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Interview: Josh Radnor

5 December 2023

Photo by Nikhil Suresh

As is often the case, I thought of a pretty decent question after my conversation with Josh Radnor had concluded. I should have asked him what Ted Mosby, the character he played on the long-running CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, would have thought of Radnor’s recently released debut album, Eulogy: Volume 1. My guess is that Mosby, who had decent taste in music, would have been a fan.

Radnor grew up in an upper-class neighborhood just outside of Columbus, Ohio in a musical household. “My mom played the piano and sang and we had a lot of classical music,” he says. “There were show tunes, but there were a lot of folky albums too – Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan. And my dad loved Jim Croce and John Denver. My mom really loved Barry Manilow and a lot of tuneful songwriters so I have a taste for simple, really beautiful melodies. Those are my musical roots.”

Though he loved music, and took part in musical theater in high school, Radnor turned his attention to acting when he went to college and built a career in the industry,producing and directing films and starring in a number of TV shows and movies. Music was a passion, but not something he thought about actively pursuing until a chance meeting with singer/songwriter Ben Lee.

How did you meet Ben?

JOSH: It’s actually really weird. We met on the set of How I Met Your Mother. One of the show’s creators asked, “Do you know who Ben Lee is?” I said, “Oh yeah, I love Ben Lee.” I had a couple of his records. I really liked his music. They wanted to use a song of his on the show and he was with some big label that was charging an exorbitant amount of money to use it. The label didn’t run it by Ben, they just kind of said, “This is the price,” and they priced him out. He ended up hearing about it and he was like, “What is this show?” I think he was on an airplane and he watched a bunch of episodes and he just fell in love with it and he called the creators to say, “I’m really sorry they didn’t give you that song. I would have let you have it for less money. But, I loved the show.” The show creator said, “Why don’t you come to set? We’ll show you how the show is made”

I think it was the first or second season. They said, “Ben Lee is going to come to set and visit” and I think I was the only one who kind of knew who he was. We ended up really connecting. We stayed around the studio for a while after we were done shooting and just hung out and talked. I don’t even think we exchanged numbers but I ran into him a couple of months later, just serendipitously in LA, and we had dinner with his now wife, Ione (Skye). We’ve been friends ever since.

So, in some ways, in every way, were it not for How I Met Your Mother, I don’t know that I’d be writing songs right now.

When you were writing and recording for the Radnor and Lee project, would you say that Ben was showing you the ropes or was it a pretty equal partnership?

JOSH: It was kind of an interesting mix of the two because we were absolutely equal partners in the creation of the stuff, including the music. When we started collaborating, I just figured I’d be more of the lyricist and he’d be more of the music guy. And that’s not how it worked out. The very first song we wrote, he just said, “Do you have any melodies kicking around?” I had had this dream where a children’s choir was singing this really beautiful melody. I woke up because the melody was really strong in my head and I croaked it into my iPhone. I played back this horrible voice note and I was singing the melody to him and then he just started playing it on guitar and that became the first song we wrote together called “Wider Spaces,” which is the last song on the first record.

From the jump, he was really interested in me musically, not just lyrically, like what kind of melodies were kicking around in me. It gave me a lot of confidence. I always knew I was good with words. I knew I was good with rhythm and rhyme. But, I learned a lot about lyric writing from him. So it was this dual thing going on, which was a totally equal partnership where he 100% wanted to hear what I had to say. And, in some ways, deferred to me on some level, like he trusted my impulses. But on another level, sometimes I would get either too clever or too poetic and he said, “You want the lyrics to be a little flatter. It’s not poetry, it’s lyrics.” So, in “Greene Street,” off our second record, we have a line that just says, “We’re keeping on, just keeping on.” Not good poetry, but super fun to sing if you write melody and rhythm to it. He said, “You’re gonna like singing that.”

