A duo in perfect harmony: Radnor & Lee interview

Article written for Flyer News, published May 22, 2017.

    Josh Radnor and Ben Lee’s newest musical endeavor breaks away from the traditional music scene by incorporating meditative, thought provoking lyrics into folk pop songs. Brought together through their love of philosophy and acoustic music, Radnor & Lee are a match made in harmony heaven.

    Radnor and Lee have had their fair share of success through their previous projects. Lee started his musical career in the ‘90s Australian alternative-rock band, Noise Addict and has been producing indie-pop music for almost 25 years. Radnor, famously known for playing Ted Mosby on the CBS hit show “How I Met Your Mother,” has spent most of his career acting, directing and screenwriting.

    Friends for over a decade, Radnor and Lee began this project and the rest came naturally. Radnor & Lee’s debut single, “Be Like The Being,” dropped this past Friday on all music platforms. Flyer News got the chance to talk to Radnor & Lee about their newest single, their friendship as songwriters and how they have made this endeavor their own.

FN: Josh, I know you personally from “How I Met Your Mother” and as an actor and director. Could you go into more detail about your personal musical experience and what it’s like to dive into being a singer/songwriter?

Josh Radnor: There was a lot of music in my house growing up, my mother is very musical…my father, not so much. (laughs) In grad school at NYU we had singing for three years and I always knew that singing was something that I had some facility with. I was a little timid about it, I did musicals and all that stuff, but I’m not one of those people that’s like, “let me get up and perform.” (Radnor & Lee) just felt like this natural extension of what I’ve already been doing, which was telling stories, and sometimes you just want to tell a three minute story in song rather than a 90 minute film, so it just felt like a different way for me to express.

FN: Looking toward the single that dropped (Friday), “Be Like The Being”, what exactly inspired this song when you both were going through the lyrics and songwriting process?

Ben Lee: This is the second song we’ve written, the first one was a bit more delicate song, we wanted to write something more driven. Our friend’s friend actually, he at the time was teaching these meditation courses called “be the being” and I think we were inspired by skipping into a more pure part of our hearts. The questions we’re asking on there, “How would it feel if I could be free? How would it feel if I could love properly?” I mean, these are the eternal questions asked in philosophy so it was a very basic human need we’re sort of writing about.

JR: Yeah, it feels like a joyful song of liberation, and not that we are liberated, but our feet are pointed in that direction. I remember we wrote that, and then just that part in the middle (of the song) “Be real/Ideal/Be joy/Be just,” it’s got an almost tribal urgency to it, it’s really like an urgent plea or a tapping into some part of yourself that we know is there.

FN: “Be Like The Being,” I was wondering how you guys connect to those lyrics specifically. How do you be like the being and live out “Be Like The Being?”

BL: The thing I like about the idea is that it’s aspirational and there’s a state of being inside of each of us. We’re beings, it’s like we know it. It’s something very simple within our hearts where we’re living in a really authentic way. I like the idea of aspiring to live more like that, so that’s how I relate to that.

JR: Yeah, it’s kind of an agenda-less state. I once heard this (saying), “we’re not human doings we’re called human beings,” but we’re always doing. It’s this obsession with the past or the future, and I think being like the being is being in a constant state of awareness, the simplest state of awareness where there’s a kind of joy. It’s kind of a joyful song about rebellion, rebelling against the internal and external voices that would keep us from that simple state of awareness.

FN: When I was listening to this song, I felt a big spiritual sense that went along with it. The idea of spirituality, is it a big influence in your own lives and in your music writing?

BL: Josh, you want to take that? (Laughs).

JR: Ben and I, we have somewhat similar backgrounds, he obviously in Australia and me in Ohio. We both went to Jewish based schools, neither of us are observing Jews these days, but we both have a taste for philosophy, metaphysics, we read widely across all traditions. Some people have made some (comments), like “Josh and Ben Lee have formed a religious band.” I’ve thought “What religion are you talking about?” If you listen to the whole record, we were inspired by Sufism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. I’ve always been more syncretic, I read widely because I feel like no one tradition has all the answers and sometimes you just need to hear about things from a different angle. I think we’re just trying to find something that feels authentic and true and that to me feels pretty spiritual.

