Josh Groban's Rock Star Dreams Take Pop-Classical Route
June 2, 2002
By Gil Kaufman
He's been on Rosie O'Donnell's talk show and "Ally McBeal," twice. He's sung with Celine Dion, the Corrs and teen classical sensation Charlotte Church.

He performed at the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics for an audience of 2 billion, and his platinum debut recently broke into the Billboard top 10.

But don't feel bad if the name Josh Groban doesn't immediately ring a bell. It's not like you're going to hear a Neptunes remix of his latest hit. Not yet, anyway.

"Everybody has those dreams of being a rock star when they stand in front of the mirror," the 20-year-old Los Angeles native said of his unlikely ascent to pop stardom. "My parents exposed me to all kinds of music when I was a kid. I had this love of telling a story with music. But when I realized that I could sing I knew I had this kind of voice that was not a grunge-rock voice."

Turns out his voice is better suited to opera, though Groban prefers to call his self-titled CD, released in November, a "pop album with classical influences." With the Richard Marx-penned power ballad "To Where You Are" charting at adult radio, a lush version of the Johann Sebastian Bach wedding staple "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" and a handful of contemporary and classical pieces sung in Italian and Spanish, Groban might be the most unlikely pop star since those chanting Benedictine monks. Certainly the smoldering eyes, the carefully coifed head of curly dark hair and a serious set of pipes haven't hurt.

The graduate of the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts is just as comfortable wrapping that polished, rich voice around the sweeping title theme to "Cinema Paradiso" or a cover of one of his favorite songs from childhood, Don "American Pie" McLean's "Vincent (Starry Starry Night)."

"I knew that I had to use my influences in all those genres and incorporate that into the music I wanted to make," said Groban, who was discovered by Grammy-winning "Popstars" Svengali David Foster after performing at a 1999 inauguration party for California governor Gray Davis. That gig led to Groban's career-making opportunity to fill in for famed Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli when the opera star was unable to rehearse his 1999 Grammy duet of "The Prayer" with Dion due to a delayed flight. Once Rosie, who was in the audience for the rehearsal, witnessed the singer she would later dub "opera boy" (recently bumped up to Cruise-worthy "cutie patootie" status, he noted), it was on.

"It's hard to find edgy stuff that doesn't sound cheesy in English," Groban said about the challenge of appealing to the Rosie-ites and young, contemporary pop fans while not coming off like a Gen Y Michael Bolton. "And as a new artist there's always outside influences trying to tell you how to make a song better for radio, how to do your hair."

Those attempts at molding him into a more traditional pop star didn't last long. "I realized those things weren't right for me," he said. "I'm not a good enough liar to look comfortable when I'm not. And, while it's always flattering to be compared to someone [like Michael Bolton] who has sold millions of records, he's a rock blues singer, which I'm not. Being compared to Andrea Bocelli is also flattering, but I'm really not going to touch that classical stuff for now."

While everyone was trying to make the well-rounded Groban fit into a square peg, a weird thing happened--his audience found him. He said he's been amazed at the breadth of ages and backgrounds of the thousands who've weighed in on everything Josh at the forums on his Web site. Like him, they listen to everything from System of a Down and Linkin Park to classical pop singer Sarah Brightman and Luciano Pavarotti.

They range from a 58-year old Delaware housewife to a 20-something-male Wal-Mart employee and a skateboarder from rural New York. Recently, a 13-year-old Korean girl from the Philippines, Veronica, waded into the land fans call "Grobania" for the first time. She explained that while she loves hip-hop, she has fallen for Groban's "cute surfer style" and has learned to love opera, even though she used to "easily get headaches from loud opera singers."

Working with the "pop, pop, pop"-leaning Foster clearly helped Groban avoid some of the sticky pitfalls of being a young man in middle-aged diva's game. From reprising the Dion/Bocelli duet on "The Prayer" with Church to hooking up with Rhys Fulber of techno duo Delirium for a pair of ambient pop ballads, Groban's album offers a little something for the entire rainbow coalition of fans posting on his site.

"I was completely shocked when it entered the top 10," Groban said shortly after his ascent. "After the 'Ally McBeal' appearance it was peaking around #41 for a while and I was getting a lot of pats on the back. Then, it trickled back down and I thought, 'Okay, this is where it probably belongs.' I mean, how do I compete with the Pink's and Goo Goo Dolls of the world? Now, to be up there with them is incredible. I guess that shows that there must be an audience for this music."

For now, despite Rosie's nickname, Groban said he will avoid singing opera because it's not where his heart is. "I'm just really interested in pushing the boundaries of what pop music is now."