Soapbox: Josh Radnor ‘Getting Comfortable at Being Bad’
“Whatever happens out there is right.” That was the simple prayer my friend, violinist Kerenza Peacock, and I offered up before we took the stage. Moments later—in front of the 90 or so people who had gathered in the intimate dark of Hotel Café’s Stage Two in Los Angeles—I took a deep, centering breath before I strummed the first chord on my guitar. A guitar that was—I was about to learn—comically out of tune.
By any metric, it was a notably lousy way to start a show. Nothing signals to an audience “Don’t have faith in what you are about to see” more than the inability to strum even a single in-tune chord. I turned to Kerenza like “WTF” and began to tune my guitar. I couldn’t help but laugh as I told the audience about our pre-show prayer—“I guess this is what’s meant to be happening.” I then told them how Miles Davis used to say that he didn’t perform—he only rehearsed—in front of an audience. “So welcome to our rehearsal.” The crowd loved it. I tuned my guitar, and we launched into our set.
Six years ago, I started writing songs with my friend Ben Lee. Ben wrote his first song when he was 10. I was getting a later start. But songs somehow tumbled out of us every time we got together and, what began as a lark or a potential side project, turned into something we both began to treat with increasing seriousness and dedication. Our first shows in Los Angeles were for less than a hundred people, but we’ve now played to audiences in Brazil, Argentina and Australia, as well as across the U.S.
Though we composed all the songs on our first album together, Radnor & Lee began as a one-guitar band (that guitar being Ben’s). But in the late winter of 2017—reeling from a breakup—I wrote a crudely strummed song by myself using the few guitar chords I knew. Ben liked the song, we began playing it at Radnor & Lee shows and our audiences seemed to like it, too. I began picking up the guitar that had been sitting idle, with increased frequency, in my house for years. I was far from virtuosic out of the gate but I seemed to have a feel for the instrument and progressed relatively quickly. At some point, Ben said, with his unique brand of enviable enthusiasm, “Let’s be a two-guitar band!”
Here I am, three years later, typing this with calloused fingers—a songwriting guitar player who practices and plays every chance he gets. Perfectionism has been perhaps the great demon of my life. I’ve long possessed a ruthless inner critic who—in the face of mistakes—unloads lethal and confidence-crushing rants. How was I to honor this new love of mine while not being crushed by doubting voices and perfectionistic demons? The answer was simple: I had to get comfortable with being bad, at least for a while.
In the realm of art, we assume that people want to see mastery or perfection. That might be true on some level. But on a deeper level, I think what we really want to see is a passionate struggle. We want to see people going for it and striving—even if they miss. I’ll always be more invested in singers Joe Cocker or Janis Joplin—who sound like they’re not quite going to hit that note—than I will be in an operatic superstar who clearly will. The greatest stories are not those of uninterrupted triumph but rather tales of struggle, setback, failure and redemption. We know ourselves, at a core level, to be flawed beings. Thus, we intuitively trust stories with cracks and dents, and characters who are worn, frayed and lived in.
Much of our early lives seem to be about isolating our strengths and leaning into them. It’s increasingly difficult as we get older to voluntarily become a novice again. The ego simply doesn’t like to be humbled. But there’s also a kind of grace in being a mistake-prone beginner. Think of our affection for babies and small children. We love them all the more when they mispronounce their words, smear their faces with food and struggle to take their first steps. Their fallibility is essential to their lovability. But somewhere along the line, we toss all that out and make achievements, accolades and straight As the markers of our worth. We lose the sweet messiness and holy opportunity of imperfection.
I mentioned to my friend Brenda once how silly I felt picking up the guitar at 42 and she said the very best thing she possibly could have said in response. “But just think: When you’re 72, you’ll have been playing for 30 years.”
That simple comment helped me reframe things and I think about it often. My musical story isn’t that of a teenager who formed a band with his mates and took over the world. It’s one about a guy in his 40s who started writing songs with his friend and discovered he was actually good at it—that it made him happier than anything else. And rather than deciding that ship had sailed, I realized that there’s no ship, no schedule, no ticking clock. There’s just me, a guitar, some stories and all the time I need to tell them.
Taking place right before California’s stay-at-home order was issued, that night at the Hotel Café turned out to be the last time that I’ve been able to gather with a crowd. Not every moment of the show was as precise as I would have liked it to be. But I sang and played with a real joy and a lightness of heart. It felt like I was in a deeply intimate and meaningful conversation with the audience, flaws and all. That’s all I ever demand from music and stories. And in that way, it was perfect.
Though actor/musician/writer Josh Radnor offers the caveat that he never “trailed String Cheese around the country,” he notes that his musical history was partially informed by the times he spent seeing Phish and Widespread Panic in college. Radnor & Lee released their collaborative album Golden State in June via Flower Moon.