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Joshua Radin - Underwater: The IndieLondon interview

Joshua Radin

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JOSHUA Radin chats exclusively to us about the making of his new album, Underwater, and working with music legends such as Jimmie Haskel (of Simon & Garfunkel fame) and Benmont Trench (Tom Petty).

He also talks about his career to date, why he now considers the stage to be home, why he likes coming to England and some of the best advice he’s received in getting where he is today.

Q. We love the new album, Underwater… you must be very proud of it?
Joshua Radin: Oh yeah, I really think it’s my most mature record to date and my most honest. I’m going to release it on vinyl, too, as a limited edition because I think it’s really made to be heard on vinyl.

Q. It must have been a dream project to put together given the impressive array of people you’ve worked with, such as Jimmie Haskel, who provided the strings for Simon & Garfunkel’s seminal Bridge Over Troubled Water?
Joshua Radin: I was working with my heroes every day. I never even thought I’d get to meet these people let alone make music with them. Benmont Trench, the piano player who works with Tom Petty, is probably my favourite rock ‘n’ roll pianist ever. Benmont plays a lot in Hollywood where I live in a tiny club called Largo… he always plays when Fiona Apple announces a secret show there and I always find my way into the theatre with about 50 other people. But I could never even walk up to him and say ‘hello’ and introduce myself because I was so shy! So, when you think of all the albums he’s worked on… and there’s Jim Keltner on the drums, who plays with Dylan…. I mean, the hairs on my body were standing up just listening to them… and then I had to play with them and sing my songs. It was probably the most humbling time of my life – every day I walked into the studio I was the least talented person there… every day! But all I wanted to do was learn from them.

Q. And what did you learn?
Joshua Radin: I learned a different way to record music. I’ve never recorded to tape before. Everything on this album was done in an old school way… using live tapes and no more than one or two takes a song. It was kind of the reason why I had to have players like that in the room because they’re real, real professionals. They bring their A game the minute you say record and it’s like they’re playing in front of an arena. They are serious, serious pros and they know how to play the song. They’re not like some more typical musicians who come in and want to put their stamp on the song – they just want to enhance the song. I would say to Benmont, for example, that ‘maybe I hear a little piano on this and maybe some Rhodes’ and he’d say: “I don’t hear anything.” In fact, he gave me this great quote, saying: “When in doubt, lay it out!” They’re real musicians.

Q. You mentioned being too shy to introduce yourself to Benmont when you saw him live, so what gave you the courage to ask him to appear on the album?
Joshua Radin: I didn’t [laughs]! I didn’t even know how to get in touch with him. But my management called his management and he said: “Send me over a couple of songs.” So, we did, he listened to them and then he said “yes”. And he was so excited to come back and play songs in an environment like that, where we were recording to 2-inch tape with machines he was familiar with. He was like a kid in a candy store the whole time. It was a dream come true, honestly.

Q. Talking of the whole feel-good vibe surrounding the creation of the album, you also went into the water for the first time having been told as a kid (after puncturing your ear-drum) that to do so would cause crippling pain for you. How was that experience?
Joshua Radin: Well, what happened was this… when I was a little kid I had a hole in my eardrum and my doctor said that if I ever went into the water, I ran the risk of experiencing this crippling pain. So, I resigned myself to living on land my whole life, which was interesting because I grew up near a lake and all my friends were always going swimming and water skiing. And I was always just sitting on land and watching them. I think it accounts for some of my personality. I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider and that I don’t really fit in.

But last year, I went to doctor and he checked me out and said that naturally, over the course of time, my ear had healed. He didn’t expect it to happen. But he said that if I wanted to go into the water, I could. I was scared but I faced my fear and it was amazing. And it inspired the first track I wrote for the whole album [Underwater]. When I was underwater, I experienced a silence I’ve never heard before, so my mind was so free and open. I created an underwater symphony, which is where the strings come from. And I said I needed Jimmie Haskel to do it because no one really arranges strings like Jimmy anymore. He’s one of a kind. What he does… that was the sound that was in my head. I wanted this record to sound cinematic and sound like it could have been recorded in the ‘60s. The opening string arrangement on Any Day Now, for instance, you can imagine a camera sweeping into a scene from a movie like Splendour in The Grass [starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty]. It evokes a different era. And I was tired of listening to the same old shit all the time.

Joshua Radin

Q. How challenging will it be to recreate the sound of the album live?
Joshua Radin: Oh, it’ll be very difficult to recreate that live. I mean, there’s so many string instruments… I can’t afford to bring all those people on the road with me. And I don’t want to do it on track because I love doing it more organically in live form. So, the live thing will be different from the album. It means I’m re-inventing some of the songs. I’ve just been on tour in the States for the past three weeks and I brought a cellist and an upright bass player along with me.

Q. Is that fun re-creating the songs in a different way? Does it keep them fresh?
Joshua Radin: Yeah. But I don’t want to recreate them exactly. I like coming up with a different beat or something. A live concert is so different. If I played the album from beginning to end live in the exact way it was recorded I don’t know if the audience would like it. I think they would want a few moments were I got bigger and electric. I think in live form, you’ve got to have the show be a little more dynamic in order to keep their attention… unless you were playing somewhere like the Royal Albert Hall and everyone was seated. I think each show depends on where it’s taking place… on the country you’re in. Sometimes, I’m playing for 3,00 people and they’re dead quiet and listening and other times I could be in a club of 500 people and they’re drinking. And then there’s everything in between. So, you really have to adapt to your environment and draw on different ways of playing the music… to really make the audience want to hear the entire set and to leave them wanting more. That’s what I strive for.

