In Conversation With Joshua Radin
On the heels of the release of his latest studio effort, 'Onward and Sideways,' we had the distinct privilege of grabbing a cub of coffee with acclaimed singer-songwriter Joshua Radin. While in New York promoting the record, Radin spared a few moments with us to catch up about how he landed his first song on television, why 'Onward and Sideways' is full of hope, and even regaled us with his humble beginnings.
"When you're in your early 20s, New York is a great city to be poor in," he says. "As you're about to turn 30, you say, 'I wonder if maybe I should try and find a job that pays the bills.' I'm glad I never did."
In addition to the release of 'Onward and Sideways,' Radin just hit the road for an expansive North American tour (you can find his tour dates here). As you wait for him to swing by your hometown, check out our exclusive conversation with Radin below:
Congrats on the new album! How does it feel to have it wrapped up and out to your fans?
I feel like a hundred bucks. [Laughs]
I bet. It seems like you've been doing a lot lately to promote it, too. You were on 'Ellen,' you shared a few videos on Facebook ... what's the response been like so far?
So far so good, although I played on 'Ellen' and the next day I was on a plane coming to New York, so it was like I was in a bubble. Then I got here, went to sleep, woke up, did this thing, did that thing -- I haven't even really ... I've got all these emails to return from family and friends. Obviously my mom, dad and sister of course but yeah, my phone is filled with people saying congrats and all these things and I feel like they're birthday emails or something. It takes me a second to get back and say thank you.
Do you not think you've been able to enjoy it?
It's been a whirlwind for the last 24 hours, but it's great. It's one of those things where I've been "off" for awhile. I was in Sweden for awhile with my girlfriend and then back in L.A., just preparing. I'm almost over-prepared for the tour because I've had a bunch of time off and now it just starts. It's a feast or famine kind of thing where you're like, "Come on! I'm jonesing for the road! I want to do some stuff! I want to play some music in front of people!" Then all of a sudden it starts and you're like, "Oh my god. I need some time off."
What do you do to prepare for the road?
I pretty much lay in bed with my guitar. I usually put a basketball game on mute or maybe a movie on mute so it feels like something is going on but I'm not shelled away. I sit there and play through songs and I try different ways to play them. Then I think what's the next song I want to go into. What do I feel next? That changes a lot. I do that over and over again, thinking about the set. It's more like a standup comedian's set. They come up with a set, take it on the road and then hone it.
You probably lay in bed and do that throughout the tour too, right?
Well, I wouldn't say throughout the tour because I'm playing music so much on tour, when I hit the bus we really don't even play music on the bus. We love silence, there's just so much of getting up and going to radio stations and playing and then going to an interview, meet and greets, then the show. It's music all day so it's actually the last thing you want to do on a tour bus. You want to turn on 'Eastbound and Down' or some series where we all laugh and have a drink and just forget about it all. I'm not the guy that gets off the stage and makes the band go, "OK, let's discuss it. What can we do better?" We just want to make sure that we're keeping our sanity because it's tough on the road.
Talking about laying in bed playing the guitar ... it makes me think of how you wrote this album. Can you talk about that?
It's a love letter to this girl that I fell in love with. She's from Stockholm. We actually met in New York about six years ago when I was living here. We met in a hotel lobby, I was living in a hotel and I walked into the lobby. She and her entire family were sitting there visiting and my friend that I walked in with happened to know her sister randomly. They were sitting with a bunch of Swedes, not just their family. And I was randomly going to Sweden the next day to play a concert -- there were just a bunch of coincidences. We knew a bunch of the same people, but she had a boyfriend.
We stayed in touch with all her sisters and her family; they would come to my concerts in Sweden or we'd run into each other in places, restaurants, whatever. We didn't stay friends as in we were communicating all the time, because she had a boyfriend of course. Just friendly, we'd run into each other and catch up. Then one day she wrote me an email saying she was in L.A. with her family and asked if I was there. I said no, I was on the road and she asked something in her text that eluded to the fact that I thought she may be single. One of my biggest pet peeves about guys are guys that hit on girls with boyfriends. I have never done that and I never will. I find that ... maybe because years ago I had a girlfriend who cheated on me, so I just find it repulsive in a human, that they would hit on a woman who has a boyfriend. I know most men do, whatever. Most women do, too, probably ... it's just human. I find it terrible.
