Joshua Radin is a prolific singer-songwriter who has released nine full-length solo albums, sold more than a million records, and sold out venues across four continents as a headlining performer. But when it comes to playing AmericanaFest, the Los Angeles-based musician might feel like a raw rookie eager to swing for the fences in his big-league debut.
Not having spent much time in Nashville during his career, Radin’s first experience at AmericanaFest will be confined to a 25 September doubleheader, including a 45-minute showcase starting at 8:00 that night at Mercy Lounge. He’s also one of several artists scheduled to perform that afternoon at Musicians Corner at Centennial Park.
“Unfortunately, I won’t be able to hang,” Radin states in an email interview for the second of three PopMatters articles previewing acts from 22-25 September at AmericanaFest 2021. “I’m flying in just for my performances and then heading out again. Hopefully, next year I’ll be able to catch some of the other acts. It seems like there are so many great ones.”
At least Radin will be able to play (along with band members Danny Black, Jerry Borgé, Allie Moss, and Chris Farney) new material from The Ghost and The Wall — his 23 July release — in front of actual crowds. These sets should serve as an excellent warm-up before the sincere storyteller takes his gentle, melodic voice and sharp wit on a strenuous 2022 tour. It begins this January in the United States (returning to Nashville on 26 March at City Winery), then continues in April and May throughout Europe.
Asked how his AmericanaFest invitation came about, Radin responds, “Truth be told, my manager [Debbie Wilson of Wilspro Management] asked if I’d like to do it, and I jumped at the chance to play music for a live audience. I’m jonesing so hard right now for that. And it makes it extra special to be able to do it in Nashville because it’s such a music town, obviously.”
Of course, that’s assuming that pandemic variants don’t lead to tighter restrictions or — heaven forbid! — lockdowns and cancellations. When it comes to current health policies and the vaccination issue, Radin, who recently had a booster shot, is very outspoken.
“It’s so depressing to think that so many people in this country won’t listen to science, while millions and millions of people in places like Africa and India would kill for a vaccine and can’t get one,” Radin offers. “I’m not a doctor nor a scientist. When it comes to public health, I defer to the experts, not those on social media who think they know what they’re talking about because they spent the day Googling. So whatever our top scientists tell me, that’s what I’m going with.”
Radin certainly has a way with words, whether he’s addressing a worldwide disease, singing a couple of his songs like “They Bring Me to You” and “Today” at the 2008 wedding of Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, or providing placements for countless television shows and films. That side hustle in other mediums got an initial boost from actor/Scrubs star Zach Braff, whose wry-guy friendship developed when they attended Northwestern University.
Like many artists shackled by the 2020 pandemic, Radin had to get more creative than ever last year if he wanted to work on a follow-up album to 2019’s Here, Right Now. For one thing, how does one living alone during a quarantine who’s already filled eight full-length albums of material come up with ideas for another record?
“Good question,” Radin replies. “You know, I never really try to write songs. Every time I’ve tried, they end up being songs I don’t want to play. So I essentially just live my life and try to start as open as possible, and songs tend to just come out of me. I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s like trying to be a lightning rod all the time, waiting.”
Without a home studio or anywhere else to record The Ghost and The Wall in 2020, Radin relied on a producer from his neck of the woods whom he’s never met face to face. A 30-minute phone chat with Jonathan Wilson, a multi-instrumentalist who has worked with various artists, including Elvis Costello, Father John Misty, Erykah Badu, and Jenny Lewis, sealed the deal. They decided to work remotely — Radin providing lead (and sometimes background) vocal tracks from his Hollywood Hills home and Wilson handling almost all the instrumental chores (including guitars, banjo, keys, and drums) at his own Fivestar Studios in Topanga Canyon. They needed only a month to finish all ten Radin songs — six of which he wrote by himself.
“I have been a fan of his for years, and he seemed like the perfect producer for this album,” Radin says of Wilson. “I’ve never made music like this before, and it was so fascinating. I learned a lot about myself. One thing I loved about recording remotely was that there was no clock. Whenever we felt like making music, that’s when we made music. Usually, you have to watch the clock in terms of session musicians and how long you can keep them in the studio. This felt more free, and I was shocked upon discovering that.”
For a songwriter who believes the craft “is extremely personal for me,” Radin calls “Fewer Ghosts” (with Aoife O’Donovan supplying background vocals) “the most personal [track on the album] in terms of me trying to figure out my life and my relationships, past and present.” He also was strongly affected — yet “in a different way” — by “I’ll Be Your Friend”, which he wrote for close pal Nick Cordero “while he was in a coma in the hospital, fighting a tragically losing battle with COVID.”
