Groban Makes a (Small) Departure
The Vancouver Province
August 14, 2007
By Tom Harrison
Awake introduces some elements of jazz and even -- gasp! -- funk to Groban's ballad-heavy repertoire

Josh Groban
Where: GM Place
When: Friday, Aug. 17, 7:30 p.m.

Josh Groban has made his name as a romantic balladeer, but his new album, Awake, opens the door to other possibilities.

He hasn't made a dramatic change, but if the door opens both ways, he's let some elements in that could point to the future.

Groban still sings in an operatic tenor of swoonsome love that spans Italian, Spanish and French songs. The production is lushly melodramatic and the emphasis is on the grand.

However, the reader of liner notes will see that he co-wrote a few songs, plays drums on others, employed a variety of producers, has Ladysmith Black Mambazo on two tracks, jazz's keyboard star Herbie Hancock on one. The listener will also hear a more groove-oriented collection, most obviously on the song "You Are Loved."

"That song particularly," Groban agrees. "It was a great song and it had a powerful message. If I find songs that speak to me, I want to do them."

The upping of the tempo was in part a response to touring the previous two albums. They are ballad-heavy and Groban sensed that his shows would benefit from a tune or two that was more upbeat.

"This album was more rhythmic," he concedes. "It's more fun to do in the show.

"And I get to play drums at the end. It's a lot of fun. I get to play more piano, too."

Although not a great departure, Awake is simultaneously Groban getting more involved with the writing and recording and exploring.

"That, to me, was the idea," Groban concurs. "It started as a scary experience, so when I released this record it was a twofold celebration."

At one extreme there is production by Marius de Vries, who is known for his work with Madonna. At the other is David Foster, who discovered Groban at a Grammy Awards rehearsal where his job was to fill in for the night's stars. In between are four other producers, each with their own methods.

"I didn't want the record to sound like a mish mash," he explains. "That was interesting for me to learn, but I have to say, as strong as they all are, they listened to what I wanted."

Those who like Groban's treatment of foreign-language songs won't be disappointed by the subtle differences of Awake.

"I really enjoy the homework of it," Groban says. "I enjoy the learning of the language. I love Italian; Italian, for me, is the most musical language, but they're all beautiful."

Fans will hear a spiritual quality in Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

"It's absolutely the reason I brought them in," he exclaims. "I've been a fan for 15 years. I don't speak Zulu but when you hear them sing it's a really great experience."

But they'll be left to ponder the last track, "Machine," with Herbie Hancock.

"That song took us in a jazz direction and I wasn't expecting it to," Groban recalls. "I wouldn't call it jazz, I would call it more funk."

Josh Groban, funkmeister. Hard to imagine, but the singer isn't ruling anything out.

"Oh absolutely. As long as it's honest."