It's tough to argue the other way.
Yeah. It is. Anyway, because of that, there's this girl for five years that was always in my mind wishing she would just get single. She sent me this text that there was something eluding to that fact. So of course I said, it doesn't sound like you're dating your boyfriend anymore; she said she wasn't; I said well, ding ding ding. Can I take you out sometime? I've always wanted to ask you out but you've never been single. She was a bit taken aback. She said she always thought I thought of her as a friend and I was like, well, it's because I'm a gentleman. She really appreciated that, so that's some good advice out there for you men. She's been hit on by every guy she's ever known and she said she really appreciated that I never did, knowing she had a boyfriend. She could tell I had integrity. This girl -- obviously I'm biased -- she could be a supermodel but she's a science journalist ... she's brilliant. So sweet. So I immediately said, I'm on tour will you please hop on the bus and come and hang out with me? She did. We've been dating ever since.
When she hopped on the bus, that was before you went to Sweden to write this album?
When you got to Sweden, the bed you were in when you wrote this album, was ...
In a hotel. Actually, it's the bed on the record cover. She took that picture of me just laying in the bed. I made a little collage -- that record cover is just a collage I made from pamphlets of the lobby of the hotel because my manager was like, "We need a record cover!" I hate photos of myself. I hate getting photographed ... Anyway, my girlfriend took that picture of me laying in bed and I figured it would be apt, because that's where I wrote the record. Just like that, sideways. Waiting for her to get home from work. It was a wooing record. To her. It's all about her and a lot of it was done long distance. I didn't write the entire record in the month that I was laying in that bed; I'd go back to that hotel and come back and forth. She'd come to L.A. for a bit, but she had a job so I had more freedom at the moment since I had taken time off to write.
When she went to the newspaper every morning, I'd wake up, she'd be gone. She was staying with me at the hotel because she was single now and had moved out of her place. I was like, I'm in love. Right away. I was smitten. I had a crush on her for five years. She, on the other hand, needed some persuading, so that's what this record was. Every day she'd come home from work and I would have a new piece of a song for her or a new verse and that was my motivation. I didn't think it was going to be a whole record, or that'd I'd make this record just about her. Eventually I had these songs that she loved and so I had this collection, this body of work and I sent them to my manager. I don't have a label or anything and she's the only one I run music by and I said I had these songs and she said she loved them. This is the record. I recorded some of it in Stolkholm and then some of it in L.A., whenever she came to visit me. There are six different producers on the record, including myself. I produced two of the tracks. So, that's the story of the album.
I've been sitting with you for 10 minutes and I can tell you're a very honest and open. Which makes sense, because I think your music is, too.
It's journal entries, basically.
Do you ever worry about being too open in your music that's out there to the world?
The only thing is, I don't give our names. I'm honest about everything else. Names, you don't need it. What's in a name? I've found what I started 10 years ago, I started really late playing music. I started when I was 30. Not wanting to be a musician, but just loving music, learning a few chords on the guitar and going through a breakup and finding a way to express myself. I couldn't just talk to her, or tell her how I was feeling and why I was feeling this way. So this was my outlet.
The first song I ever wrote was called 'Winter.' It was a very, very honest song. I made myself very vulnerable. I was terrified to play it for her. When I did, this tension eased. That is the magic of this music, not my music but just music. I had tried all sorts of other media in terms of painting or drawing, screenwriting. All these things I had wanted to do creatively and this was the first thing I ever did where I really felt like I've genuinely and truly expressed myself. I really made myself vulnerable, it was nothing from my imagination here. It was eyeopening. I never went back. I also noticed right away that this was the first thing I had ever done creatively where an audience came to me, rather than me searching for an audience. Like sending scripts out or trying to sell paintings or getting a gallery show. I would put a song up there, and fans came to me. Where's more music? I was like, OK, I'll give you more -- it was such a refreshing feeling from being a starving artist for six years in New York.
'Winter' -- I'm a huge fan of 'Scrubs.' I love the show, I love the music, and the episode where they used 'Winter,' they did such a good job. Walk me through how they got a hold of that song.
Well, I didn't put it out. So, Zach [Braff] is my best friend. We went to college together. When we were here living in New York, we were both waiting tables and we'd give each other notes on our screenplays and we became really close. We weren't that close in college, we just knew each other barely. We had some mutual friends, then after graduating we became close friends here, before he got 'Scrubs.'
