Interview: Joshua Radin (@ The Birchmere, 3/18/22)

Joshua+Radin
Joshua Radin (Photo by Catie Laffoon)

Joshua Radin is a singer-songwriter, originally from Shaker Heights, Ohio, who has been writing songs, performing, and recording music for the last 17 years. He’s appearing at The Birchmere on Friday, March 18. Josh and talked to Parklife DC’s Mark Engleson about their shared Ohio roots, finding your creative heart, and life on the road.

Mark Engleson: Hello, is this Josh?

Joshua Radin : Hey, is this Mark?

ME: How are you doing?

JR: Good, how are you?

ME: I’m great. Just finished a session of writing to prompts within my circle. Feeling relaxed and ready to talk.

JR: Great, let’s do it.

ME: You’re coming to the Birchmere on March 18. Are you on tour now, or when does that start up?

JR: Yeah, I’m on tour. I’m in Denver right now, playing here tonight.

ME: How long are you out for on this swing?

JR: Let’s see. I think in the States it’s about a 6 or 7-week tour. Then I have a couple weeks off, and then I hit Europe for about a month. And then I’m not sure after that.

ME: Is this your first time back on the road since…everything?

JR: Yeah. [Laughs.] It feels so good.

ME: It bothers me a little that I’ve kind of enjoyed working from home. There’s a lot of downtime at my job, and I don’t have to sit at a desk and pretend to work. Today I read a chunk of the John Hiatt biography.

JR: That’s cool. For me, it’s sort of the opposite. I missed doing what I love for two years. Live music was the last thing to come back, really, and I’ve just been miserable without it. I’m like a kid in a candy store again.

ME: I’ve missed shows. They’re a great place to socialize, because you know have at least one thing in common with everyone there.

JR: Yeah, totally. There are a lot of people who go to live music, or used to, before the pandemic, sometimes three, four nights a week even. When I was in college, I waited tables for money, and any money I had left over was for records or concert tickets. It’s all I cared about.

Watch Joshua Radin perform “You’re My Home” live on YouTube:

ME: You were in school at Northwestern. What was the Chicago scene like then?

JR: There was all kinds of music in Chicago: blues, jazz. Back then, the late ’90s, jam bands were pretty big. You could see anyone — the singer-songwriters. I used to go see a lot of jazz and blues, like Melvin Taylor and Sugar Blue, play a couple nights a week in Chicago. Evanston itself wasn’t really a great college town per se, you really had to go into the city in Chicago.

ME: But Evanston is right on the edge of the city. I spent a couple summers, at in their summer programs for teenagers, and it’s right there, easy trip in.

JR: Oh yeah.

ME: I’m wondering if you and I may have grown up on some of the same music. I am from the northwest suburbs of Akron.

JR: Oh nice, Ohio boy, like.

ME: Yeah, that was part of why I thought it would be interesting to talk. I grew up listening to the public radio station out of Kent State, and to their folk/Americana programming. Did you listen to that?

JR: I didn’t really listen to so much radio growing up. Any radio I heard was just what was coming out of my parents’ car when they were dropping me off somewhere. And that was pretty much the Oldies station. It was all Motown, soul music, classic rock. My parents were kids of the ’60s. We had great music all the time in the house, in the car. It was either Motown or Stax records or that kind of stuff, or it was Dylan, Beatles, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, that kind of stuff.

ME: My experience was very similar. My parents kind of checked at some point in the early ’70s. You’re from Shaker Heights, right

JR: Yeah.

ME: That’s definitely a place we went up to, to get deli food, things like that.

JR: It was a nice little place to grow up, I have to say. I left when I was 18. I was just one of those kids who was always dreaming of a bigger city.

ME: That was how I felt about Akron. I couldn’t wait to get out, and I have no desire to ever go back.

JR: I like going back to see people, but do I see myself going back to live there? Not really. I don’t even know if I see myself living in American much longer.

ME: Are you thinking of moving to Europe?

JR: Yeah, for a period of time. I just got rid of my place in Los Angeles, put all of my stuff in storage and I just have a suitcase and a guitar. It feels very freeing to not have a lot of stuff. I feel like an old-school troubadour or something. It just seems so romantic to me to hit the road and just try to stay on the road playing concerts, meeting people and traveling. I think I want to just keep traveling around and seeing places and figuring out where I want to live. I’m not sure. I like the idea of a month in a place, learning, checking it out, making some friends, and going to the next place. Just being a nomad for a while. One of the things the pandemic made me think about  so much, being stuck in my home, not being able to go anywhere, is that I’m a roamer. I like to wander. I love waking up every day in a new town on a tour, walking around. I love to walk. I love to stumble into places: record stores, vintage shops and book shops, coffee places.  See what happens. I get jumpy if I’m in 1 place for a long time.

