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Interview: Joshua Radin opens up about making new album ‘The Ghost and the Wall’ during the pandemic

The singer-songwriter discusses the challenges of making his new record.

Joshua Radin
Credit: Catie Laffoon

Singer-songwriter Joshua Radin has been fairly prolific since the release of his debut album ‘We Were Here’ in 2006.

With eight albums under his belt, Radin has toured the world and his music has been used on numerous TV shows such as ‘Scrubs’, ‘Brothers & Sisters’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy’. His ninth studio album ‘The Ghost and the Wall’ is released on Friday (23rd July) and it’s the follow-up to 2019’s ‘Here, Right Now’.

I spoke with Joshua earlier this year to find out about the record, discuss the challenges of making it during the pandemic, and to talk about his creative process…

Your new album ‘The Ghost and the Wall’ is out this week. Was this a project that was written and recorded before or during the pandemic?

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During the pandemic. I was touring my last album in Europe in January and February of last year and there was just little buzz words about Coronavirus at that time. I don’t think people had started taking it seriously yet. I remember thinking to myself, ‘OK, I’ve finally finished touring this album. I spent all year going all over the world touring and I’ve got to write a new album. I’m going to go home to Los Angeles, I’m gonna sit in my house and I’m not going to see anybody. I’m going to be a hermit for about three months and just write a new album’. I got home and the world shut down two days. I was like, ‘wow, that’s weird. Did I manifest this somehow? (laughs)’.  It was convenient for me (because) I was going to do this anyway and not see anybody and just write. Be careful what you wish for.

After I wrote this album, I was like, ‘how am I gonna make this album?’ Studios weren’t open and I was locked inside my house all year by myself. I built a little home studio here in my house and I made this album with a producer that I’ve never met in person. We just emailed each other files back and forth throughout the pandemic. His name’s Jonathan Wilson, he’s a fantastic musician and producer. He can play anything. He’s got a studio in his house in Topanga, California, and I’ve only seen pictures. It’s a brand new studio and he had opened it with the most amazing vintage gear, right before the world shut down. We decided to have an experiment and try to make an album this way. I’m really pleased with the way it came out, especially for a new way of recording remotely.

I’ve played so many concerts like this on Zoom, just sitting here in my studio all year. It’s been a savior for me actually making this album and playing live streams for people on Zoom. When you play, you want to test out a new song and you want to see someone’s response, that’s the beauty of playing music for people and I miss it terribly. The minute the world opens up and the booking agents and the promoters say it’s a it’s safe, I don’t know if i’ll ever come home again. I think i just want to be on the road forever.

Joshua Radin - The Ghost and the Wall
Credit: Nettwerk

Not being able to meet your producer in person must have been very hard. How did you get a feel for each other and build up the trust needed to make this album?

He and i discussed this. I had known of him because we share a piano player. When he tours and I tour, there’s a piano player named Jason Borger who has been playing with me for years and years and he’s also been playing with Jonathan for maybe five or six years. I always knew of Jonathan and his music and his productions. I loved some stuff that he had done with Father John Misty, Dawes, Conor Oberst and Jenny Lewis, I’ve just been a fan of his work for a very long time. My record label Nettwerk were the ones who suggested him. They said if you’re going to do this remotely you need a producer who’s got a studio and can play everything, so you can both be sending each other stuff and it’s someone who’s very adaptable, ahat’s who they suggested. They got me his phone number and we talked on the phone for about 30 minutes. We decided to try a song and see what happened and and I loved it. We just kept going until we had an album. He and I after it was done, interestingly enough, felt a similar way. I don’t know if this is the way I want to record for the rest of my life but it’s certainly an option. One of the best things about it was I’ve always felt, going into the studio, very intimidated.

As you know I got into music very late in life, I didn’t grow up playing music. When you make a record in Los Angeles, there’s so many incredible players here that are you just brilliant musicians that have been playing their entire lives. For instance one record I had Jim Keltner on drums, my drumming hero and my favorite drummer of all time. I couldn’t believe he agreed to play on my album. I was too intimidated by his brilliance during tracks to walk up to him and say like, ‘hey could you do that again one more time but maybe let’s change it to this or maybe come in here?’ I was like, ‘that’s Jim Keltner. I don’t know if I can tell him what to do. He should tell me what to do’ (laughs). He was like, ‘I hear this song, I hear the drums this way’ and I’m like, ‘then you’re probably right way more often than I am’. I had a lot of that kind of feeling throughout all the album making I’ve done throughout my 16-year career. It was because we were in person and they were these legendary figures like Benmont Tench playing piano and I’d go, ‘oh I’d love to hear piano on this song’ and he goes, ‘I don’t really hear keys on the song’ and I was like, ‘okay (laughs) then you’re probably right, you’re Ben Montench’.

