Joshua Radin never intended to become a musician, at least not outside of the confines of his personal life where he always quested for new ways to artistically express himself. Painting and screenwriting had largely occupied these efforts until 2004 when friend and singer/songwriter Cary Brothers prodded him into recording a song called “Winter” in his bedroom.
Radin now says he was just trying to deal with the breakup he was going through when he wrote those lyrics, but the experiment took on a life of its own once Brothers passed “Winter” on to Scrubs actor and mutual friend Zach Braff (they all attended Northwestern together); a few months later, the song appeared on an episode of the hit sitcom.
Radin suddenly had a paying gig and a new place to call home: the Hotel Café, a small bar in Los Angeles that had eschewed the red velvet rope mentality of so many local clubs to become a true haven for singer/songwriters like Brothers, Jim Bianco and Gary Jules. In many ways, it’s an artists’ commune, which is why Brothers, with the help of others like Radin, launched the Hotel Café Tour a few years back.
“There are no egos, it’s never about who gets more time on stage, who plays first, who plays last, who’s the headliner — there’s none of that,” Radin explains, so grateful for the experience he regularly returns to. “Hopefully it’ll become like Saturday Night Live. When it started, it was all these no-names, the Not Yet Ready for Prime Time Players. Then people would get big, get their movie deals and come back and host. And that’s the idea of the Hotel Café Tour. You start out with a bunch of people who can’t headline, but eventually we hope it’s still up-and-comers, but a few of us will be big successes by then and come back to play a few shows as special guests.”
It’s arguable, with all the soundtrack placements and downloads, that Radin has already achieved that big success, especially with his We Were Here (2006) and the signing of a long-term contract with Columbia. But with big success comes, it seems, big troubles. This is how Radin’s sophomore album of confessional Folk Pop, released in September of ’09 — not by Columbia — came to be called Simple Times.
“When the first record came out and made a little splash, going back to make the second record, there were a lot more cooks in the kitchen because of Columbia,” Radin explains. “I made the record the way I wanted to make it with their money, but, when I turned it in, they said, ‘We want a big Pop hit off of it, something to really drive the record with Top 20 radio.’ That wasn’t something I was really comfortable with, to try and do anything other than express what I was going through.”
The album, as he saw it, was a collection of “journal entries” — love songs, arguments with friends, watching history be made in the 2008 presidential campaign. “Big Pop hits” had no place on it. So, in a shocking move, especially considering how most artists are striving to get major-label deals, Radin walked away from Columbia.
“I gave them all their money back and put the record out on my own on an indie label,” he says. The experience also helped him name the previously untitled CD. “For me, it really was about getting back to simpler times.”
Now, this might be the case thematically, but Simple Times is anything but simple, representing a substantial leap forward in confidence and lyricism for the singer/songwriter; “You’ve Got Growin’ Up to Do,” which Patty Griffin sings back-up on, is probably the album’s best song (and Radin’s favorite), while “Vegetable Car,” despite its handclaps, is its catchiest.
There’s something reassuring about Radin’s small rebellion against the status quo of the major-label system. He’s not the first to tell corporate big wigs to fuck off, but tales of artistic defiance like his usually spring from those with a lot more success and commercial leverage. It might sound utterly mad to many, but Joshua Radin would prefer to play songs he cares about than score big bank for playing ones that feel insincere.
“My whole life, I’ve just been trying to express myself in whatever medium I can,” he explains. “Whether it was painting, writing screenplays or now music. It’s one of those things where you’re just being an artist, as weird as that sounds. Just waking up every morning and creatively expressing what you’re going through. (Before “Winter”) there was no idea in my head of recording an album, touring, building a fan base. That was a pipe dream.”
Would he ever dream of signing with a major label again?
“I would never say never,” he answers. “Five years ago, if you asked me if I’d be writing songs, I would’ve said, ‘Probably not.’ I know enough now to never say never. I’m certainly not looking for a major label, that’s for sure."
'A major label’s a lot like a bad girlfriend,” he adds, his tone hinting at a grin. “They see your potential, they woo you, they tell you they like you the way you are — and then they try to change you into what they want.”
JOSHUA RADIN plays the 20th Century Theater March 4 with Jesse Harris and Meiko. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.