Josh Groban: The Billboard Cover Story Billboard Magazine
October 30, 2010
By Cortney Harding
Josh Groban is a rare commodity in the music business: a safe bet.
Classically trained, celestially voiced, the kind of sweet-faced, well-mannered, personable young man who probably gets hand-knit sweaters as gifts from fans in lieu of panties, Groban is virtually immune to the vagaries of pop-music trends. His most recent album, the 2007 Christmas record "Noel," sold 5 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and topped the Billboard 200. All told, he has sold more than 19.6 million album copies of his AC-leaning vocal music.
Because his material appeals to adults whose taste and preferences are stable, Groban can depend on their loyalty. No one would have batted an eye had he released another collection of holiday tracks every couple of years ("L'Chaim! A Josh Groban Hanukkah"), toured theaters and arenas, dropped in again on Oprah and "Today" and "Glee," headlined public-TV pledge drives and generally reaped the quiet but lucrative rewards of mainstream, middle-of-the-road success.
Instead, Groban, 29, decided to make some drastic changes. He split from his former manager, Brian Avnet, and signed to Q Prime, known for managing guitar extremists Metallica and Muse. He parted with longtime producer David Foster and teamed with, of all people, Rick Rubin, the bearded Zen master behind the Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash and Danzig. On his new record, "Illuminations," due Nov. 15 on Reprise, Groban co-wrote more of the material than he ever had on previous albums, and also recorded a song by an unlikely favorite: goth-rock cult star Nick Cave.
The new partners are especially head-scratching given that Groban's music is possibly the most un-rock stuff out there. With a voice ranging between tenor and baritone, Groban draws more comparisons to Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli than Eddie Vedder or James Hetfield. It's easy to imagine him singing on the radio in the 1940s; his music, which nods to Broadway, opera and European pop, typically finds its truest expression in the kind of swelling, inspirational ballads that accompany first dances at weddings.
Moreover, Groban's older audience still buys physical albums: His breakthrough song, "You Raise Me Up," has only sold 977,000 downloads, despite being covered by artists around the world and by "American Idol" contestants who want to bludgeon the judges with their range.
"I was in such a cozy position," Groban says of the period after "Noel" blew up and soundtracked family Christmas dinners across the world. "I had the No. 1-selling album of the year and I could have just kept doing that. But then I started to have an itch."
Groban first appeared on the music scene when he was barely out of high school, working as a rehearsal singer for events like the Grammy Awards and performing at former California Gov. Grey Davis' inauguration. He studied drama at Carnegie Mellon for a few months but dropped out to focus on music.
He released a self-titled album in late 2001 that has so far sold 5.1 million copies, according to SoundScan. After a galvanizing star turn on the TV dramedy "Ally McBeal," he would perform for everyone from Oprah Winfrey to the Prince of Wales, and release three more studios albums ("Closer," "Awake" and "Noel") and three live sets ("Josh Groban in Concert," "Live at the Greek" and "Awake Live") during the next nine years. The success of "Noel" as 2007's best-selling album is doubly impressive since it streeted Oct. 9 of that year and only needed 10 weeks to claim the title; it sold 3.7 million copies of its current 5 million total by the end of 2007, according to SoundScan.
In the midst of the post-"Noel" haze, Groban had a chance encounter with Rubin while at lunch with Madonna's manager Guy Oseary. "I told Guy I wanted to meet Rick and he set it up, and it turned out we had a lot in common," Groban recalls. "I followed up with Rick to say that I enjoyed chatting with him and wanted to be friends, and then he heard some music and said he wanted to produce on the record."
Rubin says he wasn't apprehensive about working with Groban, despite the fact he had never tackled a project of this nature. "I like working with different kinds of artists," he says, "and working in Josh's medium seemed like an exciting challenge."
The next step, according to Rubin, was to "build up a body of material suitable for recording." Although Groban, who owns his own publishing, has previously co-written and arranged music, "Illuminations" represents the most work he has ever done on one album, co-writing six of the tracks with former Semisonic leader Dan Wilson. As with his other efforts, Groban sings in several languages, including Portuguese, Italian, Latin and French.
"I study all these languages -- I really do my homework," Groban says of his ability to sound natural in multiple tongues. "There was a time when I would try to translate these songs into English, and things would get lost in translation both lyrically and musically. And it's also been fun for me to sing songs in these languages in the countries of their origin and reach out to fans that way, and maybe even encourage some fans to learn other languages."
