The history of music is rife with great double acts. From McCartney and Lennon to Simon & Garfunkel, Sonny & Cher and Hall & Oates, the singer-songwriter duo has a great and storied lineage, with Radnor & Lee the latest pair to join the party.
The musical melding of Josh Radnor – aka Ted Mosby from How I Met Your Mother – and our very own Ben Lee, Radnor & Lee’s music is unexpectedly earnest considering both Lee and Radnor’s history with comedy. Largely acoustic and with a keen focus on melody and lyrics, their album – due out later this year – has a timeless honesty and directness, somewhat obscuring the depth and complexity of the lyrics so that each listen reveals.
Friends before they decided to collaborate on music together, the project has grown out of a mutual respect for each other’s talent and vision, with the strengths of each complementing the weaknesses of the other. On the line from L.A. where they have been playing some intimate live shows, we spoke to Radnor & Lee about everything from measuring up to the great double acts of the past, their own music making process and whether or not the album might feature a cameo from Canadian pop sensation Robin Sparkles.
Music Feeds: So, Radnor & Lee is a very classic name, calling to mind a lot of great duos from music history. With that in mind would you describe yourselves as more Simon & Garfunkel or Hall & Oates, and who is who in that situation?
Ben Lee: More Simon & Garfunkel except I get to be both the guy with crazy hair and the guy with thinning hair. It’s a winning combo.
Josh Radnor: I’m the tall one (Garfunkel/Hall), but I have darker hair (Simon/Oates), so neither comparison really holds up.
MF: Now, Ben, we’ve known you to hop between the worlds of music and acting for a while now but not so much you Josh. Has music been a passion of yours for a while or is this more of a newfound love?
JR: I’ve been a serious music fan for most of my life. I grew up with a lot of music in my house, and I started acting in high school musicals. I wrote some songs with a guy at a summer theatre when I was in grad school, and it brought me so much joy. So I think in the back of my head it was always something I wanted to do more of. Ben is so musically smart and agile, and we share so many interests that collaborating with him felt like a perfect invitation to dive back into songwriting.
MF: How did the two of you first meet up and start playing together?
BL: We first met over ten years ago. We are definitely adding music into an already dynamic friendship. We both love to collaborate, so I think sooner or later we were going to try working on something together.
JR: One afternoon we got together at my house and wrote a song called ‘Wider Spaces’ and then wrote our second song (‘Be Like The Being’) a week later and it was so much fun and so effortless that Ben said, “Let’s make a record.” That sounded like an excellent idea so I said: “Yeah, let’s.”
MF: Would you say that you both have similar influences when it comes to music?
BL: In as much as we both love melody and lyrics, yes. Neither of us is particularly snobby with art – if we are moved, it is good.
JR: Agreed. Melody is king for me. And I think we both like lyrics that are substantive, poetic, and surprising.
MF: What’s the relationship between you two like, personally and musically? Are you two peas in a pod or is it more of an odd couple/lethal weapon style meeting of opposites? If so who is Riggs and who is Murtaugh?
BL: Josh reminds me to be a little gentler on stage – an Australian with 25 years of gigging can develop a bit of a stinging sense of humour to deal with the vulnerability. The roles tend to change over time. But I like Josh’s attention to detail.
JR: I’ve been really impressed with Ben’s willingness to jump in and get things moving. I tend to hover poolside a bit longer than he does, and that can lead to me being a bit overly-cautious. Whereas with Ben there’s very little lag time between idea and execution. When it comes to actually writing the music though, we’re very much on the same page. We like hanging out anyway so being able to hang out and write songs is just the best.
MF: How does the songwriting process work between the two of you? Is there a set process or is each song different?
BL: There have been different types of songs. One that started with a melodic idea from one of Josh’s dreams, one that began with some lyrics, ones that began by hanging out on his couch and jamming. We are really still discovering our process.
JR: Often I’ll come in with some lyrics or a melody that’s been kicking around in my head, a poem or thought that inspires me. Or I’ll describe some mood or feel and Ben will start playing around on the guitar and we’ll just start there. When we get together to write we almost always emerge with something we both really like.
MF: On ‘Be Like The Being’ Josh you, sort of, take on lead vocal duties, is that what we should expect from the rest of the album as well or will you be going John and Paul style and switching between songs?
BL: I would say the lead vocals are mostly Josh, I take a couple of them. Having made so many albums where my personality dominates, it’s actually been super liberating to play the backup guy a little more. I remember having a similar realisation working the bass in The Bens.
JR: Ben had this idea early on that he wanted to help support my musical vision and I was initially like “Do I even have one of those?” He insisted I did. I knew I had a facility for writing lyrics, but he’s given me a lot of musical confidence.
MF: Speaking of ‘Be Like The Being,’ should we expect the whole album to be in that sort of acoustic/folk style or will you be trying out a variety of different styles?
BL: That is pretty indicative of what we are doing, but there are some very tender moments too, a little more dramatic.
JR: The album definitely feels of a piece, thematically. We’ve been writing some new songs that won’t be on the first record that have a different kind of urgency to them, and I’m excited about where we’re taking things.
MF: Also, I wanted to ask you about how much of a role faith plays in the music. ‘Be Like The Being’ has a particularly religious tone to the lyrics – urging us to be like God aka the being – is that actually in there or am I just reading into it too much?
BL: We wouldn’t use the word “religious” as we don’t ascribe to any one particular religion. This music has a spiritual tone, about reaching for the highest aspect of your own heart and mind. That’s where the “Being” lives and thrives.
JR: Yeah, I kind of bristle when I hear the word ‘religious’ applied to our music. We both read pretty broadly across all traditions. I think we’re both interested in perennial truth, kindness, compassion, and virtue. In what might be real and sustainable and sacred beneath all the voices of self-doubt and blame and whatnot.
MF: Is faith in God something that is important to both of you?
BL: God is a wonderful metaphor for that which inspires us and that that we can’t comprehend. Faith in the great unknown is vital.
JR: I don’t mind the word “God” though I know a lot of people are allergic to it. And I’ve had to do a lot of revision around what the word means to me. The older I’m getting I feel like I know a lot less about all this than I once thought I did and that feels liberating.
MF: How have you found the reaction to the project so far? How have fans of both of your various previous projects responded to it?
BL: People seem to be enjoying it. We are still in shock that it’s happening. Last night in the middle of the gig I leaned over to Josh and said: “Can you believe we are doing this?!”
JR: It’s been such a blast making and performing music together. As we’re our first audience, we have to trust our taste and say, “If we like this we can assume there are others out there who will too.” And that seems to be the case. Our shows are funny and joyful and heart-centered and sincere, and I think people appreciate the opportunity to spend some time in that space with us.
MF: With the two of you already having established profiles, were you at all worried that that would overshadow the music?
BL: I don’t think like that. However, people arrive at a song is OK by me. It’s what happens to their hearts when they hear it that concerns me.
JR: I had some understandable concerns around this. There always seems to be deep scepticism around an actor with a band/side project. But I think listening to the music should dispel that for people. We’re really serious about making great music together, and I think creative people should be free to express creatively in whatever ways the spirit moves them. That’s all we’re doing here.
MF: Last but certainly not least, will the Radnor & Lee album feature a guest appearance by Canadian pop sensation Robin Sparkles? Maybe an acoustic duet rendition of ‘Let’s Go To The Mall’?
BL: I don’t think Josh will be involved, but I am planning a whole album of Robin Sparkles covers.
JR: This is the classic moment of the girl coming between the band. Ben’s RS cover album will be the end of us. But we can’t say we didn’t have a good ride.
Radnor & Lee’s debut album is due out later this year