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A Conversation with Joshua Radin

If you don’t know him by name you certainly know Joshua Radin’s music from your favorite television programs, where his emotionally charged songs fit as effortlessly into the potent scenes of medical drama Grey’s Anatomy as they do in medical comedy Scrubs – and quite a few shows in between.

Radin is an inspirational musician for all the aspiring artists out there, if not a role model – his rise to success was too meteoric and effortless for anyone to try and follow, though his principles are certainly ones to be emulated. Within two years of picking up a guitar, Radin had a song on Scrubs. In fact, the song was the first he’d ever written, but it wasn’t just coincidence that placed it on the show. Radin has been a close friend of the series’ star Zach Braff since the two went to Chicago’s Northwestern University together. Radin gave him the demo, and he passed it along to the show’s creator Bill Lawrence who put it into one of the most heart-wrenching episodes they ever filmed.

Demand, from both fans and other television music supervisors looking for material, was what spurred on his first EP, originally available only on iTunes with a few copies being sold at shows. It did so well that it resulted in a bidding war between major labels for this rising star. In the end he signed with Columbia Records, under which he released his first album, We Were Here. From that one album, nearly all of his songs were featured on shows like Brothers & Sisters, Grey’s Anatomy, One Tree Hill, Leverage, and Studio 60.

Yet, as he prepared for his second album, which took over two years to complete and release, Radin’s style was evolving. Just after it came out, he said he was beginning to feel like a true artist – to be sure he had already garnered acclaim, but considering he’d only been playing guitar for four years when the first album came out, it’s not surprising that he was still finding himself musically. In fact, his quiet style from the first album was significantly influenced by the fact that he learned to play at night and didn’t want to wake his girlfriend or neighbor.

On Simple Times, however, the ‘whispering man with a guitar’ image was thoroughly done away with, as Radin experimented with electric guitar sounds. One of the fan favorites from the album was “Vegetable Car,” which has an interesting story behind it, even if it doesn’t involve a car made of vegetables (though you’d be forgiven for thinking that, as his own mother did when she first heard it). Apparently old cars modified to run on vegetable waste were all the rage in Los Angeles when he was writing songs for the album, and one car in particular that always drove by his house was driven by a beautiful girl. He never spoke with her, or even tried to, but his song was spurred by something of a fantasy, wherein she’d be listening to the radio, and it would come on while she drove by. Never happened, but the whimsy and imaginings behind the lyrics show why his songs have made such a connection with listeners, both in television shows and on their own. After that came two more albums, The Rock and the Tide (2010) and Underwater (2012), both of which received a good deal of critical acclaim. In the meantime, Radin went on several tours, and continued playing at Hotel Café, an LA hotspot for up-and-coming singers/songwriters, which earned him quite a name in the independent music circle.

The thing that makes Radin’s work stand out and keeps his first album as relevant as the last is the intense emotion that comes across through his mix of simple but beautiful music and stunningly honest lyrics. And the great thing about Radin is that he realizes that’s his strong suit and is able to keep that sincerity despite his self-awareness. Part of it could be his enthusiasm for his fans and the different roles his music has played in their lives – he still loves hearing stories of his songs being played during the most intense moments of their lives.

Your very first song was “Winter”. You wrote it when you were contemplating breaking up from a long-term relationship? What’s the full story behind it?

Well, that is true. I was in New York City, and I was walking to the East Village, and I stopped to look at some records. And as I was perusing the records, I started thinking about how I was 30... and I kept thinking to myself that really, I should know myself a lot better. I had been in this relationship for six years and it was coming to an end, and I didn’t know how to end it, I didn’t know how to get out. I guess I was sort of frustrated with myself because I felt like I had let myself fall into this thing for so long. That’s where the first line of the song comes from, “I should know who I am by now.”

I’d learnt a few chords and I’d thought about trying to write a song. It ended up being very cathartic. It’s one of those moments where after I wrote the song, I felt like I had expressed myself more honestly in that three and a half minutes than I had in anything I had done creatively up until that point.


It was on a TV show a few weeks later, just the demo of the song. Someone that I knew on a TV show asked if they could use it and I was like, “Yeah, sure.” Then people started writing me, this is when MySpace was becoming popular. They’d ask me where to find my records or any of my music, and I’d write back, I don’t have any music, you know, I’m not even a musician. But then it dawned on me that not only was there an audience that was growing, but also, I wasn’t even trying to grow it myself. They were coming to me.

So, it was this combination of things that led me to make that decision, ‘Alright, I’m going to try to do this. I’m going to write songs. I am going to play them for people and record them and go on tour and see what happens.’ I’m really glad that I did, because it’s given me the ability to travel and meet different kinds of people.

