In early 2017, the world of music expanded ever so slightly when it was revealed that Australian musician Ben Lee had partnered with American actor Josh Radnor to form a band. Although Lee’s status as a constant figure on the Aussie music scene was well-established, it was the presence of Radnor – who rose to fame with the lead role in How I Met Your Mother – that undoubtedly turned a few heads.
Although stories of actors-turned-musicians are often ones that can live in infamy, Radnor & Lee were never destined for such a career. Rather, their work was a welcome success, with their self-titled 2017 debut receiving widespread praise across the board, and cementing the duo as an accomplished pair of artists.
Following an Australian tour in 2018, the pair went back to their old tricks for a period of time. While Radnor joined the cast of the newly-launched series Hunters, Lee recorded the soundtrack to the musical B Is For Beer, and a covers album dubbed Quarter Century Classix.
In late 2019 though, Radnor & Lee returned, revealing that a new record was on the way. Inspired by a trip to Brazil and an inadvertent LSD trip, these new songs began to trickle out across the early months of 2020. Unfortunately, their plans for a May release date were disrupted by the global COVID-19 pandemic, causing Golden State to be pushed back until the following month.
Now, with their record out in the world, and plans of touring put on hold for the foreseeable future, both Radnor and Lee spoke to Rolling Stone from their homes in the US to discuss the creation of their new album, time in lockdown, and what’s next.
How have you both been coping with everything going on for the last few months?
Ben Lee: I would say personally well and not well, but like appropriately not well. Particularly in America, it’s a bit different to Australia, but particularly in America, the ineptitude of the administrations response has been part of the whole tragedy. So, it’s very hard to feel at peace with that. But you know, at the same time, life goes on. We are creators. How would you describe it josh?
Josh Radnor: How would I describe it? I mean, if you are creative person that veers towards introspection and introversion, there are a lot of gifts available, but also if you have those qualities, you are probably an empathetic, compassionate person, which this stuff will destroy you. I had a friend that died after a long battle with COVID [recently]. And I know other people that have lost… It feels like it’s really hitting hardest, the musicians.
So, there is this kind of interesting negotiation between using the valuable time that is feels like we’ve been granted, to just stop. And not only just to make things, but actually to stop making things and reflect and figure out who you are in the absence of chasing anything or doing anything. It’s an opportunity to just simply be. And then at the same time there is this ache at the heart of it which is the fact that there is so much suffering. So much suffering becoming visible to so people that, people had been suffering, but it feels like there is this awakening around so much of it. So, I would say it’s just complicated. I would say it’s both been, personally rather exciting and collectively, kind of harrowing.
In the midst of everything, you guys have had the pleasure of releasing a new album and everything, which I assume has helped to provide a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel, in a sense. How has the reaction to all of that been?
BL: The audience is funny, because there is something about being a fan of music of whatever it is, it gives you a period of respite almost, from life’s other issues. I’ve been quite grateful for the people that like our music. Just the warm response to it in a very genuine way. It’s a little trickier to figure out what role as an artist that you are playing in the world right now.
Especially with work that was created before all of this. Because it feels a little bit like you are trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, when times are so different. But, fundamentally, the need for music that expresses joy and struggle and harmony and these and like eternal needs. So, in some ways it just feels, I don’t know, as important.
JR: I also think that when we are allowed to gather again and play live music, and enjoy live music, it’s going to feel both like this glorious return to something, and also like we are not the same people before who went into our homes. We will have emerged differently. I was just reading Jia Tolentino and The New Yorker did this kind of reappraisal of Waxahatchee’s record, Saint Cloud, which is an album that I really, really loved. She was all set to tour with it, they were right about to hit the road with the record and couldn’t. But she was reflecting on how there is something in that record, even though it was created before.
It’s like she is hearing it in a different way. And I feel like if artists are doing their part, which is just following whatever inspiration strikes, that the art will be malleable enough to handle or to be the soundtrack to any moment. Not any moment, but it will be bigger than the moment it was created in. So, hopefully we created something that you can still certainly put it on in your house. And you can certainly drive and crank the volume up on it. But we just love the record, and we weren’t trying to make a record of the moment, we were trying to make a record that would sound good in five, 10, 20 years, also.
There are a few songs where some of the lyrics almost feel a little bit too pertinent for the times. One song, “Greene Street” mentions the world being on fire, and it felt far too fitting for the world we’re in. However, I am assuming that the record was all wrapped up before everything hit this year?
