Joshua Radin: “Every great songwriter I know is an avid reader”

Joshua Radin (Shaker Heights, Ohio, 1974) was the protagonist of one of those unbelievable from-zero-to-hero kind of stories that are just too… well, unbelievable. Aged 30, he picked up a guitar for the first time when his girlfriend dumped him. Broke and heartbroken, he learned to play four chords, and wrote one song to relieve his heart-ache. That song, Winter, ended up being featured on the popular TV series Scrubs, becoming wildly popular instantly. Before he knew it, he was being fought over by record labels and performing in Ellen DeGeneres 20-people wedding.

 Ten years later, six albums, and countless miles on the road touring all around the world, he’s still releasing hit albums, despite ditching Columbia Records and going indie, long ago.

His style is described by himself as “whisper rock” and believes that the key to his success is he’s “brutally honest” in his lyrics. In fact, he describes his songs as being journal entries of his life, letting us in into his most intimate feelings. His latest album, Onwards and Sideways, was composed to win over his current girlfriend’s heart, literally: she left for work in the morning, and he would spend the day writing a song so he could play it to her when she came home from work in the evening. A new song a day, everyday, for a full month. Guys of the world: learn.

 He plays the guitar, and composes the music and lyrics of all his songs.

Question: It’s amazing that the first-ever song you wrote, Winter, using the first-ever four chords you learned to play, had such a success. As you said in another interview, being thrust under the spotlight so fast meant you “grew up” as a musician while everyone was watching. Have you taken music lessons of some sort afterwards? Have you studied harmony, music theory, written music, etc?

Answer: No, I haven’t had any lessons per se… I have surrounded myself with great musicians and have toured all over with them. So I think a lot as just rubbed off on me. 

Q: Do you have a specific practice routine for the guitar?

A: Not really. I pretty much use the guitar to write. I wouldn’t really consider myself to be a guitarist, you know? When I practice, it’s pretty much fooling around with chord progressions, humming melodies, and when I find one I dig, I start putting lyrics to that melody. 

Q: And for your voice? Do you do any specific exercises?

A: No, I don’t do anything like that. I try to keep the whole thing fun. I don’t like making it feel like work. 

Q: In these ten years you’ve been a professional musician you’ve played with countless amazing artists: Sheryl Crow, Tori Amos, Imogen Heap, Meiko, Missy Higgins, Maria Taylor, Gary Jules, Amber Rubarth, Schuyler Fisk, The Script, to name a few. Can you tell us what kind of lessons have you learnt from them? In terms of music, composition, lyrics, the musician’s way of living…

A: I couldn’t tell you precisely what I’ve learned from any of them. I think it’s a general lifestyle. Maybe it’s that one shouldn’t take oneself so seriously? The more I just have fun playing music for people, the better I feel my songs become. Once I pressure myself to become something I’m not, the work always suffers.

Q: You’ve mentioned before that having had a background in screenplay writing has definitely had a positive influence in the way you write lyrics, because it has shaped the way you look at reality, and taught you how to paint a picture on your listener’s head through words. Would you suggest other songwriters to take fiction writing lessons/learn the basics of the craft of writing?

A: I think the best songwriters are always great readers. Every great songwriter I know, is an avid reader and when I meet one, we tend to discuss fiction rather than music. 

Q: When writing, do you review your lyrics a lot? When do you know a song can be considered finished

A: It’s kind of like sex I guess. When do you know sex is finished? You just know. Ha.

Q: Do you do ear-training exercises? Do you think developing the ear is important?

A: I don’t do any exercising whatsoever for my ears, voice, etc… I just try to express myself honestly and whatever comes out, that’s what I put out into the world and hope people like it. 

Q: Do you have perfect pitch? Or relative like the rest of us mere mortals?

A: Perfect pitch? I definitely do not. 

Q: To finish, what advice would you give to anyone who’s starting to write songs?

A: Be honest, be unforgiving, and read great novels. Classic novels by the best storytellers to have ever lived. 

To find out more about Joshua Radin and his new album Onward and Sideways, visit his official website, and follow him on TwitterFacebook and Youtube. Also, check out a charity close to Radin’s heart, Little Kids Rock.