I always loved music, like I said. We would just sit around listening to music sometimes in my apartment and he saw a guitar in the corner. He's like, "You don't play guitar." I said, "I learned three or four chords a few months ago." It's more of a meditative outlet for when I'm stuck in a scene and I don't know what the character is going to say and I have to get out of my head. But I did just write this song because I felt like -- well, I'm a writer and I know these few chords and someone had told me that you just need three chords and the truth to write a song. So I wrote that song 'Winter.' He wanted me to play it for him. I could never do that! I was terribly bashful. I never was like, I want the spotlight. I never wanted to be on stage. I never wanted to be an actor. I never wanted to be in front of a camera, I always wanted to do something creative behind the scenes. But, I said OK. I couldn't even play it for my girlfriend at the time. He helped me out and he turned around. He didn't even look at me, he just wanted me to play the song. So I did, I played the song and was terribly nervous. He turned around, teary eyed and was like -- are you kidding me? This is so much better than the screenplay I just read of yours. [Laughs] That screenplay took a year, this song took a week. He said I should be doing this. The only other person that said that was my mom, just from me singing in the car growing up. She was very supportive of that.
Anyway, long story short, he said he thinks they could use this in the third season of 'Scrubs.' I recorded it in one of our friends' bedroom, on an iMac and a 58 microphone. I don't even know if Pro Tools existed back then. I played the song and sang it at the same time -- no mixing, nothing -- and I sent it to Bill Lawrence [creator of 'Scrubs']. Three weeks later I got a call and he said he loved the song and asked if they could use it in this scene, it's a sad funeral scene and the song fits perfectly. Yeah, OK. He was like, so do you have a lawyer? NBC has to do the deal, and I was like ... No!
I found this guy and I was like, "I'm sure I'm the only client you've ever had that said I have a deal in place with a sync on a show -- and will you be my lawyer?" They offered me enough money to use the song more than I had been paid for my last two scripts and I was like, I can pay my rent? Are you kidding? So I put it up, my friend showed me how to get a MySpace page. The show airs with that funeral scene and it crashed the NBC website for people looking for that song. I was like, OK -- this is what I'm going to do. I never looked back. If I can pour my heart out into a song, I'll just keep doing that over and over. That's the long answer to your question, is it hard to make yourself vulnerable? It's difficult but its the first thing I ever did with music, so I don't know any differently. I've done it ever since for six albums now, 10 years later. It's brought me all over the world, it's changed my life for the better.
And it's not always you ripping your heart out either.
Not always. This one was a wooing record. It was long distance for the last nine months of the last year from Stockholm to L.A. I had never done a long distance relationship, we almost broke up many times. So many things were going wrong. It was really difficult. There's a song on there called 'Worlds Apart.' She was going through insomnia without me and it was killing me -- so it's totally an up and down record. It's not all hopeful and positive. Even when I get sad in a song I try to be hopeful at least toward the end, though. It's who I am. I am a hopeful person. I'm not one of those morose ...
And you probably wouldn't still be making music if you were morose all the time. I think of Elliott Smith, who is amazing, but he was constantly sorrowful.
I love Elliott Smith. He's one of my biggest influences. In fact, my record 'Simple Times,' I made with a producer of 'XO' in Sunset Sound, in the room Elliot made that record, on his microphone. I was really obsessed with it, I wanted that sound. But yeah, he doesn't have a lot of hopeful songs. And he's not here anymore.
That 'Scrubs' scene with your song, I think that is one of the saddest pieces of television I've ever seen in my life. It's so beautifully done. The entire episode culminates in that final scene with 'Winter.'
I just ran into John C. McGinley [Dr. Cox]. I hadn't seen him in a while, but he always puts his arm around me and he says, "Joshy" -- he's the only person that calls me Joshy besides my little sister -- he said, "I will always love your music so much. When I watched the scene in the editing room and they put your song to it, I had never heard of you, never heard your music." He said it made him tear up while he was watching it. And if you know John, that doesn't really happen to him. It was such a huge compliment.
So looking back at the beginning, you released your first album in 2006, right?
And you're still here in 2015, and you just released a new album. How has the industry changed from your perspective?
Well, when I first released that record, every song off that album had already been in a TV show or movie. They were just demos.