That’s just an amazing story. Right place, right time, right industry. Now “Winter” was first played on Scrubs. Did you used to watch the show?

Well, yeah. I mean, my best friend was the star of the show, Zach Braff. It was on for a couple of seasons before I wrote the song, before I was even trying to be a musician. I would watch the show every week because he would always end up calling me, like, 20 minutes after it was over to ask me what jokes were funny, because he did a lot of adlibbing in the show, so he was always curious to find out which jokes landed.

Is it true that “Winter” only took you a day to write? Do you generally write your songs so quickly these days?

That is true. It didn’t take a lot of time to write. I remember when I signed my first record deal with Columbia Records, they said, “Well, you know what they say, you have your whole life to write your first album and one year to write the next one.” So, in a sense, I wrote “Winter”pretty quickly, but also, I guess it probably took years and years to ruminate and need to come out.

It’s been a song that I’ve played every single night in concert, which is probably the only song in my set that’s consistently there every night. So, it’s interesting for me, that song. It’s like standing over a cliff one day and you’re about to go hang gliding or something like that and you’re terrified to jump off the cliff. That song “Winter” was really like my friend that pushed me off the cliff.

Do you think that if Zach hadn’t helped get “Winter” onto Scrubs, that your career would have accelerated as quickly?

No, that was the first song that I ever wrote. I don’t know if I would have even had the idea to become a professional musician. It was purely… I had done all of these artistic things in my life, seeking an audience, and this was the first time an audience sought me out. It just seemed so much more organic and natural that I was like, “Well, I’m going to roll with it.”

Are there any other songs of yours, aside from “Winter”, that are very impacting for you personally?

One of those songs that kind of works both ways in terms of getting me excited but also the audience every night is “No Envy, No Fear” off the Simple Times album. That song came out of a place in my life where I had a lot of both of those things, envy and fear. And I wrote it to myself as a reminder, so that if I played it every night it almost ends up like a mantra. Something I could say over and over to myself and try to change that about myself.

How did your music get onto Grey’s Anatomy?

I was playing at this tiny spot in LA called the Hotel Café, where I started out, a little singer/songwriter hump. “Winter” had been on Scrubs, and I’d moved out to LA and started gigging around at this place maybe once a week. The music supervisor for Grey’s Anatomy happened to be in the crowd one night and after I played my set, she walked up to me and said, “Do you have any demos of new songs? We’re looking for new music and I’d like to feature you on the show.” So, I ran out to my car and got her this CD of some demos that I was working on. By the time I actually released that first record We Were Here – on my own, I put it up on iTunes – the first 10 songs that I’d written had all been on Scrubs or Grey’s Anatomy or Brothers & Sisters or One Tree Hill or some TV show. It was crazy because people recognized the songs and they’d been looking for the recorded versions of them. So, the album jumped to the top of the charts on iTunes and then it started this major label bidding war, and I ended up signing with Columbia.

That’s exciting. The music really brought the scenes in those shows to life.

You know, all those first songs were, for me, from such a vulnerable time in my life and it’s amazing when I look back on how many of my songs were used to score very emotional scenes. People started making music videos with MTV in its heyday in the ‘80s and it was such an amazing thing, where music and the visual image came together. It became so much more potent for the viewer. And on TV, it was even more so, because you’re watching a show where someone is going to die, and you’re invested in the character.

It’s almost like cheating, you know? When people hear my song that way for the first time, it’s so much better than hearing it on the radio because you’re capturing the emotion already through the song. I suspect people will remember that scene forever when they hear that song. All these emotions are brought out and my song is the trigger. It’s really cool to be a part of that.

It must be. But it must be overwhelming sometimes?

Sometimes it is, but generally its people telling you that the music really affected them in a meaningful and profound way. Usually they tell me why, and I’m always interested to hear the stories.

What made you choose to move out to LA rather than keep New York as a base in those early days?

At the time LA was really the spot for my kind of music. A lot of singer/songwriters were playing at a little spot called the Hotel Café in Hollywood. My friends and I sort of started that place. It was like this little coffee shop and people were doing open mics. They welcomed me in right when I started playing music and I was like, “Alright, this is going to be my homebase.” I kind of fell in love with the theme. We were just hanging out at that place every night watching musicians come through and play. I got so many ideas and so much inspiration. It was family. It was really cool, and I learned so much about music, about performing music, about just hanging with musicians. I didn’t have any musician friends, so this was a whole new scene for me. I had just turned 30 years old, and I was like, “Alright, this is a new thing.” Just completely starting over and I loved it.”


Around 2008, just after recording Simple Times, you bought out the remaining four albums from your contract with Columbia. What happened?

