Artist-philosophers Josh Radnor and Ben Lee in search of big ideas as Radnor & Lee

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Josh Radnor and Ben Lee photographed prior to a Sofar Sounds performance in San Francisco on Aug. 3, 2017. Photo: Ian Young

From the outset, actor Josh Radnor was never interested in limiting his creativity to only one outlet. Though best known as Ted Mosby, the central character on the hit TV show How I Met Your Mother, he has acted in, directed and written independent films, as well as acted on and off Broadway.

Radnor & Lee
Radnor & Lee
Nov. 10

Now, he has partnered with his good friend, musician Ben Lee, for a folk pop duo. Radnor & Lee came about from two friends sitting in a living room and playing music for fun. They’re taking it more seriously these days, however.

“Creative people are creative in lots of different ways, and they express it a lot in different ways,” Radnor said recently during a brief Bay Area stop during which he and Lee played a couple of intimate shows. “I certainly didn’t feel like I wanted to limit myself to just acting. So I started writing and directing and now making music and writing a book. Some stories want to be a 90-minute film or a play, and some stories want to be a three-minute song.”

The Australian Lee is an acclaimed musician. He began in the early ‘90s with the band Noise Addict, who toured with the Beastie Boys, before releasing 11 solo records. Radnor, an Ohioan, is much more than Ted Mosby and has a lot more to say as an artist.

He and Lee met on the set of the TV show. Show creator Carter Bays wanted to use one of Lee’s songs for an episode. Lee was a hot commodity at the time, and the label declined the CBS offer. Lee ended up watching the show, loved it, got upset his label passed on the opportunity and called Bays to apologize.

“He said, ‘you’re like the only song we couldn’t get!’” Lee said. “He invited me down to the set, and Josh and I met.”

Radnor was already a fan of Lee’s music. After wrapping for the day, the two talked for hours. A few months later, they ran into each other on the street. Lee invited Radnor to dinner with his soon-to-be wife, actress Ione Skye.

“We’ve had many strange adventures since then,” Lee said.

Radnor even travelled to India to attend Lee and Skye’s wedding. Lee is a Jewish-born practicing Hindu. Radnor is also Jewish, and spirituality has figured prominently in their friendship.

“The foundation of the collaboration was our friendship,” Lee said. “It’s one of those things where when you try and do something with a friend, if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. There was no expectation of us to be here, doing this today. It was very organic.”

The pair first tried writing a song about two years ago. The song, called “Wider Spaces,” will be on their forthcoming album. But at the time, the album was the farthest thing from their minds. They liked the process and got together the following week to write “Be Like The Being.” The third time the pair got together, Lee suggested writing an album.

“For me, collaboration is all about natural momentum,” Lee said. “Forced momentum just feels horrible. That’s not why I am in music. When you feel something happening, I think it’s almost like your duty as an artist to see where you can take it. For me, everything begins as an experiment. … It’s like a wave, and then you just take it to its natural conclusion. So that’s what we’ll find out here.”

The group has written about 20 songs now, 10 of which will be on their debut album. There is also a cover of Peter Paul and Mary song “Early in the Morning,” which the pair jokes gives the album an “edge.” They will release the album Nov. 10.

In their songwriting, like in life, Radnor and Lee also share the same interests. The songs they have so far released, “Be Like The Being” and “Doorstep,” look at spirituality, hope and joy. Both grew up Jewish but practice a broader spirituality. They even shared the same meditation teacher. Lee’s solo work over the last decade has been increasingly spiritual in nature.

Earlier this year, during the Trump travel ban, he released an album called Ben Lee Sings Songs about Islam for the Whole Family. Just last year, he released another collection called Freedom, Love & the Recuperation of the Human Mind.

The song “Wider Spaces” was inspired by spiritual German poet Hermann Hesse’s poem “Stages.” Another, unreleased tune called “Still Though We Should Dance” was inspired by Persian philosopher-poet Hafez.

“[Spirituality] was a deep early connection of ours,” Radnor said. “Even though we were raised in the same tradition, I think we cast our net pretty wide.”

Lee adds that spirituality is only one way the band writes about what he calls “the refinement of ideas.” There are also intellectual, poetic and psychological ideas. Still, those themes only present themselves after the duo writes, not before, Radnor said. This is also similar to the way he writes films.

“I have a strong idea and I only figure out what the movie is either towards the end of writing the movie or even once I even cut the movie,” he said. “I don’t think we set out to make an overtly spiritual record, but that’s kind of what it became. The songs we’re writing now are a little more muscular and earthbound. I had a breakup. So I’ve been writing about that; romantic dynamics and stuff like that.

“Although I would say we both we both really like melody,” he said. “You’re not going to find a lot of dissonance or atonal stuff in our catalog.”

Sonically, Radnor & Lee are a cross between ’60s hippy folk and sunny ‘70s AM radio pop. Lee plays guitar and Radnor sings. Think Ben Folds and another musician-actor collaboration, She & Him.

“I think it’s very romantic too, actually,” Lee said. “One of the things about Josh and I, our outlook on the world, is that we both truly believe in love. … Connection, intimacy with your own self with your mind.”

For Radnor, the inspiration process remains the same for music or film, but the execution is alluring because he and Lee can have a completed song done in a day, while films, TV and stage productions are time- and money-intensive projects often dependent on many other people.

“You don’t have to have an army of people and financing and a two-year process to get it out in the world,” he said. “The lag time between idea and execution is much smaller. There’s something great about that because it also exercises different parts of your creativity.”

He also learned from Lee the ways in which songwriting is different from writing for the stage or screen. He would try to write songs poetically, only to have Lee stop him on words that are impossible to sing within the melody and pace of a song. The veteran songwriter is clear on the distinction between a song and poetry.

“You don’t want [a lyric] to exist totally on its own. It should be interdependent,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s like one person saying, ‘Gosh, I’m so good at marriage, I don’t need my wife for it.’”

Initially, Radnor & Lee was just a side venture for its creators. Both have other work. This fall, Radnor is working on Rise, a television show in New York, for NBC. He’s spent parts of the summer on a stage production. And Lee is constantly juggling numerous musical projects. But as the two continued to work on their album, it began to rise in importance and priority. When they posted a song online, and people began to respond, they saw its potential even more.

Time remains their biggest challenge. Radnor said he would like to play an album release show in New York and get out in front of audiences as much as possible in his free time. 

“If you do the right things, you can actually touch a lot of people,” Lee added. “The reason why we commit to projects we commit to is because there is demand for them. Our job at the moment is to make things and put them out there. And then if there’s a demand for it, we can make it work out.”

Follow Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter and RomiTheWriter.Tumblr.com. Follow photographer Ian Young at Twitter.com/Nounpusher and on Instagram.com/nounpusher.

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