"I wanted to be scared again."
Like John Travolta in the made-for-TV classic The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, the opera-pop superstar Josh Groban wished to venture outside his hermetically sealed comfort zone. Says he: "I never would want to believe that my career at any point would be made up of going on autopilot and people buying it anyways."
Groban, the golden-throated 29-year-old who plays Toronto's Queen Elizabeth Theatre Thursday evening, spoke earlier this week about his latest album, Illuminations, a collection of stagy, beautiful multilingual ballads remarkable for its unlikely producer, the supernatural Rick Rubin, who decidedly and famously has his own way to rock.
In The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, the underrated actor and Brady Bunch patriarch Robert Reed froze time with the passionate defence of his immune-deficient boy. "My son is not a freak!" he declared. Likewise, Groban - apart from his supple-toned throat and unreal ability to sell records and concert seats - is not so freakish at all. Sipping water in his hotel suite as he illuminates the process that resulted in his fifth studio album, he's relaxed, casual and friendly. Dressed plainly in jeans and a plaid shirt, the tousle-haired crooner with the deep brown eyes is something of a poor man's Noah Wyle.
The baritone next door, you might say.
Now, Rubin, he is a freak - a peaceful, idiosyncratic one, who's made great and often commercially successful music with everyone from Slayer and Danzig to Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond. He's known for stripping away layers - painstakingly - to reach the purest essence of artists and songs.
Groban, who has worked extensively with the more traditional, big-ballad producer David Foster, initially found Rubin's unbending process to be as woolly as the producer's own famously straggled beard. "I'm the kind of person who usually likes to make noise immediately," says the L.A. native, referring to his way of writing and recording. "I like to see where we are - to jam, be inspired by the sound."
And Rubin? Not so much. The producer took more of a movie-making approach, sketching out songs in pencil. "He wanted to not make a sound for a whole year," Groban says, smiling as he shakes his head. "He wanted it to be about thinking, writing and listening."
The idea was to start with the melodies and work out from there. Songs were to be fully conceived before getting the orchestral treatments at Hollywood's Capital Studios.
Groban, who was introduced to Rubin through Maverick Record's Ronnie Dashev, presented the producer with songs and melodies. Some were developed; many others weren't. In a new development, Groban does share songwriting credits on 11 of the resulting 13 tracks. Rubin had a list of 20 cover songs he thought might work; just one, a richly dramatic reading of Nick Cave's Straight to You, was used.
For a Canadian connection, the lyrics to Au jardin des sans-pourquoi ( The Garden without "Whys") came from the Grammy-winning Montrealer Rufus Wainwright and his late mother, the folk-singing Kate McGarrigle.
The resulting album, issued in November, 2010, is not a 180-degree turnabout. The sublime, affecting first single though, Hidden Away, is perhaps more accessible and hummable than anything Groban has recorded previously. And while the album often gives into melodrama, it's less bombastic than Groban's previous releases, with the singer's voice at the fore.
Given that Groban's previous album was a Christmas record - the triple-platinum (in Canada) Noel - there was a built-in opportunity for the artist to try something new. "It caused a lot of frustration," says Groban, who for months had nothing to present to Warner Music as the album laboriously took shape outside the recording studio. "It caused a lot of me pacing."
Was it worth it? Absolutely, testifies Groban, but it wasn't easy. "It's the long way - it's the hard way. But Rick just had this vision that I'd have to go through this process to get there."
The making of the album wasn't Groban's only step outside the comfort zone. He has changed management, moved from Los Angeles to New York - the graceful seasonal Bells of New York City is one of Illuminations' more memorable tracks - and he's recently taken to giving intimate, extemporaneously paced concerts - just guitar and piano, with audience interaction and no set lists, in theatres (as is the case in Toronto) in advance of a full-on arena tour later in the year.
"I needed to get my feet wet again," says Groban, who'd been off the road for some time, "and I knew I needed to do that in the scariest possible situation."
"It's hysterical," he continues. "It winds up being a night of unexpected standup."
Oh yeah, Joshua Winslow Groban, the sultan of unsmiling music, he's a funny guy. His recent straight-faced crooning of Kanye West's top-of-the-head tweet oeuvre on Jimmy Kimmel Live! is the stuff of online-video legend. "My music has always been so serious," says the singer, who dabbled in improv in junior high. "It's always nice when you have an opportunity to give people a fuller picture of who you are."
So then, Groban: Out of the bubble and outside the box - how does it feel?
"It's fun. I like to shake things up. I never want to float with just half of an image."