Josh Groban: His Voice, His Way
February 27, 2013
By Mark Lepage
Growing up, Josh Groban was a fan of everyone from Mel Tormé and Frank Sinatra to Guns N’ Roses and Björk. “But my voice is what my voice is.”
If you’d told me the guy in the sweater and horn-rims and light brown shoes would be a Top 10 artist selling 25 million records, I’d have ...
“Me too,” says Josh Groban. On a wintry February morning in Old Montreal, the poperatic crossover sensation is enjoying a “real winter day” (from his W Hotel window) and the news that his latest, All That Echoes, has reverberated nationally, giving him his first out-of-the-box No. 1 in Canada.
And so you ask yourself (and him): How does pop-classical Groban work in a Nicki Minaj world?
“My first instinct is to say I don’t know, as well,” Groban says. “My second instinct would be to say I think the answer is not in the labelling: How did this ‘crossover,’ this ‘classical’ style sell so many copies? I think the key is to not be afraid to show a uniqueness or be afraid to fill a void that’s out there.”
The appealing grad student or young prof demeanour is not unsuited to a singer who can discuss his success in dispassionate terms, that “sometimes you need an album or two to figure out who your fan base is, what your marketing strategy is.” We can speak of “slow-burning yourself to a fan base that stays with you for your whole life” until Groban reminds both of us: “Then again, my first album did sell 5 million records.”
We are in the Era of the Voice. You may have seen some of the TV competition shows, with the contestants and the judging and the schmoozing and the melisma carpet-bombing. Groban’s own reading of recent music mini-history runs that “from ’90 to 2000, the top of the charts was Whitney Houston — it was the big voices. And from 2000 to 2010, we found out how computers can make us sound this big” — he holds his thumb and index very close together — “and that was the craze. And now we’re getting back into a feeling of the art of singing.”
Groban is 32. At one point, he was much younger, growing up in Los Angeles. Was a Kid Groban really in his room with Vesti La Giubba? And how did he make it home from school alive?
“Oh, I saw Guns N’ Roses and Metallica in the Rose Bowl,” he says. “I grew up loving Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Depeche Mode. But I also loved the Three Tenors and Mel Tormé and Frank Sinatra and Caruso. I also loved musical theatre and Mandy Patinkin. I loved it all. Good storytelling. I was obsessed with someone like Björk — she had this extraordinary animalistic voice, but great technique as well. And I loved being able to hear a voice, whether it was Axl Rose or Freddie Mercury, and saying to myself, ‘I know who that is within five seconds.’
“My influences are all those things. But my voice is what my voice is. You go through puberty and you say, ‘All right, Axl Rose,’ and you sing ... ”
There follows a large, warm, operatic vocal “aaahhhhhhhh.”
“Nope that’s not it,” he says of his adolescent self. “All right, Kurt Cobain — aaahhhhhhhh. Nope, that’s not it.”
Nope. Groban was going to be Groban. He’s well aware that a voice as big as his “can be cold. It can be an assault. Opera is something I enjoy watching — not something I wanted to tackle. I had the opportunity to sing with Placido Domingo a couple of times at the L.A. Opera. But it terrifies me. And I think ultimately my voice fits somewhere a little lighter than opera.
“The challenge for me reining in the beast (his voice) is to bring something a little warmer.”
Some critics would quibble with his ranking as the top-selling U.S. “classical artist” of the past decade. None can question his willingness to take risks within his own context. Working with production sledgehammer Rick Rubin on 2010’s Illuminations “was very challenging.” And yet he went with another rock producer, Rob Cavallo (Green Day, etc.), for All That Echoes. “Rob and I clicked in a way I haven’t felt since working with David Foster.”
So many major names. Groban took inspiration from James Taylor, Barbra Streisand, Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon. He is nothing if not ambitious. In covering Stevie Wonder’s I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever), “you almost have to honour his greatness by doing it your way. There’s no way I’m going to match the majesty of his voice in his songs. But he basically writes modern arias. Whether it’s They Won’t Go When I Go ... he writes about love the way Puccini wrote about love. It’s the light and the dark — it’s not just sap. The verses of I Believe are about what a shell of a human being I’ve been and horrible mistakes I’ve made. And the melodies you could turn into violin solos.”
This, then, is the passion Groban doesn’t show when discussing career nuts and bolts, as is appropriate. Because our conversation has been leading, all along, to the 300-pound tenor in the room, one of the original crossover artists: Luciano Pavarotti.
“A perfect voice. His technique was damn near flawless. When you train and you hear about breath control, you think about ‘everything is in your head and your breath, and everything in your throat and face should be neutral and relaxed.’ You watch him go for a high note and he’s almost surprised — there’s a little smirk after he hits a high C, like, ‘Did I do that?’ ”
He did. And as Groban and I discuss how opera evolved not as a cloistered art form reserved for the court or the tuxedoed snoots, but for the punters, he knows he is doing his version.
All That Echoes is available now.