FN: After listening to the song, I felt very relaxed and relieved. It almost felt like a therapy session in a good way. What do you hope your listeners take away from the song?

BL: Well, one of the things I’m loving about this is people that are coming to this without musical preconceptions. They’re sort of just like “Oh, what are these guys up to? What do they have to say? What is this?” For all they know it could be a heavy metal band, it could be jazz, they’re just showing up and hearing what we have to say. I’m enjoying the purity in people’s reactions because I think it does catch them off guard a little bit, like, “What? Josh Radnor’s in a band?”  For me, everything I’m involved in, I just like to create experiences for people. I think our jobs as artists is to make the thing and to stand behind the thing, and then be mature enough to sort of hold that space for people to have an experience with it.

JR: Sometimes when you’re making stuff, you’re your own first audience. You have to say “well, I really liked this, this brings a certain type of joy to sing this,” and you have to make the assumption that others might share your taste and your interest. If we’re getting some joyful, heart opening, stress relief from singing this, then perhaps the audience will feel the same way. After our shows there’s a nice glow in the room and people are really thankful that they spent some time with us, we’re thankful to have the opportunity and share it.

FN: Although currently untitled, could you give us a little preview about what is going to be on the album?

BL: These things unfold as you’re making them. Probably about halfway through, we really got a feel for what is our sound at the moment, and that’s evolving again now. I think we were very drawn to acoustic and instrumentation and harmonies. It’s interesting being men in this society, like, men singing together in harmony. (Laughs). It’s sort of goes against some of what our culture says, the climate of what masculinity is. It’s a beautiful thing for male friends to sing together in harmony. We picked “Be Like The Being” (as a single) because it’s very indicative of both the message we have to share and the way we want to share it, and we sort of want people to feel good, so you’ll get some more of that.

JR: I love music and melody, I love good hooky melody and that’s one of Ben’s real brilliant talents. There’s a case to be made that we live in a dissonant, kind of atonal world, but that’s just one read on things. I think if you go into nature and unhook from the phone and the news cycle and all of that, there’s still a harmony, there’s still something ordered that’s rippling underneath everything, so I guess we’re trying to dip below the noise and find and tap into that place and sing and write from that place.

FN: You guys are both so successful in your different fields, Ben being from a musical background and Josh being from an actor/director/screenwriter background. How do you think your previous successes will affect the overall image of this band? What do you hope to bring to this band that’s different from what you both have done before?

BL: Yeah, I mean for me, our histories are a blessing because it brings people to the music, but it can also be a challenge cause we have to open people up to something new. I’m just excited to let it be it’s own thing because I think that’s what we’re making worthy of that.

JR: You know it’s funny, people might be a little shocked that I have a band, and then also (say) “I didn’t know those guys were friends.” There’s something wonderful about making things that you love with people that you love, and I’ve said it in a couple shows that’s how I’m defining success these days. Success to me in this regard is not going to be measured by album sales and whether we play on Saturday Night Live, which we would certainly accept and we would say yes to that invitation (Laughs). I think worrying about the image of things, I know that I can get really tripped up in that, it never helps me. What I find is I love making music with Ben, we love performing it, we’re learning more about performing together and about the songs every time we do it, and the audiences are coming to hear us seem to be really lit up by it.  I find that when I do that in all areas of my life, when I just kind of listen to where I am, pay attention to where I’m experiencing the most joy and openness, if I go more towards that, things generally tend to work out.

Check out Radnor & Lee’s single “Be Like The Being” on all digital platforms. To keep up with Radnor & Lee, follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at @RadnorandLee. For more updates, follow Ben Lee and Josh Radnor on their individual social media platforms at @benleemusic and @JoshRadnor.

Photo courtesy of Justin Higuchi

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