Josh Groban Is Looking Out for No. 1
March 5, 2013
By Ben Kaplan
Josh Grobanís All That Echoes is his third straight record to debut at No. 1 on Billboardís top album charts. The 32-year-old opera crossover singer from Los Angeles is the bestselling classical artist this decade with more than 25 million albums sold, but heís also a cut-up, possessing a self-deprecating streak he played up on The Office and in 2011ís Crazy, Stupid, Love. For the new record, Groban co-wrote seven original numbers, and covered tunes by Steve Wonder, Glen Hansard and Jimmy Webb with orchestral session artists and a rock band. The Postís Ben Kaplan sat down with the unusual pop star in Toronto, and learned about the fine line he walks between the refined world of opera and MŲtley CrŁe.
Q: This is your third day of doing promotion. Howís it going so far?
A: I feel pretty fresh. Iíve only answered the same question 200 times.
Q: What do you wish someone would ask you?
A: Something about molecular gastronomy. Why canít we talk about liquid nitrogen mixing with foam?
Q: Youíve said this record captures the sweet spot of your voice, which gets better on tour. Isnít a recording studio built to sound better than a stadium?
A: In front of a crowd, thereís something about the instinct of needing to connect that brings you to your most natural vocal place. In the studio, my tendency is to under-deliver: Youíre standing in a box with dead walls and a little mic, everythingís very quiet. On stage, you project, thatís the healthy voice coming out, and I wanted to bring my on stage voice to this record.
Q: Itís currently North Americaís No. 1 record. Guess it worked.
A: That validation is a great feeling, but I canít sit back and celebrate for very long. I had a glass of whiskey and thought, what a relief.
Q: Isnít there any tilt in emotion, from relief to sheer joy?
A: It means Iíll have an opportunity to work hard for another year. The worst part, when something doesnít hit, is you know youíll have a lot of time twiddling your thumbs thinking about whatís next. When you have success, it isnít reason to party, itís a time to work harder. Number One means I can do 20 more concerts, visit ten more countries Ė thatís a great gift.
Q: Perhaps itís hard work as much as good looks or vocal chops behind what makes a celebrity. Where did your work ethic begin?
A: The grind of the Closer tour (2004-2006); it never ended. It was theatres, then we upgraded to sheds, then the album hit big and we moved to arenas; we sold-out an arena, then we did 50 arenas Ė it was 100 shows and two years, the boot camp of all boot camps and Iíd never even toured in my life. When that was over, I knew I could handle anything.
Q: What happens when those two years are through?
A: Deep, deep depression.
Q: Because, why? You get addicted to applause?
A: You get used to the routine, when to wake up, when to get on stage, when to expect validation. And when you know youíll get that each night, itís like getting a treat. When you come home and the final show is done, and you know the rest of your career has nothing to do with what you just did, itís a very odd purgatory. Even driving through traffic again.
Q: You forget how to be a regular person?
A: You have to give your friends things you picked up across the country in airports just so theyíll be your Facebook friends again. Youíve neglected every possible human relationship, let alone love relationships, and itís tough. Thereís a few weeks there where itís not a good place.
Q: I guess if youíre Nikki Sixx, thatís when you OD.
A: Not only him, a lot of guys talk about the boredom of the road, because thereís such a high on stage that the only thing you can do off-stage to recreate that is drugs. But Iím lucky, my fans demand a pure sound from my voice. Professionally, I literally canít have heroin enter my body.
Q: Your big break came from singing alongside Celine Dion. What do you remember about her?
A: When she met me, I was a nobody. A 17-year-old kid coming in to rehearse, but she couldnít have been more supportive. You go to the Grammys or the Junos, and thereís always this Ďtude. A ďme, me, meĒ mentality. Thereís a lot of big egos, a lot of money Ė and Iím sure Celine has a big ego Ė but sheís kind to people. She continues to be a friend.
Q: Can you talk about the role cover songs play in your own songwriting process?
A: I start the process with cover songs, 90% of which wonít make the album. I get in and sing with the musicians; what Iím doing is getting my palette wet, allowing other artistsí creativity to fill my tank. From the road, you walk into a studio empty Ė art inspires other art.
Q: Where do you do your best writing?
A: One in the morning, sitting at the piano. The hardest part is finding the words to match the undefined melodies.
Q: Is songwriting something, like baseball, you can get better at?
A: I didnít write anything on my first record, but Iíve written on every record since. On this album, all the original songs I wrote or co-wrote; the other songs are ones Iíve been dying to sing.
Q: How do you know when a cover is good enough for an album?
A: For the Rick Rubin album, we did Iíll Stand By You by The Pretenders, and it was a beautiful song and came out well, but it was one for karaoke.
Q: Whatís the difference?
A: Sometimes, all you can do is sing it really nicely, thereís not anything you can bring thatís different and in that case, Iím not honouring the original version. I donít want to American Idol it. Some songs sound nice, but somethingís missing Ė maybe thereís a lack of experience; maybe I didnít go through the same thing The Pretenders went through; maybe thereís that unwritten thing that is keeping the pathos from entering the song even if it sounds good. For this record, we sang 20 covers, only a few had the pathos.
Q: I Believe by Stevie Wonder made the album. Havenít the two of you met?
A: I sang his song They Wonít Go When I Go at a Grammy tribute concert and when I walked back up the aisle, he took my hand and said that we were going to write together someday, write a song that will change the world. One of my greatest regrets is I havenít had the courage yet to pick up the phone. How do you pick up the phone and say to Stevie Wonder, ďUh, hey, Mr. Wonder, about that song ÖĒ Iím afraid if I sat at the piano with him my fingers would freeze.
Q: And yet you were able to compete for Emma Stone against Ryan Gosling?
A: Comedy has always been a respite from my very serious music side. I started in improv theatre and then took voice lessons. I want to flex that muscle again.
Q: Itís funny youíve been taking small roles. You have the same recognition as 50 Cent and Ja Rule, musicians who immediately sign on to play movie leads.
A: Maybe, probably not though, but I donít want it to be a gimmick and I donít want to get a role just because of my music side. Hopefully I can keep getting small things and hopefully keep making people laugh.
Q: Doesnít any part of you wish that youíd caught Emma Stone instead of Gosling?
A: No, thatís not me. I think itís fantastic she left me for him, all power to him Ė heís got the abs.
Q: Eventually, though, we presume, off-screen, youíll find someone. Are you still interested in settling down?
A: Iíd love to be a family man at some point. My parents have been together 47 years and thatís a lot of pressure to live up to so Iíll either find the most patient, wonderful woman ever or Iíll be single my entire life, but I donít want that weird in-between thing that my generationís obsessed with. I have a lot of work to do and itís hard to get somebody to realize that in a relationship, itís not a competition, itís part of who I am.
Q: Thereís got to be someone out thereÖ
A: I enjoy being single. One day the right person will come along.
All That Echoes by Josh Groban is out now on Warner Music Canada. For tour dates, visit joshgroban.com.