Although he is probably best known for his role as Ted Mosby on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Ohio native Josh Radnor dips his toes into many ponds, including writing, theater and film acting, directing, and even music. Recently, he spoke with PopWrapped about his eponymous debut LP with Australian singer/songwriter Ben Lee and his upcoming NBC show, Rise, as well as the roles spirituality and self-criticism play in his work and outlook on life.
PopWrapped: Hey, Josh. I’m happy we could take some time to chat.
Josh Radnor: Yeah, yeah. Me, too.
PW: Congratulations on the new record, too. It’s been getting a lot of positive press, which it deserves.
JR: Thank you.
PW: How much weight and attention you give to feedback, though, be it positive or negative, from fans or critics? Many artists say that they don’t really pay attention to that stuff either way.
JR: You know, I feel like this project was really born out of me and Ben’s friendship and the conversations we had and spending time together. It was created in a totally organic and authentic way, so there was never any sort of agenda. We weren’t like, “Hey, we’re gonna take over the world or rewrite the rules." We just knew that it was the kind of music we wanted to make and hear. We’re delighted at every turn that there are people who are digging it, but I don’t think—I mean, it’s become important enough to us that we stopped thinking of it as a side project.
PW: Oh, really?
JR: It’s more like a project in our lives that we really care about. At the same time, I don’t think we have—I’ve never made something that I’ve had such little expectations about it, and I say that in the healthiest way. Like, when you’ve never done something before, the mere act of doing it is kind of astonishing [laughs].
PW: I’m sure.
JR: The fact that I wrote all of these songs with Ben and then recorded them with our friend, Ryan [Dilmore], and now people show up to hear us sing and write us on social media about how much they love the songs. It’s all win-win; it’s all new and exciting and fun.
PW: That’s an excellent way to look at it. I’ve always thought that as long as the creator is happy with what they make, that’s all that matters. If other people like it as well, that’s icing on the cake, but if not, oh well. At least you’re satisfied with it.
JR: That’s a Bhagavad Gita, which is one of my guiding light spiritual texts. One of the things that Krishna always says repeatedly throughout the text to Arjuna is about doing you work and the fruits of the labor are not yours. I always try to remember that my job is to do the thing and make the thing and tell the story and put it out there; where it goes or who it reaches is out of my hands. It’s nice when you become old enough to realize that it’s out of your hands and, in fact, it’s a great burden to obsess over that stuff that you can’t control anyway.
PW: That’s a wise perspective, and something a lot of us can learn from. I wonder how you’d describe the songwriting process with Ben. For example, did you each come in with completing songs, or was each track a truly collaborative effort from start to finish?
JR: A couple of them came from times when he’d come over and we’d sit on my couch and just talk. Something would emerge from that—some idea, something we’d just read—and we would follow it. Whether it was this Hafez poem or this Hermann Hesse poem, or a melody line I’ve been thinking about or a vibe I want in a song. For a lot of them, we’d sit side-by-side and hash it out. I can’t really tell you who wrote what lyric or melody; it was just so organic.
PW: Sounds like a really conducive method.
JR: Yeah. There were other times where I’d bring a bunch of lyrics and then we’d kind of finish the songs together or write the melody together. There’s only one song on this first record, “All Shall Be Well,” where I handed him lyrics and he did the music. All the rest were more collaborative. One of the cool things he did—and it was a sweet impulse on his part—was he really wanted me to drive the content of what we were creating. He really let me offer the lead suggestion on a song.
PW: That’s awesome!
JR: Sometimes we’d change the idea and come up with something better together, but he really honored everything I was bringing, including musically, which shocked me because he’s been doing this for so long and he’s so good at it. He helped me uncover that I had melodies in me. Our first song, “Wider Spaces,” came from a time when he asked me if I had any melodies kicking around in my head. I actually had a dream when I was doing a play on Broadway called Disgraced last February, in the dead of winter. This dream was about a children’s choir singing and this melody was so beautiful and all of these people were crying; I woke up and it was still in my head and I croaked it into the voice memo on my iPhone. When we got together months later, I noticed that I still had it and we listened to it and I started humming it and he began plucking it out on his guitar. That’s the tune of “Wider Spaces,” the first song we wrote together. He empowered me as a songwriting and lyricist, as someone who can write music, which I didn’t know I could do but am doing a lot of now. I’m endlessly grateful to him for helping me unlock that.
