If Josh Groban is carrying around a little more swagger these days, can you really blame him? At just 24, he is one of the most popular singers on the planet, having toured the world twice over, sung for dozens of dignitaries and performed on every major stage from the Vatican to the Olympics. And consider this: Groban has sold more records worldwide than Justin Timberlake and John Mayer combined-and he did it without the help of an obligatory celebrity romance or a single video on MTV.
If Groban is feeling more self-assured, he's not saying. He's gracious and polite in person, accepting compliments with a quiet "thank you" and quick to deflect any praise. But it's clear something is different, from the way he commands the room with his boyish grin and contagious laugher, to the way he skillfully changes the conversation so he can rave about the John Legend concert he went to the other night. He confesses to a love/hate relationship with CNN, then talks about how awkward it was for him as a lifelong Democrat to sing at the White House for President Bush. Clad in a loose-fitting T-shirt and faded jeans, with his trademark curly hair disheveled just so, Groban is surprisingly casual, a stark contrast to the image of a tuxedo-clad soloist belting out arias in front of the Pope (though the singer has done that too).
Groban found his voice early, performing at home for his family when he was just eight. In high school, the budding entertainer enrolled in the Los Angeles County High School of the Arts, where he fell in love with musical theater. He got his first lead in a "dorky musical about leprechauns" before land a role as "Shinny Tevye" in the school's production of Fiddler on the Roof. "After that", says Groban, "I was hooked."
Groban thought he would eventually pursue a career on Broadway. It wasn't until a chance meeting with record producer David Foster that the budding thespian began to see himself in a different arena. Foster was convinced that the boy with the big voice could be an international superstar, and the two began working on songs in the studio. A few months later, Groban appeared before millions of viewers as a singer on Ally McBeal. The stage was set for a breakout debut. Groban's self-titled debut album was released to rave reviews and went double platinum in less than six months. His next album skyrocketed to number one and spent an astonishing 62 weeks on the charts. Groban had enrolled as a musical theater major at Carnegie Mellon University, but put the academics on hold as his career took flight.
Groban splits his time between a house in Malibu and a non-descript condo tucked into a tree-lined Beverly Hills neighborhood not far from where he grew up. It's at his condo where we meet, on the day before Groban is scheduled to leave for Washington to sing for Barack Obama;s inauguration. Leaning back in an old leather chair in his home office, the singer is modest about his success. "I really feel like the best is yet to come," he says. "I want to surprise people and show them what else I can do."
It's hard to believe there's anything left for Groban to do. He's already achieved more in his short career than most singers accomplish in their lifetime, his successes laid out in impressive plaques and frames that hang delicately along his office wall. There are platinum discs representing his millions of albums sold; there is a picture of Groban at the White House; there's even a framed article about his appearance on Oprah.
But Groban insists he has yet to reach his prime, He knows he wants to write more, and has been hammering out melodies on a keyboard at home, while scanning his piles of notes and journals for lyric ideas. He's also pursuing collaborations with a wish list that includes Paul Simon, Neil Young, and Annie Lennox. And then there are late nights in the studio with legendary producer Rick Rubin, of Beastie Boys-fame. The two have been trading ideas about melodies and concepts for Groban's next album. And while an anthemic rap track isn't in the cards right now, Groban says "You never know…" and you can't help but believe him. After all, this is a guy who gamely spoofed his "clean cut" image in a Jimmy Kimmel video about "fucking Ben Affleck." "Did you see that?" Groban asks. (We did. And it's hilarious). But how will his fans-some of the most loyal in the world-react to Groban's new direction?
The singer isn't concerned. "My fans are amazing," he says, nothing he often logs onto message boards to read what the fans are saying. "I love when people are like, "What's your favorite Josh song?" because I really care what my fans think." (For the record, "You Raise Me Up" currently tops the list).
"I want to grow without alienating my fans and my listeners," he continues. "As long as it's still my voice and the songs are still me I think my fans will respect that."
While his fans will hopefully remain steadfast in support, Groban cares less about what the critics are saying. He's been pegged as everything from a young prodigy to an overwrought pop star, and Groban seems to fall somewhere in between. The "pop" label though, is something Groban is happy to embrace. "Why not widen what we think of pop music?" he says. "I hate having to describe myself as "classical-pop" or whatever. At the end of the day, a good "pop" song is just a song with a good melody. And I'm a real melody guy."
"I feel like I've been given this gift", he continues, "and I just want to sing songs that allow my voice to shine as much as possible."
It's a bold statement from a young artist, even cocky perhaps, if read the wrong way. But this isn't just another wannabe pop star. This is someone who is instantly likeable, friendly, unfussy and someone who's carrying the quiet confidence of a guy who knows he's at the top of his game. At the end of the day, Josh Groban just wants to make his fans happy and he just wants to sing good songs. And he can, and he will, because this a guy who's earned the right to do whatever the hell he wants.