I read that Stephen Sondheim said, “Poets don’t often make good lyricists because the words are too rich.” I think someone like Leonard Cohen or Paul Simon gets closer to the edge than anyone, but it’s true that the lyrics are only part of the thing. When someone told Phil Spector that some lyrics were dumb, he said, “Without the beat, they’re dumb but put the beat with them and it’s fantastic.”

With Ben, I got this songwriting apprenticeship while I also got this great collaboration with a really high-level songwriter. And once I started playing guitar, he taught me things all the time so it was this weird mix of apprenticeship and partnership.

Did you retreat to your parents’ house in Columbus to write the songs that became Eulogy: Volume 1 after going through a breakup?

JOSH: Not quite. What happened was I had a breakup around Thanksgiving 2021. And, for a number of pretty complicated reasons that aren’t worth going into, I couldn’t be at my house. My ex was at my house until June. So I was in exile from LA. I didn’t have a spot to go. And my parents always spend the winter in California with my older sister and her family. So my childhood home was empty and, not knowing where to go, I just went to Columbus and brought my dog Nelson and I was hunkered down. I was seeing people and I have another sister who lives there so I was connecting with old friends and nursing my wounds.

Maybe I was writing, I don’t know, I had a guitar with me. My buddy Kyle Cox, who’s a songwriter in Nashville that I’m really close with and have co-written a lot of songs with, he just threw it out. He was like, “Why don’t you come to Nashville and let’s work on some music, let’s record some of your songs?” because I had a suitcase full of songs. I probably had up to 50 songs that had not been recorded.

We just thought maybe we’d work on an EP, like, let’s just get some music down. So I went to Nashville, I took my dad’s car, me and Nelson went to Nashville, got an Airbnb in East Nashville. And we, with our friends, Jeremiah Dunlap and Corey Quintard, converted the Airbnb into a studio and I was there for a month.

I feel the need to correct this. It’s somewhat of a breakup record, but it’s not like I had a breakup and then wrote 12 songs or 23 songs. What happened was I went through the breakup and that was the impetus for recording an album. The album itself was recorded in the wake of a breakup, but I don’t know if I could properly call it a breakup album, even though it kind of is, if that makes sense.

Did you know at the time that those songs were going to make it onto a record? Was that the end goal?

JOSH: I had hoped so. I did a five-song EP with my buddy Ryan Dilmore called One More Then I’ll Let You Go and that came out in 2021 and I had a really good experience with that, but it was less like a studio. Ryan and I would grab some time and he would work some magic on those songs, whereas this process was much more like I was in the room for all of the creation of everything, from soup to nuts. And I’d been in the studio with Radnor and Lee. We worked with the great producer Justin Stanley on the second record, Golden State, so I’d had some studio experience, but not a ton.

Writing and recording is really collaborative and I certainly have preferences and I get the final say on things, but I really need to surround myself with good collaborators who understand what I’m trying to do and can help me make it even better and these guys really helped me level up. I think were it not for this invitation from these guys that I just really love and trust, I would feel uncomfortable just going into the studio with a producer I barely knew. It really would have to feel safe because I still have some imposter syndrome around having started so late.

Ben’s been doing this since he was 11 or 12. I’m still learning. And I like that. I like that I’m still learning and I like that every time I’m in the studio or every time I sit down and write a song, I pick up a new trick or a new thing that I now know and that is mine forever. That’s really satisfying, especially as an adult when you’re not in that childlike-learning state that you’re in when you’re a kid.

I heard Colin Hay of Men at Work say that the delivery of a song can change based on when it’s recorded. A song recorded first thing in the morning, after you’ve had a good night of sleep and haven’t been talking for hours, may have more energy than a song recorded late in the evening, as your body is winding down for the day and after you’ve been using your voice all day. Do you have a favorite time to record and do you find that your songwriting, or even your voice, changes based on the time of day?

JOSH: Yeah, certainly. Sometimes you want your lyrics or the quality of your voice to be a little more tired. A song like “You Can Sleep Alone Tonight” was written at the Ludlow Hotel on the Lower East Side at night. Me trying not to call a woman. I did end things with her and was trying to convince myself not to call this woman. So that’s not a song you want to record at 8 a .m. with a cup of coffee. You need the sun to be lower to sing that kind of song. But I do think that when you’re recording, you’re sometimes trying to catch a wave.

