INTERVIEW: Joshua Radin
After Joshua Radin picked up his first guitar at age 30, it didn’t take long before his songs began appearing on popular television shows and in films. His fourth studio album, Underwater, marks some significant lifetime experiences—finding inspirational peace his first time immersing himself underwater since age four and fulfilling a childhood dream of traveling to Spain and Italy. Only then, he hadn’t anticipated playing sold out shows. As Radin nears the end of his tour when he will land in the town he calls home—Los Angeles, we caught up with him to discuss conquering fears, his quest to discover “home,” and his perspective of music as art. Radin will be performing at The Wiltern on September 16, 2012 – tickets are available via LiveNation.com
I wanted to point out a couple lyrics from a song off your new album, that I thought were very relevant to someone who’s traveling—since you happen to be on tour. The song, “Lost at Home,” says “Who are you, when you’re home? Without a suitcase, nowhere to roam.” I found it very telling in an ironic way. Home is usually a very comfortable, familiar place. But it’s also a place where you’re forced to adapt and assimilate, which can cause you to bump up against all kinds of personal obstacles, etc. Whereas when you’re traveling, you’re literally “lost,” but that becomes the normal state. What was going through your head when you were writing that?
I’ve talked to a lot of my friends who are musicians and tour a lot about this thing that we call post tour depression. You spend so much time on the road that you just acclimate. Then you get home. You wake up in your bed. You’ve been jonesing for your bed and you just wanna go home. And then you get home and you kind of realize that it takes even more time to acclimate to being home. And then you start wondering what really is home for you when you spend more of your time out of it than in it.
Do you feel like you’ve found that, in terms of what is home for you?
I think I’m always searching for it. I think everyone is always searching for what home is. I think it’s a relative term. Some people believe that home is where your family is. Some people believe home is where you grew up. Some people believe home is where your friends are. Some people believe that home is the road when you’re a touring musician. That you’re not really yourself until you’re being an artist all the time and doing what you’re meant to do. I don’t know. I feel like I’m always searching for the answer to that question.
I want to compare that to something I heard another musician say. It was actually Jason Mraz. I remember he was talking about how wherever he is, he feels like he’s at home. Home is wherever you are if you’ve found your personal inner peace, of you’ve become really at one with yourself. Something like that.
I don’t know if I would ever say home is this. Like I said, I’m always searching for what that is. I’ve been asked a lot about something that I bring on tour to make me feel at home. And I always bring my favorite pillow from my bed, wherever I go. So wherever I lay my head down, I’m trying to convince myself that I’m in my own bed, you know. I think everyone’s got a different take on it. But I would never say home is this. Unless, you know—when falling in love, I felt that when I’m with that person, when I’m with that woman, it’s like—that’s home. I have that feeling. But like I said, I’m always searching for it. Haven’t found it just yet.
Do you feel at home in Los Angeles? I mean, in one of your new songs, Let it Go, which describes a very freeing drive you took up the California coastline, you said “I’m gonna save myself from Los Angeles.” What did you mean by that?
In that moment, I was feeling there were too many cooks in the kitchen in terms of my music. Too many people telling me how I should sound, how I should look. I just got in the car and drove away from the city. Sometimes Los Angeles can be amazing. But sometimes you can be surrounded by very fake plastic people. Sometimes that stereotype is true. And sometimes—most of the time actually—so many of my friends are there, that I find it to be the exact opposite.
Sometimes I find Los Angeles a great place to land off tour, as long as I can see familiar faces. A lot of my life is meeting people that I’ve never seen in my life before. New faces. And after months and months and months of that, sometimes you just wanna go home. You wanna go back to where you live and see your friends and see familiar faces all the time. That’s what you jones for. So in that moment when I was writing that song, I was very fed up with Los Angeles. A lot of my friends were on tour, and I wasn’t seeing any of them. A lot of the people I was seeing were the wrong people. I shouldn’t have been seeing any of those people. And that’s why I had to let it go.
You often cite the time you spent underwater in the Pacific Ocean as a point of inspiration for your new album, which is called “Underwater.” Tell me about that.
When I was about four years old, I had so many ear infections as a little kid that a hole in my eardrum formed in my right ear. The doctors looked at it and said I was to never go underwater—never stick my head underwater, for it would be extremely painful and damaging. So that’s what I did. I never went underwater.
Last year, he looked in my ear again and said it had naturally healed over all this time. He said if you want to go underwater, go ahead. So I did, with actually much trepidation. But I finally made it and I went to Hawaii to go snorkeling—to do it right, if I was going to do it the first time, you know? I went underwater and it was just an amazing experience. Really enlightening. And I heard this silence underwater that I’d never heard before. So it opened up my mind. Nothing was going on in my mind. It was totally silent. And all of a sudden, these string parts started flowing through my mind. And that song “Underwater” is the first song I wrote for this album. That inspiration came after about two or three months without writing anything. It sparked all the other songs for this album. So I titled the album, Underwater.
In that song, “Underwater,” you seem to really be suggesting that you’ve become really accepting of or undeterred by all the variables in the outside world that we often have no control over. And it’s interesting because when you’re underwater, you have very little control over what goes on in your surroundings.
Well that’s true, but for me personally, I felt more in control than ever.
Well I was doing something that I’d never been physically able to do. And then all of a sudden, I was in an environment where I felt like I was taking control of my life and doing something that I was always afraid of and was told not to do.
But the song itself is a metaphor. It’s not literally about going underwater. It’s a metaphor for experiencing new worlds that we’ve never been a part of. For me personally, it was going under the water, but using it as a metaphor, which is what I did, I was hoping people… Their underwater might be something they’ve never done before. Like maybe having a fear of intimacy and falling in love, or a fear of… Some people have a fear of flying. Maybe going up in a plane would be something freeing for them. And that loss of control would then give them a feeling of more control.
