"Illuminations" Casts Josh Groban in New Light
November 14, 2010
By Elysa Gardner
This is the story of an "odd couple" who threw caution to the wind, made a commitment and persevered.
That's how singer Josh Groban describes his unlikely musical marriage with super-producer Rick Rubin, who manned the boards for Groban's new album, Illuminations, out today. It's Groban's fifth album, and his first since 2007's quintuple platinum holiday collection, Noël.
Like many couples, Groban, 29, and Rubin, 47, were fixed up by a mutual friend. Groban was having lunch with Guy Oseary, Madonna's manager, when Oseary suggested he reach out to Rubin. A meeting followed, and before long, the producer for the Beastie Boys, Rage Against the Machine, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Johnny Cash was in the studio with the classically trained purveyor of lush pop ballads.
"Then the honeymoon was over," says Groban, laughing. "We didn't get to where we wanted to without a period of awkwardness." That was part of the idea, though: "We both thought it would be nice to be scared for a minute, to do something out of our comfort zones."
Granted, Rubin's previous clients also include artists who have shared space with Groban on adult-contemporary playlists, among them Neil Diamond and Justin Timberlake. It was the producer, in fact, who encouraged Groban, a passionate rock fan, to further emphasize his lustrous baritenor, by no means a natural rock instrument.
"Rick told me, 'Don't shy away from how your fans view you — and don't play a game that isn't yours,' " Groban recalls. "He said, 'If you want to rock out, do it with orchestral percussion; do it with Brazilian and African drums.' If it didn't sound like it belonged at Carnegie Hall, he didn't want it."
Rubin also "pushed me to write more," says Groban, who crafted most of the songs.
Rolling Stone's Anthony DeCurtis isn't surprised to see Groban broadening his palette. "He's never been a purist. People who like his music like that voice; they like what he brings to whatever material he sings."
Groban's new album arrives at a time of change in his personal life, as well. A Los Angeles native, he moved to Manhattan in late summer, after a long flirtation that informs the new song The Bells of New York City.
"So many of my growth spurts have happened here," he says. "It was time to take the plunge."
Groban's dog, Sweeney — a social Wheaten terrier named after the decidedly antisocial title character in Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd— is adjusting to urban life. "I was walking him in (Central) Park the other day, and he sniffed someone's leg, and the guy was like, 'Control your dog before I take him!' But he's learning. And he loves all the people and smells. He's having a blast."
In some respects, the singer is still getting acclimated himself. "Dating can be very easy or very tough in this city," Groban says. "Everybody's busy and independent, which I actually find attractive." If he's happy to have discovered a creative soul mate in Rubin, Groban, who was January Jones' beau several years ago, isn't desperate to find a romantic one.
"I'm single right now," he says. "I've been fortunate to have had love in my life. I've also had a lot of gray zones over the past three years. Many of the new songs are about that gray area. I've had incredible conversations with amazing women in this city, but you can't force that feeling. So I'm meeting people, and making great friends. Until I find the one, I have to be OK with that."