The fifth song on the record is called “I Will Wait For You.” It’s an acoustic track. It’s real folky. I love it and I think it’s a beautiful song. We didn’t know how we were going to do it. I was noodling around on a guitar when we were recording, just in the middle of the day, I think it was the morning actually, and Jeremiah started setting up mics right around me. While I was sitting, he just pulled like three mics. And I said, “What are you doing?” He goes, “You’re in the pocket. You sound really good on this song. Let’s just get it.” So we just grabbed it and that’s what’s on the record. It was because I was in the zone. It just sounded right. The picking was fluid. I was in the pocket, so he caught it.

What is the balance of older songs vs new songs on Eulogy: Volume 1?

JOSH: I think “Pretty Angel,” the second track, was something I wrote while I was working with Ben. It was one of the first songs I wrote where I said, “That’s a proper song. That’s a really good song.” I started playing it at Radnor and Lee shows. I remember playing it in Australia at almost every show. It was a song that gave me a lot of confidence as a songwriter.

A really big record for me as Damien Rice’s first record, O. When that album came out, I couldn’t listen to anything else. I saw him live a ton and he just put a spell on me. That song kind of reminds me, tonally, of some of his earlier stuff. That was pre-pandemic. Then, in the pandemic, like a lot of people, I hunkered down. I was single for the first eight months of the pandemic and I just wrote a ton of songs. A lot of the songs on this record are pandemic-era songs, but some of them predate it.

“Heaven Knows” is probably one of the later-written songs. Kyle and I co-wrote “What If” and “Learning” at some point. Actually, “Learning” was written just before the pandemic. I wrote that line, “I followed them from town to town and place to place / I had a sadness I couldn’t show them / I wore a mask so long that it became my face.” And once the pandemic happened and everyone was wearing masks, I was like, “Wow, that line took on a deeper significance.”

So I would say these songs are from 2018 to 2022, somewhere in those four years. And then I started throwing them up on a YouTube channel in the pandemic, which seemed to really catch fire just because people were sitting around and it felt like these dispatches from different houses all around the world. I think a lot of people learned that I was writing songs during that time. I was really backlogged with a lot of unrecorded songs after the pandemic so it was so great that the invitation from Kyle came at just the right time.

You recorded in Nashville and it seems like there are just so many musicians that you can ask to add a part to your album. Is that what it’s like?

JOSH: You can literally walk two doors down and say, “Will you come play strings on this?” My friend Kerenza Peacock, who’s a classically trained violinist, she plays with great orchestras all around the world, she happened to have been in Nashville. She swung through for a couple of days while we were recording so we got to use her and she elevates everything. I knew Audrey Assad, who’s a great songwriter and incredible singer, and she turned “You Can Sleep Tonight” into a duet, she sings backing vocals on a number of tracks. And then Kyle and Jeremiah and Corey, they had a keys player and a horn player and a drummer, like Corey and Jeremiah did some of the drumming but if we needed something a little more high level, they brought in this guy. The horn player and the keys player just elevated it so much. They brought their guys to me.

You’re quite a storyteller. Do you get into a zone when writing? Do you go back and listen to things you’ve written and been like, “I don’t remember writing those words” or are you very intentional with every word you write?

JOSH: I think there’s every version of that. Some of the lyrics, I’m sweating, I’m grinding it out. If you could see my handwriting, you would see a lot of stuff crossed out, a lot of revisions to songs. At other times, you just catch a wave and ride it. I remember writing “Red,” the album opener. I just watched The Defiant Ones, the four-part series on Hulu about Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine. It’s fantastic. Watching a young Eminem freestyle, I don’t want to overstate this, but it almost felt like I was freestyling on “Red,” it was just coming out of me. Once I found the rhythm and the vibe of it, I kept doing these things.

