Aussie musician Ben Lee teams up with How I Met Your Mother star Josh Radnor

The pair have formed acoustic duo Radnor & Lee.
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You might remember Ben Lee for his hugely catchy hit song ‘Catch My Disease’, which was released in 2005. Well, since then, Lee has kept busy making more music and three years ago, he joined former How I Met Your Mother star Josh Radnor for a project they coined Radnor & Lee.

The duo first met on the set of HIMYM after the producers reached out to Lee to use one of his songs on the show. While that never eventuated, the pair stayed friends and in November released their first album as Radnor & Lee. Now, they’re in Australia to perform three shows—Brisbane on the 17th, Melbourne on the 19th and Sydney on the 20th. Radnor & Lee dropped by the WHO offices for a chat about this unlikely project.

WHO: So, you guys first met through How I Met Your Mother and became friends. How did that friendship translate into this project?

JOSH: Which we don’t think about at all, it was just like a random thing. We ran into each other a couple months later where… that’s where our friendship really developed, we just happened to have met there.

BEN: I think the thing that’s hard for people who don’t work in the creative arts is that you’re always kind of trying combinations of things because it’s like there’s all these people that have different energies and visions, you’re going like ‘What happens if we did that? What happens if we did that?’ so it’s kind of natural when you have two creative friends to go ‘You want to try and build something together?’ and it had a good feeling to it.

WHO: When speaking to a colleague ahead of this interview, she remarked that Ben has done a lot of collaborations— she was a particular fan of The Bens (a temporary band consisting of Ben Lee, Ben Folds and Ben Kweller)—but why did this particular project stick?

JOSH: Ben wanted to be the only Ben.

BEN: Yeah exactly.

JOSH: Yeah, he gets to really standout as a Ben here on his own. I mean, you should answer that…

BEN: It’s a timing thing. I think at this point of my life, I am able to go deep and commit. You know, I’m married, I’m a dad like I now know a sort of type of grounded-ness that I didn’t know before, but also with Josh there’s just this compatibility of vision and values and I think it’s just very natural. 

JOSH: We don’t love all the same things but we both trust our taste so by the time a song has run through our little factory of creative whatever, we’ve both vetted it. We’ve both, you know, argued or shared alley-oop, certain lines, musical phrasing… when a song emerges that we say yes this is a Radnor & Lee song, there have been two voices on it, two hands have touched it rather than just one. There’s a level that we know we have to meet, we don’t even speak about it’s just like no no no this isn’t good enough for what we want to do so it creates a culture of, what we consider, excellence. I don’t know if that’s right word…

BEN: Yeah, yeah.

JOSH: That’s what we’re trying to be; we’re trying to be excellent. We’re trying to be really good.

WHO: Josh, we’re sorry to hear that your series Rise won’t be coming back for a second season—we really loved it! Does this leave you open to spend a bit more time on Radnor & Lee?

JOSH: Yeah, me too! It’s so weird because I have so many careers going so I would block off like ‘OK I know I’m shooting Rise’ and when I was shooting it, Ben came to New York twice and we made a video, we wrote some new songs, we did our record release show out there so I think… Radnor & Lee is a project that we’re just always working on and whenever we find the time we do it. I don’t know what my year’s going to look like now, you know, I haven’t directed a film in a while and I have a couple kind of ready to go in various states but ones really ready to go so I think that we’re committed to making more music, we’re recording our new record in June, we have a lot of songs ready to go and so yeah, when we see some daylight we take it.

BEN: Yeah and I don’t think that we’re kind of… either of us is under the impression that if we did nothing else Radnor & Lee would be better. I think it’s actually something that thrives as one of our creative outlets and it’s one we’re giving increasing time and energy to but I want Josh to get great acting jobs and direct movies and do his incredible writing, you know like I want that and he wants me to do all my projects because somewhere in that sense of openness and flexibility is part of what makes this work.

WHO: Josh, you’re used to playing characters on TV, film and the stage. How did you find the process of putting yourself out into the public space in this form?

JOSH: In some ways, it feels the most authentic because I’m not… it’s my name, it’s my clothes, it’s my friend, songs we’ve written together. I enjoy that, I’ve done a lot of college speaking over the years and I really like just talking as myself. I love acting but I also feel as I’m getting older there’s this yearning to just be a little more myself and not put on someone else’s stuff, you know, I mean I don’t want to throw that away and it’s what I’ve trained to do and it’s what I’ve had some great success with but I really like using my own voice and saying my own words and singing my own songs that I write with Ben. It’s just feeling good right now… to know that you’re at the age where you actually have something to say, that’s a nice feeling.

