Actor/Director Josh Radnor on His First Heartbreak and The Album That Got Him Through It

"I was convinced it was the greatest thing I’d ever heard or would ever hear and I needed it underscoring my every movement and thought."

Image by Matthew Roharik/ Getty Images

January, 2003. I was subletting an apartment in Santa Monica with my girlfriend Rebecca. There were way too many strollers around and I simultaneously felt too young and suddenly old. I was twenty-eight. Rebecca and I had been splitting our time between New York and LA, which proved an expensive and ultimately unsustainable habit for two intermittently employed actors. To my surprise, I loved L.A., especially in January and February – months which, back in New York and Ohio, had always walloped me with a serious dose of seasonal affective disorder. So there was the sun and also – perhaps more importantly – there was KCRW, Southern California’s NPR outlet as well as the home of Nic Harcourt’s toweringly great Morning Becomes Eclectic every weekday from nine to noon. Each morning Nic would unleash a steady stream of yet-to-be-discovered gems that – in those medieval pre-Shazam days – had you leaning in extra hard to catch the name of the song and artist in Nic’s soothing Aussie baritone when it was over. Morning Becomes Eclectic was – for me – one of the things that made living in Los Angeles not just bearable but actively excellent.

The “eleven o’clock hour” was often devoted to live performances by bands or song-writers swinging through LA, and it was in late January when I first heard a voice that would change my life. How to describe that initial encounter? It was certainly a stop-what-you’re-doing moment and that’s exactly what I did. I looked up from – oh, I don’t know, the coffee maker, the New York Times, my audition sides – and thought: “This… is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.” A sad Irish troubadour’s exquisite songs of romantic heartache and pain, how he’d wronged and been wronged, delivered in a startlingly pure, achingly sincere and elastic voice. It called something forward in me, some heartbroken essential thing. I furiously scribbled down the name: Damien Rice. The album was called O. I needed this music in my life. On repeat. Forever. A quick internet search and a few record store visits revealed that it was available exactly nowhere, its domestic release not scheduled until the following year.

Rebecca and I broke up a few months later. The details are unimportant, but she was my first great love and the resultant pain from the split was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. It felt as though something vital to my physical and emotional well-being had been surgically removed, as if I was suddenly missing a leg. I went back to New York that summer to do a play off-Broadway and, in despair, redoubled my efforts to find the record. Why I thought the ideal soundtrack to a clinical depression would be ten of the most melancholy and navel-gazing songs ever written is beyond me. Or maybe it makes perfect sense.

When I finally found it – one blessed afternoon in the import section at the Virgin record store on Union Square – it cost me nearly thirty dollars, which I gladly forked over. I got the CD home, tore it open, transferred it over to my newly-purchased second-generation iPod, deposited the headphones into my ear-holes, hit play and hit the streets. For the next few months, those songs were my constant companion.

At that point, no one knew of the record in the U.S. outside of a handful of KCRW listeners. musically in-the-know British ex-pats, and whoever saw Damien play at Largo or the Troubadour, as Rebecca and I had a few weeks pre-break-up. I was part of the initial army, the foot soldiers in the whispering campaign, one of the connector-slash-mavens whose connecting-slash-mavening leads to the infamous tipping point. I was out there on the streets, constantly pulling off my headphones and insisting that everyone – people I’d just met! – listen to a track or two. No one was unmoved. I felt I was at the ground floor of something huge, an apostle who had very much found ‘the guy’ and it was up to me to spread the word.

I took my friend Michael Chernus to see Damien play at the Mercury Lounge one summer night then the very next night I went to Northsix in Brooklyn to see him play again, both times within bead-of-sweat proximity to the stage. I proceeded to see Damien Rice play live eight times in one year. Those shows were – for me – quasi-mystical, heart-opening experiences. Granted, I was never not high but still.

One cannot speak about Damien Rice in those days without mentioning his co-conspirator in feelings-inducement, Lisa Hannigan, a creature of such transporting loveliness she seemed to have emerged from a sea shell. She was the kind of ethereal beauty that had you convinced you had just laid eyes on the great love of your life. Trouble was, every other dude in the place was feeling the exact same thing. Years later it emerged that she and Damien had been involved and came to a very bad end. You could tell there was something going on with the two of them up there, some kind of quiet friction that percolated but never exploded. You could even detect a hint of jealousy in Damien when the audience would burst into applause at Lisa’s first few notes and then quickly fall into a hushed, reverent silence. Damien often seemed to be competing with the audience for Lisa’s affection.

