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Joshua Radin - The IndieLondon interview

Joshua Radin

Interview by Rob Carnevale

AMERICAN singer-songwriter (and best friend to Zach Braff) Joshua Radin talks to us about some of the inspirations behind his latest album, Simple Times, as well as the story behind some of its songs.

He also talks about why he enjoys embracing the latest technology, why he’ll be hooking up with Zach to write a new movie soon, appearing unexpectedly in Garden State and why Tom Petty is such an inspiration…

Q. How long did it take to write the songs that make up Simple Times?
Joshua Radin: I guess it was about a year of writing. Those are the songs that made the cut and we recorded, mixed and mastered it over two months.

Q. Is it a very personal album?
Joshua Radin: Every song I write is personal. I don’t know how to do the topical songs. One of these days I want to try to… you know, Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite, where John Lennon just wrote about an article he saw. I don’t know how to do that. So, my songs are pretty human… they’re pretty similar. A lot of them are about falling in and out of love.

Q. One of my favourite is I’d Rather Be With You. What inspired that one?
Joshua Radin: That was actually about trying to get my best girlfriend back [smiles]. You can obsess about a lot of things in your mind, especially love… sometimes it makes it easier to just write it out.

Q. How does it feel when you play a song as personal as that in front of a live audience?
Joshua Radin: I guess it’s another form of therapy. Every night, you get to exorcise these feelings from your consciousness. Every time I play them, it gets a little easier.

Q. What was the inspiration behind a track like Vegetable Car?
Joshua Radin: That was about a girl that I’ve never met. She used to drive by my house all the time in that car that I describe. In LA, a lot of people take these old beat up Mercedes that run on diesel gas… you can convert them very cheaply to run on vegetable oil. We call them vegetable cars and you see them all over LA. It’ll say this car runs on vegetable oil on the bumper sticker… but this beautiful girl would drive by my house all the time while I was sitting outside playing guitar. I didn’t really have the courage to go and talk to her, so I figured I’d write a song about her and maybe it would be on the radio… in my mind she’d drive by with the windows down and it would be on the radio [smiles]. That would be my in… I’d be like: “Hey, I wrote that about you… I’m Josh.” But it never happened and then I moved back to New York City, so I never met her. Maybe I’ll run into her one day…

Q. Is the inspiration for songs coming to you all the time?
Joshua Radin: I wouldn’t say all the time. I never sit down and just say I’m going to write a song. I don’t know how to do that. Nothing comes. I just have to walk around and live my life and be affected by life like everyone else is. Then, every now and again some inspiration will hit me.

Q. How has being in London affected you?
Joshua Radin: Well, I wrote a song called Think I’ll Go Inside… because of the rain.

Q. Your album has become a word of mouth success.. your debut album Simple Times sold 100,000 copies in the US just out of the label’s offices. How does that make you feel?
Joshua Radin: I think it’s pretty cool. I like the whole word of mouth thing. Every one at my London show back in October was there because one of their friends heard about me, or they were watching a TV show or a movie and there was a song in the background. They heard it and said: “What’s that?” And then they kind of went and found it themselves, whether it was on the internet or whatever. In that way they feel like there’s some ownership of it, rather than having some huge corporation shove it down their throat over and over again. That’s the way to have a two-year career, not a 30-year career.

Q. So you’re a fan of the way that the Internet is helping artists get a break nowadays?
Joshua Radin: I’m a fan of anything that’s going to expose my music to more people. As long as you’re writing music that’s honest, and you’re not writing it for a radio format, or something like that… I write them the way I want to write them, I make it the way I want them to sound, so whatever happens to it after that I’m like: “Go ahead…” Once it leaves the studio and it’s on a disc you can’t control what happens to it really. It’s out there. I’ve used the Internet pretty much wholly to get my music out there. You have to keep up with the technology, otherwise you’re a dinosaur and you just die out.

Q. The record companies don’t like the Internet though… they’re losing control…
Joshua Radin: Well, the major record companies are dying out as well. You know what? The major record labels are doing what the railroad companies in America did in the early part of this century. They should have realised they were in the transportation business, instead of the railroad business. People were buying automobiles, and flying on planes and the railroad companies went under because they were like… they stuck to railroads. Likewise, the record labels need to realise they’re in the music business, not in the record business. No one buys records anymore, but we’ll always listen to music.

I think when they finally do realise that it’ll be too late. In the next 20 years or so, it’s probably going to be all subscription based services. Everyone will have something like an iPhone… Bill Gates said that 15 years ago. He acknowledged back then that people will have this little tablet that’ll be their everything – your phone, your computer, your stereo, your TV… And we’re getting there. The iPhone is the first thing like that. Now, I use my iPhone for writing. I have a four track recorded on it, a notebook on it. I used to keep a notebook and pen in my back pocket all the time, but my phone has a notebook on it, so I use that. I sing demos into the phone, using the recorder, so I don’t forget them. I do everything on the phone until we get into the studio. I did a demo of a new song I wrote the other day and sent it to my manager and she was amazed I’d written it on my phone. So, I embrace all this new technology.

Q. Do you miss records?
Joshua Radin: I still have a vinyl collection as well. That’s what I listen to in my house. But it’s not convenient. I always walk by record stores and want to go in… but then I don’t because I know that if I do, I’ll want to buy it and then I’ll put it in my suitcase and it’ll break. Instead, I have that shazam application… I find a lot of the new music I listen to on movies and stuff I watch, so I’ll just shazam it and then download it.

