Photo: Nikhil Suresh
You know Josh Radnor from his acting career – the Bexley-native played Ted Mosby on How I Met Your Mother for 9 seasons, played Lonny Flash, alongside Al Pacino, on Hunters, and Adam Epstein, Lizzy Caplan’s character’s husband, on Fleishman Is In Trouble. While Radnor was always interested in music, it wasn’t until 2016 that he took the plunge and began writing and recording music with Ben Lee for a project aptly named Radnor and Lee and released two albums, 2017’s self-titled album and 2020’s Golden State.
Over the past few years, and really starting to take shape during the pandemic, Radnor went into songwriting overdrive, compiling a collection of 50+ songs, most written with the simple accompaniment of an acoustic guitar. In early 2022, at the urging of a musician/producer friend (Kyle Cox), Radnor journeyed to Nashville to start recording songs that would eventually become his debut full-length, Eulogy: Volume 1, due out on November 17, and that albums follow-up, Eulogy: Volume 2, which is tentatively scheduled to come out in early 2024.
Radnor will be performing at Rumba Cafe on Friday, November 10. The show is sold out. Earlier this week, I had the chance to hop on a Zoom call with Radnor, from his home in New York, to talk about his upbringing in Ohio, his storytelling-style of songwriting, and starting to play music a little later in life.
You know the old saying, you can take the boy out of Ohio but you can’t take the Ohio out of the boy. What Ohio or Midwest stuff do you carry with you?
That’s a great question. I mean, I always know when the Buckeyes have a big game. I’ll be in Columbus this weekend and I know there’s a big game. I mean, they’re all big games at some point.
I love meeting people from Ohio. If you’re in New York or LA and you meet someone from Columbus, that’s always such a kick. Or discovering people are from Columbus or from Ohio. You kind of do this weird rooting/monitoring of their career. Like the band CAAMP, they’re from Columbus and once I discovered that, I mean, I already liked them, but I kind of extra liked them after that.
I just went away with a bunch of my high school friends. We met in Park City, Utah. We got an Airbnb for the weekend and hung out. And I’m still really, really close with my friends from Columbus. Fame and success and showbiz can be really destabilizing and I found myself holding those people extra tight during that time. It wasn’t even an intentional thing. I am genuinely good friends with them. And there’s something about people who saw you when you were 13, 14, 15, knew you when, where you can’t radically turn into some other creature. They know who you are. That’s not to say we don’t change and grow, because we do, but it’s just kept my feet on the ground, staying close to my Ohio roots.
It seems like whenever I interview an artist and mention I’m from Ohio, they have some story about a connection to Ohio. Like, they have an aunt who lives here or they once had a roommate from Ohio or they lived here as a kid.
It’s true. I was just on the Live with Kelly and Mark and the producer Scott, who’s been there a long time, I’ve been on that show a lot, so I’ve talked to him a lot, and we put it together. He was born at Riverside Hospital about a month after me. And he left when he was a baby, but it was so wild that we were born a month apart at the same hospital in Columbus.
Growing up in Bexley, were you a music fan as a high schooler? Did you go see shows at the Newport and buy CDs at Used Kids?
I was in Berwick until fourth grade and then Bexley. I did go to Record and Tape Outlet. I was always in there. What was that record store on campus? Magnolia Thunderpussy?
I grew up in a pretty musical household. My mom played the piano and sang and we had a lot of classical music. 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. Judy Collins, my mom loved too, so I have a taste for simple, really beautiful melodies. Those are my musical roots.
And then I got into musical theater in high school and went pretty deep on that until I just kind of stopped. I still do musicals, or have over the years, but the non-musical acting took over. I was always an obsessive music fan. I had a big huge U2 banner in my room from junior high on. And I think when acting took over and the theater took over, that became my overriding passion. But music has always been my real fandom.
Did you spend some time in Columbus, maybe after a breakup, working on some of the songs for your album?.
Not quite. What happened was I had a breakup around Thanksgiving, December of 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 like 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.
You’re quite a storyteller in your music. 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?
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 smother…rings 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?
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’re performing in Columbus a week before the album is released. Most of the audience is probably not going to know most of the songs. Is it just bad timing or did you have to plan these shows for certain dates knowing that the album wouldn’t be out?
Because I have so many careers, I kind of have to look at where the windows are in my schedule and let the universe decide when I have time to do something. I mean, there’s obviously a strike on, film and TV is shut down. I’m doing a play at the public theater in the winter – January, February, March – so I had this window where I could travel, I could take these songs on the road.
I played in Boston two weeks ago at a great club called Club Passim in Harvard Square. I just said, “Any requests?” and there were a couple people shouting out a rather early song, a song for my EP, and that was really fun. But I don’t depend on people knowing my catalog for it to be a good night. I think that sometimes it can be hard if you love a band or a singer, and they’re playing all their new stuff, and you don’t know it yet, you’re like, “Play the hits.” I don’t know that the enjoyment of a night coming out to see me is dependent on you knowing the songs. Because they’re so kind of lyrically driven and story driven songs, I think of it more like, “I’m gonna tell you a story right now. It’s gonna take three to four minutes.” My hope is that after you hear the songs, you want them to be a part of your life, and you take them with you.