BL: Yeah, I think we finished it late last year. It’s weird, I mean there is a sort of, I don’t know whether it’s a psychic phenomenon in all that, or it at least works with abstraction enough so that you should be able to project your current needs on to timeless art. Otherwise it wouldn’t be timeless, you know what I mean? So that does seem to be one of the criteria of good work, is that it is flexible enough to weather different atmospheres or periods in history.
When did the creative process of the record start? The first one arrived in 2017, but the both of you have been pretty busy over the last couple of years. So, when did you find time to really get down to making a new album?
JR: Well, we had this great tour to South America, where it shook up our idea what we were and who we wanted to be as a duo. And then I started playing guitar, which just expanded our musical vocabulary because if I was holding down rhythm, Ben was able to do much more interesting stuff. And then finding Justin Stanley, our producer for this record, so I think it’s hard to isolate a moment.
I know we had been [playing] around with “Outside In” before Brazil and we finished the song and actually started playing it. We got it up on its feet in South America. I think that was the first song, maybe “Resignation Song” had been kicking around. I think it was too fresh to put on the last album. So, it’s hard to say, I mean, time is bending, I don’t know when we did what.
But Ben and I did a kind of musical residency at my house, where we moved over every musical instrument or any sonic anything we could find. And we just, we just hung out at my house for a month and a lot of songs came out of that period. “Simple Harmony” came out of that period, “Down in The Dirt” came out of there. A couple songs that didn’t end up on the record came out of there. So, we just gave ourselves a lot of time. We didn’t have a deadline. We were like, “We’re going to put out the album when it feels like there’s enough songs, we are really excited about.”
Was there anything specifically that you guys really were trying to do differently this time around? Obviously with Josh playing guitar, that would’ve been different, but was there anything else you attempted to improve on or change for this record?
BL: I think it was more like connected to live performance, like, tracking as much as we could on every song live. Rehearsing, we rehearsed a lot for this record. That was just a vital part of making [older] records. It used to be before you had Pro Tools and everything. And we wanted to make a record that was more reflective of that process, like write, rehearse, record live. That was a really fun challenge.
JR: In my limited experience of making records, I feel like it’s better to kind of take a song out on the road, whether that’s literally or metaphorically, and figure out what it is and the best expression for it and then bring it into the studio. Because I think there can be some heartache. I know this as a writer, where something’s kind of done, and then you crack it after the fact. Whereas with a song, you kind of want to go, this is actually the best expression of the song.
And two of the songs, “Gimme Your Mess” and “Down in The Dirt”, we actually did in the original session, and then they just weren’t landing with the rest of the record. So, we re-conceived them to be more a part of the sonic world of the record, and we went back into the studio with Justin and we did them [again]. And I think that was exactly the right move.
We just we just unhooked ourselves from a strict timeline. So, the songs would find their best expression and also, like kind of what Ben said. We wanted what the song sounds like live to be kind of what they sound like on the record, and vice versa. So, if you come to hear a Radnor and Lee show, you’ll know what the songs sound like. I mean, it’ll be different, obviously. But, we wanted to create something that almost sounded like it was caught live. And in fact, a lot of times it was.
That is obviously where a lot of bands that have found themselves really thriving, on the live stage. To hear that onto the album, the end result feels very representative of what you two do.
BL: I also think that recording technology has become so inexpensive and so easy. Like you have 12-year old’s learning Logic and Pro Tools and able to make the most perfectly quantised beats and samples. And it’s almost like the challenge of making perfect sounding records is no longer a challenge. When Fleetwood Mac were doing it, it was like it required so much commitment and assistance and tenacity. Now it’s very simple.
So, I think as a counterpoint to that, setting some limitations where you don’t fix too many things. And you try and see actually how good you can play it and how good you can sing it. It’s a fun re-embracing of some limitations,
JR: One of our obsessions is in our conversations, is just the notion of perfection and both its unattainability and how it can kind of drive you mad. I remember Ben saying to me years ago like, “People don’t actually want to see perfection, they want to see someone striving, going for it, reaching for it.” We want to see the process. So, if there was a moment when the voice kind of strains or cracks, we wanted to leave those things in.
When you were creating the new album, or even the previous album, were there any sort of specific artists that you turned to for inspiration?
BL: I remember where we were watching [The Rolling] Stones videos and really looking at the interaction between voice and guitar, and The [Grateful] Dead. What other references did we have while we were actually recording? I remember times where we were hovered around the computer screen watching YouTube videos.