Josh Radnor Rise
Josh Radnor as drama teacher Lou Mazzuchelli in Rise (with co-star Rosie Perez).

WHO: From the outside, it would seem that you were the newbie and Ben the old hand at making music. Were you at all intimated when the project first started?

JOSH: Well first of all, Ben is not intimidating as a human being…

BEN: And it’s not adversarial. So like if you’re saying tennis, ‘Oh he’s been doing it for 22 years, oh he’s going to beat me’ but we’re not in competition with each other [laughs]. 

JOSH: We’re actually trying to create something and Ben said early on… I kind of assumed like I would take the lead lyrically and that’s not how it worked. He said early on to me ‘I want to support your musical vision’ and I was like ‘I have a musical vision?’ like I really didn’t know but our first song ‘Wider Spaces’ was a melody that I had a dream about. It was this children’s choir, that were singing a melody and I had croaked it into my iPhone and that became the melody for our first song so he’s really empowered me as a songwriter and the more I learn guitar and the more I’ve worked with him I just realise like ‘No I have melodies kicking through me’, I thought that was some like mysterious, you know, like telekinesis or something like very strange thing but I have some facility for it and he as a great friend and collaborator has just given me a kind of permission to just follow it.

WHO: After reading a lot of press about your music, we’ve seen a lot of people describe your music as spiritual or religious or philosophical. If you were describing it for someone you hadn’t heard it before, what would you say?

BEN: I definitely wouldn’t use the word religious, I think that’s a word that people who don’t feel comfortable… like if you don’t know the answer but you love the question you can’t use the word religious because religion is all about answers and we’re fascinated by all the various answers that have been offered but more than anything we love grappling with it so I think this question of ‘Who are we? What are we doing here? How do we have this experience of being human in a meaningful way?’ That’s something that really bonds us. I think in the beginning we threw words like spirituality and philosophy around a bit too loosely because you’ve got to understand when we started it was like for us and for our friends so you don’t think of like how does the wider public… they might have other misunderstandings of those words but essentially I think all it means is we’re like people who… we think and we feel and we want to connect and we want life to be meaningful and that’s sort of the essence of… underneath all the songs. 

JOSH: Yeah and I think this new batch of songs that we’re getting ready to record, there’s still some of that element, I mean there’s certainly a lot of questions, there’s a lot of ache and as I always say, like we’re not a couple of teenagers in a garage, you know, experimenting with all this stuff, we’re older, we’ve had loss, we’ve had success, we’ve had failure, we’ve had things work out, we’ve had things not work out like we’re at an age where we feel like we have something to say and a lot of what we might called spiritual is just like an honouring of the unseen, like it’s not just about the material realm, it’s like no there’s a lot going on here that we can’t claim to know what it is or even what to call it and we just are maybe more comfortable than other songwriters, I don’t know [laughs]… in saying like we’re going to write into that space rather than avoid it but our new record is filled with songs about lust and there’s dirt, you can feel the dirt on the road, you know, it’s a little more grounded in the things of this world but still with an eye lifted up.

BEN: Yeah totally and even musically, the unseen includes vibe, you know, like musicians… it’s all about vibe and that’s why like I never understood when musicians say ‘I’m not at all spiritual’. I’m like ‘Dude, you play music’… 

JOSH: Yeah there’s nothing more spiritual than that…

BEN: Music is like the manipulation of spirit, it’s playing with it so it’s kind of like… in a way there’s something incredibly simple that we’re kind of doing which is just going ‘What can we do with the feeling in a room with our voices, our guitars and our minds?’ But that obviously is a science that has obsessed artists and musicians for thousands of years [laughs].

JOSH: I also think there’s something about how to be open and optimistic without being facile or sentimental. There’s always a danger I think in the world for all of us of lapsing into cynicism or nihilism and we really do out best to skirt that but I think the stuff we’re writing, especially now, feels like whatever our optimism is, it’s not reflexive, it’s hard won like we’ve actually decided this is a better way for us to live and we’re writing into that and I think that the music is feeling like we’re older and we arrived at this because of drawing certain conclusions, not that we inherited some belief or that we’re Pollyannas.