Q. So, what are the five tunes that are never far away from your iPod at the moment?
Joshua Radin: It’s always changing. However… the last downloads, let’s see [gets iPhone out]. I was watching this new HBO show called Bored To Death [Jason Schwartzman] and there was a great song on it by a band called Kaiser Cartel, and a song called Favorite Song. I shazam-ed it while watching the show and have been walking around listening to that for a while. What else? Iggy Pop’s The Passenger. I love that song. I just didn’t have it on my phone. And then I downloaded every single Tom Petty record and I’ve pretty much been walking around and listening to Tom Petty like crazy. He will have a huge influence on my next record, which will be straight up rock ‘n’ roll. It’ll be half mellow and half rock. But Petty has been a massive influence on that sound.

Q. What do you like about the Petty sound?
Joshua Radin: Well, his sound doesn’t change that much. It’s a real classic, swampy kind of southern American rock ‘n’ roll… just like straight rock. And I love that kind of music. The lyrics are just unbelievable. It’s almost unfathomable how many great songs he has. I always knew he was a great writer, and I had the Greatest Hits and Wildflowers… in fact, that song was a huge inspiration for my song, Brand New Day on Simple Times.

I went and got the acclaimed percussionist, Lenny Castro, who played on Wildflowers to play on it. The way I wrote Brand New Day sounds completely different to the way it sounds on Simple Times. I was listening to Wildflowers and said to myself that I wanted that exact production on my song. So, we just listened to it over and over again to get that exact sound. Petty is an enormous, enormous influence on me. He’s one of those artists that you can’t believe how many hits he’s written – and they’re not just like cheesy pop hits, they’re how music should be.

Joshua Radin

Q. Do you stay in touch with Zach Braff still?
Joshua Radin: He’s my best friend. My best mate!

Q. He helped get your kickstarted, didn’t he, by directing your videos? And you cameoed in Garden State?
Joshua Radin: He directed both of my videos [so far]. But I made a cameo in Garden State before I was even a musician. I’d never even a written a song when he made that. I had just learned a few chords on guitar and I was on set on the first day of shooting. He said: “Come down and watch…” This was over in Jersey; I was living in New York. So, I hopped over there and he said: “Hey, you look like you could be in the party [scene]. Get in there…” That was fun. I’d never done a cameo in a movie before, so it was pretty cool.

Actually, I wouldn’t even say it was a cameo. You’re supposed to be famous when you do those and I wasn’t even a musician at the time. I was writing screenplays. So, I was really just an extra [laughs]. But I remember being on set and someone had a guitar. I said I’d learned a couple of chords and I started humming a Beatles song and the producer was there and said: “You should write a song for the movie…” I was like: “I don’t know how to write a song. I wouldn’t even know where to begin!” Now, I keep kicking myself that I didn’t because that became a huge soundtrack and it would have been so cool to be on.

Q. So the seeds were sewn then…
Joshua Radin: I think a little bit. I think that soundtrack he made was basically all of us, as friends, sitting around going through stuff we were listening to right then. He [Zach] had never even heard Nick Drake before. He showed me the scene and I was like: “There’s this Nick Drake song that would be great.” But he said he didn’t know who that was… I was amazed. So, I played it for him and he loved it and it ended up influencing so many kids around the world. They found out who Nick Drake is and started listening to his music, which is important.

Similarly, The Shins got a huge bump off of being on that soundtrack. That came from the creator of Scrubs giving Zach The Shins record and he loved it… That soundtrack was really great. When I saw 15-year-old kids were into The Only Living Boy In New York, by Simon & Garfunkel, I was like: “Wow!” At that time, I didn’t think I wanted to be a musician professionally… I was doing it as a hobby because I thought no one was going to want to listen to these records that sound like the way I sound… a ’70s kind of sound. I thought no one buys Nick Drake’s records nowadays. But then when that soundtrack did so well I thought maybe there is such a market for this and maybe I could do it as a career. So, my hobby became my career. It was the luckiest thing that ever happened.

Q. Have you left screenwriting behind now?
Joshua Radin: Not permanently. Zach and I are going to work on a project eventually. We’re both a little busy right now.

Q. How far along is your next album?
Joshua Radin: I’ve written it, but I don’t get off the road until [the end of] February [2010]. But then we’ll record it.

Q. What’s your favourite live memory?
Joshua Radin: Every time I ever get to headline Bowery Ballroom in New York City. I used to go and see shows there all the time. It’s my favourite room in NYC. It only holds about 500 people, but the sound is incredible. It’s one of those venues that feels like it should hold 2,000 people. That’s what a good venue should be… it should feel like it’s huge even though it’s not. I haven’t played there in three years but the first time I played there it sold out and I thought: “This is cool.” I remember being on stage with my manager, Debbie, and looking out and going: “Debbie, you did it! This is it. It doesn’t get better than this…” And the amazing thing is that it has… it just keeps getting better every day. I wake up and can’t believe this is my life. I wrote my first song when I was 30 and I never thought I’d be a musician. So, it’s a welcome change and I feel really fortunate.

Q. So, advice to aspiring songwriters would be to keep trying every day? And don’t give up on those dreams…
Joshua Radin: I’d also say just to be honest. The more honest you are, the more people relate to it. I wasn’t being honest when I was writing screenplays. I was writing comedies that were driven by my imagination. But I wasn’t writing about what I was going through. And then, I said to myself: “Writers always say to write what you know.” I wasn’t doing that. So, finally I started songwriting and did it about what I knew, and what I was going through. And that’s what people related to.

Read our review of Simple Times or view photos from the I’d Rather Be With You video

  1. really liked finding out what music Josh is listening to & inspired by.

    Charles    Mar 1    #
  2. Joshua sounds really cool. I like his advice, his music and his recommendations. I’d Rather Be With You is such a sweet record

    Emily    Mar 2    #
  3. Cool interview, excellent album. Joshua’s back in the UK in April. don’t miss him!

    Simon    Mar 18    #