To understand the appeal of singer Josh Groban is to see him through the eyes of the first woman who reached the microphone for a question-and-answer session after an intimate performance and interview in New York. Lacquered and seductive at fiftysomething, she narrowed her bedroom eyes and asked, “Have you ever heard of Mrs. Robinson?”
The image is perfect. Groban is every bit as tousled, scruffy and adorable as young Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, with the added attraction of being extremely well mannered. And when he steps to a microphone to sing – well, listening to Josh Groban is like taking a big warm bath in the glow of candlelight. Mrs. Robinson licks her lips.
In Toronto a few days later on the same mission – to promote his new album, All That Echoes – Groban obligingly fills the blanks in the “personal info” file: “Single at the moment, boxer briefs, coffee lover, Pisces.” And another interview is done.
In the meantime, there is a genuine conversation that easily supersedes all that adorableness. Groban is effortlessly, endlessly articulate on the subject of music. And now at a new high point in a career that has never had a low, having sold more than 20 million albums since his 2001 debut, the singer (who turned 32 on Wednesday) has become a figure of no uncertain authority.
“I’ve started to find a good balance,” Groban says, showing it at work with his hands. “My head and my voice are finally starting to balance out, and that’s a good feeling.”
If he ever suffered from jibes about what some call “popera,” the crossover genre his big voice and earnest romanticism helped to pioneer, Groban is now immune.
“This is something that is not easy to do,” he says. “In fact, it’s very difficult to do.” As evidence, he points to the often sorry results when “certain pop singers try to sing classical music,” or indeed, “when certain opera singers try to sing pop or rock music.”
His own voice “has always been somewhat naturally between both worlds,” according to Groban, and that’s where it belongs. “For me to change my voice to try and end journalists’ confusion would be counterproductive to me and my fans,” he says, “and truly would be the worst thing I could possibly do.”
But some misunderstanding about the genre is understandable, Groban adds generously. “It’s kind of a new thing,” he says. “I’ve been put in this position where I’m paving my own road.”
If there must be a label for it, Groban prefers “traditional pop.”
“The pop music of yesteryear was more open-throated and was more full-voiced and did include vibrato,” he says. “I think we’re so used to voices so compressed within an inch of their lives now that when anything feels like a full-throated, open-sung song, people say, ‘Omigod, that must be opera.’”
The notion, he adds, is “ludicrous.”
All That Echoes is an unabashedly full-throated effort after Groban’s more intimate, “admittedly a little bit sombre,” 2010 release, Illuminations. In part, it was inspired by fan reaction to the amped-up version of that album’s songs that Groban performed on his last tour. “We infused live energy back into those songs, the audience reaction was that much more lively,” he says. “And I thought okay, with this next record I want to capture that. I want not to be afraid to sing full out.”
With rock producer Rob Cavallo at the controls and no fewer than seven of the album’s songs co-written by Groban, the album was “a labour of love from the get-go,” according to the singer. “There was no such thing as suffering for art with this one,” he added.
“I feel like this album is a perfect blend for me of what I’ve learned from the past and where I want to go in the future.”
Wherever the future may lead, it will always include a full schedule of live concerts. “I love the road, I really do,” Groban says. “It always inspires the next record. Creativity begets more creativity, and touring around the world is like breathing air for me.”
It is a journey he has navigated with remarkable smoothness and maturity, even as he saw fellow musicians “dropping like flies” from the pressure and temptations of sudden fame. From the moment just out of high school when producer David Foster signed him to a contract to now, with his sixth album at No. 5 on the Billboard 200, Groban has never made a false step.
“None that I couldn’t learn from,” he corrects. “That’s the key. There are plenty of false steps, you just try to keep them as quiet as possible. Make sure you’re wearing socks!”
He once fell down a staircase on stage, he says, and once burped into a microphone.
If there is a detour beckoning from the straight and narrow of Groban’s career so far, the obvious one is Broadway. As a nine-year-old, undiscovered prodigy growing up in a culturally rich household in Los Angeles, Groban took pains to memorize the songs from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. As a professional, he has performed at the legendary composer’s birthday concerts. He has acted successfully – most notably in Ally McBeal and The Office. But Groban has never more than dabbled in the musical theatre he loves.
“I don’t just want to use my name to jump into a show for three weeks,” he explains. “I want to start something from scratch. I want to really take the time to workshop it and to do a proper run.”
That can’t happen with a touring schedule as gruelling as Groban’s. “But after this album and after this tour I think I’d like to find that place,” he says. “I’ll be 32 and I think it’s a good age to start thinking about those other things.”
No, Mrs. Robinson – not that. It’s all about the music.
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