Joshua Radin Goes ‘Underwater’ on New Album – Exclusive Interview
In an era of machine-tooled beats and Pro Tools production, Joshua Radin’s intensely quiet music stands out: A whisper against the din, it’s a gentle reclamation of the timeless communion that exists between the craftsman and his instrument. And while any of his songs would easily be drowned out by anything on today’s Top 40, Radin has managed to carve out a substantial audience for himself with a series of well-received albums and a growing list of television placements.
Radin’s latest album, ‘Underwater,’ finds him returning to his stripped-down roots after experimenting with more layered production on 2010′s ‘The Rock and the Tide.’ Already a Top 40 Billboard hit, the new LP offers a dozen new examples of the heartfelt melodies and thought-provoking lyrics that have endeared him to his steadily building fanbase — which should continue growing as Radin sets out on a fall tour that will take him from Sweden to Los Angeles.
On the eve of his departure for his European tour, Radin spoke with Diffuser.fm about the new album, his painterly approach to recording, the humbling experience of working alongside some of his heroes and the gift of silence.
There are a number of meanings behind the title of your new album, but there’s also a really fascinating story about how you ended up deciding to name it ‘Underwater.’
It’s fascinating to me too. [laughs] When I was about five years old, I had a lot of ear infections, so I went to the doctor, and he told me I had a hole in my eardrum. He said I could never put my head underwater.
I grew up near a lake, and it was tough, because in the summers, all the other kids would be in the water — swimming, waterskiing. I always had to watch from afar, and it was an alienating experience, although eventually I got acclimated and just decided to live my life on the land.
Then last year, I went to the doctor, and he looked at my ear and told me it had naturally healed over time — that if I wanted to try, I could stick my head underwater. I was pretty nervous at first, because as a kid, I’d been told it would be extremely painful, but I decided that if I was going to do it, I was going to do it right — so I got on a plane with some friends and we went to Hawaii to go snorkeling.
It was just amazing, you know? It was an inspiring experience. While I was under that water — I had never heard silence like that before. It freed up my mind, and this melody started flowing through my head; I started hearing all these strings. That was the first song I wrote for the new album, and at that point, I knew I wanted strings all over it.
‘Underwater’ is the song I started writing underwater, but it isn’t just about being underwater. It’s also about two different worlds, and that’s really what inspired the whole record. I wanted it to have a timeless feel, so that’s how I recorded it — no computer screens, analog equipment. We had to get every performance right from beginning to end, and in order to do that, I needed to get the best possible musicians I could find — guys like Benmont Tench and Jim Keltner. Fortunately, they all said yes. It was an amazing, humbling experience.
In some of the promotional materials, that first trip underwater has been described as something you did because you were looking for inspiration, which would be a pretty ballsy way to confront writer’s block. But it sounds like that isn’t really the way it happened.
Yeah, I wouldn’t say I had writer’s block — I’ve never had that happen. I’m not one of those people who tries to write every day — I’m not that prolific. I sit down and write an album when I’m ready to do it. I have a lot of friends who tell me they’re always writing, and when they have a body of work they can put together as an album, that’s when they record. I’ll go out, and I won’t write for three months, and that was the case with this. I hadn’t written in awhile, but it wasn’t something that was weighing on my mind. That’s just the way my mind works — I wait for inspiration to hit, and then the songs come pouring out.
One of the things that’s really interesting about this story is the idea of silence as inspiration — almost a gift. Even for someone like you, who tends to play with silence in song arrangements more than a lot of other artists.
One of my favorite quotes is, “Don’t speak unless it improves upon silence.” [laughs] I wish I had that on a business card, so I could hand it to most people.
That’s a sentiment you express in the opening verse from ‘Underwater,’ and there’s a line where you sing “They keep talking at me / I can’t hear what they’re saying,” which sounds like an homage to ‘Everybody’s Talkin’,’ the Fred Neil song that Harry Nilsson covered in 1969.
