excited about it – and we’re excited about this record – you want people to respond and enjoy it the way you that you do.
How did you know you wanted to do a second album, that this wasn’t just a one-off project?
BEN LEE: I’m not sure you ever know for sure, but for me, it’s almost like when you can’t sleep at night because you’re excited for something happening in the morning. It feels like something fun’s about to happen. And then you have to explore it and try. It feels very organic for me. That’s usually a pretty good sign.
JOSH RADNOR: You want to go where people are responding, and it felt like our first record really found people. It had its fans. We had this great tour to South America. We spent time in Australia. We could feel that people were responding to the music. That’s what you’re looking for. You’re looking to see, “Is there an audience for this? Are people receptive?” The answer was yes. And then songs kept coming. That’s the other thing: we somehow weren’t done writing songs. I started playing guitar, so our songwriting, our collaboration, changed and seemed to get bumped up a few notches, in terms of musicality and what we can do. That was all really exciting to us, so we wanted to keep going.
What is your songwriting process like, as a band?
BEN LEE: It’s taken different forms, but in general, there has to be consensus. Neither of us can go, “Well, I just like it this way, and that’s how it’s going to be.” You basically are looking for ideas – musical, lyrical, conceptual – that we both like.
JOSH RADNOR: And happily, we don’t argue very much. There’s an unspoken thing: if it works, we both feel it. But the whole project was born out of friendship. For about ten years, we were having this ongoing conversation that eventually spilled into us writing songs together. Ben would come over and we’d share about our lives and what we were thinking about, and that conversation would be what would lead to a song that day.
Your sound is so distinctive. How did that emerge?
BEN LEE: There was always the assumption that we liked acoustic guitars and harmonies. But it felt like a discovery process, especially when Josh started playing guitar and we had the ability to explore being a two-guitar band.
You touch on some really serious things, but you also have a lightheartedness to your songs. How do you strike the right balance?
JOSH RADNOR: I think about something that our friend Trent taught me in the Native American tradition. They have something called a “heyoka,” which is a sacred clown. When things get too serious, they bring in the heyoka. And also, when things get too un-serious, they’re bringing in more weighty things. There’s always this balance that you want to strike. And I thank you just sense that, as a creative person. I don’t trust things that are all only one thing because life feels like both those things. Often simultaneously.
BEN LEE: It’s like anything with music. How do you decide when you should play a fast song? How do you decide when you should play a slow song? If you’re reliant on making those big decisions intellectually, they’re never going to feel organic. Basically, something’s funny when it’s funny. Like when it makes you laugh. Something is emotional when it moves you. There has to be a certain degree of flexibility with not just making the thing you’re determined to make, but responding to what’s coming out.
When you first met, how did you know you would work well together?
BEN LEE: I didn’t. You kind of try. That’s one of the things I love about L.A., is that it’s essentially a collaborative industry town. I think people are very open to try combinations of things and see what works and what doesn’t. You might try half a dozen collaborations and only one of them has a certain fire or spark to it. But you don’t know until you get in the room.
JOSH RADNOR: And Ben and I have good friend chemistry. When we met, it felt like we knew each other a long time. There was something familiar about us. I never once have been talking to Ben and think, “What am I going to say next?” Or, “This silence is awkward!” We just communicate really well. I don’t know if that always translates to artistic chemistry, but it did in our case. Because like I said, we’re just continuing a conversation that we’ve been having with each other, but through music. What year did we meet, Ben? 2006?
BEN LEE: Yeah, around then.
Why did you wait so long after that to do music together?
JOSH RADNOR: Well, I wasn’t a musician. We had talked for a couple of years about, We should write a song together – that would be fun.” It was this thing we were kicking around. And then for whatever reason one day, the first song we wrote was “Wider Spaces,” which was the closing song on our first record. Then we got together the next week and wrote “Be Like the Being.” And then the following week, we’re working on a third song. Then, “Let’s make a record.” When we got together, songs happened. It wasn’t like we thought of it when we met and then waited ten years to start writing. It just happened when it happened.
What made each of you want to be a musician?
BEN LEE: I just thought musicians were cool. They just looked cool, basically! [laughs]
JOSH RADNOR: I also thought musicians look cool! [laughs] I was just this huge music fan. I played violin when I was a kid, but I didn’t really play an instrument until recently again. But I started off in musicals, in high school and college. So I have a musical singing background. But yeah, I was just approaching it as a fan. I thought, “If you haven’t learned guitar by a certain age, you are never going to learn.” I thought you had to learn at 11 or 12 [years old] or whatever. But once we started writing songs together, Ben was so encouraging of me. He really helped me get a lot of confidence that I had melodies. I learned so much watching how he constructs songs. It was such a good musical education. And it keeps growing.
Golden State by Radnor & Lee was released on June 19.
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