INTERVIEW: Radnor & Lee look at the broader picture with new album

Radnor and Lee, Radnor & Lee, Josh Radnor, Ben Lee

Radnor & Lee, Courtesy: Liz Bretz.

Since best friends Ben Lee and Josh Radnor last made a record, a self-titled debut in 2017, the two have seemingly never stopped moving.

Golden State
Radnor & Lee
Flower Moon Records, May 8

Lee, a lifelong musician, made a record from a musical he’d also written, called “B is for Beer,” which he’s also worked to develop into a film. He recorded and released a covers album called Quarter Century Classics, and produced a record for singer-songwriter Jill Sobule in 2018. Radnor, best known as an actor, starred on NBC’s “Rise,” wrote two plays (one of which was staged in 2019 and the second of which recently started character readings), and even started writing his own music, which he’s performed on his own. He’s currently starring on Amazon Prime’s “Hunters,” about a society of Nazi hunters in 1970s New York. Oh, and he’s continued to write movie scripts.

Radnor & Lee are now back with their sophomore album, Golden State, out May 8, which the two recorded in that same timeframe as those other projects.

“It’s not that much for three years,” Lee smirks in a call, a few days before much of the world cancelation begins.

Adds Radnor: “The reason we’re doing this is because it’s fun.”

Radnor & Lee have been working on this follow-up since hitting the road in 2017. They discovered they were big in South America (particularly in Brazil), which inspired them to write more. They continued writing when they played shows in Lee’s native Australia. And then when they got home, they continued their weekly songwriting sessions on the couch.

“The first album; there was just one guitar in the room, and [with] the second album, there were two guitars,” Radnor said. “We were just playing around with sounds and with lyrics … and letting whatever conversation—or wherever we are in our lives or in that day or in that moment—kind of guide what song emerges or let that be the starting point.”

That second guitar, which Radnor picked up over the last few years in addition to all of his projects, is the first noticeable growth from Radnor & Lee’s debut. Radnor had a Gibson guitar that he’d bought with Lee before long before the two of them started playing music together. One night he decided to take a stab at writing a song with it. He could play only a couple of chords, but Lee supported him, so he just kept going. He started strumming his way through shows and got guitar teachers in New York and Los Angeles, depending on where he was working. Lee was a good teacher, too.

“I really just threw myself into it with such gusto,” Radnor said. “I had no choice but to kind of get up to performance level pretty quickly because we were in front of audiences. I probably hung back early on in the early days, and let Ben take the lead more.”

Radnor said he and Lee had no interest in making another album identical to their first one. The last time, they tried to figure out if they could even create music together. The next thing they did had to have a loftier goal and different motivating fuel. Because Radnor can now handle the rhythm, Lee has the freedom to pursue some fancier fretwork.

Added Lee: “It took us away from a busking-type thing. … When you have one guitar, it’s chords and melody. It’s just opened up so we could actually have some sonic sort of dynamics, which add variety.”

The duo also worked closely with producer Justin Stanley (Eric Clapton, Beck, Prince), who Lee said understood exactly what they wanted to accomplish sonically with an organically warm ‘70s vibe. The result was a lush-sounding record that wasn’t overproduced or given unnecessary embellishments.

“We chose him for his ability to capture our live sound, which we really wanted,” Radnor said. “He’s wonderful at adding what might augment or help us along, and he also takes a lot of stuff away. He’s really judicious and subtle in his taste.”

Stanley has joined Radnor & Lee at several shows on drums, and session bassist Tony Buchen joined more recently for a Los Angeles show that went so well that the duo is now looking at performing with a full band more often going forward.

The songs on Golden State are a reflection of the times, which is to say that they’re slightly more downtrodden and melancholic in their march to resolution. Also of note: Though the songs might seem specific to their creators, they were written with a broader brush.

“There may be one or two details on the record that arefrom real life, but I think we both take the opinion that through storytelling and through fiction and through myth, you can tell the truth in a better way than just by vomiting up details,” Lee said. “The songs each have a little story to tell, and we draw on real life, of course, in the telling, but not exclusively.”

So when the two sing about shopping addiction and wanting a beautiful red guitar, or “your misguided political stance,” they simply mean that we all have problems which we can help each other bear.

On “Ohio,” which is Radnor’s home state, the protagonist leaves home in a story filled with specifics about passing cities along the way and making coffee stops. But it’s not specifically Radnor’s road trip.

“Both Josh and I live somewhere other than where we grew up, and we both had to take this journey of leaving what was known into the unknown,” Lee said. “And so I think it’s a very archetypal road trip. It’s the one of leaving home. It’s the one everyone has to take, basically.”

“Resignation Song” may come across as a literal recounting of someone storming off from a job—“You can’t fire me/ I quit”—but it’s more about a declaration to remain independent.

“On some level, it’s just a classic break-up song,” Radnor added. “It’s just a clever way of saying ‘Before you can end this, I’m going to end it.’ I also think it’s open to other interpretations.”

On the following track, somber, violin-tinged “The Animal,” Radnor & Lee flip the mirror at listeners. The song is about balancing our benevolent and darker sides, rather than projecting the dark onto other people and keeping our own weaknesses in the shadows.

“It’s just about saying we’re all of these things: We’re sinners and saints. We’re animals and we’re divine,” Radnor said. “It’s a questioning song. ‘What do I do with this part of me?’ That song is almost largely questions, which I think it’s cool.”

One of the standout songs on the album, “The Thing About Grief,” clocks in at just a minute long. Radnor said he and Lee were inspired by English parlor songs and the Beatles’ 26-second tune “Her Majesty.” Unlike most of the other songs, which the two wrote together, Radnor wrote the lyrics first for this one before passing it to Lee for the melody. “The thing about grief/ Is you hope that it’s brief/ There’s no telling when it will release you,” the two sing in unison over bright, reverberating piano.

Like grief, or facing one’s mess, much of Golden State delves into the human condition. When Lee first met Radnor, their shared idea of spirituality was one of the first things over which they bonded. It factored prominently into the debut, but on the new album the two broadened their scope of what they thought as spirituality to now include relationships, heartache and despair.

“It’s less of an ethereal and esoteric album. … Our hands are a little dirtier on this one, but I don’t think that means it’s any less spiritual,” Radnor said. “We were trying to digest more of the world in this one.”

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