EXCLUSIVE | Folk duo Radnor and Lee say it's OK to be imperfect, one of the themes of their album 'Golden State'
As talented entertainers in their own right, the actor-screenwriter Josh Radnor and musician Ben Lee joined forces to forge an epic creative partnership called Radnor and Lee after meeting on the set of 'How I Met Your Mother'. Their first self-titled album certainly caught the music world's attention, thanks to their spiritual blend of indie-folk tunes. Their wiser and darker second offering, 'Golden State', will be out on June 19 via Flower Moon Records and you can read our review of it here. In anticipation of their much-awaited album release, which had been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic, MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) caught up with them for an exclusive interview — here's the second installment. You can read the first portion of their interview here.
Let's talk about your songwriting process. Do you prepare material beforehand or is it more like a free-flowing, intuitive jam?
Radnor: Usually Ben comes over to my house in the mid-to-late morning so we're still kind of working on some caffeine. And we just start talking, we catch up. We share, talk about our lives and the things we've read, or things that we thought were funny or interesting. And then, eventually, this mostly seems to be the case... Something emerges that we both kind of light up and say, "Oh, that'd be an interesting thing to write about." Other times, I'll have a couple of lyric ideas or I'll say, "Let's write a song called whatever..." We wrote a song called 'Here', and I had this court progression, and I said, "Let's write something called 'Here'," and I just had a couple of very rough lyrical ideas and we wrote the song that day. So, sometimes one of us will come in with an idea, but largely, it's like a song idea will just emerge out of our friendship - out of talking and sharing and catching up.
Do you prefer to write lyrics first or does the melody come first? What generally takes precedence?
Lee: As any songwriter will tell you, the two are sort of inseparable. The right melody and the right words, to some degree, usually come together. Josh was talking this morning about our [new] song 'Ohio'. And he was going "Oh-ohhh-oh!" And he was basically singing the word "Ohio." It's like, even though you could say, in a sense, the melody came first, it came with a sound, you know what I mean? So the purest type of song, I think, that works the best, has an interdependence between lyric and melody - it can't really ever be divided. When it works, you can't even remember which came first, because they seem so natural together.
Radnor: Yeah, when the melody and the lyric are perfectly sitting with each other, it's not even intellectual, you just know it in your body. You feel that "No, I want to sing that word with that melody," and it's pretty exciting. It doesn't come out fully formed, you're still chiseling away at it. But when you land on it, you just know that it's right.
That brings us to one of your new songs, 'The Thing About Grief'. What inspired that?
Radnor: That's funny, because that's one of the few songs on the record where I wrote the lyrics then and handed them to Ben and he wrote the music. I think that might be the only song on the record like that. I think I liked the rhyme and the phrase. Ben liked that too - "The thing about grief is you hope that it's brief." I felt that would be something great to sing and I love how Ben wrote this kind of old English parlor song. One of the things we both like doing is sometimes setting more acidic lyrics up against a jauntier melody. There's something fun about that, it's like a sugar pill. Make something that might be tough material go down really smooth. Yeah, it's kind of like an intermission song on the record. It kind of divides the album into two. It's so short but it's really fun. And also you have to sometimes honor the idea... Once you've explored the idea of the song, get out of there.
Lee: It's funny, I just realized... We never really talked about it - "The thing about grief is you hope that it's brief." And the song itself is brief... It has to be!
Radnor: Yeah, you say everything almost in those two sentences. Like, "Yeah, you hope it's brief, we get it." So, let's get out of there, that's all I needed. It's funny, a lot of people have brought up that song. We think of it as a fun part of the record. But it's not a song we generally think about when we're talking about 'Golden State'. But a lot of people that brought it up, so it must be doing something.
With regard to the coronavirus lockdown, do you think that it's hampered your creative flow? Or has being-at-home enhanced your creativity?
Lee: It's hampered my execution of certain ideas for sure, but not my creative flow. It's like a dam bursting, the water just finds another path down the hill.
Radnor: Yeah, I also think we've spent so long, both in collaboration and separately, as self-generating creative people. So we don't necessarily wait for some order or request to make something. We just make it, you know? Sometimes we'll be part of larger projects where they're scheduled, but largely our creative process is... There's a couple of hours of the day, at the very least, that is spent making stuff. And that served us well. We didn't realize how we were preparing for quarantine for the majority of our adult life, but it's kind of worked out that way. As Ben said, it's sometimes hard to find new ways to collaborate and share, but I don't think either of us has been idle during this time.
Do you find that audiences connect with simple, down-to-messages more than something a highly glamorized, overproduced pop song could convey?
Lee: A lot of what we do is connected to a folk tradition of music, which uses a song for a different thing other than escapism. My wife's swimming in the pool right now with our kids and she's blasting a fun pop song, and I totally get the appeal of that. But the tradition of a folk song is something else. It tells you a story and lets you record something permanently. And there's something about acknowledging the history, the musical lineage of rock 'n' roll, folk music, country, etc, where you realize what a great honor it is to be part of this conversation. I think that's the way we aspire to contribute.
Radnor: Yeah, for me, I just always loved the sound of a simple guitar, violin, or cello. There's something about the purity of single instruments played well with a good melody and great lyrics, it's still thrilling to me in a very pure way. I sometimes hear songwriters that I really admire play live, just very stripped down. And then I hear it [on record] and I'm a little disappointed because I think there's too much on top of it. It's almost obscuring the beauty and simplicity of the song. I always love songwriters who will do an acoustic record or cover their own songs in a much more stripped-down way. That's always really exciting to me. So I think that's just more our aesthetic.
One of the themes of 'Golden State' is the acceptance that imperfection isn't necessarily a bad thing. If you could give your fans a 'Golden State' of mind to hold onto right now during these uncertain times, what would that message be?
Radnor: I'm wary of giving messages (laughs). I think the record itself contains a lot of our thinking in that department. I like that you picked up on the theme of imperfection. Ben and I, from the moment we started performing together, we kind of joke with the audience... We declare at some point that we have a mistake-permissible policy at our shows. You know, especially with me being, earlier on, much more of a novice at guitar, we were gonna hit some moments that were not perfect. Rather than running from that or apologizing or acting like that didn't happen, it's kind of fun to remind people that we're all human. We're all flawed, we're all imperfect and we're all just struggling to share and do the best we can.
So, in the same way that we tried to let ourselves off the hook... It's more exciting to struggle in stride and passionately create something than it is to just be a virtuoso who's always nailing it all the time. I think that's part of the joy of creativity, sometimes you're gonna fall on your face. And that's also what we're dealing with now. None of us know, we're all kind of fumbling around in the dark. And we can be kind toward ourselves and each other as we struggle through this to find out what we're doing right now. And hopefully, we will emerge from this better than when we went in.