“Well, Ryan Dilmore came over to my house and I played him a really unreasonable amount of songs,” Josh Radnor told American Songwriter, beginning the story of how his debut EP, One More Then I’ll Let You Go, came to be.
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Out on April 16 via Flower Moon Records, the EP is a five-song journey highlighting the famous actor, writer and director’s recent embrace of the musician lifestyle. On April 14, Radnor put out the EP’s final single: “Apocalyptic Love Song,” a humorous-yet-moving tune showing off his genius for sincere songwriting.
Perhaps best known for portraying Ted Mosby in the seminal sitcom, How I Met Your Mother, Radnor began writing songs just under a decade ago. Teaming up with acclaimed Australian singer-songwriter, Ben Lee, the two began releasing the music under the name Radnor & Lee in 2017. Yet, while the duo’s artistic partnership proved to be an ideal one—they’ve released two records to-date—Radnor has also been on a journey of his own: learning how to play guitar and learning how to write songs.
Even though Radnor, at first, felt a bit self-conscious about starting to learn a new skill so late in his life, he soon found that his reservations were a bit misplaced. Once he got the knack of writing, songs started coming to him left and right. Eventually, this led to the aforementioned night when Radnor played an “unreasonable amount of songs” for Dilmore, Radnor & Lee’s producer.
“I saw him glance at his phone to check the time and I thought he had to go, so I said ‘Alright, one more and then I’ll let you go,’” Radnor remembered. “He looked at me and said ‘That’s the name of your album.’ It was perfect. It’s got this kinda eeriness to it, like ‘What do you mean one more and you’ll let me go?’ But what it literally meant was: let me play you one more song and then I’ll let you leave.”
This genuine excitement for the art of songwriting is evident in nearly everything Radnor does. From the way he glows when speaking about it to the way he prioritizes clever craftsmanship in the songs themselves, there’s a certain purity to his creative boom. Last week, Radnor hopped on the phone with American Songwriter to discuss the new EP and his journey creating it, offering insight into his creative process and how he was able to overcome his self-doubt and reinvent himself as an artist. Read our conversation below:
American Songwwriter: You’ve been releasing music with Ben Lee since 2017, but this is your first proper solo endeavour—what led you to this moment?
Josh Radnor: I can’t really remember when I started writing songs with Ben Lee. It was about seven or eight years ago, I think. I didn’t play guitar, he was the resident guitar player of our duo. We wrote all of the songs together for our first album, but I didn’t play anything—I collaborated on the music and the lyrics and it was a terrific collaboration. In fact, I was startled by how much I enjoyed songwriting. Some of it felt really new, but a lot of it grew out of stuff I was already fascinated by. I’ve always loved rhythm and rhyme and storytelling in that creative sense. So, I loved being able to tell these creative, four-minute-long stories.
Then, about four years ago, I was going through a really hard time. I had a guitar and knew a couple of chords, but I really was not a legitimate guitar player. But, I wrote a song that sorta spoke to the moment I was in—it was called “Foolish Gold” and it’s built around really simple chord shapes. I played it for Ben and he loved it, so I started playing at Radnor & Lee shows; he’d play a song, then I’d play a song. It started getting a good response from the audience, people really connected with. Eventually, Ben said ‘Hey, let’s be a two guitar band. If you can hold down rhythm, I can do fun voicings and stuff and we’ll get a much cooler sound going.’ So after that, I started to really play in earnest.
AS: When did the songs start coming together for this EP?
JR: Once I started songwriting, wherever I was, songs just started pouring out of me (which was in addition to the ones I was already writing with Ben for our second record). But it’s taken me a while to get confident. I think I kinda needed the safety of working with Ben. who, of course, has been a professional since he was, like, 12 or 13. I’ve had some stuff I’ve had to work through, confidence-wise, just from having a late start.
But I remember I heard Ben Gibbard from Death Cab For Cutie say that he’s more interested in what people were writing during their first year of songwriting, as opposed to, say, their twentieth year. That’s because the music has a different kind of energy when you’re a beginner in songwriting. I really felt that. I couldn’t stop writing songs my first year, it was almost compulsive. I still write songs really regularly, but I miss the energy from that first year of songwriting. I just felt like I had a superpower. I kept thinking ‘I can’t believe that I can write songs.’
I worked with our friend Ryan Dilmore, who produced the first Radnor & Lee record. Whenever we could grab time, we were working on these songs. We worked on a bunch, but these were the five that we felt best about. Though, I’ve obviously written a ton over the pandemic too. So, I’ve got a lot left to record.
I’m just really inspired with songwriting. It’s a really fun way to tell stories. As someone who’s directed movies—which is, like, a two-year process—it’s amazing that you can spend an afternoon working and get something that is nearly in its final form. You can say ‘I made this, it’s a three-minute story.’
