Singer Undergoing Renovation
The New York Times
November 11, 2010
The view from Josh Groban’s apartment, on a high floor of the Time Warner Center overlooking Central Park, invites description in a real estate agent’s breathless terms: stately, majestic, inspiring. Very Josh Groban, in other words, though this operatic crooner, who moved to New York from his native Los Angeles a couple of months ago, seemed to play down the parallel on a recent afternoon.
His living room had been commandeered by a pair of assistants, one pecking at a laptop and the other mulling over wardrobe options for a scheduled tour. Apologizing for the lack of a couch, Mr. Groban offered a seat in one of two squat wooden chairs — gifts from the West African singer Angélique Kidjo — while he gathered Sweeney, his wheaten terrier, for a walk in the park.
The move to New York has capped a series of pivotal shifts for Mr. Groban since his last studio effort, “Noël” (Reprise), sold 3.7 million copies in less than three months, making it the top-selling album released in 2007. (That figure has now reached five million.) He changed his management and began to explore his options in the wake of a failed relationship with the actress January Jones. And after working for nearly a decade with the heavy-pomp producer David Foster, who discovered him as a teenager, he made his new album, “Illuminations” (143/Reprise), with Rick Rubin, the high priest of strip-it-down.
It all amounts to a top-to-bottom renovation of one of the most stable operations in the music business, with a mostly older, mostly female fan base (Oprah Winfrey is a big fan) and more than 20 million albums sold.
“I really left behind every safety blanket I had,” he said. “I had just come off the heels of the No. 1 record of the year, and I can’t count how many times somebody came up to me and said, ‘Oh, are you going to make another Christmas record?’ You think to yourself just how easy that would be to keep recording Groban does this, Groban does that.” And there might be a time in his life, he added, where he would “feel perfectly comfortable” with that. “But for better or for worse, there’s still some fire and some exploration in me. I felt like it was a natural progression for me to start making it a little more personal.”
Intimacy and grandeur are hardly opposites in the world of Mr. Groban, 29, who was once memorably pegged (by Stephen Holden in The New York Times) as “our national choirboy.” But many of the songs on his previous albums offer the equivalent of a love note etched in skywriting, suitable for ceremonial purposes. “Illuminations,” which showcases Mr. Groban’s songwriting, reflects the conviction that gallantry can also be pensive and uncertain.
On the surface Mr. Rubin, best known for his work with the Beastie Boys, Metallica and late-period Johnny Cash, would seem an unlikely fit. But Mr. Groban was a fan. “You don’t hear a stamp so much, like you do with other producers,” he said of albums produced by Mr. Rubin. “You hear the most honest, organic representation of that particular genre and artist.”
The admiration was mutual. For Mr. Rubin the collaboration posed a challenge: “My goal was to make an album that was different than all the albums he made before and that would be the favorite album of people who love him. I also wanted it to be the album that people who didn’t like him would like.”
When it comes to his wholesome image, Mr. Groban is definitely in on the joke. An avid karaokegoer and a deft mimic, he has put in cheeky cameos on “Glee,” a series that embraces what he fondly calls “big singing.” In a video recently posted to the Web site Funny or Die he plays his own hapless interviewer. (“My mom’s a big fan, by the way.”) And in “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” a coming movie starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell, he plays a caddish lawyer — the humor arising partly from the sheer implausibility of such a thing.
Behind the self-deprecation, though, is someone acutely aware of outside perceptions. “All of a sudden when success hit, you get demos from publishing companies, and you wind up saying: ‘Is this how they view me? Is this what they think I am?’ And you realize: ‘Well, yeah, if you don’t do anything about it, you’re just going to get a bunch of songs like this.’ ” The urge to write, he said, “started with hearing things I didn’t want to sing.”
He had dabbled in songwriting on previous albums, working with a range of partners, from the new-age cosmopolitan Eric Mouquet to the art-pop technocrat Imogen Heap. What he had been missing was a sense of continuity and the comfort to dig in deep. Mr. Rubin connected him with Dan Wilson, the lead singer of Semisonic, and a Grammy Award winner for his work on the Dixie Chicks’ 2006 album “Taking the Long Way.” Mr. Rubin thought that his sensitive lyric writing would work well with Mr. Groban’s sweeping melodic sense.
Mr. Wilson came to the table with an understanding of his task. He recalled: “I told Josh: ‘We need a room with a high ceiling and a grand piano and a big window. And the only place we’re going to find something like that is in Minneapolis, at my house.’ ”
Mr. Groban took him up on the offer, and they quickly hit a stride, writing “Higher Window,” a song of romantic reckoning, in a day or two. At one point, facing an impasse, Mr. Wilson posed the question: What would Neil Diamond do? “And Josh basically sang about four lines in a row, off the top of his head, in Neil Diamond’s exact voice,” he said. “Some of those lines were funny, but some were awesome.” (Or both, perhaps: “Here I am, the one-man band/With a song that’s meant for two.”)
Mr. Groban and Mr. Wilson met in Minneapolis every few months, sharing their results with Mr. Rubin, who had clear ideas about what worked. (The words “singer-songwriter” were “a no-no to him,” Mr. Groban said, as was any hint of blues inflection.)
“The nature of Josh’s instrument is formal,” Mr. Rubin explained. “And so even if it was a song that meant a lot to him, when he sang it casually, it didn’t sound believable.” He applied similar ideas to the accompaniment: “Initially I thought it would be a symphonic album, just completely an album of instruments you’d only hear in a fine-art context.”
Which was more or less the opposite of what Mr. Groban had been thinking. “I was excited about making a record that was intimate and basically very Rick,” he said. “And Rick was coming from a perspective of: ‘But this is what I feel you do very, very undeniably well, and this is what I’m excited to tap into.’ ” Eventually they arrived at a combination of symphonic and folksy, with Mr. Groban playing the piano against orchestrations by David Campbell and James Newton Howard. “So in the end we both got what we wanted,” Mr. Groban said, “because the songs started with a dry piano and a dry mike. If they didn’t pass the melody test, they didn’t get the treatment.”
The songs themselves, however bold or billowing their effect, mostly revolve around what Mr. Groban calls “the gray areas of love.” On “If I Walk Away,” a waltz set against Celtic mandolins, he follows up the title phrase with a request: “please follow me.” In “Higher Window” he’s ruefully asking for another chance. And “Love Only Knows” depicts the anguished side of indulgence: “Would it be all right,” Mr. Groban asks, politely but firmly, “if we just lose ourselves tonight?”
Mr. Groban’s romantic status has been a subject of endless scrutiny for his fans since he and Ms. Jones broke up in 2006. A naturally quick and gregarious conversationalist, he spoke deliberately when the subject turned personal.
“There have been moments in my life where the grand romantic gestures have made sense to me,” he said. “And even if your fans are sometimes waiting for one happy love song after another, it wasn’t really where I was anymore.” Most of the songs on the album “are about specific situations that I’ve had where love has existed and ultimately failed,” he said, choosing his words. “And other songs are about the quest, and it just not working out.” It would be easy to assume that his exhortation in the album’s first single, “Hidden Away” — “Sing it out/ So I can finally breathe in” — is directed chiefly at himself.
At the same time “Illuminations” has an anthem in Italian — could it be a Groban album otherwise? — along with one in Portuguese (written with an assist by Carlinhos Brown) and another in French (by Rufus Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle). “Galileo,” a dewy song about love defying reason, is by the Irish songwriter Declan O’Rourke.
And “Bells of New York City” is a love song not to a person but to a place. Rehearsing it with his band in a Manhattan studio one recent evening, Mr. Groban and his technical crew kept adjusting the tempo, seeking the right balance of regal and brisk. Singing the lyrics, his voice lustrous even at reserve strength, he painted a wintry portrait of the city as seen from a towering vantage: “The park is laid out like a bed below.” (“I kind of wound up getting the apartment that relived my lyric dream,” he said with a chuckle during a break.)
Mr. Groban said he hoped “Illuminations” would expand his audience without alienating his core fans. It seems likely enough that his new songs, which Mr. Wilson describes as “personal and emotional but with some mystery to them,” will accomplish that goal. The biggest test may be the album’s final stretch, which includes a version of “Straight to You,” by the gothic, gritty rocker Nick Cave.
Mr. Rubin, a connoisseur of the unlikely cover, had noted the drama of the song’s lyrics — its first line is “All the towers of ivory are crumbling” — and the stark beauty of its melody. As sung by Mr. Groban it’s an apocalyptic barn burner. One passing line, “This is the time of our great undoing,” resonates darkly with an earlier song, “War at Home.” “It is essentially a song about supporting human beings in a time of great tragedy,” Mr. Groban said, “and there are moments in that song that drift into the political. But in the end it’s still about connection, however anybody feels about policy.”
He took a breath. “And I think that in Nick Cave’s lyric, he’s saying the same thing to who he’s singing it to. Which is that no matter how we feel about the world going to hell in a handbasket, we’re in this together, and there is love, and that is the important thing.”