Josh Radnor’s Personal, Ambitious ‘Eulogy’

“I think there’s something intimate about the way I write,” says singer-songwriter Josh Radnor, on a recent video call from his New York City home. “I hope that my songs are a kind of invitation to lean forward. I’m not shouting. I’m not pummeling people with energy. I think of it like it’s a campfire, and I’m telling stories around this campfire. If it’s your vibe, pull up a seat. If it’s not, there’s other campfires.”

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Listeners will get an extra dose of Radnor’s folk/Americana style with his full-length debut, which is a double album. Eulogy Vol. 1 will come out on November 17, with Vol. 2 coming sometime next year. “I respect ambition when someone’s really swinging for the fences,” he says, “but it wasn’t so much that I thought I wanted to make this grand statement. I was just overloaded with songs that I wanted to find a home for.”

Using Eulogy in the title might imply that this album is downcast, but it actually emerged out of significant joy in Radnor’s life. “About halfway through the recording, I met the woman who I’m now engaged to—we’re getting married early next year,” he says. “She’s a psychologist. Her PhD thesis was about the connection between love and death, and how a more present awareness of death between people actually increases intimacy and connection. So when I was getting to know her, I was having all these really wonderful conversations about love and death and mortality.

“Some of these songs directly reference death,” he continues, “but a lot of them are about parts of me that were really active at some point, but seem to have run their course. So I could probably make a case for each song being like a mini funeral for some aspect of myself that served me up to a point, but was no longer necessary. Each song was kind of a eulogy for these parts of myself.” Looking at the album overall, he adds, “I’d like to think of it as a joyous kind of embrace of death, rather than some fearful thing.”

He says he feels comfortable expressing such emotional and mature ideas because he’s been through so many ups and downs, both in his personal life and in his career, so he can sing about things with real conviction. And, he adds, these experiences give him meaningful topics to cover in his lyrics.

This certainly was the case with Eulogy, which emerged out of particularly personal experiences last year. “I was a couple months out of a breakup and couldn’t really be back in L.A. for a number of reasons, so I was a little bit in exile,” he says. Then his friend Kyle Cox invited him to Nashville to record some songs; his other friends Cory Quintard and Jeremiah Dunlap got involved in the process, too. All three of them ended up serving as his producers. 

Josh Radnor (Photo by Eli Greiss)

The project soon evolved into two distinct halves. “We thought, ‘Let’s do one album that’s more produced and one album that’s a little more lo-fi basement tapes vibe.’ So during the day, we worked on what became [Eulogy] Vol. 1, the three of us together. And then a couple nights a week, I went over to Kyle’s place after his kids were asleep and we recorded Vol. 2. So it just ended up being a real month saturated in music and creativity—it was really quite joyous. And I emerged with a double album,” he says.

It might be little surprise that Radnor can be this prolific. After all, he says, “I’ve always known I have a gift for rhythm and rhyme. Even just a jokey poem for someone’s birthday, I knew how to write in a way that was effective, that was rhythmically precise.”

At first, he expressed his creativity by acting in musicals in high school in his native Ohio, then continued on this path through college and grad school, and on to taking roles professionally. “So I knew I had a voice,” he says, but he adds that the way he sings for musical theater is quite different from the way he sings as a singer-songwriter.

While in grad school, he’d written lyrics for songs that one of his classmates penned, but his musical ambitions were sidelined as his acting career took off. He earned widespread fame for his portrayal of the main character Ted Mosby on the hit TV sitcom How I Met Your Mother, which ran from 2005 to 2014, and he has worked steadily as an actor and director ever since.

But as that part of his career took off, Radnor never forgot about his desire to try songwriting, as well—but he admits that it seemed prohibitively daunting to him for quite some time. “The idea that I was ever going to be able to pick up a guitar and write my own songs felt just impossible,” he says. Even so, he couldn’t shake the idea. “I’ve been such a music fan for so long, and when I love something, I love it very dearly and deeply. I started to think, ‘Could I make the kind of music that has moved me? That I would want to listen to?’”

He got his chance to give music a real shot when, in 2013, he teamed up with his friend Ben Lee, an accomplished Australian musician who has released more than a dozen solo albums. “Ben said, ‘Let’s write a song together,’ and we wrote one—and we wrote another one,” Radnor says. “Then the third week we got together, he said, ‘Let’s make an album.’ It was that simple. He really gave me this feeling that my musical impulses were to be listened to.”

As the duo Radnor & Lee, they released a 2017 self-titled debut album and a 2021 follow-up, Golden State. Both received favorable reviews. Radnor credits Lee with mentoring him as he mastered this new craft as they wrote and recorded these albums.

For example, Lee would sometimes tell him that he was writing lines that were a little too lyrical or poetic. “He would say, ‘That line would work in a poem, but it’s not great to sing.’ Stephen Sondheim actually said this, too: you want your lyrics to be a touch flatter because the melody is actually doing a lot of work, or the rhythm is doing a lot of work. So I had to resist some of my more poetic impulses to get good at songwriting,” Radnor says.

In 2021, Radnor had accumulated enough material of his own to put out a solo EP, One More Then I’ll Let You Go. “It definitely felt vulnerable to put out the EP under my own name, but it was really well received,” he says. Encouraged, he continued creating the songs that have ended up on the Eulogy double album.

By now, Radnor has developed his own personal preferences for the writing process: “I generally have to start with a strong lyrical or thematic idea—that carries me through more than a great melody. Like, I have hundreds of voice memos of interesting chord progressions or sonic ideas that don’t find a home if I don’t have the lyrics. But if I start with some lyrics, I’m able to find a melody that matches.”

He also likes to leave things loose enough to allow for unexpected inspiration. “Sometimes I pick up the guitar and just noodle around because you’ll have some happy accidents. You’ll say, ‘I just lifted my finger up there or put it down, and wow, what a weird, interesting sound that makes.’”

Ultimately, Radnor feels that being a singer-songwriter ties in well with all of the other creative endeavors he’s done over the years. “I don’t always want to be looked at—sometimes I want to be a little more behind the scenes; it’s kind of the writer-director part of me,” he says, “and songwriting is really a fusion of writer-director-actor-singer. It all comes to bear.”

With this new album, Radnor shows the world how far he’s come as a musician—and hopes the messages he’s sharing will be meaningful to others. “There’s some real sadness and melancholy in these songs, but there’s also this kind of resilience and rebirth,” he says. “I want [my music] to be a good companion for people who are going through whatever they’re going through. I hope the music is broad enough that it can meet anyone at whatever moment they’re at, and either give them some relief or a different perspective.”

Featured photo by Nikhil Suresh

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