So who or what did I really love? Damien? Lisa? The songs? I’m not really sure at this point. I just know that in 2003 I was convinced that record was the greatest thing I’d ever heard or would ever hear and I needed it underscoring my every movement and thought. I’m almost embarrassed now by my O phase. Why did I think it the final word in profundity? Why did I fall so hard for lyrics like:

                                                    Stones taught me to fly

                                                     Love taught me to lie

                                                     Life taught me to die

                                                    And it’s not hard to fall

                                           When you float like a cannonball.

Now it just sounds a touch silly and indulgent, but to sad twenty-eight year-old me it all felt so urgent and deep. I was – back then – much more prone to deploy sarcasm and distance myself with irony and humor. Those songs functioned – I’m now realizing – as some kind of earnestness surrogate for me. I couldn’t say certain things so Damien and Lisa said them for me.

Imagine my heartache the next year when I saw Natalie Portman and Jude Law walking towards each other in the trailer for Mike Nichol’s Closer to the familiar strains of “The Blower’s Daughter.” It was then that I knew Damien and I were finished. It wasn’t total snobbery – the hipster’s odious knack for abandoning something once it becomes popular – although there was certainly some of that at play. It was more a feeling that if I couldn’t have this thing mostly to myself, if everyone was experiencing it as intensely as I was, some of that intensity was diluted. It couldn’t be my favorite thing if it was everyone’s favorite thing. For a brief time Damien and Lisa were exclusively mine and then suddenly – almost overnight – they got really really slutty. Who would know I loved them first and best?

A few years later my friend Bess took me to see Damien sans Lisa at the Greek theater when he was touring to promote “9,” the follow-up to O. Gone were the small clubs filled with only the most devoted of fans; Damien was now playing to thousands. He was in fine voice, and some of the new songs were the equal of anything on O. But Lisa was gone, which considerably lessened the impact of the evening for me. And songs I once loved seemed suddenly saccharine, his delivery overly dramatic. Plus – and here was what really irritated me – he was doing the same bits and between-song patter I saw him do that first summer on those small stages. The same faux-drunken jokes and charming Irish-y stories that appeared so spontaneous and ‘just for me’ were now revealed to be rehearsed shtick. And I was mad at myself for once having fallen for it so completely. I remember looking around at the moony-eyed crowd thinking “Yeah, I was you once. It won’t last.”

I realized my love for O followed the familiar arc of love itself, the first flush of passion so all-consuming you can’t imagine ever not feeling that way. But then, like all things, it passes. You get on long-running TV shows, you fall in love again with people who aren’t Rebecca, you get hooked on other peppier, less self-pitying albums.

But here’s a question: Is loving something the way I loved O even “love?” Shouldn’t a love that is true be sustainable? Should it not grow and flourish rather than dim and wither? Is it possible to love something… forever? I realize these are unfair questions to pose to an album. It is what it is – unchanging and static – while we, its listeners, are in a constant state of flux and growth. The songs are still the same beautiful, damaged things they always were. It’s me who changed.

I’m happy I changed, though. Really I am. Being north of forty and listening to Damien Rice on loop would be cause for concern. But there are times, when I think about those songs and that time and I miss… something. I don’t know that it’s the actual record I miss, though. It’s the feeling, or rather the realization that I could have loved something that unabashedly, that fully and truly.

Or maybe it’s this: Maybe I just miss being twenty-eight and heartbroken for the first time. Maybe I was a little in love with the pain. If nothing else things were vivid. I wasn’t numb. I was legitimately depressed – and even did a disastrous three day dance with Lexapro – but the summer had a kind of cracked beauty to it, the darkness illuminated by some genuine flashes of light, cosmic reminders that I wouldn’t always be feeling that way. There was beauty in the world. And some of it would be mine.

Would I do it all over again? No. One can both mourn a time being gone forever and be grateful that time is over. Youth is funny that way: We worship and miss it and want it done and gone all at the same time.

I wish O well, though. I hope it goes on for many years to get under the skin of moody young men and women susceptible to melancholy and convince them it’s the perfect and final word on love and loss. I wouldn’t deny anyone their O phase. I had mine.

I want it back.

And I never want to see it again.

Image by Jamaal Martin / EyeEm/ Getty Images

If you enjoyed this story from Josh, sign up for Josh’s Museletters here. And read Josh’s other Thrive Global pieces on choosing more than one careerfame and the mindset shift that changed his life, spirituality, coping with the pain of loss, and why we need new metrics of success in our work.

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