Groban also chose to cover Nick Cave's "Straight to You," which might seem like a puzzling choice. But Groban says he's a longtime fan of Cave's, and when Rubin suggested he try it out, he went for it.
"I trust Rick for a gazillion things, and I certainly trust him for cover songs," Groban says. "We got James Newton Howard to create a sonic atmosphere to represent what the words are. At first, I started off telling him, 'I want Terry Gilliam, I want Baron Munchausen, I want cannons coming through the opera house.' And then I realized that was exactly what we shouldn't be doing; that we should just let the words do the talking. We wound up making it more haunting, and when I went back and listened to it, it moved me."
Rubin's expertise as a producer is evident throughout the album; while both Groban's voice and the orchestration are full and rich, they always strike a balance and one never subsumes the other. "Bells of New York City" is an homage to Groban's adopted hometown and also slyly riffs on the Pogues' "Fairytale of New York." There are plenty of Groban's bread-and-butter love songs, with oceanic vocals imploring the listener not to "keep [their] love hidden away" and that he "can't breathe without you." The album has a timeless quality -- while "War at Home" serves as a nice salute to heroes and veterans, the track could easily be directed at those returning from World War II as those coming back from Iraq.
Groban was happy and excited to stretch artistically with Rubin, but there were some things he just couldn't be as flexible about. "Rick saw I was a type-A personality, so he suggested I try meditating, and he gave me these apps, but I couldn't do it," Groban says. "I just fell asleep."
IN HIS (Q) PRIME
In 2009, legendary rock manager Cliff Burnstein was in Los Angeles, attending "one of those functions," when now-departed Warner head Tom Whalley introduced him to Groban. "He told me Rick Rubin was producing the album, and that piqued my interest," Burnstein says. "Then I spoke to Rick and he told me he was enjoying working with Josh, and mentioned that Josh was looking for management. After that, we started talking."
Burnstein says that while the Rubin connection was what initially attracted him to Groban, the more he learned about the artist, the more he wanted to work with him. "Josh's music is not a genre we had a lot of experience in," he says. "But then Rick started telling me what an accomplished writer and musician he was, and I knew we had a lot of familiarity working with people like that."
While Burnstein is technically correct that Q Prime has never managed another artist in Groban's genre, the question of what genre Groban fits into still seems undecided. His music is often called "popera," a somewhat dismissive amalgam of pop and opera -- think Andrea Bocelli, Susan Boyle, Celtic Woman, even Andrew Lloyd Webber. It's a label he has mixed feelings about.
"Take a genre like rock'n'roll," Groban says. "In lots of cases, you've got four dudes: guitar, bass, drums, vocals. But because the genre has so much history and has been around for so long, you don't get a knee-jerk reaction -- people don't say, 'Oh, this has been done before.' They evaluate a work based on it being a new album by Radiohead or the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and they don't immediately write it off."
Groban says that part of the reason he thinks popera gets a bad rap is that the genre is still relatively new. "If you take someone who is classically trained and sings with an orchestra, the immediate reaction seems to be, 'Bah, that's what that other guy who was on PBS did,' " he says. "And you know, I do have a problem with the popera thing at the moment because it is just wholly uninteresting right now. That's not to say there aren't talented singers doing it, but nobody seems to know what the genre is trying to say. Is it about mood songs? I feel like 'You Raise Me Up' has been recorded over 400 times in the last several years."
Regarding the assumptions made about Groban's "mom" demographic, he's understandably wary. "It's easy to generalize," he says. "But I'd love to take people through my concert audience and point out all the different types of people who are there. I think at the start of my career my audience was older and more female, and that image has stuck around for the rest of the time. But what I think happened is these women brought their husbands and their sons and their daughters, and everybody had a great time, and now it runs the gamut."
While Groban's fans might be diverse demographically, many of them share one common thread: loyalty. "Josh has a fan base that is very engaged," Warner marketing manager Esther Somlo says. "And we are in communication with them year-round, even when there is not a new record or tour on the horizon. Obviously there is a spike in activity when we are rolling out a new project, but we are never not talking with them."
To reward that devotion, Somlo says that fan club members will have access to everything first. "They will be the first to see art, the first to hear music and the first to know about TV appearances," she says.