Yeah, Columbia had signed me for a six-album deal and then we gave that money back. What happened was, when I signed at Columbia, the next week everyone at Columbia was fired. Like top down, everyone. So, I was sort of left without a home. Rick Rubin [Beastie Boys fame] had taken over [Columbia]… I don’t even know what his title was, but he had a record label called America that was bought out by Columbia. So, they used Rick as sort of their head of A&R or president or whatever. In the meantime, I went into the studio and made the record the way that I wanted to make it and turned it in. Rick and Columbia were like, “We love the album, but we don’t hear like a big radio single.” And I was like, “Yeah, I didn’t really go for that. It’s not really what I do. It’s not really what I’m interested in. I picture myself as more of an indie artist.” Anyway, so we agreed amicably to part ways. Them being a major label, they were like, “Well, look, this is what we do. We work the radio.” At that time, I had been fortunate to have so many of my songs from that first album end up in TV shows and commercials and movies. And then I just carried that through with Simple Times. So, I didn’t really need the radio. I was getting all my music out through the television.

So, I was sort of left without a home. But then a little indie label called Mom + Pop wanted to launch their new label on the back of the Simple Times album. We figured out a way financially to get me out of Columbia and give the money back and sign me up with that indie. Then I did a few albums for them, for Mom + Pop.

And how has it been, what have been the challenges and the lessons learnt self-releasing?

Well, I learnt a very valuable lesson on not releasing Simple Times [with Columbia], that I could do it better myself. It’s very exciting. It’s nerve wracking. You lose a lot of sleep. But it’s so rewarding when you bet on yourself and win that it becomes a bit of an addiction.


It seems as though this may be a trend that’s happening with artists.

Yeah, I think it’s definitely a trend because labels are dying and the way that the music business is run is changing so dramatically. Music’s never going to die, it’s just the way it’s delivered to people that’s changing, and who’s making money off of it.

I keep making music the way I want to make it and, you know, you gotta roll with it, especially as an independent artist. You just kind of pick and choose your ways to get your music out to people. In my situation, I think the best way is through television and film, because it airs all over the world. In order to break a single in America it could take two years of promotion and visiting every single city and playing the same song over and over and over again. One song on a show like Grey’s Anatomy is a record all over the world. It’s just amazing how much easier it is to get the music out that way. I can go to countries where I’ve never been to before and where I’ve never even had music released and I can sell out a concert because people know my songs that way.

There are other artists that have similar styles to your music: Ingrid Michaelson, Brandi Carlile, Mat Kearney. Do you know these guys? Do you tour with them?

Well, I know a lot of them. I think when you’re in that box of singer/songwriter that people put you in, you end up touring and creating music with a lot of those people that are in that box with you. So yeah, I know a lot of them, and I love a lot of them. It’s like we’re in this little army together going to war against the pop world, you know, that overproduced Top 40 sound. I feel like these are my brothers and sisters and we wake up every day and try to push the needle back towards a more organic sound.

What about the business side of making music – you are obviously passionate about the creative side of songwriting, but in the end, you still have to feed yourself, so there is that business aspect. Where does that fall in between being a great singer/songwriter?

I was fortunate enough to discover the business side of it at the same time as I started writing songs. When I wrote “Winter” it was on a TV show three weeks later and they paid me for it, and all of a sudden, I could pay my rent! I came about it in a weird way, I never went through that period of time, the years and years of financial struggle with my music. I mean, I did that with other things – I lived for years in New York City on USD $5 a day for food, and I did the whole starving artist thing for years and years. But not with music.

You’ve called your genre of music Whisper Rock. What do you mean by that?

Well, Rock n’ Roll came about with these three, three-and-a-half-minute structured pop songs. And I write in that structure, you know – verse, pre-chorus, chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, chorus, chorus, with certain variations. But I don’t really rock at all, so I can’t really consider myself or my music Rock n’ Roll. Technically it is, but I have such a whispery, breathy voice. I feel like it’s a good way to describe it to someone who’s never heard me.

You rightly pointed out that your music impacts people emotionally around the world. Are there any shows or any films where you can remember the combination of image and music being particularly emotionally impacting for you?

I remember watching The Graduate for the first time and listening to all that Simon and Garfunkel music. Oh, and I remember watching Harold and Maude the first time with that beautiful Cat Stevens soundtrack. Both of those soundtracks, I felt, complimented the films so perfectly – obviously I’m not the only one, you’re talking about Cat Stevens and Paul Simon, two of the best songwriters ever. If I ever got to score a film like that, something of that stature, that would be a serious dream come true.

