So you wanna be a rock star? Why actors fail at being musicians

From How I Met Your Mother’s Josh Radnor to David Duchovny, Hollywood royalty are still insisting on trying to live out their rock star dreams. How should they do it? Take a leaf out of Jeff Goldblum’s wry book, says Rachel Brodsky

Saturday 01 May 2021 08:03
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<p>So you wanna be a rock star? Why actors fail at being musicians</p>

So you wanna be a rock star? Why actors fail at being musicians

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hen actors also identify as musicians, they typically fall into one of two camps. First, there is the Actor Who Was Always A Musician. That is to say, when audiences think of these people, they tend to automatically think of both mediums. This group includes, but is not limited to, Jamie Foxx, Johnny Depp, Kevin Bacon, Jared Leto, Johnny Flynn and Zooey Deschanel.

Then there are actors who merge into musicianship a little later in their public careers, and more of them including big-screen favorites like David Duchovny, Jeff Daniels, David Duchovny, Minnie Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Rita Wilson and even Sharon Stone. The latest of these is How I Met Your Mother’s Josh Radnor, who recently dropped his debut EP One More Then I'll Let You Go. He’d call himself a musician (“I’ve always sung. My life has been saturated in music,” he said in 2020), but it’s most likely Radnor will be indelibly associated with the long-running CBS sitcom.

It’s not Radnor’s first foray into music, exactly. In 2017, he and Australian indie-pop singer/songwriter Ben Lee released a self-titled debut effort, which Rolling Stone said “received widespread praise”. That sounds like a stretch, as it’s difficult to find any actual reviews of the duo’s music, bar a few track premieres and positive interviews. Jezebel, however, described Radnor & Lee, who met on the set of HIMYM, as sounding like “something Ted Mosby would produce, then be mercilessly mocked for by the rest of the gang”.

Josh Radnor and Ben Lee as Radnor & Lee

The extent to which there are no reviews on the internet of Radnor’s latest solo effort is actually pretty comical. It’s almost as if people forgot to listen to it, despite its singer’s considerable star power (HIMYM’s Facebook page has 20 million followers, even with the show being off the air since 2014). The five-track EP hinges on folk/Americana, with a reedy-voiced Radnor in full observational mode, appearing to want his Great American Songwriter moment.

A lack of reviews be damned – Radnor does have some listeners on social media. One even compares him to Bob Dylan: “I love the guitar picking,” wrote a fan in response to a live performance. “Very reminiscent of Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’. Swoonworthy. Hat tip to you, sir.”

Now, when established actors record albums seemingly for the hell of it, it’s simple to imagine that, well, of course so-and-so famous actor got a record deal. They’re so-and-so famous actor! But does it go any deeper than that? Are there music fans out there who love recordings by a famous actor, independent of their onscreen roles? And can these actors ever be as beloved for their music as they are for their onscreen portrayals?

Peter Holslin, who interviewed David Duchovny when the Californication star began promoting his early attempts at musicianship back in 2015, fully acknowledges that Duchovny would be the first to admit that he’s doing music because he can. “I doubt that he has fans of just his music,” he tells The Independent. “I would assume that most people listening to David Duchovny’s music are more familiar with his work as an actor. I looked on Spotify the other day and he doesn't really have that many streams for his music. Just in terms of sheer numbers, he doesn't seem to have the kind of broad-based, support or listenership that would be matching his actor name recognition of who he is as an actor. I don't think anybody really knows of him as a musician.”

David Duchovny performs at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City

Perhaps it’s all about how they choose to market themselves. Rita Wilson, who has been in front of the camera since the Eighties, began recording country music in the early 2010s. Her page, which has about a quarter of a million followers, is entirely dedicated to her music, and she also does a lot more promotional work to get audiences to see her as a bona fide musician. Younger audiences will recognize Wilson from her guest judge spot on FOX’s The Masked Singer and her viral rap videos. Older listeners will see her talking about songwriting with The Grammy Museum and chatting up Hoda Kotb on The Today Show in the US.