PW: Wow. That’s an endearing story. It sounds like a very open and friendly give and take.
JR: It continues to be, for sure.
PW: You mentioned how popular and experienced Ben is at this point. Does that mean that you feel added pressure with this release since he is so established as a musician already, just as you are as an actor? A lot of people can be cynical about an actor or musician branching out into other art forms, after all.
JR: Sure. I can get very creative in my head about coming up with various ways in which I’ll be pilloried and ridiculed by my critics, most of whom aren’t even real. They’re just in my head, right? Like, this is what people will say or this is how it’ll turn out.
PW: Like impostor syndrome?
JR: Exactly. I definitely understand that actors with side music projects is a sub-genre of major shame for a lot of people [laughs], so I’m aware of that but I also—to me, and this is just my opinion because I made the thing, but I think you should like what you make. I really like what we’ve made and I’m a serious music fan and I at least like my own tastes in music. I think I have a pretty good ear for a good song, so I was just trying to make stuff I wanted to listen to. All of the songs we make, we love. We won’t go forward with a track unless we do. I felt that after we wrote all of them and started playing them in Hotel Cafe and getting great responses, we should talk to Ryan—who’s a brilliant producer and songwriter—because he has a strong instinct for how to open up songs. We also got our friend Kerenza Peacock to play violin; she’s a world-class violinist, and Ryan got all of these other musicians to play.
PW: The album is really well produced and arranged. It reminds me of music by Phil Spector and Brian Wilson.
JR: Oh, cool! We did some scratch tracks that I thought we were going to rerecord but we kept most of them. They just worked, and it kind of came together. It’s an album that I very unpretentiously and, in a weird way, generously want to share with people. Like, “Hey, we made this thing! We really like it and we hope you do, too.” There’s not much more to it than that; Ben and I aren’t cynical people and we made this album very uncynically. We offer it in that spirit.
PW: That’s an inspiring approach. Even though it has tonal changes between happy and—well, if not sad, at least reflective—it’s still uplifting as a collection and statement.
JR: We’re two guys who are either approaching forty or are over forty. I never really liked the term “middle-aged” because it’s amorphous and too wide and I don’t know what it means, but it is touching on a lot of those concerns. There’s a song called “Falling Upward,” which I wrote the lyrics to based on a Richard Rohr book. He’s a Franciscan priest who was a really deep teacher and elder figure. He talks about the two halves of life and what it means to grow up and be wise. One of the features of that is an acceptance of the deep pain of life and the suffering of life. He says that there’s a hum of okay-ness underneath it all and I feel like Ben and I have taken our knocks and our successes, but we recognize that life is really complicated. It’s never just one thing.
PW: For sure. There are always ups and downs.
JR: It’s kind of happy and sad. My favorite music is heart-opening, but I'm not afraid of melancholia. I don’t like sentimentality, but I like great feeling in my songs. Music is the most moving thing I know.
PW: Ditto. I tend to prefer sad music because it’s the most honest, beautiful, and relatable.
JR: I used to have a bigger taste for mopey singer/songwriters, but I sometimes find that if it’s not married to some kind of hope or optimism, I get tired of it now. It’s okay to acknowledge that life is really, really hard, but it’s always our responsibility to pull ourselves out of the nosedive as much as we can and find some other perspective that’s just as valid.
PW: Music is a priceless method for that, if for no other reason than it helps you see that you’re not alone in whatever you’re going through.
JR: It can hold all of that.
PW: Do you have any favorite songs on the record? That’s probably like asking you if you have a favorite child.
JR: Um, I have favorite moments of songs, like the run in “Falling Upward” about waking up each morning and fighting the demons in your head and them telling you that you’re too scuffed up to pray. But then you read the holy books and rejoice and have good cheer. That just synthesizes something about a life philosophy that I find pretty healing when I can tap into it.