Sometimes when you’re afraid of something and you face your fear… You might be afraid of like I said, flying. And when you’re up in that plane, you really don’t have any control, right? You’re sitting there and the pilots are flying the plane. Or getting on the back of a motorcycle, or something like that where you feel like you’re not in control, but yet if you’ve always been afraid of it, you always have that feeling. That dichotomy is interesting, because you will have that feeling that you’re controlling more of your life instead of letting it control you.
So a controlled loss of control, sort of.
Your music tends to sound very mellow and soothing. Yet much of it has been written at times of emotional turmoil, such as in the aftermath of heartbreak. How do you translate that tumult and confusion into such softness and serenity?
I tend to live a very normal life when I’m just in my house or hanging out with my friends. But then whenever I get sort of a little sad or depressed or I’m really happy—you know I’m experiencing highs and lows or extremes in terms of emotion—that’s usually when I write. And I never write the lyrics and the music at the same time. I always write the music first. Usually something mellow, because I’m usually just sitting around my house, playing guitar, and feeling mellow. Because I’m really a pretty mellow person. And then I wait around for something I really need to say, and then I fit lyrics into it. So I think that would probably explain that juxtaposition you’re hearing.
I think your music really gives people a space where they are free to think and reflect. It doesn’t really dominate the soundscape, and the ideas are general enough for us to be able to project our own experiences. Maybe that’s why it’s been used on so many sound tracks for different TV and film storylines—because it’s very adaptable.
Possible. Yeah that’s possible. That would be a good explanation.
Do you get really excited to hear your music played on television?
Not particularly. I don’t really watch so much TV. But I get excited that my mom gets excited about it. I get excited that my music is getting out to more people. That’s a great way to garner exposure for my music because it’s not featured all over the radio. I started playing music only about eight years ago. I started writing songs right after I learned my first few chords on the guitar. And then right after that—pretty instantly, my songs started appearing on TV shows and films. So it was being heard all over the world, right away. I think it’s like hitting people over the head. It’s like killing two birds with one stone almost. I write pretty emotional music as you said, and that’s true. Then when it’s added to a scene, where you’re using the visual media as well and a storyline and actors and all these things, and coupling it with my song—every time someone hears one of my songs, it’s like a music video.
A lot of big musicians started off from when they were very young, knowing exactly what they wanted to do. Your musical career sort of more or less fell into your lap by accident later in life. What are some of the ways in which your talents in singing and songwriting manifested themselves earlier on, perhaps before you were really consciously practicing music?
I grew up as a painter. That’s what I studied in college. Then I was an art teacher for little kids in Chicago after I graduated. I was always interested in visual media and being behind the scenes. I was never interested in being on stage or having the spotlight thrust upon me, or anything like that. Then I spent about six years writing feature screenplays. Again, wanting to be behind the scenes, but doing something artistic and creative. Then I fell into the music.
Right when I started writing songs, they started being featured. It was one of those things where I had to learn how to play music in front of people. That’s why I’ve spent the last six or seven years on tour. Because I just feel like I’ve always been one to learn by doing. I surround myself by good musicians and I learn from them. And every time I play a show, I feel like I get a little better, or I learn something about myself as an artist—as a performer. I guess I consider myself more of an artist than a musician. That sounds horribly pretentious. I don’t mean it that way. There are so many different forms of media to express myself, and I’m just using music to do that right now. Who knows what will happen next?
We’ve talked a lot about wanting to go home and not feeling at home, but what were some of the highlights of this tour that you’ve been on in the last several months?
I’d never been to Spain or Italy before. And I got to go to a few cities in Spain and Italy and play. That was so cool. I’ve always wanted to visit Spain or Italy ever since I was a little kid. Eight years ago when I started touring and playing music, I kept trying to get my booking agents to book me a gig in Spain or Italy. And it was just very difficult for them. They kept coming back to me and saying—we can’t find anywhere to book you a gig. No one knows who you are, so they’re not going to come and let you play.
It was very frustrating, and I just kept at it and kept at it. A lot of these markets outside the United States—I’ve had to make them my markets, in a sense. The same happened with the UK. I kept getting these e-mails on MySpace—when MySpace was all the rage right when I started playing music—from people in the UK saying, we heard your music on these TV shows and in these movies. Will you please come play a show? Please tell the labels to release your music over here.
So after many times of asking the label I was on at the time to release my music and book me a show over there—like in London or something like that—they would say, No, no, no. We’re not going to do it until we’re sure it’s going to be released as a number one or something like that. Well it’s never going to be a number one! I just want to go over there and play for people! And so I left the label and just decided to go over there and pay for it myself. And then I made it one of my strongest markets just by going there and playing. And using word of mouth and grass roots techniques and things like that.
That’s what I decided to do with Spain and Italy this time around. It was so much fun. I sold out all these shows in Spain and Italy. Now I get to go back. The best advice I ever got from someone was—you play a show in a town only for one reason. Just so that you can come back and play another show in that town. So that’s the way I go about it. And that’s why I can play all over the world now and sell out big rooms of people in places where my music hasn’t even been released. I just go over there. And there’s no substitute for being there in person. That was definitely the highlight of this Underwater tour—Spain and Italy for the first time. Not only getting to play there for the first time, but getting to go and see the Coliseum and see Gaudi buildings in Spain.
I went to Italy about a year ago, and I loved the gelato.
I ate pasta everyday and gelato for dessert every night.
Thanks so much. I really enjoyed listening. Is there anything you would like to add?
I would say the moral of the story is it’s never too late. I picked up my first instrument when I turned thirty. I would hope that people read about my story and hope that they wouldn’t get locked into something that they’ve been locked in because they’re too afraid to try something new. You never know where life will take you if you keep an open mind.