We often hear from people in the music industry that it’s hard to maintain a relationship with all the touring and responsibilities that come with it. Is that something you’ve found? Are you in a relationship right now?

I currently am not. It’s very difficult – not just romantic relationships but platonic relationships and familial relationships as well. It’s always a strain when you travel so much and you’re always in a different time zone and no one ever knows where you are. Not many people understand the road and being in a different city every day. It’s an animal, and one that I have not yet tamed.

When I saw you last, you talked about selling almost everything you owned and hitting the road. What prompted that decision?

Well right before the world shut down during the pandemic, I had just done a long tour all over the world. Europe, U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, China, Singapore... I had been to so many places, and I was pretty exhausted, and I thought to myself, ‘I’ll come back to my house in LA, and I just want to be alone.’ And, of course, I didn’t have any idea that it was one of those be careful what you wish for things. I just thought that I’d just hole up in my house alone and write a new album, but then obviously... At that point, I had sort of burnt out on LA, but then I got stuck in my house for a year and a half while the world was shut down. I couldn’t really travel, and I love to travel so much that it was one of those things. So, it was a combination of already being over LA and then getting locked into my home. The minute the world opened up I was like, “I just want to sell this house, give away most of my stuff, and just be a nomad for a while.” And that’s what I’ve been doing since. It’s been amazingly freeing. Just such a minimal existence.

So, what does that look like? You stay at a hotel until you get a gig planned and then you travel to go do the show?

The tours are planned out almost nine to 12 months in advance, so I always know where I’m gonna be. And then I have all this time in between to write and record. So, I just travel around, and seek inspiration wherever I can find it. Usually I just walk around cities, read books... If I’m in a city for longer than a month or two, I’ll generally Airbnb an apartment or something like that, but if I’m in a place for like a week, I’ll just stay in a hotel.


Wow! And you haven’t felt the need to get back to a more regular familiar space?

Not really. I’ve really felt the exact opposite. I feel like that safety and comfort, in me at least, promotes a bit of apathy when it comes to writing. Walking around and mixing it up is inspiring, that’s why I love Europe so much. I’m really a café culture type person. I love sitting in cafes and people watching, I’ll have a book and just sit and write lyrics, make up stories. I found that in Los Angeles, I would sort of tuck away in my house and not be that social. I found myself being a bit of a hermit. Generally, I find more inspiration when I’m mixing it up and just more curious about different cultures and different places.

I’m curious, do you find more inspiration writing a song when you’re in love or after a breakup?

That’s a good question. So many of my songs fix something within myself. I do mask a lot of songs under the guise of being a love song, written to someone, but I’m generally writing it to myself in some way. But then I find that the majority of my songs that have really connected with people over the years are songs about love. Whether it’s falling in or out, so I find that’s a good combination when I can write something that helps me, that’s catharsis, but then when other people hear it, they might not realize that I’m writing it to or about myself. Yet, they can relate to it because they’re thinking it’s like a love song about someone else.

You have a new album out, “though the world will tell me so”. What’s the inspiration behind the title?

It’s kind of a rebellion, I guess. Being the age I am, I think a lot of people, my friends and family, were sort of surprised that I decided to go full on nomad at this age. It’s generally something that a younger student might do. I think the whole album is generally, if I had to pick a theme, it would be that I’ve always been rebellious in a way when it comes to the world telling us how we should do everything. How we should live, how we should love, how we should eat, how we should socialize, anything. So, that’s what inspired me to write this. This album is sort of a travel diary. I wrote it piecemeal all over the world and recorded in different places with different musicians. So, it’s a journal.

My favorite songs on the album are “Broken” and “Don’t Give Up on Me”. Both of these really stood out.

“Broken” was a combination of me feeling a certain way, hitting a little bit of a low. Even though generally I would say I’m pretty much on a high, meaning that I love my life and my friends, and my family and I have so little to complain about, every now and again, nothing’s perfect. It can get a little lonely too. And sometimes I’ll meet someone romantically and I’ll just have to tell her, “Maybe I’m not exactly what you’re looking for.” It was a combination of feeling that way and seeing a friend of mine’s film that he made, an early screening, and it was a lot about the main character being quite broken. So, I went home after watching the screening and wrote that song. And “Don’t Give Up on Me” was generally about what I was just talking about. Meeting someone and realizing that I’m not the easiest person in a relationship. I need a lot of alone time and I need my space to write and read and walk around and think. It’s hard to meet someone who feels the same way. It’s like two porcupines meeting, mating carefully as they say.

**Be sure to check out Joshua Radin's new EP ‘though the world will tell me so’, Volume 1 and Volume 2, inspired by his time on the road in 2022, out on all digital platforms via Nettwerk.


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