The Tavis Smiley Show
PBS Television
May 21, 2008
Josh Groban is increasingly becoming a household name. His '01 self-titled debut CD went double platinum in the U.S. His first PBS special was the No. 1 selling DVD of '02, and he's just released his third live DVD, "Awake Live." He began singing in 7th grade and opted to put college on hold in order to pursue a music career. His break came courtesy of renowned composer-arranger David Foster. Groban has a foundation for children and is an ambassador for Nelson Mandela's global HIV AIDS awareness program.

Tavis: Josh Groban is one of music's biggest-selling artists, as evidenced by last year's Christmas CD, "Noel." That disc sold nearly 4 million copies - more than any other CD of 2007. His latest project is a CD and DVD based on his most recent sold-out tour, called "Awake Live." From the DVD, here is some of the performance for "You Are Loved, Don't Give Up."


Tavis: So I just met Josh Groban for the first time. He walks in the studio and I was talking to him about growing up in Los Angeles, and I just discovered that his parents live, like, two blocks down the street from me (laughter) in the house you grew up in.

Josh Groban: That's right, yeah.

Tavis: I'm not going to mention the neighborhood or the address, to protect your parents and me.

Groban: You never know.

Tavis: So I should say I live in their neighborhood, since they were there first. But you grew up right here in the city of L.A.

Groban: I did, yeah. I was born and raised here, one of the few that were born and raised here, especially in the entertainment industry. It was not something that I knew I wanted to get into. My parents are not in the entertainment industry. So yeah, no, it's great, and I love the fact that they still live in the house that I grew up in, and I try to go over there every few days and just hang out and get into the neighborhood again.

Tavis: So if I just come and knock on the door a couple days from now, you'll let me in?

Groban: Oh, absolutely, yeah. (Laughs)

Tavis: I could meet your parents?

Groban: Yeah, absolutely, it's a great neighborhood. I remember there was a basketball player that lived a few houses down and he played for the Clippers. (Unintelligible) "I really want to go over and say hi to him, I'm such a big Clippers fan. Can I go over and say hi?" "Well, go over and ask him for an egg." (Laughter) "Tell him Mama's cooking and ask him for an egg, and if you give him an egg, we'll give you some cookies." And then he gave me an egg and we brought the cookies. It's a (unintelligible).

Tavis: Well now that I know how close we are, I'm going to have to meet your parents.

Groban: Please, absolutely. Come over any -

Tavis: I'll make that happen.

Groban: They would be honored. They'd be thrilled.

Tavis: "Honey, there's some Black guy at the door." (Laughter) "We don't know who he is."

Groban: My mom would have to meet you; she would just have tears in her eyes.

Tavis: No, I will make that happen. To your point, though, how does it feel to have grown up in Hollywood, to have grown up in this city and to have made it so big on the world stage?

Groban: It's funny, I was reading a commencement address by Danny Elfman, and he was talking about how paths are very different and how you do things and it feels like a failure at a certain time and then it winds up - there winds up being a reason for it later on. I didn't know at all that this would be the kind of thing that I'd be getting into.

I was always interested in the arts. My parents, like I said, were not in the business, but were adamant about getting my brother and I out to see theater, classical music, pop shows, whatever. The nice thing about growing up in L.A. is that you have the opportunity, if you choose, to see a huge array of stuff.

So I kind of had the bug, and I didn't know what that would turn into. I knew I loved to write music, I knew I loved to play the drums and act and do shows and stuff, but it wasn't until I was in high school that a teacher said, "Would you like to sing a solo?" And I came out and I sang, and my mom was - my mom and dad were there and they'd never heard me sing before.

And again, junior high school's such a kind of confusing and frustrating time; you just don't know how you want to express yourself. And so lots of things had to happen, lots of stars had to line up for it to turn into what it is now, but I feel very fortunate.

Tavis: When did you know that this instrument was going to be - or not was going to be, when did you know that this instrument was your gift? You get a high school teacher who says, "Josh, sing a solo." So you could have sung the solo and went on back to doing whatever you were doing. When did you know that this instrument was your gift?

Groban: I think that at that moment in seventh grade, I was pretty shy, I was having a hard time making friends, my grades weren't all that they could be. When I sang and got, like, a standing ovation from the class and then the next day I wasn't just the guy sitting alone being shy.