Q. You’ve said that when you first started out you were nervous about being in the spotlight and taking to the stage. Now, however, you refer to the stage as your home. Do you miss it when you’re away?
Joshua Rain: I really miss it. I have a song called Anywhere Your Love Goes on the new album and it almost sounds like it’s a love song for a girl, but it’s a love song for the audiences I play for. I spent a year off the road writing and recording this album and being a hermit and not seeing anybody… hibernating musically. But that’s what I was Jones-ing for – playing music in front of people. When I started out, I never felt that way. I was always just wanting to write songs, hang out with friends and family and then go and record. Touring felt like a chore… something I had to do to promote the album. But now it’s become almost dead even really. I really enjoy live aspect of playing.

Q. What are some of your favourite live memories?
Joshua Radin: The first time I played Shepherd’s Bush Empire. It’s such a beautiful venue and I couldn’t believe I was playing there. It was just one of those moments. I was on Columbia in the US at that time and they way they worked at the time was that unless you had a massive studio hit they wouldn’t release your music outside of America. But I kept getting emails from people on MySpace, which was just getting big at the time, saying how much they liked my music. I was totally blown away by all the emails from people saying ‘please come to England!’ So, I would show those emails to the label and they still said ‘no’. They said that kind of support doesn’t necessarily translate. So, I paid for it myself and brought my band over and sold out Shepherd’s Bush Empire. And it was then I decided to sack my label [laughs].

Q. Was that the night people like Kevin Spacey were in the crowd?
Joshua Radin: That was the second time. And that was so cool too. Will Champion, the drummer for Coldplay, was also in the crowd with his wife. He was so complimentary afterwards. I’m a huge fan of Coldplay, of course, so that was special to hear. And Will couldn’t have been a nicer bloke. The thing he said after the show to me was: “Wow, music’s back!” I was really just overwhelmed to hear that. Any time you hear something like that from people you respect musically is so humbling and gratifying.

Joshua Radin

Q. You must be extremely grateful to your dad, then. Didn’t he buy you your first guitar on a whim?
Joshua Radin: It wasn’t quite on a whim. I said to him that I’ve always liked to sing in the shower and in the car, so maybe I should learn a few chords. And he was nice enough to buy me a guitar. I still owe him for that… well, I owe him for a lot more actually. I owe him my life [laughs].

Q. And how do your family feel about your success now?
Joshua Radin: They love it and they’re so supportive. All of my family come to so many of my concerts. They show up randomly and surprise me. When my manager sits with them in the audience she always tells me when they tear up. They’re so proud. I don’t have anyone in my family who is creative at all, let alone be a musician or doing something professionally. So, I’m sort of a black-sheep – but in a good way. They don’t understand the world I live in but they love it and are happy for me.

Q. What do you think of the current state of the music industry? You previously mentioned getting tired of hearing the same old shit. Is it in a good place?
Joshua Radin: I think that’s such a big question that can’t be answered in an interview like this. It’s a discussion for hours and hours. There are so many great things going on in music right now and there are so many talented people out there that I just wish were getting more of their due… so few people get the exposure their talent deserves. It’s amazing. Every day I see a new musician who makes me think to myself: “Oh my God, how does no one know who you are?” And part of the problem is that most radio stations have an eight song playlist and it’s all manufactured music. Every now and again someone breaks out. I really like Mumford & Sons, Adele and Florence + The Machine… a lot of artists from the UK are crossing the pond right now and doing really well. But they’re still too few and far between. There are too many Nickelbacks!

Q. It must be nice for you coming the other way. You have such a big following here?
Joshua Radin: I think this is an area, over here, where if you keep coming back they really appreciate it. And if you stay away too long, they forget about you. So, I keep coming back!

Q. You must be very happy, in general, with where your career is right now?
Joshua Radin: I am. It’s one of those really good things. The best advice I got when I started was from my booking agent who I met right away before I could put more than 20 people in a room. He said: “Don’t go for everything overnight because the longer it takes to build something up, the longer it takes to tear it down.” If you want a 30-year career then don’t be afraid to take it slow and let every little bit of exposure help you. So, when people started asking me early on if they could use this song or that in a TV show or commercial I’d say ‘yes’ even though, at the time, it wasn’t that acceptable. Now, you’re listening to the biggest bands around on some of those shows and film because everyone is realising that it’s an amazing way to get your music heard. So, I guess I’m just lucky that I got in on the ground level.

Q. Do you find that it’s harder now to get your music placed now that more people are doing it? Or are you still one of the ‘go to’ guys?
Joshua Radin: You know what? It’s not that I find it difficult because I never really tried. People came to me and they still do. So, I guess I’m very fortunate for that. And they know that if they ask me now I’m pretty much going to call them back in 10 minutes and say ‘yes’. It all comes back to that first piece of advice.

Read our review of Underwater