Joshua Radin on Assembling ‘Onward and Sideways’ + Performing Love Songs
Joshua Radin, writer of heartbreakingly honest lyrics, never fails to tap into a specific emotion with his music. His new album, Onward and Sideways, focuses on one element: love or, more specifically, the love letters he wrote to one woman.
The album is a spectrum of the relationship, with each track focusing on a different element. Joshua hopped on the phone with PopCrush to discuss how he settled on the track listing, what he thinks about when he performs, and the relationship he has with fan-favorite song "Paperweight."
You’ve talked about how you wrote the songs on Onward and Sideways as love letters to woo a woman. Is the order in which they appear on the album the same as how you wrote them?
No, they’re not, but that’s a good question. No one’s asked that. I went through a bunch of different sequences, but then I ended up just starting off with my favorite song, which is “We’ll Keep Running Forever,” and then from there, I’d finish listening to a song and be like, “Okay, what do I want to hear next?” And that’s kind of how I sequenced it.
Is that how you normally sequence albums or is it different every time?
It’s different every time. I have done it that way before, but it took me a while to come to that conclusion on this record because of the nature of the album. Like you said, it was a series of love letters, so at first I thought it would be cool to have them in order of the way they were written because then it’s really like you’re listening to this story. But somehow sonically it just didn’t work that way once they were produced. When I was playing them just acoustically on my guitar by myself, solo, it seemed to work that way, but then you add production and everything and sonically I felt like the sequence would be stronger in another way.
You have all of these beautiful love songs, but each one kind of approaches the situation from a different angle. Was that something you consciously did when you were writing them or putting together the album?
Yeah, because when you’re writing or record — or when I’ve written records in the past — a lot of times I’m thinking about the audience. “Okay, this is something I need to say, but it’s also something I think an audience would want to hear.” Trying to walk that line, which is a delicate balance. In this case, I didn’t set out to make an album, I set out to woo a lady, so it’s the first time it’s been that way. It was like, if I wrote her one song, I didn’t want to repeat myself. I didn’t think about putting out the album until it worked. [Laughs] I was like, “If I keep writing love songs to get a specific woman to fall in love with me and it doesn’t work, I probably don’t think I’d put out that record.”
When you perform songs, either from this album or in general, are you thinking of things that inspired them or do you go to a different place?
It depends. When I first write them, of course I’m in that place because it’s still fresh, but after months and then years of touring, you’re kind of like — a lot of times, I’m thinking about what I’m going to say to the audience next when the song’s over, before I play the next song or the tuning for the next time. Sometimes you just play the songs so many times that I’m thinking, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t have eaten that cheeseburger before the show.” Anything can run through your mind, you know?
Sometimes you’re looking out at 1,000 people in a beautiful theater and they’re dead silent, but one person’s not sort of looking at you, looking [enamored]. Your stupid artist insecurities are coming out in your head, even though you know you’re singing about something totally differently, sometimes I focus on that one person and stare 'em down and try to make them have a good time or try to connect to that one person.
“Paperweight” is one of my favorite songs. Can you talk about your relationship with that song?
Well, I have a very unique relationship with that song. It’s very different than any other song of mine because it’s the only song I wrote with my ex-girlfriend. I wrote the music and the melody and brought it to her when we first started dating, and she wrote the lyrics and then we worked on it together. She wrote the lyrics about me, so it’s the only song I’ve ever sung or recorded where I didn’t write the lyrics, and it’s also the only song, obviously, where the lyrics are about me rather than someone else.
We dated a couple of years, we went on the road together and the road kind of killed that relationship. We realized under a microscope, which is the road, that we weren’t right for each other. I kind of stopped playing that song because it seemed weird to be standing up onstage singing a song that my ex-girlfriend wrote the words about me and the beginning of a relationship that had ended. But recently, it’s been so long and I’m in love now, it’s one of those things where I’m like, “You know what? I’m going to maybe start playing it again because the wounds have healed." I recently played it, actually last summer, at a couple concerts in London and people were shocked. Usually it’s a song people call out for and I’m always like “No, I don’t play that one.” But recently I started to, so we’ll see what happens.
You said the best writers are always voracious readers. Which writers inspire you?
I love the Russians: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Pushkin, Gogol. I love Fitzgerald, Salinger. I love a few Germans: Herman Hesse, Thomas Mann. Nothing too current, unfortunately. And it’s kind of the same with music, most of the songwriters that inspired me.
Right now I’m actually talking to you from a friend’s house in Laurel Canyon in California. We’re listening to tons of old Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. I’m actually sitting outside on the block where they wrote all those songs. You know, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison. All those guys lived right here on this block, pretty much. So that’s what I’m listening to now. Old stuff, acoustic. I love acoustic music, I love harmonies, I love good lyrics.
Every now and again I find someone these days that’s doing that kind of stuff, but it’s rare. My Spotify playlist when I’m driving in the car is definitely like — my girlfriend’s always like, “Is there anything in here that was done in the last 10 years? Anything?” Not really. Not much. I do like the band Phoenix a lot. I’ve seen them live a few times and they just blew me away, so I’ve started listening to their records. That’s something that’s more modern that I really like.
Like you, I also moved from Ohio to New York, so I have to ask, what’s the biggest thing you miss about home?
Probably Mom’s cooking. I definitely sometimes miss how inexpensive it is to live there. Once you start getting a little older and you start realizing, “I don’t care how cool the bar is down the street.” I was recently touring through Ohio and I was driving my band through the suburbs that I grew up in … and we were on Zillow, going like, “I wonder how much we could buy that house for?” And just all live there and have a studio. It’s like the biggest house in Cleveland. Like, we could actually afford that!