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 him — until 2004, when friend and singer-songwriter Cary Brothers prodded him into recording a song called "Winter" in his bedroom. Radin says now 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 after Brothers passed "Winter" on to Scrubs star Zach Braff; a few months later, the song appeared on an episode of the hit sitcom.
Radin suddenly had a paying gig, a debut record called We Were Here, and a long-term contract with Columbia. That's when life got complicated, much more complicated than he ever expected, which is how his sophomore album of confessional folk-pop, released in September 2008, 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 says. "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 Clubhouse Music Venue in Tempe
Joshua Radin is scheduled to perform Saturday, February 14.
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 movie, 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 track list. "For me, it really was about getting back to simpler times."
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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 rather 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 says. "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."
And so 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."