Josh Radnor Interview: "How I Met Your Mother" and "Hunters" Star on New Ben Lee Music Collaboration
Image attributed to Josh Radnor
Josh Radnor is best known for portraying Ted Mosby on the popular Emmy Award-winning CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014). The Columbus, Ohio, native made his writing and directorial debut with the 2010 comedy drama film Happy. Thank. You. More. Please., for which he won the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. Radnor is one of the stars of the drama series Hunters, which follows a diverse band of Nazi hunters living in 1977 New York City who discover that Nazi war criminals are conspiring to create a Fourth Reich in the US. Hunters premiered on February 21, 2020, on Amazon Prime Video.
On May 8, 2020, Radnor & Lee, the musical project of Radnor and musician Ben Lee (Noise Addict), will release their anticipated second album Golden State on Flower Moon records. The album was written and recorded by Radnor & Lee and produced by Justin Stanley (Beck, Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow).
"So right from the get-go, Ben was empowering me musically. He showed me there’s music coursing through me and that there’s melodies I’ll be able to create."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Josh, when did you first know you wanted to write music?
Josh Radnor: Well, it’s a very complicated question. I mean, I think it was when Ben and I first started to write songs together about six years ago. But then I look back. I was in a summer theater when I was in grad school, and there was a guy who was a great guitar player and songwriter, and we wrote seven songs together. I wrote all the lyrics, and he wrote all the music. Then when I was like in the 4thgrade, I was writing songs with my friend Jeremy. So when I look back, it’s always kind of been there.
I got into acting for musicals. So I’ve always sung. My life has been saturated in music. But my thing was, as I got older, I thought, “If you hadn’t started playing when you were 12 and had a band in your basement and garage with your friends, you weren’t going to be a proper musician.” It was just great to disabuse myself of that. A lot of that was saying, “Let’s be a two guitar band.” Ben and I sat beside each other on my couch and just wrote that first album, but I didn’t play guitar on that record. But we wrote all the songs together, the music and the lyrics.
On the second record, Golden State, I was often playing guitar. It changed the sound. It changed the whole vibe. It brought me into this whole new understanding of how I could express myself through music. (laughs) I just answered that all over the place, but you get what I’m saying, I think.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Absolutely, I do. Good answer (laughs). When you and Ben first met, who made the first move to say, “Let’s write some music together”?
Josh Radnor: We were friends for a decade before we ever wrote a song together. I was a fan of his, and when I met him, I had a couple of his records and really loved his music. But we just became friends, and we talked about the idea. I don’t know if we ever said, “Oh, we should write a song together.” One day, we just did, and a song tumbled out, and then he said, “Let’s write another one next week.” So we got together, and another song tumbled out, and then Ben said, “Let’s make a record.” He had a feeling because he’d been paired up through the years to co-write and said, “Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it’s torture, and you’re just staring at each other for two hours and nothing’s really happening.” (laughs)
But for some reason, every time we sat down to write a song together, something would happen, if not a full song, just a musical lyric or idea would happen that we were really excited about. So once we started going, we just haven’t looked back. The first album, I think, was a bit of a lark because we were just tickled that we had written a whole album of songs together, and people were coming out to see us play. Then we started touring in earnest. We had this great tour in South America, and we went to Australia and were playing at bigger venues. Our whole idea of what this thing could be started to morph, and it no longer seemed like this quirky little side project. We were legitimately excited about making it a central thing in our lives.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Talk about the new album, Golden State, and how it compares to the first record (Radnor and Lee, 2017).
Josh Radnor: I liked a lot of the songs on the first record. People who love that record really loved that record. It’s a hard thing because I think that if you’re moving forward, you can’t cringe, but you look back on the earlier stuff and think, “If someone wants to hear Radnor & Lee, I go, no, no, no, listen to Golden State even though it’s not out yet.” (laughs) But I dearly love that record because I don’t think, obviously, we could’ve made Golden State without that record.
But there was something about the new record that just feels a little more lived in. It’s a little dirtier, like it’s messier. I don’t mean musically, although it’s more paradoxical, complicated and there’s more yearning. It’s less floating in the clouds. It’s more like in the earth. I mean, we actually have a song called “Down in the Dirt,” which I think, is a nice metaphor for the whole thing. It’s about getting our hands dirty both creatively and in life. We even have a song called “Gimme Your Mess.” So this kind of idea is all over there. “The Animal” is another. There’s something a little more primal than our first record on top of the fact that I think the songs are really a step forward.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you write most of the lyrics while Ben writes most of the music?
Josh Radnor: Yeah. No. It’s not like I’ll write a lot of the lyrics, and he’ll write a lot of the music, and it hadn’t been that way to much of our delights. The first thing Ben said to me when we sat down to write that first song is, “Do you have any musical ideas that you’ve been kicking around?” I’d just come back from doing a Broadway play named Disgrace. In the dead of winter in New York City, I woke up from a dream where I heard this children’s choir singing the most beautiful melody. I croaked it into my iPhone at three in the morning, and I still had the voice memo. I listened to it and started humming it to Ben, and he started playing it on guitar and that melody became our first song, “Wider Spaces,” which was on the first record.
So right from the get-go, Ben was empowering me musically. He showed me there’s music coursing through me and that there’s melodies I’ll be able to create. Then when we write, I think I took the lyrical lead on the first record in terms of I would bring in a bunch of ideas. I needed him for the musical stuff at that point, but I would bring in tons of lyrics. Some of those ended up being songs, and some of them didn’t. But on Golden State, we just sat on the couch and basically wrote these songs side by side a lot. On “Resignation Song,” I wrote the lyrics. But I’d say that most of the songs were labored over, not to say there wasn’t an ease to the process because there certainly was when we wrote together. But we like to say, by the time something becomes a Radnor & Lee song, it’s been vetted by both of us.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Well, I’m really enjoying the music!
