Josh Groban Leaves Really Soft World, Channels Zeppelin on New Album
January 12, 2013
By Andrew Hampp
"I'm not saying what I'm doing is Pearl Jam, but it can have the right energy," says the multi-platinum singer of "All That Echoes."
The first meeting for Josh Groban's sixth studio album occurred not in a recording studio or at the offices of longtime label Warner Bros. Records. It was during a party at Kid Rock's house.
Perhaps inspired by the setting or the host, Groban chatted up Rob Cavallo, longtime producer of Rock, Green Day and My Chemical Romance, and also Groban's boss. Cavallo had been appointed chairman of Warner Bros. just before the release of Groban's 2010 album, the Rick Rubin-helmed "Illuminations," and he was curious about where the prince of classical crossover pop wanted to head next.
"He stressed to me that he loved his other records, but he said, 'I think there's something more,'" Cavallo recalls.
That missing piece was surprising. Groban had been listening to a lot of Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull and Fleetwood Mac, and he'd begun to wonder what his music might sound like if it had some of the orchestral rock elements he heard on those records. "I was concerned that the music have a little pop or rock edge to it -- whatever world I find myself in, it's just gotten really soft," Groban says candidly of his highly successful catalog, which has moved 21.5 million albums since his self-titled 2001 debut, according to Nielsen SoundScan. "This genre can rock a little bit. I'm not saying what I'm doing is Pearl Jam, but it can have the right energy. The intent can be the same."
The result is "All That Echoes," a collaboration with Cavallo that indeed finds Groban embracing some of his most rocking arrangements to date on tracks like "False Alarms," "E Ti Promettero" (a duet with Italian singer Laura Pausini) and lead single "Brave," each festooned with dramatic strings and pounding drums that bring to mind latter-day Coldplay or the Cavallo-produced heyday of Goo Goo Dolls. Sweeping covers of "Falling Slowly" from "Once" and Stevie Wonder's "I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)" rock a little bit harder than one would expect from a guy who got his big break as a Grammy Award rehearsal stand-in for Andrea Bocelli. Then there's his cover of Danish indie-rock group Choir of Young Believers' "Hollow Talk," which boasts an epic "Kashmir"-like strings-and-electric-guitar climax. And for the most-devoted Grobanites -- as his hardcore fans have called themselves since Groban guest-starred on "Ally McBeal" in 2001 -- there's even a bonus interpretation of Dave Matthews Band's "Satellite" on the direct-to-fan and Target deluxe editions of the album.
"Any time I would say to Rob, 'I don't know if this in the rule book' or 'I don't know if I can get away with this,' he'd say, 'You got to get yourself out of that place. Stop holding yourself back and let's expand your wheelhouse,'" Groban says. He also co-penned all seven of the album's original tunes, with co-writers including Chantal Kreviazuk ("Brave"), Tawgs Salter ("Brave," "Happy in My Heartache"), Lester Mendez ("False Alarms," "Un Alma Mas"), Walter Afanasieff ("Sincera") and Marco Marinangeli ("E Ti Promettero").
But it was Cavallo's confidence in Groban's instinctive abilities as a vocalist and a musician that built up a trust that resulted in recording many of the songs live with a full orchestra, with many of Groban's first-take vocals ending up on the final cut.
"I thought it would be great to put a rock band in terms of the rhythm section behind him," Cavallo says, "but at the same time we'd get the best players in the world on drums, bass and guitar. Then we'd put with them the best harpist, cellist and violinist in the world. Then you'll hear the voice and you'd end up with some special kind of hybrid where it will still be classical but will also have a different kind of energy behind it."
Among the A-list musicians who appear on "All That Echoes" are drummers Matt Chamberlain (Pearl Jam) and Abe Laboriel Jr. (Paul McCartney), as well as legendary trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, who plays on Spanish-language love song "Un Alma Mas."
Having Groban's music show signs of edge could reverse the sales dip that "Illuminations" experienced -- it was his first record to miss out on a platinum plaque. (The set has sold 894,000 copies, according to SoundScan.) But a little change of pace should come as little surprise to fans of Groban the performer, who's poked fun at and playfully distanced himself from his goody-two-shoes, boy-next-door image during the last two years. He memorably turned Kanye West's tweets into dramatic piano ballads on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!," took on comedic acting roles in 2011's "Crazy Stupid Love" and a pair of guest spots on NBC's "The Office," filled in for Regis Philbin on "Live With Kelly" (he was in serious consideration for the spot that went to Michael Strahan) and constantly peppers his own joke-laden Twitter feed (more than 529,000 followers) with punny bon mots like, "If I were in the mortuary business- 'Mo' Dignity: We Get To Bag You Up.'"
As a result of his Josh of all trades status, "All That Echoes" has a varied and ambitious promotional schedule that kicks off Jan. 18 with a 60-minute special on HSN to boost pre-orders of the album. Groban will swing by the New York Times' Times Talk series (Feb. 1), "Good Morning America" (Feb. 6), "Live With Kelly and Michael" (Feb. 7) and even Bravo's "Watch What Happens Live" (Feb. 10), with Valentine's Day stops planned for "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and a return to "Kimmel." Radio visits will include top 40 WHTZ (Z100) New York and a performance at Clear Channel's iHeartRadio Theater.
Also set for the eve of the album's release (Feb. 5) is an event hosted by National CineMedia's Fathom division in which Groban will perform an intimate live concert at New York's Allen Room at Lincoln Center and answer questions from fans both in the audience and at the more than 500 movie theaters watching the performance. Portions of the taping will be repurposed into a special for PBS later in the year.
But even beyond album cycles, "Josh has done an amazing job of talking to fans year-round," Warner Bros. VP of marketing Esther Somlo says. "His fans are so loyal and rabid and really supportive that they're really sort of mobilized when there's new content. There aren't long dormant periods. He's always doing something, whether it's touring, film or TV projects, and even when he's not he's good at communicating with them."