JR: I think “Still Though We Should Dance” is kind of a joyful celebration and I really love Kerenza’s violin on it, as well as Sam Shelton's vocals. “Be Like the Being” seems to have deeply connected with people, as has “Doorstep.” They’re both fun and hopeful. There are moments in every song that I like. We actually cut one song because we both agreed that it’d be the song people skipped, so we decided to just leave it off. We wanted to deliver a record that had ten or eleven really good songs that felt like an album instead of just a couple good songs and mostly filler.
PW: It truly does. I really value the idea of an album as a cohesive statement.
JR: Me too. Oh, and I really like the Peter, Paul and Mary cover we did, “Early in the Morning.”
PW: You did a good job with that one! I really like “It’s Yours Once You Give It Away.” It’s somber and quiet, which is a good juxtaposition to the colorfulness of “Still Though We Should Dance.”
JR: Right. The sentiment is more of a spiritual principle, but I agree that it’s a nice complement. We labored over the track order and I think we got it right.
PW: I really value the sequencing, too, since I focus mostly on progressive rock and metal, which involves a lot of concept albums, suites, and things like that.
PW: You also mentioned the spirituality that’s present throughout the album; do you or Ben ever worry that that aspect of the music will turn away potential listeners?
JR: I think that maybe if someone just hears it described as that and has an allergy to that word or is, like, a hardcore materialist atheist, then possibly. If you listen to the album, though, you notice that it’s not a bunch of banal platitudes or an advocation of any kind of magical thinking. Wisdom is hard-earned; like I’ve said, we’ve had our bruises and setbacks, but also some perspective to offer. We’re singing as much to ourselves on some level as we are to an audience; we’re telling ourselves the story of who we are in this moment and how we’re growing and where we’ve been. The people who are going to like it will like it, and if it’s not your jam, no harm, no foul. There’s plenty of other music around. I wish you the best.
JR: Trying to create something that everyone is going to like and respond to is a fool’s errand. Tastes are too varied and we can only make the kind of music that we want to hear and trust in our tastes (that if we like it, it will land with some other people).
PW: That makes me think of one of my favorite artists, Neal Morse, who left his band, Spock’s Beard, about fifteen years ago to focus on being a Christian progressive rock solo artist. What I respect about both of you is that you don’t proselytize; it’s more about a universal spirituality and general welcoming attitude. I really connect with that.
JR: Yeah, yeah. I don’t have a problem with the word “God,” but I get that other people do and I’m fully empathetic to their aversion to it, but when I say “God," I’m 100% certain that I don’t mean what a lot of people think that word implies. Most people who have a real allergy to that have some sort of wound from growing up in a kind of theological dictatorship—be it a household or a church or a school—and they rightly have some real issues with that. I’ve had to work through my own wounds with that, and I certainly am not talking about some old bearded sociopathic/psychopathic trickster in the sky. That’s so far from what I’m singing about and talking about and looking to connect with.
PW: It can conjure something different for every person.
JR: For me, it’s more like a dynamism or a flow. It’s a verb, not a noun.
PW: There you go. Again, that’s why I connect with it. Moving on to your new show, Rise (based on the book Drama High by Michael Sokolove), which will be on NBC next March, was it difficult to work on that and this album at the same time, or did you not do that?
JR: Actually, I think I recorded a lot of my vocals for the record a while ago—maybe a year ago, when I was doing a play at Lincoln Center. I didn’t do the pilot for Rise until March, when the record was largely done. Maybe not mixed yet, but almost done. I’ve been shooting Rise since early September and we have about two more weeks to go. We’re doing ten episodes. The only thing that’s come up is that we wish we could’ve toured a bit to support the release of it. Before I left, we did a show in L.A. and then a big release show at Rockwood Music Hall here, in New York. We’ve had some videos come out and we did a bunch of Facebook Live sessions that a lot of people saw. If you can reach 90,000 people from just the two of us on my couch at home, that’s pretty good.
PW: Of course. It’s amazing that you were able to do that.
JR: We’ve having to improvise as we go because of our schedules. If this show goes, I’ll be living in New York to film it, so he and I will have to figure out how to still be a band. We’ll figure it out, for sure.