In most scenarios, an actor’s music fans will have latched on to something musical the actor did in an acting role, such as when Jeff Daniels sang Tom T Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis” with the cast of The Newsroom in 2014. It caught the eye of Australian singer-songwriter Zoee, who tells The Independent, “I just loved Jeff’s voice and guitar style.”

That same year, Zoee heard Daniels’s sophomore album, Days Like These, and was hooked. “I became enthralled with his own songwriting and storytelling pretty quickly,” she says. “There’s a warmth in his voice that really hits you. And his musical arrangements, with the mandolin and strings, on songs like ‘Holy Hotel’ speaks truths: ‘I’ve seen the world while standing still/ When the sun goes down and that darkness falls/ just know it all got lived, and I loved it all.’ That line just hits right between the eyes and is a great reminder and example of Jeff’s writing to enjoy every moment we get.”

But would she be a Daniels fan if he was not a famous actor? That’s difficult to say. “I actually think the two things are fairly separate, and they both hold up on their own merit,” she says. “Both showcase the incredible performer he is and there’s no denying the skills he has as an artist and actor.”

How many fans an actor-musician gets may also have something to do with how much time and energy they opt to put into a singing venture. Scarlett Johansson, for example, is one of Hollywood’s top players, appearing in Marvel blockbusters and Oscar-recognized dramas seemingly all at once. But her musical output slowed after a 2009 collaborative album with pop-rock figurehead Pete Yorn. In the last decade, Johansson has popped up in a handful of music projects, forming a band called The Singles with HAIM’s Este Haim, plus Holly Miranda, Kendra Morris and Julia Haltigan, and fronting tracks for films, such as “Trust in Me” for The Jungle Book. Despite her occasional output, the average consumer doesn’t think “singer” when Johansson’s name comes up. But, given her considerable resources, the Marriage Story actor could probably rewrite that narrative if she really wanted to.

Scarlett Johansson sings with The Jesus And Mary Chain at Coachella Music Festival in 2007

It’s not that established actors’ music isn’t any good. From a critical standpoint, the results are usually decent, no doubt because celebrities have better access to quality instruments, skilled producers, and studio time. But that inherent privilege can also prevent them from making a splash with the average music consumer.

Which brings us back to Josh Radnor. Perhaps if he took inspiration from someone like Jeff Goldblum, who deftly channels his wry caricature into jazz piano and has earned endless accolades for it, he’d have more success. "I consider myself a social lubricant as much as a musician really," Goldblum told NPR in 2014.

Indeed, Goldblum, who is now in his sixties, is something of a walking meme factory, thanks to his highly quotable roles in action classics like Jurassic Park and Independence Day. In the media, the actor seems both hyper aware of his millennial fanbase and adorably clueless as to why anyone would even care. Turns out, that really works for him. “A big part of the audience's enjoyment comes from the joy Goldblum takes in working in a room full of Goldblum acolytes and fans,” NPR noted while covering the weekly jazz piano concerts Goldblum held at a club called Rockwell in Los Angeles.

Jeff Goldblum performs at Arroyo Seco Weekend in 2017 in Pasadena, California

Goldblum’s good humour about nearly everything he does, and the world at large, is so well-documented, it makes it much more likely for the average consumer to want to know — and hear — more from him, regardless of medium. “That ability to see humour and hope in the darkest days has infused some of his most prominent roles,” wroteThe Quietus in 2018. “But that eccentric vocal delivery may be the most beloved aspect of one of the most universally beloved actors of the last few decades.”

Radnor, on the other hand, is nothing less than sincere in his efforts. And as for his vocal delivery, well, there’s nothing especially unique about it. It’s just another wealthy guy with a guitar. For someone who spent nearly a decade beaming into middle-America’s homes as a hapless schmoe who was trying (and often failing) to find his forever partner, the pivot to music might appear, well, a little too much like something Ted Mosby would do. Except it’s not a sitcom anymore.

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