Everybody was coming up to me saying, "Oh, man, that's great, don't ever change, you got this great voice, keep doing it." I felt like oh, okay, and boom, that was it. I found my way to communicate. And even though I didn't think that it would be a profession at that point, I knew that that was my way, just like the guy running the ball on the football field.

That was my way to make waves. And so I didn't know it would be everything for me until maybe four or five years later when I met the next person in my life that brought it to the next level, which was David Foster, my producer, and he was that other person, just like the teacher at that high school that said, "I know you think you can't do it, but I know you can, and you better get out there and make me proud."

Tavis: I'm fascinated, Josh, by your formulation that it was a discovery for you of a way to communicate rather than the applause or the adulation. And again, every one of us wants to be appreciated. We all love the applause, we all want to be loved and respected and paid attention to. But I'm fascinated by your formulation that you discovered it as a way to communicate.

Groban: That was the greatest opening for me, was just feeling like - because no, yeah, the adulation - every now and again when I would do something for David Foster in the early, early years, he'd have me sing at a charity event or something like that, and that applause was so much fun, and you get people coming up to you afterwards and saying, "Great job."

And I would go back to the hotel room with my dad and say, like, "Oh, man, can you imagine people get paid for this? Can you imagine people?" (Laughter) "At some point, someone might want to give me money for this." And he's like "Oh, Josh, well, back to school tomorrow." (Laughter) And that's how it was.

To me, it really was just about - that was the fun part. That was the little goody extra stuff. But it was just that feeling of - and I was lucky that I even found it in the seventh grade. Some people don't find that thing until they're in their twenties or thirties.

Tavis: Or ever.

Groban: Or ever. So no, that's exactly right. It was my way of expressing myself, and it was a really wonderful experience to feel that at an early age.

Tavis: You describe your music how? And I raise that because one could, theoretically, walk into a music store and find this CD or any CD of your music, except the Christmas CD, of course - that should be in the Christmas section. (Laughter) If you want it to be found, it should be in the Christmas section.

But anything else you do could be placed in any number of different sections in the music store. So how do you describe what your gift is, what your style is?

Groban: Just hearing you talk about a music store is making me feel all tingly. (Laughter) Really? Music stores? We have those still?

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. (Laughs)

Groban: It is great, because I'll walk into a music store and I actually don't mind - it used to frustrate me. When I first started out I used to think, easy listening? That's not me. Or I'd go, rock music? What do they think I am? (Laughter) Now I actually have grown to really appreciate that it's great, that each store, whoever the general manager is of that store, thinks of me as a different thing.

Because everybody's made up of a number of different components, and I certainly feel, especially when I started making my first album and the record label said, "We just want you to be you. We want you to go and make the most beautiful album you can make. We don't care about MTV, we don't care about radio. If we get those things, great, but we want to see what you can do just going at it."

And so David and I had this goal, and ever since then my fans have appreciated it, we've all kind of gone on this thing together of just that it is many things, and I classify myself as a pop artist. I think that I would rather widen what people think of as pop music in a world where it's constantly being narrowed into a very, very small format than create yet another sub-genre of something else like classical crossover or whatever.

I think that I have a classical voice, I have classical training, but the music that I'm making is mostly all original, and I do view it as pop music.

Tavis: What do you make of the fact - and here's where I give a lot of credence to your fans, lot of respect to your fan base. It's not easy to have an artist that can sing and does, in fact, sing, to your point now, in so many different genres, does so many different styles of song rendition and have the audience get that. Because if you're not - to your earlier point, if you're not pigeonholed, if you're not labeled a certain way, then it makes it harder for people to get.

So to have a fan base that really does get you, that allows you to be you and still puts you on the charts, that's pretty special.

Groban: It's very special. I don't take it for granted for one minute. I'm very, very, very honored to have them as a fan base, and very proud of them. And just they've done so much. A lot of them first discovered me as an actor, when I first did "Ally McBeal" six or seven years ago. I was acting in the episode and then by the way, I sang at the end.

And I think ever since that moment they kind of started this grassroots thing of we know that this is different, we don't care how it's classified. We're here to go along for the ride. And the fact that the album wound up bringing about a number of different languages and different styles and lots of different world rhythms and things like that, I was thinking I hope that they kind of go with me on this, and especially the last album and the "Awake" tour brought some different things.