WHO: Terms like spiritual or religious can be something that people really clutch onto once it’s thrown out and it’s probably why it keeps coming up in press about you…

JOSH: And it’s also a lot of people have allergies to those things but when you hear the songs and how ultimately grounded they are, I think there is a hunger for people to be able to engage with this stuff on a mass scale that is not often fulfilled in pop culture.

WHO: We saw that two weeks ago you guys were in Josh’s hometown of Bexley, Ohio and Ben you met his family and now Josh you’re in Ben’s hometown of Bondi and have met his family. Have you learnt anything new about each other since seeing where the other person grew up?

BEN: It’s weird; I don’t think it’s like learning something new; it’s context being provided for what you know about your friend, you know what I mean? It’s not like the person’s different in that environment, but you go ‘Oh right, I can see where that came from, I can see how culturally this shaped certain aspects or became something to rebel against’ you know so it’s just like filling in the blanks more.

WHO: What are you each listening to the moment?

JOSH: Well I’m in my Lou Reed phase. I’m reading this really great biography by Anthony DeCurtis about Lou Reed, it’s called ‘Lou Reed’ and [features] the Velvet Underground and some of that was spurred on by Ben, he had me read this book called ‘Please Kill Me’ (by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain), it’s an oral history of punk so it was just this riveting read and the Velvet Underground I kind of missed that and I went back and I’ve just fallen hard for that era and that music but particularly Lou Reed and what he was up to. I’m very curious like how this middle class Long Island Jewish guy became Lou Reed, like how does that happen? And the biography is amazing so I’m listening to quite a bit of Lou Reed at the moment.

BEN: I’m listening to Live/Dead this Grateful Dead album from 1969 because I came from punk rock so jammy, hippie music was like way off limits, a lot of it is just kind of like filling in gaps and I’m realising like man my mind was closed to the dance that musicians learn to do with each other in improvised music and coming in and out of planned sections and I think that it’s something we’re interested in incorporating more and more in our way of like shifting between spontaneity and sort of formal elements, how do we do that. It’s something we’re sort of thinking about and talking about.

JOSH: I also know that as a writer… when I first started writing prose and even screenplays on some level, you’re imitating your heroes, you’re really just trying to write like Phillip Roth or David Foster Wallace or Lorrie Moore or whoever it is but out of that imitation if you do it enough your own voice starts to emerge and I feel like Ben and I are revisiting past masters in a way and you know, hooking into what their doing but when it comes through us if we write a song in some sort of style, it ultimately becomes ours – we metabolise whatever we’re learning and emerges is something that feels like us but the starting point might have been ‘Oh what were they doing back then? Why did that work? Why do I like that so much?’

WHO: Are there any pre-show rituals you guys do before going on stage?

BEN: It changes but I think we tend to just like drop in with each other, like even if it’s for a moment…

JOSH: Yeah, just make sure that we’re connected…

BEN: Yeah, just be like, ‘Hey man. Hey! We’re gonna play a show.’

JOSH: Yeah, we get excited and sometimes I’ll ask Ben like ‘What are your focusing on tonight? Like what are you going to work on?’ We just try to get present with each other and grounded and remind ourselves that this is cool… that we’re doing this and that it didn’t have to go this way and it is and it’s pretty awesome.

WHO: Anything interesting on your rider?

BEN: I mean we’re still developing our rider. I’m a big hummus fan like, you know, coming from ’90s riders just when hummus came in, it really changed the game so I kind of like continue with that. I think Josh began to experience the value of towels on a rider. Do you remember we had a conversation about that? 

JOSH: Oh really? To bring them on stage?

BEN: No, just for after you come off, you’re sweaty or something… didn’t we have a conversation about this? [Laughs].

JOSH: This must be your other musical collaborator, I don’t know.

BEN: But it’s funny like as you get older and more… just like in reality about show business you also kind of realise like, yeah, everything I order is coming out of my paycheque basically so these elaborate riders… it’s a lot of vanity that like the artist wants all these things that they don’t even use. I’m always like give us some water, give us a few beers, give us some vegetables, some hummus – we’re all good. 

JOSH: I’ve done all of this college speaking and I say, ‘I don’t know, just some water would be fine,’ and they’re like, ‘No no no, you need to tell us.’ So I have a couple of things on there but I generally start my talk by saying, like, ‘Hey, they give me all this stuff backstage and who wants some bananas? Who needs some gum? Mixed nuts?’ And I just send it around the audience because like what am I going to do? I’m not going to eat all that.

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