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There would be a lot of times where they might be right because they’re brilliant but six months later I’d take a listen to a certain song and wish I would have stuck to my guns and put keyboards on that song because that’s the way I heard it. Even though that might not be the right or correct way. It’s the song I wrote and I heard it in my mind and I wish I had had the balls to say, ‘I know you’re brilliant but it’s my song so this is what I think should be on it’. I’m the one who has to have his name on it for the rest of his life. I didn’t have any of that during this album. There’s also a time constraint in the studio and the finances of making an album where a producer will say, ‘we’ve got this amazing drummer but we only have him for two days so we’re gonna do all 10 songs just the drums for two days’ so you’re locked into those drums and then you bring in other players. Then I play my guitar and I sing over this and and it’s piecemeal together as the songs come together. This was like song after song after song after song and we didn’t start on a new song until we loved what we got with one song. It wasn’t like a jigsaw puzzle we were trying to put together. The best part that Jonathan and I thought was, there was no ego at all. There was no one in the studio. I’d be recording my vocals in a bedroom closet and I could do it as many times as I wanted. There was no time constraint and it wasn’t like, ‘hey we’re gonna lose the drummer, we got to get this done’.

Jonathan might text me a file at one in the morning, because he’s a total night owl when he works, and I’d wake up at seven in the morning, go for a hike, put on my headphones, and on a hike I’d be listening to something and there was no rush. I’d get back maybe that afternoon and I’d send a couple of song references of some of my favourite songs of all time and be like, ‘I feel the bass should be more like on this song’ and he’d be like, ‘oh, yeah, man, I love that’. He would work on something and send it back. It was just so much easier. I guess it’s almost analogous to playing live streams. It’s not the same but it’s so easy. I don’t have to leave my house and I can just pull out a guitar and play for people and see the reactions. It’s obviously not the same and it’s not as great as a live show. As much as I really enjoyed making this album, there’s nothing that can compare with being in a studio with great musicians and feeding off each other. I learned a lot from this record, and what I learned the most is that next time I go in and make an album when I’m in the studio with all these great musicians, I’m not going to keep quiet if I have an instinct. I will at least say, ‘let’s try out my instinct and we can see if it’s not the best way to go and I’m totally open minded’. I think that was my favourite part. I’d pull up my phone and Jonathan had sent a file and I’d listen without having to make a decision in the studio in front of a producer and musicians where everyone’s looking at me going, ‘are you OK with that?’ It’s hard to say, ‘no, let’s do it again’ when they want to move on or time’s up. It presented challenges but it also presented rewards

Your lyrics always have a lot of humanity and emotion in them. Did working this way have any impact on the way you wrote?

I wrote the songs exactly the way I always write songs, nothing changed there. My lyrics are always just very confessional. They’re always like journal entries that are set to music and I describe them as adult lullabies. On this album on the song ‘Not Today’ that song was the first song I wrote for this album when we really were just like, ‘what is going on?’ and I hadn’t left my house in days and days and days. It was mid-March, the world had just shut down and everyone was scared to even go to the grocery store, and all of a sudden everyone’s a germaphobe. I wanted to write a song that was very happy and the music side of it was very upbeat and bubbly. It was almost like, if you weren’t listening to the lyrics you might think this is the happiest song ever. I’ve always loved that juxtaposition in songs like the Beatles’ song ‘Help’. If you just listen to the music, it’s a rock song and it’s great and it’s uplifting, but John Lennon is screaming out to people ‘help’. He needed help and he was so down. I remember hearing that as a little kid and I’ve always found that so fascinating so I wanted to try right something like that with ‘Not Today’. I hope it translates if people listen to the lyrics but you never know, a lot of people don’t listen to lyrics.

Joshua Radin
Credit: Catie Laffoon

I listen to the lyrics and I love to immerse myself in albums by putting my headphones on and tuning the rest of the world out. I also find with your music that the lyrics take on a new life when I see you performing live. You’ve been to the UK a lot over the years. Are you planning to come back over to support this record?

Oh yes! My friend just sent me this photo from London and it was one of the last concerts I played. This was at Shepherd’s Bush Empire on February 1st last year. It’s one of my favourite venues and one of my favourite cities in the world to play. That picture showed up and I couldn’t believe it. It feels like eight years ago. It’s insane. Right?

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It feels like so long ago. I think the last live show I saw was in March 2020, which feels so long ago now…

Yeah, it’s crazy. Time is such an interesting thing. So often my life, I feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day to get what I want done and then sometimes I go through periods where I’m just killing hours and I just want to be I want it to be tomorrow. I’m sure we all had days like that, there’s been so many of those kind of emotions throughout this time period.

There were two ways of looking at the pandemic really. You could retreat, put your feet up and let the time pass, or you could utilise that time to do things you’ve never got round to doing…

So many people throughout this time pivoted and said, ‘I’ve always wanted to try this, let’s try it’. I did the same thing before lockdown was enforced and before COVID. I said, ‘I’m gonna write this album’ but I also said to myself that I was going to get in good physical shape and that I was going to exercise every day and feel good. It was mind and body for me, and a lot of reading. I read so many books and a lot of just self care. I had this these goals that when the world opens up again I was going to be ready. Those kind of things I feel really good about myself that I followed through, but then there were so many other things that I didn’t do that I thought I was going to do (laughs).

Joshua Radin’s new album ‘The Ghost and the Wall’ will be released on 23rd July 2021 via Nettwerk. Watch a live performance of ‘Goodbye’ below:

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