Watch Joshua Radin perform “Fewer Ghosts” live via YouTube:

ME: Over the last few years, even if you aren’t a roamer, you got real, real sick of your small apartment.

JR: [Laughs] Yeah, exactly. And I was meant to roam initially. Just growing up in Ohio, in a suburb of Cleveland, was nice. It was like the Wonder Years, you know? It’s a nice place to grow up. It’s safe. I could walk my dog around the block when I was 10 years old at night and not worry about being abducted, or that kind of thing. But when you hit a certain age it just felt like, by the time I was 14, 15, it was, “Please, get me out of here.”

ME: That happened to me fairly early on. In high school, I was the smartest guy in my class, but I was constantly in trouble, both of my own making, and of people pushing me, because they could get a response. If they hadn’t figured out something, I would’ve gotten myself expelled. Ohio had a thing where they could send high school students to the local state university, so after two years of high school, they sent me there, because they just had no idea what else to do. And I admit, some of the stuff I did, I did purely because I wanted to see if I could get away with it.

JR: It sounds like you were the protagonist of a lot of the books I grew up loving, the alienated intellectual, the Holden Caulfield, the protagonist from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. I always felt a bit like I didn’t fit in in Ohio, like I fit in with people, but I never really fit in. I used to have that feeling a bit. Maybe that’s why I roam. I’m always looking for connection. I find that when I write songs and I play them for people. When I’m on stage and I see that I’m connecting with other humans, it makes me feel more human.

ME: I know you were involved with teaching art before you took up touring and recording. Is visual art something you remain interested in?

JR: Yeah. I got to the point, though, where I thought to myself, “I don’t think I’m good enough to really make a mark with this medium.” I just didn’t want to be — I taught a lot of things in my life. There were always things I’d study, and then I’d sort of go to places, and I’d be like, “How can I pay bills? Okay, I can teach.” Even though I didn’t have a degree in teaching, I’d always find a way, at some camp, or at some private school, where you don’t have to have a master’s degree in education to teach. I’d always just kind of talk to the headmaster or whoever is running the place, and we’d get along, and we’d start talking, and they’d invariably be like, “Hey, do you want to teach an elective?” or something. I did that in South Africa, I did that in Chicago, I did that in New York, I that in a bunch of different places, in Cleveland. Eventually, I just got to the point where I was always seeking something, searching, and when I picked up the guitar for the first time when I was 30 — I didn’t grow up playing music at all — I just learned a couple chords and learned a few Dylan songs that I was listening to. My friend told me that adage that, to write a good song, you just need 3 chords and the truth.

I had been writing screenplays and painting and teaching, and doing all these things, but nothing I had ever created felt like I had expressed myself as honestly as I could until I wrote my first song. That was the first time an audience came to me, whereas I wasn’t seeking an audience anymore. I didn’t think when I wrote my first song or starting playing guitar that I’d become a professional musician, that was way beyond my scope. I just thought, this is a meditative thing; writing screenplays, I can’t figure out what a character is going to say in the next scene, and I’d pick up the guitar and learn a new chord or a finger pattern.

Very quickly, and fortunately for me, that hobby became a career. I just never looked back. I just started touring and writing songs and recording, learning as much as I could. I haven’t looked back, and it’s been 17 years, and I’m still doing the same thing, just cruising around every day, feeling like these people are coming to see me play and I’m so lucky. 

Like I said, after two years of not being able to do it, after a late-blooming dream career happened, I sort of crafted my perfect life and it was taken away from me for two years. I just thought to myself, “I’m never going to take this for granted again. I’m going to stay on the road as much as humanly possible.”

Watch Joshua Radin cover “Only You” by Yazoo live on YouTube:

ME: I can relate, in that I did a lot of things. I was good at them, but I was never quite good at them enough that I was satisfied with myself. I started writing fiction in 2019, and while I have broken through yet, I was on the edge of publication within a year–

JR: That’s epic.

ME: I got myself into a serious critique with established pros, which was an important. I’m not sure how I managed to pull that off and not burn the whole thing to the ground, which I have a history of doing.

JR: It’s a testament to the fact that you’re doing what you absolutely love. There’s a sixth sense in our brain that goes, “I’m going to safeguard this.” 

ME: It’s amazing how, when you really care about something, you can overcome your limitations.

JR: It’s like you were saying, you were good at a bunch of things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you care about them so much.

ME: I don’t want sound crazy with this, but I can even see how the whole project laid out for the next 4 decades.

JR: Well that’s a very fortunate thing. I’m sure a lot of creatives are envious.

ME: Regardless of where it goes commercially, I know exactly what I want to do. Thank you so much for your time today!

***

Joshua Radin appears at The Birchmere on Friday, March 18.

Buy your tickets online now

Joshua Radin
w/ Allie Moss
The Birchmere
Friday, March 18
Show @ 7:30pm
$45
All ages

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