Since childhood, doctors warned Joshua Radin – who, as a toddler suffered a punctured eardrum, that he ran a grave risk of piercing pain if he ever immersed himself in water. “I said, ‘Alright, I’m just going to live my life on land,’” he explained. That changed last year. He was penning Underwater in Los Angeles in near seclusion – an antidote to the last two years of being crammed on a tour bus with his band. And one day, he woke up and realized there was inspiration in the Pacific. So he bought earplugs and took the plunge. “It was mind-blowingly cool,” he says. Even when I’m sleeping in bed, I can hear my heartbeat. I never realized the silence one experiences underwater. My brain was totally free to come up with a melody line, and that’s where this album began, underwater.”
That hope continues to trickle through the album in tracks such as the sweeping “Anywhere Your Love Goes” and the gently ambling “Let It Go” (about that time he jumped in his friend’s convertible and high-tailed it up the Coast). Underwater is a more mature offering from Radin, who recruited a dream team of musicians to enhance his sound. Among them: pianist Benmont Tench (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), drummer Jim Keltner (Bob Dylan, John Lennon), and string arranger Jimmie Haskell (Simon and Garfunkel).
The singer has earned a loyal following for his wistful meditations: notably the rootsypop “Streetlight” (off 2010’s The Rock and the Tide, which hit No. 5 on the iTunes album chart and No. 1 on its Alternative chart), the hushed, emotionally bare “Winter” (off 2006’s We Were Here, which won a four-star review in Rolling Stone); and the lilting, melodic “I’d Rather Be With You” (off 2008’s Simple Times, which topped the iTunes album chart and went top 10 in ten different countries). The latter sold more than 300,000 albums worldwide. Radin’s compositions have proven so affective that they’ve seamlessly sound-tracked everything from Grey’s Anatomy to American Idol to House. In fact, Radin’s songs have been used more than 100 times in various films and television shows, making him a behind the scenes artist who’s music you’ve definitely heard but might not know it yet.
In 2008, Ellen DeGeneres personally asked Radin to perform at her intimate wedding with Portia de Rossi. “I played six of my songs and Ellen and Portia just sat right in front of me looking at each other, crying, and looking at me,” he recalls. “I actually teared up a bit – that’s never happened to me before.”
Live performances have always been Radin’s lifeblood. After stints as a screenwriter in New York and as an inner-city art teacher in Chicago, he moved out to Southern California to test his mettle as a musician. Because… why not? “More than drawing, I taught those kids in Chicago a general perspective of the world – looking at something and not being overwhelmed. And it’s how I’ve always looked at life,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to wake up every day and have the opportunity to be creative, to express what’s going on in my head and heart, and to be able to connect with the world in that way. I may have started playing music much later in life than my peers, but I love going through life with the idea that it’s never too late.”
When his father gave him a guitar on a whim for his birthday, Radin taught himself C, D, and G chords. Then he upgraded to covers of Bob Dylan, Nick Drake, and Elliott Smith. Soon after, in 2004, he wrote his first song, “Winter,” about his fractured relationship with a longtime girlfriend.
The song so moved his college buddy Zach Braff, that the actor passed it along to a producer on his TV show Scrubs. Three weeks later, you could hear it on the show. The Scrubs buzz was fast and furious, crashing the NBC site and winning Radin a cache of fans. Radin worked hard to build a grassroots following after that experience, frequently posting fresh compositions on social-media sites.
“I’ve grown in terms of my live performance,” he says, looking back. “When I started, I was so nervous. I didn’t even know how to play the guitar while standing – I had to sit. I couldn’t open my eyes – I didn’t want to see anyone. You have to understand that I never wanted the spotlight growing up. I never was drawn to the stage. So when I began composing music, just as a hobby, I was immediately thrust into a world I wasn’t ready for, and I’ve learned what I’ve learned, without a net. Seven years later and four albums in, I see the stage as my home.”
Underwater captures that feeling of surmounting fears, but it’s also a culmination of Radin’s love of the stage. Much of the album, co-produced by Radin and Kevin Augunas (John Brion, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros) was recorded at the storied Studio City, the once-ramshackle space that hosted Tom Petty’s “Damn the Torpedoes” and Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” sessions. They captured single takes on analog tape, to give the work a more organic feel. “When you cut to tape, you record like you’re playing live. That’s why this album has more of a performance feel,” he says.
To help pull off this feat, “we brought in the most amazing musicians ever,” Radin notes, admiringly of Tench, Keltner, and Haskell. The work of the latter (who also composed the strings for “Bridge Over Troubled Water”) is never more gutting than in “Any Day Now,” which closes the album. “I wrote that on a guitar, and we ultimately decided to take all the guitar out,” Radin says. “Roger Joesph Manning Jr. (Fiona Apple, Beck) came in and played a bit of the Andromeda, an electric harpsichord, and some Wurlitzer. Then Jimmie arranged the strings around it. It’s so cinematic. The opening of the song sounds like the camera swooping down into an old movie from the 1950’s.
Radin will put Underwater’s timelessness to the test this summer, touring throughout the world.