JR: “Three Feet of Light” didn’t make it on the record, but that was our Yo La Tengo song.
BL: I’m a big fan of getting in the zone of like, almost trying to copy something, because it never works. Maybe if I was a better chameleon, I’d be better at imitating, but I always find trying to do your version of something, is like it’s almost like you’re destined for originality.
JR: We both did watch that six-part Dead documentary on Amazon [2017’s Long Strange Trip] and we talked quite a bit about that. But I don’t even know if it was so much the music as it was like, the ethos of that band and what they were up to. And Jerry [Garcia, The Grateful Dead guitarist and vocalist] kept talking about, like, his only criteria is “Will it be fun?” You know, Ben and I, the only reason we’re doing it is because it’s super fun. And we like writing songs together and people like hearing us play together.
So, I think as a guiding philosophy that was kind of what it was, and the folk country thing I think is… just for me, you know, that’s the music I grew up with. And I really respond well to three and four chord songs. There’s something where my ear wants to resolve chords, my ear wants tap along. You know, we write our own melodies on top of them, but they’re kind of these classical structures.
Content wise, there seems to be like a real feeling of spirituality at the forefront of it. Not so much religion, but more spirituality of the self. Is that sort of something that you found yourself focusing on, whether it be intentionally or otherwise?
BL: It’s funny because it’s like, there’s those words like, “What is rock and roll without soul?” You know what I mean? And in a way I think the spirituality of rock and roll music has always been in regards to, “Does it feel soulful or not?” And I think that’s something that both Josh and I really respond to. That it should feel soulful. You know, whatever you’re singing about, even if you’re just singing about like, you know, just human desire, just driving a car, whatever it is, it should feel soulful. And I think that is to me, that’s the sort of basic spiritual tenant of music.
JR: I also think there’s no art form, I would argue, and this could be disproven, but like music is the most spiritual of art forms. And I mean that in the most kind of elemental way because it’s the only art form that’s not representing something in the material world. You know, dance is using bodies, sculpture is using form, painting is reflecting what we’re seeing. Drama obviously is like you see it – it’s material. There’s something mysterious and inherently spiritual about music because we don’t even know where it comes from. It’s just like, it emerges from this weird sphere of transcendence, and then it goes back where it came from, and you can’t hold it or touch it. You can measure it in wave vibrations, but it’s very spiritual.
So, I feel like it also, because of that, it’s kind of the best art form. You could maybe say the novel is maybe up there with it, but in terms of representing interiority, and interior life, which is not material. It’s thought, it’s feeling, it’s movement, It’s emotional. And I define spirituality under that very, very big umbrella. So, in that way, I suppose the album is spiritual, but I think we kind of like understand where that label comes from. And we’re also trying to like weasel out from underneath it all at the same time.
With everything that has been going on, are you already looking ahead to more music or is that something that always just sort of is flowing in the background?
BL: It’s so unknown. I think it’s interesting in America at the moment, it seems like something’s happened the last few weeks. Where there’s been a new joining of like, “Oh this is a long haul.” It’s almost like until a few weeks ago, there was the, ‘it’s getting better’ type of feeling. And now suddenly it’s like, “Oh, this is going to be a while.” So, I think together and individually, us reckoning with how we’re going to deal with that is like, it’s an imminent question we’re facing. I mean, both Josh and I would love to be up on the stage. Who knows what the reality of that or what variants of that experience are going to be available?
JR: It almost feels though, like in terms of steps or natural next right thing that’s supposed to happen, it does feel like the next thing that we’re longing for to do is to share these songs in a live context. It’s like it’s a part of this we didn’t get to do and complete. But there is also only one section of this album that we wrote on Skype, which is this part of “Greene Street”. Every other piece of it was essentially written in the same room. And it’s hard to be in the same room right now.
So, unless Ben is down for some FaceTime, which I’ll say on the record: I am down to write anytime you want, Ben. I know it’s difficult and it’s not ideal but you know, we have a couple orphans that I want to re-examine. I think we both kind of have musical ideas that we, at least I do well, where I’ll be like, “I don’t know if this is a song. This is a rather early song.” And a lot of that is I just need Ben’s help and perspective on it, because he can help bring a song that I’m stuck on… He’s always so good at, He’s just really good at writing songs.
Radnor & Lee’s Golden State is out now via all streaming services.