It’s definitely a tribute to Nilsson. He’s the only person I’ve ever heard say it that way — talkin’ at me. That’s how I feel a lot of the time. [laughs]
Recording on analog equipment is the trendy thing to do, but most artists say they’re doing it to try and capture that elusive warmth you can’t hear in digital recordings. It sounds like you were less concerned with that than you were in establishing an environment where everybody knew they had to make their performance count — that they couldn’t just punch in their parts here and there.
Most definitely. I’m not an audiophile at all; you could play me two songs, one on mp3 and one on CD, and I probably wouldn’t be able to hear the difference. I don’t have the ears to tell you how something was recorded, although I have friends that do, and I think it’s amazing. For me, there’s just something about getting the best musicians in a room together. I was, by far, the least talented person in the room — it was so humbling and so inspiring.
There’s just something you get. It’s a live performance, and everyone has to bring their A game. You get little mistakes, but those are the things I love. Then you get musicians listening back to their parts and asking if they can redo them, and you have to say “Nope.” That was an amazing thing — telling someone like Benmont Tench or Jim Keltner that they can’t do their part over. [laughs]
Modern recording technology is bewitching in the way it can make things so much easier, but it’s also almost destructive in a way. You lose something by going into a creative process without any boundaries to struggle against.
Definitely. I think, for me, what helped was starting late. I didn’t really start playing guitar or writing songs until I was 30 — I grew up as a painter, and my first medium was watercolor. I think that has a lot to do with the way I like to record, because with watercolor, you have to let the paper do half the work. It isn’t like oil painting, where you keep applying layer after layer; in watercolor, the pigment becomes part of the paper. You put the brush down and watch the grooves in the paper absorb the color, and once it’s there, you can’t paint over it. You really have to think about where you’re putting that brush before it hits the paper; there’s no taking it back.
That’s how I like to record. I was just in the studio with this guy I’d never worked with before, and it took about two or three hours to do the whole song. After it was over, he took me aside and said it was the most fun he’d ever had in the studio — he was surprised we’d done it in two or three takes, and it was because we spent most of our time figuring out how we were going to do the song. Once we knew, it was just — bam! — that was it.
I’m not saying everyone should record that way. But for me, it feels more creative. It feels like I’m standing in front of a canvas. Going through and taking a verse from here, a chorus from there, a guitar part from there … I don’t know. It sounds manufactured.
You say that getting a late start helped you, but it often takes an extended period for an artist to find his or her voice — particularly with musicians who are known for softer, quieter music, like you. It seems like a lot of artists only reach that point after spending a long time trying to be something else.
Yeah, I think that’s exactly true. In my case, for sure. I spent so much time in my life doing other things — painting, writing screenplays — where I wasn’t drawing from my own life experience. I was trying to imagine things.
When it came to writing screenplays, anytime I got stuck, I’d run off and grab my guitar, and I’d learn a new chord or something. It was very meditative for me — metaphorically going underwater, finding my silence. And maybe six months after I learned my first chord, I wrote my first song — which had nothing to do with wanting to be a star, or even be a performer. I never wanted the spotlight; I wanted to do things behind the scenes.
But I just fell into it. I played my songs for some friends, and after reading a bunch of my screenplays, they were like, “Yeah, you’re a great writer, but maybe music is what you should be doing.” It just came out naturally — it wasn’t anything I was trying for. I had always thought I needed to reinvent myself to make it interesting creatively. I was always searching for an audience, and then the one thing that actually worked was the one thing where the audience came to me.
You mentioned being in the studio recently. Is this for any particular project? Are you already looking ahead to the next album?
I just had a song. I was in L.A. for two weeks of downtime, and I had written it for my sister’s wedding in October — I haven’t played it for her yet — but I ended up getting something out of it. I sent the song into the record company, because my deal was up after ‘Underwater,’ and I asked my A&R guy what he thought of it. He said he thinks it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, so I think maybe around January or something, we’ll release it. We’ll see what happens.
I don’t want to talk about it too much. If I say there’s going to be a new record in January, then there certainly won’t be. [laughs]
Watch Joshua Radin’s ‘Underwater’ Promo Video