With ‘Illuminations,’ Josh Groban sees the light
Josh Groban got confused after exiting a subway station into Greenwich Village on a recent gorgeous fall day in New York. “I’m at Minetta Street and 6th Avenue,” he told his lunch date on the phone, citing an intersection that doesn’t quite exist.
FOR THE RECORD:
Josh Groban: An article about singer Josh Groban in the Oct. 31 Arts & Books section said that songwriter Dan Wilson collaborated on the Dixie Chicks album “Not Ready to Make Nice.” The name of the album was “Taking the Long Way.” Also, the article misspelled the word “click” as “clique” in one of Groban’s quotes about why he wanted to take a new tack in his music. The quote should have read, “I was getting so tired of the click, so tired of singing to a synthesizer demo and then sitting there, watching the orchestra play to my demo.” —
It was an understandable mistake for the 29-year-old singer, who’d moved from Malibu only a month earlier and hadn’t yet mastered the veiny map of lower Manhattan. “I’ll meet you in front of the American Apparel store,” he finally said, choosing a natural landmark for a native Angeleno like himself.
Soon enough, the classically trained crooner regained his bearings, explaining how he’d almost rented an apartment on Minetta Lane (not Street) before choosing the convenience of a midtown high-rise. He was dressed for downtown, anyway, in a pageboy cap and jeans and trademark rough facial stubble, blending in with the students and aspiring creatives sitting in the Grey Dog Café, his favorite spot nearby. Of course, it’s not that easy to tell the tourists from the residents in the Village these days. Groban can take his time adjusting.
“These past years have been very chaotic,” said Groban. “I finally feel like I can relax.” About two years ago, after nearly a decade as a tuxedo-clad vibrato jock whose deliberately majestic music helped define contemporary middlebrow pop — and sold millions of albums, including a Christmas release that topped the 2007 year-end charts — Groban decided to get lost.
“So many of the records I’ve made in the past, we’ve been striving for a perfect sound,” he said. “I was getting so tired of the clique, so tired of singing to a synthesizer demo and then sitting there, watching the orchestra play to my demo. Yeah, we’d all high-five in the studio, like, ‘That sounds great.’ But it’s not gratifying as a singer.”
Groban was practically born into the world of L.A. studio high-fives; raised in Hancock Park and discovered as a teen by the producer David Foster, the epic-pop specialist behind talents ranging from Celine Dion to Charice, Groban is the kind of affable demigod who uses the phrase “he’s a friend” to describe music industry kingpins and movie stars alike. In Los Angeles, he’d jog straight up Doheny listening to indie rock on his headphones to relax after studio sessions, and get snapped squiring starlets to the multiplex at the Grove.
New York offers different pleasures, not least of which is pedestrian semi-anonymity. He can walk to Lincoln Center to hear the New York Philharmonic and make lunch dates with Wynton Marsalis, whose ecumenical sermons on American music he fervently admires. His new management company, the rock-oriented Q-Prime, is based here. And though he recorded “Illuminations” in L.A. under the mentorship of Rick Rubin, rock’s biker-bearded guru of authenticity, its feels like a New York record, its best songs falling somewhere between the Broadway stage and the cabaret at Café Carlyle.
The chances Groban had taken in the past, like covering Linkin Park songs, touring with the African singer Angelique Kidjo (“She’s one of my best friends,” he specifies) and collaborating with art-pop stars such as Imogen Heap, had left him wanting something different. His self-deprecating turns on television, playing himself in “Glee” or clowning around with Jimmy Kimmel, were only half-satisfying. A long relationship with actress January Jones had gone kaput in 2006: “This has not been a three-year period of grand love for me,” he admitted. Thirty was starting to look like a midlife crisis.
“I’ve had to say to critics, ‘Who are you to criticize me if I’m reaching a million people?’” Groban said of the four albums, centered around a baritone as big as a Pacific sunset, that made him America’s most wholesome dream date. “I’m not going to dog someone if they’re doing that. But I can only think of my quest. I’ve not been satisfied being merely a tone. I’m making the choice to venture off.”
Groban’s makeover is subtle on “Illuminations,” which will be released Nov. 15. Instead of abandoning the style that made him famous, with its swelling strings, uplifting lyrics and careful cosmopolitan sheen, Rubin, best known for his work with artists including the Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, encouraged the singer to rework it from within.
At first, Groban said, Rubin brought him a selection of cover songs from credibility-lending rock artists including Fleet Foxes, R.E.M. and Nick Cave. But only one — Cave’s romantic ballad “Straight to You” — made the cut.
