Josh Groban: Don't Call Him Diva (Except in the Shower)
November 26, 2003
By Heather Stas and C. Bottomley
Crossover heartthrob sings in various languages, ditches the song salesmen, and bellows Pearl Jam while bathing.
22-year-old former theatre student from Los Angeles, Josh Groban could be scanning the employment ads in Backstage and hanging around auditions in seedy off-Broadway rehearsal spaces. Instead, he's enjoying the good life. The singer's robust tenor and cherubic good looks have taken him from college student to superstar in the course of three years.
In spite of his youth and a penchant for Radiohead, don’t expect to see Groban on TRL. Straddled somewhere between Andrea Bocelli and Barbra Streisand, his music is more at home on PBS. His 2001 debut Josh Groban contained orchestras, Charlotte Church, and a cover of Don McLean’s “Vincent.” On the singer's new Closer he collaborates with both violin whiz Joshua Bell and global techno outfit Deep Forest. Neither Top 40 nor classical, it’s popular music in the true sense of the word.
There’s more to Groban than just a pretty voice, it turns out. His first album found him interpreting tunes written by an army of songwriting pros in an array of languages. But after being harassed by saccharine balladeers hoping he would cover their material, he decided to try writing tunes himself, and the new album contains his first self-penned pieces.
With Closer comfortably ensconced in the Billboard Top 10, his loyal legion of Grobanites must approve of his decision. But the singer admits he’d be just as happy interpreting Who tunes or Sondheim anthems in a Broadway musical. He spoke to VH1 about singing in Japanese, his odds of winning American Idol, and how he'd like to hear Axl Rose take a shot at opera.
VH1: Do you still get stage fright?
Josh Groban: I do. I get terrible butterflies. Before I go onstage, I’ll have to freak out for five minutes. I scream. It seems to help!
VH1: English is your first language, but you’ve tackled French and Italian lyrics on both your albums.
JG: It’s an amazing feeling to have someone who doesn’t speak Italian be moved by the song anyway – and want to learn what it means! I wanted to experiment with different languages. There’s so much romance in those languages that it would be a shame not to use them.
VH1: How are you at speaking them?
JG: After using four different languages on an album, it’s tough to decide which one I’m gonna actually learn to speak. I always study the lyric, make sure I know what I’m singing, and try to get the pronunciation as perfect as possible. I took Japanese in high school, and that was the coolest thing ever. But if I had known that I was going to be singing in these languages, I probably would have chosen one of them. Of course, when I get that top 10 Japanese single, it’s going to be all worth it, I’m sure.
VH1: What’s the most difficult language to sing in?
JG: French was very difficult. With French you start dealing with all these different shapes in the mouth and different sounds you have to make. That took a little more practice.
VH1: Closer also finds you writing your own songs for the first time.
JG: I’ve written poetry and played piano since I was a kid, and I’ve always liked composing stuff. I’d buy the newest synthesizer and figure out all the sounds. Music was just fun experimentation for me, but in the process I came up with some melodies I really liked.
VH1: What made you decide to write your own tunes?
JG: After the success of the first album, I saw so many songs for [Closer]. It was like, “I wrote something that would be perfect for you and Charlotte Church.” “Thanks, but we did that already.” “OK. Well, I think you’d be great singing this song called ‘Save All Children of the World.’” “No, I don’t think you have the right idea about who I am and what kind of music I sing.” You hear so many songs that are not right, you wind up saying, “What do I want to hear right now? What do I want to sing?” It really starts from that place.
VH1: But you don’t have a problem with songs about children.
JG: I love songs that inspire positive thinking. I’m just speaking of songs that weren’t that intelligent in the way they were written - stuff that was based on an idea of what [people] thought I would sing.
VH1: You got your training singing in theatre. Would you ever go back to that?
JG: That’s the ultimate dream for someone like myself. I still would love to do one of my favorite shows in L.A. or on Broadway. [I performed in] a musical called Chess two or three weeks ago for the Actor’s Fund, and that was a dream come true. After everything that’s happened in the last couple of years, to be able to be onstage with this great cast and to be in a show makes me feel warm.
VH1: How did performing such a range of material affect you?
JG: I’m inspired by all different styles of music. Paul Simon’s Graceland was the first CD I ever bought, and listening to how he incorporated pop and rock and folk with African traditional music was amazing. It made me realize there’s no reason to be afraid of mixing genres or breaking rules.
VH1: How do you compare writing pop music with writing songs for a musical?
JG: I suppose it’s the same as writing a song or an album for a pop artist. It takes more time to create a musical. There’s the book, the music writer and the lyric writer. There’s a lot of musical theatre out there now derived from pop music. Chess was written by Benny and Bjorn from ABBA, and Mamma Mia takes their greatest hits and turns it into a stage show. There are also shows like Rent, Taboo – which uses Boy George’s music – and Tommy. That was the beautiful thing about musical theatre for me. You can get onstage and it would be okay to sing music from the Who. Then I could get on another stage and it would be okay to sing an operatic aria by Stephen Sondheim.
VH1: Do you sing in the shower?
JG: The shower is my time to open up my operatic chops, because of the enormous echo. You sound five times as big in the shower, so I break into some “Nessun Dorma” [from Puccini's Turandot] or Pearl Jam. You’ve got to go big when you’re in the shower. There’s no half-singing in the shower, you’re either a rock star or an opera diva.
VH1: Are there any pop singers out there who can successfully tackle classical material?
JG: Aretha Franklin sang “Nessun Dorma” beautifully at the Grammys about three years ago. Freddie Mercury could’ve done a brilliant job, too. I’d love to hear some of today’s artists do operatic arias, from Coldplay to Bjork to Aretha. To hear Axl Rose sing something from La Traviata would be interesting! [Laughs.]
VH1: Who are the "Grobanites"?
JG: To the untrained eye they’re ecstatic fans who wear lots of pins and “Josh” t-shirts and make signs and drawings. But deep down they’re much more. They’re lovers of all different kinds of music. Their CD player has Depeche Mode and Radiohead in it, too, so we have a lot in common. Most importantly, the most passionate fans from the beginning were one of the most – if not the most - integral part of spreading the music. They’re relentless. [They’re like,] “I converted someone today! She doesn’t like this kind of music, but then I played ‘Never Let Go’ and she said ‘I like this!’ and I converted her!” They want everybody to hear it. It’s a great feeling to have so many great people supporting you.
VH1: Who would you cite as one of your favorite poets or writers?
JG: There’s a lot of Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein that I find brilliant. There’s a poem called “Me-Stew,” where Shel Silverstein says: “I’ve got nothing to put in my stew you see/ Not a bean/ Not a carrot/ Not a ‘whatever’/ So I’m gonna put myself in/ I’ll stir myself often/ I’ll taste myself…” The end line is, “I hope you enjoy me with crackers.” That’s the kind of thing I like – wacky stuff like that.
VH1: How do you think you’d fare on American Idol?
JG: It’s tough! It reminds me of auditioning for musical theater schools: “I’m gonna do a monologue, and now for my upbeat song …” You’d press your little tape recorder and have blank eyes staring at you. I think I’d get to a certain round but I dunno - Simon’s ruthless! I don’t think I’d be into doing some of the songs that they had to do. After karaoke night No. 13, I’d probably just disqualify myself!