Every track. I put it up on iTunes myself. That's how I got a record deal originally. It shot to the top of the charts on iTunes. Every interview I did, everyone asked me if I thought TV and film were important to get my music out. That was the beginning of the licensing boom. It was almost like the Gold Rush in America. Everyone was moving from New York to L.A. because that's where all the TV shows were being made and the music supervisors were there. I was playing in this little coffee shop type venue and music supervisors would come in. I'd play a little set, and the music supervisor from 'Grey's Anatomy' would be there and she'd ask for a demo of a song I just played. I'd run out to my car and give her a CD. A few weeks later they'd call asking to use it in 'Grey's Anatomy.' They used six or seven of my songs.
Today it's changed because it used to be, "You want to use my song? Go ahead, great." It was unique. Nowadays, the difference is I see everyone -- no matter how popular they are -- begging to be on TV. The music supervisors and like the kings of the industry right now. They are the radio program directors. I think that's a huge change over the last 10 years. I remember I went into a showcase at LIfetime years ago, maybe four years ago just to play. Sometimes you go into NBC or Universal and they say, "Alright, these are all the people making movies and TV shows right now" and they want you to play them a few new songs. That's kind of standard for all people in my business to do. I remember being like, really? We have to go into LIfetime? What? My manager was like, "If you don't want to, that's fine, but Sting was there yesterday pushing his new album." Oh. I guess it's the sign of the times. Who the f--k am I if Sting is at Lifetime? [Laughs]
If it's good enough for Sting ...
Yeah. Guys like that, who live in castles and have sold 100 million records, they're in a conference room in Lifetime begging them to use their new songs in a TV show. That's the sign of the times.
You don't hear a lot of people talking about that. Everybody focuses on Spotify and streaming.
No one really knows. Everyone wants to talk about what they think is a one way question, "Do you believe in streaming? Do you think Spotify is good for music?" You have to write a f--king novel to tell someone if Spotify is good for music. It's not a soundbite answer. There are so many good things and so many bad things to it. Also, everyone is talking about Spotify while YouTube is killing it, and not in a good way. They're raping musicians compared to Spotify. They're paying pennies compared to Spotify's dollars.
There are so many sides to it. But, Pandora and Spotify are where people tell me they hear my music all the time and learn about my music -- and that's great! Of course, on one side I wish people still paid for music because that's my business but on the other hand, I've gotten a lot of fans from people who tell me they found me on some playlist on Spotify. They had never heard of me and now they're showing up to a show and buying a shirt.
The best analogy I can express about the music industry is that it's gone the way of the railroad companies back in the day. What happened then was the railroad didn't realize they should have been in the transportation business with the advent of planes and automobiles. Everyone was getting around faster and the railroads were like, we're in the railroad business. So people stopped taking trains and bought cars and flew places, even took buses. What happened here was, music exces were like, we're in the record industry. They really should have said, we're in the music business. They were very short sighted and very greedy. For years people had to buy an entire album because of one song they liked. I'm a music fan and I hated having to go out and buy an album for one song. That's why people started making mix tapes. That was the decline of the LP. I still love being an album artist. When I release an album, I'll ask people on Twitter what their favorite song is and I love it because everyone answers with different songs. Not just the single, which means to me I'm making an album, which is rare these days.
Are you still a vinyl fan?
Yeah, I don't even have a CD player. It's either vinyl or MP3. In my car, I listen to my iPhone, and I do listen to Spotify.
It's too convenient not to use.
That's why I would never come out against it. I use it. I'm not a hypocrite. I think it's an amazing invention, I just wish they pay me more. [Laughs] I'll tell you what I'm against is record labels, which is why I'm not on one. The transparency is what people are really not talking about. All these debates between Spotify -- you can't argue against technology.
That is a losing battle.
The minute Napster happened, Pandora's box had opened -- and you can't have a bunch of kids all over the world downloading free music and then all of a sudden be like, now you have to pay for it. They won't. Once you get used to something, they'll never go back. The debate is completely inane in my opinion of should we ban streaming. It's here. That's like saying, should we ban airplanes and go back to trains? It's here. People will not stand for going backwards. Let's move forward and talk about what really matters, the record labels being more transparent about all the money that Spotify pays to them for the music -- then how much money does the label actually pay the artist? I'm not on a label, I can sell, I made more money selling 100,000 records on my own than some of my friends on a major label will make selling two million records.