PW: It sounds like you’ve both got a lot of optimism about it, as well as a willingness and flexibility with how to maintain it.
JR: We’re totally committed to doing more of it because—Ben once told me, “I’ve written songs with a lot of people and it’s not always effortless. Sometimes you just can’t wait to get out of there because nothing is happening.” Whenever we get together, we emerge with a song, or at least the beginnings of something we’re really excited about.
PW: Your inherent friendship makes it more amicable too, I’m sure.
JR: Absolutely. We’d be hanging out anyway, so we might as well write some songs together.
PW: Very true. Going back to Rise, you play a drama teacher named Lou Mazzuchelli. As an adjunct English professor, I wonder how you prepared for the role.
JR: Well, it’s not like playing a cop and I had to trail around in a squad car for three months. I understand drama teachers since I’ve had many of them, and I’ve directed myself. It was definitely a role that I felt pretty confident just taking on. That’s not to say that I haven’t done my actor preparation and homework and all that, but I certainly know the world of high school, of the Midwest, of theater departments, and of the relationships between a mentor and a student and how meaningful that can be.
PW: Ah, okay.
JR: [Writer/producer] Jason Katims is kind of a master of emotional truths, and when the writing is that good, you just understand intuitively where everyone is coming from. It’s a beautiful show; I really hope that people find it.
PW: It sounds very powerful, especially since it’s based on a true story. How is working on Rise different or similar to your previous work? I realize that that’s a very broad question.
JR: [Laughs] I guess it’s a lot different logistically than, say, How I Met Your Mother or even Mercy Street (this show I did in Richmond about the Civil War). It’s actually closer to Mercy Street than it is to HIMYM. Every experience is different because I’m different; I was about twenty-nine when I started HIMYM. That was a long time ago and I was in a very different space. Now, I feel older and the piece and the character are reflective of that, which is a great thing for me. It’s nice to be able to grow up and have roles that reflect your growths.
PW: That’s the dream of being an actor, I imagine.
JR: Yeah. I do so many other things—writing, directing, music—that I don’t have all my eggs in the acting basket, as much as I still love it and want to do it. If a role came along that was about a single guy in the big city looking for love, there’s no way I’d do it now because I thoroughly explored that already. [Rise] just felt new and my whole body was saying, “Yes, do this. This is for you!”
PW: It’s awesome that you’re so enthusiastic about pushing yourself forward instead of becoming complacent and repeating yourself. I think a lot of artists eventually do that.
JR: One of the things that I’ve found to be an utter necessity is that in order to have a career with some legs and longevity, you’ve got to scare yourself a little bit. You’ve got to take things that may be a disaster and not work at all. You might have some faith in yourself, but we all have those dark nights of the soul where you think, I won’t be able to pull this off and people don’t want to see me in this. The internal critic is a very devious and clever litigator. We all have some version of that, so I almost try to do things that are just scary enough that I can disprove to myself that I’m not capable of them, you know?
PW: I know what you mean.
JR: Writing, directing, and starring in two movies [Happythankyoumoreplease and Liberal Arts] was insane, but because it required so much of me, I had no choice but to rise to the occasion.
PW: I bet. So, aside from promoting these two projects, what else is on the table for you in 2018?
JR: I sold a book that is kind of due and I need to finish it [laughs]. I need to throw some energy into that. Also, Ben and I are writing quite a bit right now, too, and I’ve been learning guitar since January. Since I’ve been in New York, I’ve been taking lessons once a week. I don’t bring a phone to set, but I bring my guitar and practice during the downtime. I’m writing and practicing a lot because we want Radnor & Lee to be a two-guitar band, which is super exciting. Oh, and I have a movie that I wrote; I’m not sure if it’s ready or if it’ll happen this year or next year, but it’s going to happen at some point. I had a play that was done this past summer, too. It was my first play, with a full production.
PW: You’re really a busy and productive guy.
JR: Yeah, I like to stay really creative and energized.
PW: And you absolutely are. Thanks again for taking some time to speak with me, Josh. It was a pleasure.
JR: Yeah, it was. It was good talking to you, man.
PW: You too. Take it easy.