Josh Groban Is Not a Tool
By Simon Dumenco; Photograph by Tierney Gearon
Adoring middle-aged women may pay his bills,
but this rock-star baritone is cooler than you think.
Meeting Josh Groban in person is a little confusing. The pop-operatic baritone who sold some 6 million CDs last year-more than any other artist in the country-should really be sitting at a piano, crooning melodramatically about love and longing and loss. Or standing solemnly at a microphone in a hushed stadium, bathed in celestial light. Instead, Groban is seated at a folding table in a modest one-bedroom condo in a Beverly Hills low-rise, wearing an old T-shirt, jeans, and Converse high-tops and playing a game of poker with the five members of his band.
These are not, shall we say, the world's most serious poker players. They're not actually gambling, though Groban jokes about setting high stakes: "Loser's out of the band!"
And since nobody here is able to achieve anything even close to a poker face, there's talk that maybe they should switch to Jenga. Or bowling. "Hey, do you remember, in Amsterdam, like, how funny bowling got all of a sudden?" Groban asks. "I don't even remember Amsterdam," says drummer Craig MacIntyre. "Never mind," Groban says abruptly, prompting gales of laughter. But he continues the story anyway: "We were in that café"-he pauses meaningfully-"uh, for coffee. And, um, it was on TV and we're like, 'Oh, bowling's on!' And then, like, an hour later we were like"-he affects a stoner voice straight out of a Harold & Kumar movie-"'Look at the way they're squatting!'"
The band convulses in laughter, and suddenly it's impossible to imagine this 27-year-old goofball singing "You Raise Me Up" to a stadium full of moist-eyed, trembling-lipped suburban moms.
Seven years into his career, as sales of Josh Groban CDs and DVDs push 23 million units, the image of him that's being marketed to the world is beginning to feel like a straitjacket. "People will see a poster of me walking through the desert with, like, a who-can-have-the-most-serious-stare-contest stare on my face," he says, "and I sing a lot of songs that are very serious, my voice is classically trained . . . "
That voice does, of course, lend itself to a certain schmaltziness (that's why every damn time you stepped into a Starbucks last December you heard Groban's version of "Silent Night"). He knows that regardless of what he wants for himself, his fans want to be moved. They want to be . . .raised up. "My head and my voice are, a lot of times, fighting each other," Groban says.
Fortunately, he's found an outlet for the part of himself that can't resist poking holes in his own shtick. In 2004, when Jimmy Kimmel was preparing to host the American Music Awards, he and his writers had an idea for a skit involving Snoop Dogg. "I thought it'd be funny to have Josh Groban in it," Kimmel says. At the AMAs, a backstage camera showed Snoop manning a "bizzake sale" table offering $100 brownies. In the line of customers, just behind Bobby Brown, was Groban. "I thought this was the line for the bizzathroom," he deadpanned.
"He was so good at it-he played it very straight-that we decided to keep asking him to do things," Kimmel says. So when a couple of pandas at a zoo in Thailand drew international attention for failing to mate, Groban helpfully performed a snippet of "The Panda Sex Song" ("I want to see you have panda sex/I want to watch you pull down your panda pants/So come on now and do that thing/Get a piece of that sweet Ling Ling!") in a music video for Kimmel's show. And then came the celebrity-studded "I'm +*+@$%# Ben Affleck" video, in which Groban appears out of the blue-snowflakes gently falling on him and his grand piano-to lend his swelling tones. It was pop-cultural nirvana: the laugh-out-loud moment in one of the funniest viral videos in recent memory.
If Groban is itching to subvert expectations, perhaps it's because his path as a performer has been carefully stage-managed since he was a teenager. That's when David Foster, the composer and producer who has worked with all the major balladeers (including Whitney Houston and Céline Dion), took him under his wing. Groban's voice teacher was a friend of Foster's, and he had his star pupil, still a student at the L.A. County High School for the Arts, make a demo tape. "And then David calls me and says, 'Hey, Josh, listen, you were a little pitchy, but it was good,'" Groban says. "I didn't even know who David Foster was-I didn't realize he had like 14 Grammys. So I go to [his] house and it's just, the Jurassic Park gates open to 22 acres of prime Malibu real estate."
Foster, as it happened, was booking the music for the inauguration of California governor Gray Davis. He chose the 17-year-old Groban to perform "All I Ask of You," from Phantom of the Opera, before a crowd of 23,000. "I was wearing a really ill-fitted tuxedo," Groban says. "I love the video of it, because my dad had this shaky camera up in the bleachers, and he was going 'That's my son. That's my son!'"
Foster signed him, at age 19 and after a year of college, to his 143 Records imprint at Warner Bros. He told Groban's parents, "Look, this kid needs to leave school. He's going to have an enormous career." Foster showed off his protégé to every industry powerhouse he knew. Céline Dion, on tour in China, e-mails about her first listen: "I remember David played me something of Josh's, and I thought he had the voice of an angel."
By the time Groban's debut album came out in 2001, he'd already guest-starred on Ally McBeal in an acting and singing role, which ignited the frenzy of self-described Grobanites. (The YouTube video "Josh Groban and his Grobanites" is a montage of snapshots of him cheerfully posing with besotted women-any number of whom could be your mom.) By the end of 2002, he'd sung at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo, the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics for an audience of a billion-plus, and a Christmas concert at the Vatican. He was, almost instantly, a multiplatinum artist.
Groban's money manager insisted that he park some of his rising fortune in real estate, so now, like Foster, he has a spread in Malibu. But he prefers his compact Beverly Hills pad. The paparazzi, he says, don't stake him out. The exception: "If I have famous friends over. I had Kid Rock over after the Emmys. It's like three in the morning and I'm like, 'Come on down to my place!'" Wait, Kid Rock chilling at Josh Groban's crib? "Yeah. I told him, 'You're totally ruining your image-you gotta get out of here!'"
"He's a kid!" Jimmy Kimmel says. "He can't be expected to have the same sensibilities as his audience does, just because he does that kind of music." The comedy skits, Kimmel says, have broadened Groban's appeal: "I wouldn't go so far as to say now 25-year-old guys are going to be buying Josh's records. But I think they like him."
But how much, really, can Groban afford to mess with his platinum-plated image? "I've always tried to tell him to just be careful when he wanders from his lane," says David Foster, who's unable to resist a very L.A. metaphor. "Because when he wanders too far from his lane, he competes with everybody. But when he stays in his lane, he competes with no one."