So do you discover music through Spotify?
I honestly wish I could say I discover new music, but I really don't. Every now and again I'll hear a song and I'll Shazam it. But to be totally honest, and I know this sounds horrible, I watch a lot of television and I've learned a lot about artists just from Shazaming from a commercial. Even years and years ago. I found some of my favorite artists through TV. I think maybe 15 years ago, I heard Badly Drawn Boy's 'The Shining' in a Gap Christmas ad. I was like, oh my God, I love this song. I heard Nick Drake 'Pink Moon' 15 years ago in a Volkswagen commercial. He had become one of my favorite artists, and then I actually put his song on the 'Garden State' soundtrack. I remember hearing -- now she's my friend -- Sia's 'Breathe Me; in the ending of one of my favorite TV shows ever, 'Six Feet Under.' I think it was the best ending of a TV show series, ever. That song was probably the best music sync I've ever heard. I remember the next day, I was at Zach's house and we were both like, what the f--k was that?
Until this conversation, I never really thought about discovering music via TV shows, but it definitely happens -- 'How I Met Your Mother' did an exceptional job with syncs.
Yeah, and you know, I just listen to older music generally. That's why I'm not that person discovering the new songs. But, if I am discovering new music, it's just new to me. Maybe it was recorded 40 years ago. I don't really hear much. [Laughs]
You grew up in Ohio, I actually grew up in northeast Kansas. I know for me personally, my time in the Midwest shaped who I am today. Do you feel affected by your time in Cleveland?
I remember it very fondly. I was very fortunate that I had a great family. Luckily I didn't go through many hardships, which is why when you listen to my music it's mostly about falling in and out of love. That's what I think about. We're of a generation that didn't get drafted. I don't have protest songs. I don't have a bunch of friends who died in an unjust war. My favorite songwriters are from that generation, and I look back and wish I could write songs like that. But, where am I going to draw from? I'm not writing songs like Neil Young. I wasn't around the Kent State massacre.
I do look back at it very fondly because where we grew up, people were honest. Granted, there are drawbacks. There's a lot of passive aggressiveness, which is one of the things I love about New York. People are just going to tell you the way it is. But, the politeness, I miss that about the midwest. I really get affected when I hold the door for someone and they don't say thank you. Or I sneeze and they don't say bless you. I think it's also why I'm very honest in my music and also very honest with people in my life. It's the way I was raised. I just try to be nice to people. I try to make people happy. I love that I wake up every day and read on social media, people saying your song got me through this. Your song got me through that.
So your new album is out. Are you the type of guy that's already thinking, "OK, here's what I have ready for my next album"?
Once it's out, it's done. I'll never listen to it again. Seriously. The only time I ever hear it is if I have to listen to it to rehearse. I listen to it a bunch before it comes out -- and then the day it comes out, I'm done. It's passed.
You are already thinking about the next record?
Yeah, although I need to fill up the well. You drain the well, you leave it out there and then you go live your life and try and fill up with new experiences. Hopefully she and I won't break up and this next record won't be a break-up record.
I imagine your honesty could be very draining, emotionally speaking, over the course of 10 years.
Singing them over and over again when you tour, it does numb you to it a bit. Even a painful song like 'You've Got Growing Up to Do,' that's an old song of mine that was very gut-wrenching for me to write. For a while it hurt to play it but then something happens -- the wound heals and you start to see different things in the song and when you were playing it for people, your mind goes elsewhere instead of that vulnerable spot.
And things seem to have worked out for you throughout your career -- even when you get numb to a song, your authenticity still shines through, which is so important.
My fans are really loyal.
Yeah, and Facebook is king for reaching those fans. You have over 300,000 Facebook fans.
Yeah, and it's also about the live show. People come back. It's repeat business, what you would hear entrepreneurs talk about in their companies. How do we get repeat business? The guys that have been put out on major labels, for the most part, it's someone with a single, the 'American Idol' thing. Famous for a second, big single ... and then no repeat customers. That kind of fan is just going to follow the next thing. I've always thought the longer it takes to build something up the longer it will take to tear it down.
Joshua Radin's sixth full-length album, 'Onward and Sideways,' is out now. You can pick up your copy here -- and make sure to catch Radin live on his massive North American tour; check out his full itinerary at his official website.
Watch Joshua Radin Perform 'Beautiful Day' on 'Ellen'