The Classical Rock Star
February 13, 2004
By Gary Graff
Because he's 22, handsome and had the No. 1 album in the country for two weeks, Josh Groban is having to get used to things classical singers seldom encounter.
"There was underwear thrown onstage the other day," Groban says. "That was nice, in a hilarious way. It's weird for me to see screaming girls, especially with this kind of music.
"But it's great, you know? It's great to see that excitement and that kind of hysteria can go for this kind of music, too. It's really fun."
Call Groban the Bachstreet Boy. Or the New Liszt on the Block. While he's loath to wear the confining mantle of classical singer - "I'd like to call it pop music with many different influences," the former Interlochen Center for the Arts student says - Groban has carved a greater mainstream niche for operatic-style vocals than predecessors such as Andrea Bocelli or even Luciano Pavarotti.
"Closer," his second studio album (and third overall), spent two weeks in January atop the Billboard 200 - not the classical chart but the general pop chart, soaring above OutKast, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. He's enjoying some radio play with the single "You Raise Me Up," and his current North American tour - the first national jaunt of his young career - is the most coveted concert ticket of the season.
This all has been accomplished thanks to a teeny-bopper and heavily female contingent that's livened up the longhair crowd that usually populates the classical scene.
"I think it's the same connection that any band - pop or rap or country, whatever - makes with fans," says Groban, who is dating actress January Jones ("Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights," "American Wedding"). "It's how any artist breaks. It's building a fan base and finding your fans and expanding them, and not being afraid to test them a little bit and take them in different directions.
"It definitely started with people who specifically wanted to hear this type of music; 'Oh great, someone's new. I'm gonna find out who this is.' You work from that first, and then you try to get that person who's going to the record store to buy the OutKast CD to also listen to mine and see what he or she thinks of it.
"If you work hard at it, it's no different than any other artists who are in the Top 10."
However, Groban does acknowledges that not too long ago, "the pop world . . . wasn't something I thought I'd actually be part of at all." He grew up in Los Angeles, in a family "supportive" of his musical talents, though he took some time in asserting his ambitions.
Mostly, Groban refers to himself as a "typical" kind of music fan, favoring an MTV-style mix of popular rock, rap and R&B artists, as well as show tunes and some classical music. He was "a rock star in the shower . . . just singing around the house" - aware, he says, that he had a good voice but not doing much about it.
He did show off his skills at a seventh-grade school jazz cabaret, singing George Gershwin's " 'S Wonderful" complete with a scat solo in the middle.
"It was a great way for me to express myself," Groban says.
Still, he put singing aside and, instead, learned to play guitar, piano and drums. In high school, however, he became interested in musical theater and starred in productions of "Sweeney Todd," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Finian's Rainbow" and others. He went to the High School for the Arts in Los Angeles, took private voice lessons and upon graduation enrolled in the musical-theater program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, singing, dancing and acting from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. every day.
"My absolute top dream was to go to Broadway one day," Groban says. "I assumed that because of the kind of singing I did and because of the fact I had an absolute passion for it, I thought that's where I would go."
It wasn't his only option, however. Groban's voice teacher had introduced him to a friend, Grammy-winning producer David Foster. Foster was impressed; he employed Groban as a rehearsal singer, including a famous stand-in for Bocelli at a Grammy Awards rehearsal with Celine Dion.
And it was Foster who convinced Groban that he had a viable future as a singer on his own.
"David really said, 'Yeah, sure, it'll be great for you to go onstage and play a character one day. But I think people would want to hear you for you and what you want to say and what you want to sing,' " Groban says. "I needed that push and he gave me that push, and my life has never been the same."
Foster signed Groban to his 143 label, a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Records. Groban dueted with Lara Fabian on "For Always" from the "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" film soundtrack and started a fan buzz with his guest appearance on the 2001 season finale of "Ally McBeal." His self-titled debut came out a few months later and went double platinum. A hit PBS concert special yielded the popular "Josh Groban in Concert" album and DVD.
The chart-topping "Closer," meanwhile, features Groban's first songwriting contribution, "Remember When It Rained," which he says is the tip of a creative iceberg he hopes to tap into more on his future albums.
"I do a lot of writing," says Groban, who also recorded an orchestral treatment of Linkin Park's "My December" for the expanded edition of "Closer." "But first and foremost, I'm a singer, and I like to find music that al lows me to sing as best I can. I find nothing wrong with taking music already written, that you can find an emotional connection with, and telling that story. I love doing that."
That's why, he says, his original career path is still in sight.
"I still keep theater in the back of my mind," he says. "I can't wait to do it one day."
He also plans to record some full-blown classical albums as well. But he doesn't want to abandon the path that's already been so golden - and platinum - for him.
"I'm not living in a bubble of classical music or the stereotype for that kind of thing," he says. "I think I'm too much of an experimentalist to define what I do as classical music. ('Closer') is on the pop charts; I think it's pop music and it has classical music influences, but I think it also has many pop, rock and world music influences, as well.
"It's really great to see people opening their minds to new things and, with this album especially, to new music."