But they're right there with me and they're open-minded and they are just as open-minded and energetic about my music as they are compassionate and ready to help me with my charity work and things like that. So they are, to me, the uber fan.

Tavis: So just between the two of us, just you and me here, just the two of us, have you and Foster - that would be, of course, David Foster - have you and Foster ever thought about trying something or in fact tried something that the fan base just said, "That's pushing it a little far, Josh. Now you've gone too far."

Groban: (Laughs) I would actually say that Foster has a real finger on the pulse of what my fans, my core audience, wants. I would say that I think that whenever there seems to be a bit of a controversy among my fan base, it's the things that I've done away from Foster. There is a certain thing that David and I do very, very well, and the Christmas album is certainly an example of that.

And there are things sometimes where he and I will both agree, "Josh, you got some wacky ideas. Go out there and get that out of your system and go do it." And so I spend a lot of time, this last album I spent at least half the album working with other producers and other writers and doing a lot of writing of my own, and I think that it's very important for me to get that out of me.

Obviously, you try to learn from other mistakes and try not to scare your audience away, but at the same time sometimes as you grow as an artist you have to make decisions for yourself, where you know you're going to tack on a little bit on one side and lose a little bit on the other.

And I think that whenever that has happened, it's been because of a little bit of left-of-center creative decisions that I've made, but it's a risk and it's a sacrifice that I've been very willing to take.

Tavis: The back story behind "Awake Live" becoming a dual-disc CD and DVD is what?

Groban: It is first and foremost a DVD. This is for me the best DVD that I've made. We've done some - we've taped the last couple of concerts. But this was the one where we really thought we want to take it to the next level. We hired a great director named Hamish Hamilton, who has directed a number of amazing - Peter Gabriel, U2, a lot of great stuff - and we used half-35mm film and half HD, which gave it a very kind of multitextured approach.

And the audience was incredible. I think that the reason I'm so excited about this DVD is because I think that the songs on the "Awake" album were represented better as a live concert than they were as a studio album, and sometimes that just happens. This DVD was the representation of about 50 concerts' time, to let the songs grow.

And the CD is almost like a bonus. There's nine songs on there and we picked the ones that we thought were some of the best sounding, and there's some great behind-the-scenes footage on there, too. So it's nice. It's a great archive for us; I know the fans always appreciate, especially if they couldn't get to a concert, to have it.

Tavis: Let me close with this. As I said at the top of our conversation, you and I just met for the first time when you walked on the set here today, but I've always gotten the sense, watching your stuff, watching it and really listening to it, to the point, that lyrical content is important to you. It's not just the performance, not just a DVD. That's not a suck-up to you.

I'm just saying for some people, lyrics are less important than the bass line or than the beat. But from you, I get the sense that the lyrical content is pretty important.

Groban: It is; thank you. I think that comes from my loving theater from a young age. I think that just growing up listening to people like Stephen Sondheim, it's first and foremost as a singer, as a song stylist, you want to tell a story and you want the - as the triple thing, you want the lyric and the book and the music to all come together.

For me, my love of theater, when those three things come together, there's nothing more powerful. And so when I'm auditioning songs and when I'm looking at songs, that standard, just because of what I grew up loving, is really, really high. And I think that's one of the reasons why I actually decided to start writing a little bit, was because I started receiving songs that I felt weren't exactly what I wanted to say.

And it started out of frustration and I'd say to myself, "Okay, Josh, well, that's what you don't want to say. What is it that you want to say? Sit down and don't be lazy - get it out." So that is kind of why that started, but yeah, I do think it's exceedingly important, even in the other languages. It's fun for me when my fans who don't speak those languages go and they translate them and learn about them.

Tavis: So because Josh is so adept at recording everything he does, I will know that I've arrived when I end up on a Josh Groban DVD. (Laughter) This conversation, that is.

Groban: This is going to be a special feature, I promise. (Laughter)

Tavis: This is our behind-the-scenes, repurposed on a Josh Groban DVD. Until such time, the new DVD from Josh Groban is called "Awake Live," at a store near you. And to the Grobans watching right about now; how's Sunday at 7:00 sound? (Laughter)

Groban: I could speak for them, that's absolutely perfect.

Tavis: I'll be down for dinner Sunday at 7:00.

Groban: I'll see you there.

Tavis: Nice to meet you.

Groban: You too, Tavis, thanks a lot.

Tavis: Thanks Josh.