Josh Radnor: Thank you.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: And I’m bingeing on Hunters!
Josh Radnor: Oh, cool. You’ve been doing a real deep dive on Josh Radnor lately (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: (laughs) What drew you to Hunters?
Josh Radnor: It felt like nothing I had done before or the concept was audacious, the part was super strange, funny and weird and allowed me to flex different muscles, the people making it, Amazon, Al Pacino, Jordan Peele. The whole pedigree of the thing was fantastic and also just playing a Jewish movie star who also hunts Nazis in the 70s was exactly the kind of weird thing I didn’t know I was looking for until it landed in my lap.
I was just so happy they wanted me for it. I loved how strange it was and how different genres are smashing together and how it’s this fantastical allegory and also the this real, most horrifying thing that human beings have done to each other. It just felt like it was a very complete meal. It was exactly the kind of thing I was looking to do. I didn’t know exactly that thing, but I’m still pleased to be a part of it.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: And you got to shoot a gun.
Josh Radnor: I did. I did. I got to have some gun training. I got to torture people. It was a whole new experience for me.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Any Al Pacino stories?
Josh Radnor: (laughs) I have a bunch. He’s a real artist, you know. It was a real thrill to work with him. He’s relentless in his pursuit of the truth. It was fun to be on set with him just to observe him and watch how he worked and also to see that he’s doing the same thing that we’re all doing. He’s just better at it than everyone, you know. I think he was a little suspicious because I don’t think he had been on television before. He’s like, “What have I signed on for? Eleven hours with people who I didn’t know?” But once he relaxed around us and realized we were all in it together, we got to ask him questions, and he’d tell us all these stories.
You know, he’s a fantastic storyteller. It was just great to both work with him and observe him up close and play with him eventually but also to get a taste of the rich history he’s been a part of the last half century of theater and films. It wasn’t something on my bucket list that I thought, “Oh, I want to work with Al Pacino one day.” I never even thought that would happen, but I was so delighted that it did.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I know you were prepared for the media to compare your character Ted Mosby (How I Met Your Mother) to Lonny Flash (Hunters).
Josh Radnor: I don’t read press. I don’t read reviews. But clearly, those two are the most wildly different characters that you could conceive of! They are molecularly different. For me, I don’t know what to do with that other than to keep moving forward and doing different stuff. I pass on any role that feels like the other role on How I Met Your Mother. I would rather work a little bit less and do things that feel different. When I’m not working, I throw myself into music or write, and I’ve written a couple of plays. I’m not super desperate to work as an actor all the time. It has to feel right because I do so many things.
You know, I don’t know what to say. I don’t think the whole world is obsessively watching How I Met Your Mother over and over and over again, but there is an army of people that do that, and they want me to be that guy. But I’m an actor. I’m a special actor that’s theater trained. I’ve got to keep moving. So they can watch that show as much as they want, and I’m delighted that they are. It’s a great show, and I’m happy to be part of it, and it changed my life. But now I’m doing different stuff.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Was there any point in your acting career when you thought about changing directions because of the fame?
Josh Radnor: Fame is a byproduct of something, you know. I was in LA doing my fourth or fifth pilot. You never think, “Oh, this show’s going to run for nine years.” That’s such a rare thing. And I don’t really think of myself as a famous person even though I run into people who want pictures or to say “Hi” on the street, some of which is really nice, but sometimes kind of strange and disorienting (laughs). But I just feel like How I Met Your Mother liberated me to live a creative life. My life is pretty modest, and I have really good friends, and I have a fantastic community. I wake up, and I make things. I write songs. I write movies and plays and get together with people and share. I just feel that makes makes it worth it for all the other headaches that might accompany it.
And there’s some stuff. There’s some stuff. It’s not easy. But I think the thing it most makes me want to do is diversify, so I directed two films. I love being behind the camera. I love making music, playing with Ben or solo. It feels that there are a lot of avenues I can go down to tell my stories. The most exciting thing is that I can keep doing that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: And is music as fulfilling as acting?
Josh Radnor: It’s all of it. When it’s time to film Hunters, I love showing up and doing that. When it’s time to hit the road with Ben and get these songs to people, I love doing that. So no one’s really asking me to choose. There’s always the thing, “Which do you like better? Which would you rather do?” I really, genuinely like all of it, and part of the thrill is being able to do all of it as much as I can. I mean, you obviously can’t do everything at once, so certain things have to move to second or third place while you’re doing the other thing, but I enjoy all of it, to be honest.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Are you and Ben continuously writing?
Josh Radnor: We haven’t written for a while. We recorded the bulk of the album, and I went off to do Hunters for six months. Then we came back, and there were a couple of songs we wanted to rework, so we did that in September/October. Now, we’ve just been trying to roll out the record. I’m kind of trying to nudge him into us writing more. But it kind of happens when it happens.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Final thoughts on Golden State?
Josh Radnor: I’m really happy you like it and have done a deep dive with it. We were trying to make a proper record that hopefully gets richer with every listen and that you can either put on headphones and get in a quiet room to really spend some time with it, or you can throw it on during a long drive and have the windows open. It sounds good in the car when you’re driving along. We really like the Laurel Canyon kind of 70s psychedelic songwriter vibe. You probably saw my friend John’s cover art of the album, which I just love. So, yeah, I really hope people clue in to the record.
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