“Tired of her smotherings around my finger”
“I’ve heard good things about absinthe, absence makes the heart grow fonder”

I kept using the previous word to kick me into the next thought. That song has a story, but it’s not a linear story. It’s a howl of adolescent rage. And I felt like there was something about the messy, word associative kind of thing that I found in there that felt really right for the song.

You were on the Andy Frasco podcast and you mentioned that you started writing and recording music later in life and maybe that’s not a bad thing. You’ve got some maturity now that you might not have had when you were 20 and you’ve lived much more.

I say that in the song “Joshua 45-46”. I started writing songs when I was just north of 40. I try to write some every day.

“I wish I had started some time in the ‘90s / but I’m not sure I had much to say.”

I was acting, and I still am acting, but the thing about acting is I’m saying someone else’s words. I’m communicating someone else’s thoughts and the older I’m getting, I’m more keen on sharing what’s going on in me because I do have some stuff to say now. I’ve loved. I’ve been heartbroken. I’ve broken. I’ve hurt people. I’ve been hurt. I’ve had some success. I’ve had some failure. I have some battle scars from just being my age and having lived through different eras of my own life and the world.

I’ve always liked songwriters. I think I like mid-life songwriting. I like Olivia Rodrigo, but I’m curious what she’s going to say at 40. It’ll be different. Watching songwriters age and change, what they’re singing about and how they’re singing, I find it very moving. I find aging itself to be very moving. I find the specter of death, which hovers over this record, to be very invigorating and scary and kind of weirdly merciful.

I look back on myself as a young actor, and I was probably like a young touring musician. I was hustling, and I was really desperate to make it, whatever that means. And then I did make it, for all intents and purposes, and that doesn’t solve anything in your life. You start realizing that the only thing that really brings you joy is making stuff and collaborating with good people.

Songwriting feels a little more pure to me because I never sat around as a teenager and dreamed of musical stardom. That wasn’t where my dreaming took me, but now I’m creating new dreams. I am still absolutely delighted when 200 people come to hear me sing. That feels like a huge victory to me because I used to go see Damien Rice or any other singer and I just thought that they were absolute wizards. I thought that was some super power that I was never gonna have and I somehow just acquired it.

You’ve done stage acting in front of live audiences but in those performances you’re saying lines that were written for you and interacting with other performers on the stage, not necessarily the audience. Is playing music in front of a crowd ever intimidating or scary?

JOSH: Being in front of people and being spotlit is always scary. I had an acting teacher at NYU who used to say “Fear is just excitement without breath and if you start breathing it’ll turn to excitement.” I would say that some of my skills from being a public person or being a performer were directly transferable to the world of music – standing in front of people, having a lot of eyes on me, being vulnerable publicly. In between song banter and storytelling comes pretty easy to me because I’ve done a lot of public speaking over the years.

What was new to me was playing guitar, making sure I was relaxed enough that I could finger pick and strum in time. Those were skills I had to really pick up along the way. I’d say like half of this gig I kind of intuitively knew how to do and half of it is just newly acquired skills that I’m still honing.

You’ve got a second volume of songs coming out. Are those part of the same batch of songs as the first volume and you decided to split them up?

JOSH: When we started conceiving of the record, I sent them a track list. I was like, “Here’s all the songs I have” and then I’d send them a YouTube link, if I had one, or I would lay down a voice memo so they could hear the songs.

We pretty quickly conceived of the idea of doing a double album because there were so many songs that everyone really liked. We knew we would only have space during the day to just do one record. That became Volume 1 and that was more fully produced. It kind of tells a story of sorts.

And then Volume 2, they weren’t the leftovers, they just needed less production. I would go over to Kyle’s house three or four nights a week after his kids went to sleep and we would do a lot of straight to tape recording, threw on some harmonica, a little bit of harmony. We doubled some vocals, but it’s mostly just songs we really loved that we thought were not quite the Volume 1 vibe that could stand a little more naked. So that’s how Volume 2 happened and that’ll be out early next year.


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