AS: You mentioned that songs just “started pouring out of” you—what did that look like? Would you get struck by an idea and follow it? Would a whole song come to you at once?
JR: There are so many different ways into a song. Once I started learning different chord shapes, I started to figure out—almost mathematically—what chords go with what. It’s not actually that hard to crack. A thing I love about songwriting is how you can do so much with so little. You can learn two chords and start writing songs. So, I feel that there’s this merciful thing going on around songwriting where you don’t need to be a virtuoso on guitar to write some really good, interesting songs.
The other aspect of this is: even though I’ve been an actor, writer and director for years, music is probably my deepest love. I will always choose listening to an album over watching a movie. I’m such a fan of music; I really trust my taste, I really trust my ear. But, I always thought that you had to have started playing at, like, 10 or 11, forming a band in your parents’ garage. I just thought that if you hadn’t done it by my age, especially, then you were never going to do it. I always felt like musicians spoke this language that I was never going to be able to speak, even though I understood it intuitively.
But, once I started playing and learning the technical side of how to literally construct songs, it demystified the process for me (even though it became no less exciting). Now, I go into songs a whole lot of different ways. Sometimes I just mess around with a pattern of chords I really love. Other times, I’ll look up chords for songs I really love and lay a different melody on top. Sometimes I have a really strong lyrical idea and I’ll start there. Occasionally, I’ll write a bunch of lyrics and then find something to go with them, musically.
AS: You co-write often—what is that like?
JR: I do a lot of co-writing, even in addition to Ben. I write a lot of songs with Molly Tuttle, who is an amazing bluegrass writer. Also Kyle Cox, who is a Nashville cat and Jensen McRae, who is incredible. Here’s what I love about co-writing: you’re just having a conversation. You’re just dropping in and talking with someone. But out of that conversation, something emerges that feels worthy of exploring. That, to me, is the best way to do it. What are you both interested in? What are you both thinking about? What does the moment feel like? What do you want to explore? Everyone has their own process and I think most folks probably have four or five different ways that they write songs.
AS: You are a multi-talented individual who, as you mentioned, has acted, written and directed all at a high caliber. Considering that, do you feel that music gives you a unique outlet that you can’t access through other mediums?
JR: I think so. When I discovered acting, I was a teenager. I felt the same kind of excitement over the endless possibilities of that too. I was tapping into parts of myself that hadn’t been unveiled yet. The whole thing was terribly exciting.But as I’ve gotten older, I have less things to check off my list as an actor. I’ve done so many of the things that I dreamt about as a high schooler.
That doesn’t mean it’s not still a kick for me—I’m on a television show now called Hunters, which is really fun. I enjoy it deeply. But as I’m getting older, I find that there are two things with acting that are frustrating to me. One: you have to wait for permission to do it. You can’t just wake up and go ‘Oh, I’m going to act today!’ You have to be invited to do it. But also, I feel like there are some things I know now, just from having experience. As an actor, you’re saying other people’s words. But, there’s something special about being a writer, director or songwriter. I’m more interested in being the originator of the material, it’s just more exciting to me.
I have a song that hasn’t been released yet, but it’s very personal and auto-biographical. One of the lines is: “I started writing songs when I was just north of 40/ I try to write some everyday/ I wish that I had started sometime in the ‘90s/ but I’m not sure I had much to say.” I think that really says it, for me. There’s this feeling of ‘Oh, I wish I had started earlier,’ but I think that being my age is part of why I’m feeling this burst of creativity. I know something now that I didn’t know 20 or 30 years ago.
AS: It’s been several years since your first started working on this collection of songs, yet some of them—especially this new single, “Apocalyptic Love Song”—feel rather appropriate for what’s happening in the world right now, albeit serendipitously. How have these songs changed or grown for you?
JR: I have a bunch of songs that were written pre-pandmeic, but actually play really well in a post-pandemic world. Just for kicks, I started a YouTube channel around the end of 2019. I posted some of the songs I was writing, especially during quarantine this past year. It got a really wonderful response, which really lit a fire beneath me to get something out in a more formal way.
I wrote ‘Apocalyptic Love Song’ in 2017 during my first year of songwriting. It was one of the first songs I ever wrote that I felt really good about. It had a really strong vision that I felt I followed through on. I put that up in March or April of last year and it really took off on YouTube, so I’m so excited to release a fuller version of it. It’s kinda dark and ironic, but it’s a love song. It’s about the end of the world and that kinda felt like what we were all facing at that moment.
So, sometimes songs come through and you don’t realize that they’re going to grow even more meaningful down the line. That’s just part of the mystery of it all.
Josh Radnor’s debut solo EP, One More And I’ll Let You Go, is out on April 16. You can pre-save it here. Watch Josh’s original acoustic YouTube performance of “Apocalyptic Love Song” below: