Singer Josh Groban

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Grammy- and Oscar-nominated singer explains why he feels his latest project will be a fan-favorite record.

Since his '01 debut release, Josh Groban has sold some 20 million CDs in the U.S. and has seen each of his solo projects certified multi-platinum. His first PBS special was the No. 1 selling DVD of '02, and he's just released his fifth studio album, "Illuminations." He began singing in 7th grade and opted to put college on hold in order to pursue music. His break came courtesy of renowned composer-arranger David Foster. Groban has established a foundation to help children in need and is an ambassador for Nelson Mandela's global HIV AIDS awareness program.


Tavis: Always pleased to have Josh Groban on this program. The Grammy-nominated singer is, of course, one of the biggest names in the music business, and starting next Monday you can pick up a copy of his long-awaited new project. It’s called “Illuminations,” as I mentioned at the top.
The CD is a collaboration with legendary producer Rick Rubin. From “Illuminations,” here is some of the video for the song, “Hidden Away.”
Tavis: It’s soft, it’s subtle, but there is a refinement of your sound. I guess the question is whether or not the Grobies (laughter) are ready for this. Can they handle this?
Josh Groban: As some of them are called, yes.
Tavis: Yeah, as they are called, the “Grobies.” Can they handle this?
Groban: I think they can totally handle it. When Rick Rubin and I got into a room together for the first time, we were somewhat scared to death. We were both admirers of each other’s work, but also interested in the fact that we’d done completely different things. So the fan conversation came up really right at the beginning.
We kind of appreciated the fact that people might view us together as a bit of a gimmick, and certainly people who didn’t know the work that we were doing at the time would ask us, “What, are you making a rock record, are you making a rap record?” because he’s so legendary in those worlds.
We wanted to make a fan favorite record. Rick essentially was really a fan of the way that I sang and he was a fan of my writing, and I was very honored for that. But he wanted to break it down in a way that really allowed the best parts of what he felt that I did to shine through a little more. So in that way, we really felt like if we just focused on great singing, great songs and recording them with a real clarity and purity that the fans shouldn’t be bummed.
Tavis: There are a lot of great producers in that town, and for that matter in this country and around the world. At first glance, when I saw that you and Rubin had connected, I wasn’t sure what was going to come forward. It’s good stuff, obviously, but of all the producers who you could work with if you’re going to make that subtle shift, that movement to refine your sound, why Rick?
Groban: When I hear a Rick Rubin record, I don’t necessarily hear a huge stamp. I think a lot of times with a producer you hear a very distinct stamp of that producer on the record. With Rick, I oftentimes just hear the best work that that artist has done, and I think that the way that Rick works is genre-less, as far as what he’s able to bring out of the artist.
So he can just finish making the new Metallica record and this was his first time standing in the studio with a 60-piece orchestra. But the way that it came about, the way that we eventually got into that studio, was the same way as it is for Jay-Z or Metallica or Johnny Cash.
The blueprinting that occurs, the year that happens with he and I that really resulted in no sound. It was just writing; it was just really trying to figure out what our tools were going to be. He took out a lot of stuff that I’ve done in the past and he’s like a coach in that way.
I think that was the thing that drew me to him most, was that he’s able to really get into an artist’s head to make them fester a little bit and eventually bring out their best work.
Tavis: That’s the funny part to me, because that’s what’s on my iPod, Metallica, Jay-Z, Josh Groban.
Groban: Yeah, mine, too. Yeah, strangely enough. (Laughter)
Tavis: So here’s an inside baseball kind of question – so how do these songs, then, lend themselves, these specific songs lend themselves to your doing a fan favorite record?
Groban: Well, in the end – it may be a little bit of a test for the fans, but I think that the first thing was that Rick really wanted me to do a lot of writing. I think that in the end, I think fans generally, as much as they like to hear the beauty of the singing and the orchestrations and all that, I think that fans generally want to find out about the artist through their songs.
So I’m always so pleased when I can get a song or be given a song that really speaks to me and I can interpret, but if given the opportunity to really write from the heart and try and bring some personality to whatever this genre would be, it was a great opportunity for me.
So I would have been perfectly happy singing a group of cover songs that we felt would be great for the fans and great for me, but Rick said, “Keep going, keep writing, make it personal.” So there are a lot of very personal messages from me on this record. I wrote or co-wrote 11 out of the 13 tracks.
The other thing is the way we recorded it. I think that we definitely took away a lot of the electronic elements of how I’ve recorded in the past. There’s very little reverb, for instance. Many of the songs were recorded in one or two takes.
So there’s a performance aspect of it that I think is exciting for me and the fans in the live part of the promotional tour that we then were able to bring into the recorded process that hopefully will be exciting for them to listen to as an album.
Tavis: You have a large, obviously quite large and loyal fan base. Tell me more about the journey that you have been on as a writer to expose more of yourself to those fans through your lyrical content.
Groban: The first record, I was wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. I was 17 and I was basically a student and a professional at the same time. I was terrified, and I was given a great deal of music. To a certain extent, it took enough courage to just sing for people.
At that point, just to be able to have a microphone in front of me was a big enough task that the idea of coming home every night and writing melodies or scribbling something in a journal, I wasn’t going to dare approach anybody with that kind of stuff.
So the next record – funny thing happens when you have some success. People start viewing you as a formula. They start viewing you as a commodity, and so songs start to come in from writers wanting to duplicate what you’ve done in the past. When you get a copy of a copy from the songwriting world, it can kind of sound that way.
So you start to listen to things and either say, “Well, is that what they think of me or is that what they think I’d want to say?” And you wind up saying to yourself, “Okay, stop being lazy. If that’s not what you want to say, go write what it is that is what you wish that song had been.”
So it started out of frustration, and then the reward of being able to sing those songs for my fans and having an actual great reaction from them just kind of – slowly but surely, you start building your confidence to say okay, that stuff that I’m playing when I get home from work, that’s writing. The stuff that I’m writing in my journal because I’m feeling a certain way, that’s writing.
If you can incorporate that in what you do, it’s just about honing that craft and it’s been an amazing trip.
Tavis: How do you resist, as all this success starts to come, it’s come in droves for you – as the success starts to come, to your earlier point, how do you resist being the commodity that a whole bunch of folk behind the scenes want you, insist that you become?
Groban: I think that my relationship with my fans has been very special from day one. It’s been very special in spite of the fact that I don’t think I would ever be able to call myself a press darling. I don’t think there’s ever been a superficial hype machine around me.
In fact, quite the opposite. It’s actually taken many years to turn heads, kind of slowly but surely, to where the fans’ heads have been the whole time. So I think that’s kept it very grounded for me, I think, and so in building that confidence and eventually getting to a world where we’ve been able to do our thing and people have come to us naturally, without having to change, we feel like we can make our own rules a bit.
So musically, between me and my fans and also me and my team, who between management and record label have always just let me be me, it’s fun to pave a path. It’s fun to feel like you’re doing things your own way. So in that regard I haven’t had to worry about any bar but my own.
Tavis: I want to go back to the very first track on this record, which I couldn’t wait to hear once I read about it. (Laughter) I got two or three questions about this one track.
Groban: Okay. (Laughs)
Tavis: One, what were you doing writing music at 12 years of age, what were you thinking about at 12 years of age, and how do you write a song at 12 that you just now get around to recording?
Groban: (Laughs) Man, okay. (Laughter) Let me try and tackle those one by one.
Tavis: No, I’m just being funny – you ain’t got to answer all three of them. (Laughter) Tell me about track number one, “The Wandering Kind.”
Groban: Yeah, “The Wandering Kind,” okay.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughs)
Groban: Well, when I was 10, 11, 12, the piano was my outlet. I didn’t know at that point. I knew I could kind of sing, I was coming home from shows and I was singing stuff, but basically in junior high school, you make that transition from elementary school to junior high school, singing, especially the way that I sing, and at that age, singing the way that I sing (laughter) was not the cool thing to do.
So you’re taking it out on other instruments, and so couldn’t play guitar for the life of me. It was before I was given a drum set nicely by my parents; that was later in life. So we had a piano in the living room, and I would come home and just be stressed about school.
My school life was very much a wandering experience. I was not – I was having trouble in school and I was not making a lot of friends. So coming home and actually improvising on the piano and just coming up with melodies was an escape for me.
Some of those are forever forgotten, and some of them have just stuck in my head forever. Like I said, just having the confidence to eventually bring some of those to the speakers now, this was a song that I was desperately trying to turn into a proper lyrical song. It was too all over the place, so I asked Rick if we could make –
Tavis: Kind of wandering.
Groban: It was definitely wandering, yeah. (Laughter) That was the title that came about this year, so. So I asked Rick if I could get maybe five or six of my favorite studio musicians in a room and if we could just jam and just see what happened.
We eventually did it, and like I said, this was all one performance and one take, and Rick said, “That’s really cool, and it would be great as a prelude to the rest of it to bring people in.”
It’s very full circle for me. For the life of me, I don’t know why it stuck in my head since that age, but very fun that I’ve been able to record it now.
Tavis: As I said, in sequence, it ends up being all these years later the first track on the CD, which is sort of –
Groban: (Laughter) Yeah, exactly. No, I know. If I – look, that’s one of many things that if I could go back and tell my 12-year-old self – “Hey, look, hey, that’s going to be on a Rick Rubin album.” (Laughter)
Tavis: Funny how life works, isn’t it?
Groban: Crazy how life works, yeah.
Tavis: I want to close with this. When you were last – I’ve only talked to you two or three times in life, and every time we’ve talked your parents always make their way into our conversation. When you were last on this program we discovered live on TV that your parents and I just don’t live in the same neighborhood, we live on the same street.
Groban: The same street, yeah. (Laughs)
Tavis: Like, two blocks away from each other.
Groban: Yeah, exactly.
Tavis: They’re off-camera, so the audience can’t see them, but you were kind enough to bring your parents here today. It occurs to me that we are about to move into the holiday season, and family means so much to all of us. Tell me about how it is that you have navigated this journey to this wonderful place with the support of family – wonderful parents like the ones you have.
Groban: Well, they are wonderful, and it’s meant everything to me. We’re L.A. locals and when I started in the music business, travel became a huge part of my world, where it hadn’t been at all. I visited parts of the world that I’d never been to and found that I was spending maybe 30 days at home a year.
So as the holidays come around, for me the greatest part of it is just being able to be with them, to be with my family, to have a moment of reflection and simplicity and thanks, and when we talk about doing things our own way and having the confidence to pave your own path, that doesn’t happen without, for me, an amazing grounding force of family around me.
I think that they’ve always kept my head in the right place and been an amazing soundboard for me and an amazing balance to the weight for me. So I’m very blessed to have an amazing support system in my family, and we did talk about it last time. So they freaked out when I told them last time that we had talked about being in the same neighborhood. “Tavis Smiley said that?” So they are here tonight.
Tavis: Well, I did not last time and I won’t tonight give out their address.
Groban: No. (Laughs) (Unintelligible)
Tavis: So all the Grobies could block my driveway and I can’t get down the street to park my car at my house.
Groban: Exactly, no. They’re (unintelligible) that way. (Laughter)
Tavis: The Grobans are here tonight, most principally Josh Groban, who has out, thankfully, a new project. It’s called “Illuminations,” something you will definitely want to add to your collection. Josh, congratulations and always good to have you on this program.
Groban: It’s always an honor. Thanks, Tavis.
Tavis: My pleasure.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm