Josh Groban Sees the Light
The Vancouver Sun
August 29, 2011
By Francois Marchand
When Josh Groban steps into an arena, there aren't many who can upstage him.
But there is one, and his name is Sweeney.
Granted, Sweeney is a dog -- Groban's prized wheaten terrier, whom Groban was looking forward to taking on a walk on a beautiful June morning in New York City.
"I take him on the road with me and he loves it," Groban said via telephone. "We call it the 'wheaten greet' because he runs around the arenas and he meets fans. He's far more famous than I am."
Sweeney likely will make an appearance at the Canadian dates on Groban's Straight To You Tour, which is taking the singer back to an arena setting following a string of smaller concerts earlier this year.
"The shows were very intimate, with about 1,200 seats, just piano and guitar, no set list, and a Q&A," Groban said. "It wound up being the most fun I've ever had in my life. I realized there was a very special thing we could draw from this and bring to an arena environment.
"I wanted the arena show to be vibrant and energetic but have that intimacy and that connection with the audience. We can't do Q&A because there's too many people. So we have text messages fans send in so I can answer them, and there are stairs where I can literally climb into the audience and talk to people."
Groban added that while they could have easily called it the Illuminations Tour -- after the title of his latest album, released last November -- the tour isn't about just one record, it's about all five of his albums.
"Straight To You" is a Nick Cave song Groban covered on Illuminations, and he thought the title represented "that feeling of intimacy and excitement we have to get back out there."
Illuminations marked a number of departures for Groban, who moved to New York from Los Angeles a year ago and worked with famed producer Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash, Metallica) for the first time after four albums produced by the "hit man" who discovered Groban, David Foster.
Groban also co-wrote most of the material on the album with the help of Semisonic's Dan Wilson, marking the first time Groban has lent his own creative touch to his material, which made for a deeper personal exploration.
"The co-writing was a bit of a surprise for me," Groban said. "I trust Rick's ear tremendously and I trust his ability to take any style of music -- and my style was completely new to him -- and put it through his filter. I think his motto for me was, 'I know you can sing your ass off. I want these songs to be coming from you rather than just being presented by you as a vocalist.'
"So he sent me off to do a lot of writing. I'm always writing and finding songs that are personal, but when you've got me working on a project for two and half years and you're having me write, it's going to get very introspective. It's just the nature of the beast: It's going to wind up being a more personal record, a more thoughtful record."
One might wonder if Foster resented seeing his protege taking on a new producer and adopting an entirely new creative approach.
"Not at all," Groban said. "My relationship with David is arguably better than it's ever been. He's always been a wonderful friend and mentor, and we've always known from the beginning that sometimes we'll work together and sometimes we won't. We have a much more meaningful relationship in each other's lives that goes far beyond whether we make an album together or not."
"He was skeptical of it at first, but to be fair, Rick and I were skeptical, too," he said with a laugh.
Illuminations finds Groban in solitary mode, soul-searching on songs such as Rufus Wainwright and mother Kate McGarrigle's heartbreaking "Les Jardins des Sans-Pourquoi" (the last song the two wrote together before McGarrigle's death) and singing, for the first time, in Portuguese on "Voce Existe Em Mim."
New York also plays a big part on Illuminations, with songs like "Bells of New York City" and "Higher Window" calling on Groban's operatic flair and hinting at the influence of the Brill Building, a landmark famous for housing music-industry offices.
"I always miss L.A. -- it's where I was born and raised," Groban said. "I miss the feeling I get when I'm there and the people that I know. But I've needed this change. I've always felt deep down that New York was where I needed to be."
Beyond the music, Groban recently appeared in the comedy Crazy Stupid Love alongside Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore and Emma Stone. He played Stone's fiance, a lawyer who tells horrible jokes at parties and whom everybody hates.
"It's a hysterical script -- one of the best I've read in a long time," Groban said. "It was really nice to be given a chance to be a comedic actor and not have to worry about the singing. When you're surrounded by those kinds of people, it doesn't get any better than that."
Did he feel being far from Hollywood would now hurt his movie career?
"Right, I didn't think about that," he said with a hearty laugh. "Well, back to Beverly Hills! I mean, Woody Allen is still making movies in New York, right? Maybe I'll try to meet him."
Josh Groban plays Vancouver Tuesday, Aug. 30.
(This is a longer version of the article found here: Groban Aims for Intimate)