“Most of the material Josh recorded in the past was covers, so that was the precedent in place,” Rubin wrote in a recent e-mail interview. “We started down that familiar road for him and at the same time he started playing pieces of music for me…. Eventually, many of the songs he was writing were as good or better then the songs we found for him to sing, and he had a passion for those he didn’t always have for the covers.”
Rubin had given Groban the hardest task imaginable: to confront the much-derided middlebrow pop style that had made him famous, and make it better, less formulaic, more subtle. He could still sing in other languages — one song on “Illuminations” has lyrics in French by Rufus Wainwright and his late mother, Kate McGarrigle, while another, in Portuguese, features a percussion arrangement by Brazilian great Carlinhos Brown.
But the songs needed to be more than just exercises in fancy diction. Love would, of course, be a main subject, but instead Groban aimed to better grasp “the honest-to-God uncertainty” of relationships, instead of just celebrate their high points. That big voice would remain at the center, but it would sound human, not perfect.
“Our mission statement was to make a fine art album, not a classical crossover album,” explained Rubin. “Crossover albums make certain concessions we rejected, with the belief that quality could touch people in a deeper way.”
“He took a lot of tools out of my shed,” said Groban. “He took electric guitar out, pretty much completely. We only used one sample, at the beginning of the Portuguese song. No drum sets, no electric bass. No computer programming.
Rubin paired Groban with the songwriter Dan Wilson, who’s collaborated with dozens of artists but is best known for helping the Dixie Chicks go beyond the confines of country music on the Grammy-winning, Rubin-produced album “Not Ready to Make Nice.” Holed up in Wilson’s Minneapolis home, the two songwriters spent hours just talking, about “life, or girls, or whatever,” and came up with songs that sound more like refinements than a rejection of Groban’s past.
“My hope for the sessions was to make songs that sounded really personal, without being casual,” said Wilson in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “Josh has that amazing, glorious voice that sounds like angels descending — how to do something that sounds more intimate? There’s a level of casual lyric-writing that may never be quite right for Josh’s voice. Ben Folds can put car keys and coffee cups and references to N.W.A into his lyrics. Josh’s voice explodes those things.”
Coming to terms with the extravagance he can’t shake, Groban created music that won’t win any indie rock awards. He still invokes sky blue seas and lovers who look down from a higher window; he still rides the swells of melody, which he calls “my way of getting things out of my system.” On “Illuminations,” though, Groban does so within comparatively restrained songs and arrangements. He even uses some falsetto — “kind of a no-no,” he said, for a classically based singer.
Groban knows that radio might not go for this more restrained approach. “It’s always been a comfort for me to know I could slide a song under the Hot AC (Adult Contemporary, Groban’s favorite radio format) door and say, ‘Hey guys, here’s my new pop single: big production, big drums, all that stuff.’ For me the big risk is actually taking it more in a traditional vein.”
Groban talked about these changes with earnest enthusiasm. But he’s self-aware; he knows some will think it’s a gimmick. “Every artist eventually says they want to go more organic, I know,” he said. “You don’t hear people saying, ‘I want to be glossier.’”
What Groban needed to do, it turned out, was to find the truth within the shine.
“As a singer, when you’ve got a good voice … I just wanted to sing the best I can,” he said. “And at first, my confidence wasn’t there to say that I wanted to write. It’s a tough nut to crack. But Rick said, ‘Don’t be afraid to write as grand as your voice sounds. Don’t play the game of miniature-pipsqueak kind of songs. Think Copland, think Sondheim. Go out and write big chords.’”
Contemplating the evolution of the style he only calls “my genre” — he can’t seem to bring himself to say “classical crossover” or, heaven forbid, “popera” — Groban made a surprising comparison. Heavy metal, he noted, was once also isolated and scorned, with few critical or music-business champions. Metallica inspires him, he said, because the band didn’t compromise and demanded respect. Groban departed from his longtime manager Brian Avnet in 2009, and, after a brief stint with Irving Azoff, turned to Q-Prime partly because that management company had proven it could bring Metallica and similar artists from the margins of respectability to the center.
His goal, he said, "[is] to understand the artists before me that have been misunderstood, and to learn from what they did to be better understood. I owe it to my fans to keep touring, and to understand that it’s a marathon and not a sprint.”
What “Illuminations” reveals is that Groban hasn’t been faking his fondness for the kind of music he makes. He’s proud of the work that he’s put into his voice and glad that his performances move people. He’s quick to say that he plans to work with David Foster again, and when he talks about extending his range, he mentions the logical next step toward Broadway. He’s making changes, but he has no desire to abandon himself.
“I challenge everybody else in this,” he said. “Don’t rest on that comfortable thing that your record label tells you to do. Explore, and dare to really reach people. That’s the only thing that will determine whether or not this is heavy metal, or this is rap-rock. We don’t know until we work hard at it and see.”