As it has been in the past, TV will be a huge part of the campaign. Groban's album will be in stores on a Monday instead of the usual Tuesday release day, due to the fact that he'll have two major TV appearances on Nov. 15 -- a morning show and a daytime show, although his camp declines to specify which ones. "His is an audience that still buys physical product," Somlo says. "And because of that, we want people to be able to go out and buy the record the same day they see him on TV."
He'll follow those up with another daytime appearance on Nov. 17, and will also take part in the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting ceremony the following week, an event he's participated in twice in previous years.
Jonathan Norman, supervising producer of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," says Groban has been on the show five times and will be returning for a sixth appearance.
"He has a great sense of humor and doesn't take himself too seriously, but he takes his music very seriously," Norman says. "He's up for anything. When Ellen was doing a skit last year recapping the Oscar nominations, he came on and covered himself in blue paint and was willing to be totally silly. But he came on the show another time and performed with the African Children's Choir, and he was so wonderful and sincere with them. And he's just a nice guy; he's never been a diva."
While Groban is in demand as a musical performer on TV, he's been shaping his acting chops, too. He willingly pokes fun at himself in the viral video hit "I'm Fucking Ben Affleck" and told a middle-aged woman "Josh Groban loves a blousy alcoholic" when he guested on "Glee." He'll also appear on the big screen next year in the Steve Carell film "Crazy Stupid Love," playing Emma Stone's fiance, whom he describes as "a douche bag lawyer."
It's hard to imagine Groban playing a douche bag -- part of his appeal is that he comes across as a genuinely nice guy. In a way, he's a perfect fit for the "Glee" audience: sincere, serious about his work, but with a sense of humor.
"I was so happy that I auditioned for a comedy role playing someone other than myself and got it," Groban says. "I started in theater, and while I don't want to take on any huge roles, it would be nice to keep coming back and doing funny, silly things."
While Groban's campaign will focus on traditional media, Somlo says that efforts are being beefed up in the digital space, too. "This is Josh's first original album in five years, and the space has changed," she says. "We have a great plan to do a countdown at iTunes, and we're developing a strong viral campaign."
Somlo says that Warner has built a series of widgets designed to encourage fans to introduce friends to Groban and to "take Josh to work or school."
"We want to cultivate a community and also keep Josh top of mind for fans," she says. "So the widgets will live on a desktop, and throughout the day, Josh will pop up with a video message."
The increased use of technology is one way Groban and his camp are reaching out to potential younger fans. "There is no reason he can't have a young fan base," Bernstein says. "I mean, he's not going to be in the teen magazines or anything, but he is a young guy."
Groban says that he feels just as comfortable joking around with Jimmy Kimmel as he does sitting on the couch with Oprah Winfrey. "I'm an old soul and an opera guy, but I'm also a twenty-something who loves poop humor," he says. "It's important to make sure people see both sides of that."
The last time Groban toured was in 2007, doing arenas in the United States and Australia; according to information reported to Billboard Boxscore, he grossed $40.7 million from 56 shows and sold 533,664 tickets. His booking agent, Gayle Holcomb of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, says an arena tour for May and June 2011 is being routed. Holcomb adds that Groban will also tour overseas afterwards. She says tickets for the 2007 tour all cost fewer than $100, but prices for the next run have not been set.
To keep Groban's reputation as a live performer top of mind for fans, he will perform four intimate shows (three in California and one in New Haven, Conn.) in early November, and Somlo says he will perform a "private concert" after "Illuminations" is released. "We wanted to reward people who bought the CD, so every disc comes with a unique code that allows a user to access a site to view a stripped-down live performance, followed by a question-and-answer session." The event will be powered by Ustream and will take place in early December.
As the release date for "Illuminations" approaches, Groban has time to reflect on the major changes he's made within his team and the new approach he took to record the album. Looking back, he says he is grateful for all the chances he took.
"It's been a terrifying couple of years, but I guess I'm a glutton for punishment in the best way possible," he says. "I'm grateful for the itch. When it first started to bug me, I thought I was crazy. I had just sold a gazillion records and could rest on my laurels. But I owe it to myself and my fans to try to keep making things better. The day I lose that urge is the day I should just put on a jumpsuit and move into a nice retirement village."To reward that devotion, Somlo says that fan club members will have access to everything first. "They will be the first to see art, the first to hear music and the first to know about TV appearances," she says.