That made 2020 especially difficult for Radin, who reveals, “I spent most of my time alone, soul searching, reading so many books, and getting in better physical shape. I wanted to make sure that when the world opened up again, I was going to be the best version of myself.”
Though he admits in his bio, “I have no interest in finding romantic love until I’m fully self-aware,” the 47-year-old bachelor who was born and raised in Shaker Heights, Ohio, outside Cleveland, holds out hope to eventually discover essential needs that are currently missing. “I guess finding a partner to go through the rest of my life with would be cool? I could use a girlfriend and a dog,” Radin asserts in an email response.
Still, Radin has music to keep him company. While not declaring a preference for writing by himself or with a collaborator, Radin adds, “I do think the songs I’ve written alone, which is 90 percent of them, tend to be songs I like more.”
Continuing to strive for accomplishments as an artist, like writing “a song that I know will be listened to long after I’m gone,” he’s most fulfilled when touching others through his words and music. “I think that every time I play a song for someone, and they have a reaction like crying … that’s when I feel I’ve connected with another human being,” Radin divulges. “And I’m always most proud of those moments.”
Regarding how The Ghost and The Wall stacks up against his previous albums, Radin contends he’ll never be able to provide an answer, explaining, “That’s for you or anyone else to judge, I guess? Every time I make an album, I always feel like it’s my best work to date. Otherwise, I wouldn’t release it.”
Radin also isn’t sure if his next album will be done remotely — “I’d have to write more songs and then figure it out,” he deduces — but does want to team up with Wilson in the future — hopefully under different circumstances. “Actually, we’ve only emailed and texted, so one of these days I’ll have to meet him in person,” Radin confirms. “… I’d love to work with him again. I think he’s incredible.”
Maybe the former art teacher and screenwriter will get to know Nashville a little better, too. Perhaps well enough that Josh Radin can walk through another major city without passersby confusing him with actor and fellow 47-year-old Ohio native Josh Radnor. “It used to happen a bit more, ha-ha,” Radin recalls of previous experiences elsewhere. “He’s a buddy of mine, actually, and we joke about it sometimes, especially now that he’s become a musician.”
At this stage of his career, though, there’s no more Joshing around. Radin is waiting in the on-deck circle if Nashvillians want to see a serious musician step up to the mic.
Joshua Radin Takes a PopMatters PopQuiz: AmericanaFest Edition
Radin, a Los Angeles resident, agreed to answer some questions, most of which are related to AmericanaFest and the Music City, ahead of his showcase at 8:00 pm, Saturday, 25 September, at Mercy Lounge (1 Cannery Row).
What does Americana mean to you, and what are your thoughts about it being included as a music genre?
Joshua Radin: I’m not the person to ask when it comes to defining genres of music. I think it’s something people do to make things easier and quicker, to put any kind of creative expression in some sort of neatly tied package. I have never known what genre my music is, nor would I ever want to try to define it. You listen to it. As Elvis Costello put it, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.”
What song of yours best expresses the spirit of Americana?
Joshua Radin: Maybe “You’re My Home” [from The Ghost and The Wall], if I had to choose one song.
Among the artists performing at AmericanaFest this year, who tops your wish list of collaborators and why?
Joshua Radin: I don’t collaborate very often. I prefer to write songs on my own.
If you could collaborate anywhere with any artist past or present, who would it be and why?
Joshua Radin: I guess I’d love to be a fly on the wall, watching Bob Dylan write a song. And maybe if he let me throw out a lyric or two … that would be a fantasy of mine …
What’s the biggest regret or mistake you’re willing to share about yourself, either professionally or personally?
Joshua Radin: I wish I had been more open to critique when I started out. I think I would’ve gotten better as a writer and player earlier in my career.
What hidden gem in Nashville needs to be discovered by anyone who visits?
Joshua Radin: I really don’t know much about Nashville, to be honest. But I do love checking out the vintage guitar shops.
What’s your favorite venue in Nashville as a performer, and why?
Joshua Radin: I’d love one day to play the Ryman. That’s a goal for sure.
This is the second of a three-part series previewing artists scheduled to perform at AmericanaFest in Nashville from September 22-25. Part 1 featured Nashville-based singer-songwriter Rachel Baiman. Other musicians set to appear who were profiled here this year include Maggie Rose, Ida Mae, Suzanne Santo, and Desert Hollow.