Young Star, Old-Style Repertoire
The Miami Herald
April 23, 2004
By Howard Cohen
Hip-hop and R&B? It's what pop radio plays, so it's no surprise to see someone like Usher with a commanding lead on the current Billboard charts.
Fiftysomethings as the kings and queens of the road? Sure. Boomers have a wealth of material to draw upon and their fans have more disposable income for pricey concert tickets to see Bette Midler, Simon & Garfunkel and Bruce Springsteen sing 30- or 40-year-old songs for the bazilionth time.
Claymates? We get that phenomenon too. The bright kid was in our living rooms every week on American Idol and Clay Aiken's clean-cut mainstream pop has broad appeal.
They are out there, millions strong, going googly-eyed over the good-looking California kid with tousled hair and the million-dollar voice given to singing songs by the likes of Johann Sebastian Bach and spaghetti-western film composer Ennio Morricone.
Josh Groban, the most unlikely of pop stars, sells out concerts (including Saturday night's at Jackie Gleason) and his two studio CDs, Josh Groban and Closer, are multiplatinum smashes -- Closer even hit No. 1. He also sang with no less intimidating a presence than Barbra Streisand for her 2002 collection, Duets. (''She is the person I absolutely look up to when it comes to staying true to what you want,'' he says. ``She's somebody who made her mark by not letting anybody tell her who she is.'')
Thing is, Groban, 23, is doing all of this with minimal radio support for his crossover classical pop and is doing so in an era when being able to sing on key is less important than acting as if you've just invented sex. Groban also sings in English, French and Italian.
Many of his fans may have no clue what he's singing on tracks like Mi Mancherai (Il Postino), Si Volvieras a Mi, Alla Luce Del Sole or Hymne a L'amour, but they are responding nonetheless. Not even the Three Tenors have sold albums like this young man.
Groban, calling from his Los Angeles home, is as taken aback by his popularity as we are.
''It blows my mind a bit. We all have big dreams but, being a realist, whenever these dreams come true it's like a shocker for me,'' he says, unfailingly polite.
If this level of success is going to turn Groban into a male diva, it apparently hasn't happened yet. Talking with him on the phone is like catching up with a pal and finding out what he did over summer vacation.
``It's been such an incredible last couple years. It takes sitting back and looking back and appreciating.''
There will be time for that later. Now, it's sing, kid, sing.
''Things are so fickle,'' he says. ``There's a golden mike in front of my mouth now and I have to sing into it or it will be passed over.''
Groban says he came from a musical family -- Dad played trumpet in college, Mom was an art teacher. His love of music -- he's a fan of Bjrk, he says -- was instilled in him as a child. His breakthrough came when he sang To Where You Are on a 9/11-themed episode of the defunct TV series Ally McBeal. The performance catapulted Groban commercially and also led to comparisons with Celine Dion. It was hardly unexpected when you saw Groban strolling down the red carpet on opening night to catch Dion's Las Vegas spectacle last year.
Both share a fondness for producers David Foster and Walter Afanasieff and their windblown arrangements, both are multilingual vocalists, and both can be given to overblown performances. Groban's current single, with its swelling strings section, is the gushy ballad, You Raise Me Up. We're surprised Dion didn't get to it first. Or maybe she did with the similar Because You Loved Me eight years ago.
Despite the influence of Foster's heavy hand in the producer's booth, Groban insists he is in charge when he records his music.
''When I make an album I take a lot of risks,'' Groban says. ``I ignore the trends of the moment and one of the things I have to think of when making an album like this is the honesty of it. To connect. It goes against the grain. It's nice to know I can go against the grain.''
Groban cowrote Per Te, Remember When It Rained and Never Let Go from Closer. Producing himself could be next.
``I would love to. ... As soon as I do a vocal I'm there in the booth scrutinizing every moment of the song.''
Just in case you're curious, Groban is not fluent in the romance languages in which he sings. ''I took Japanese in high school,,'' he says. ``I'm studying French and Spanish . . . I love learning them for the song's sake. I work on pronunciation as much as possible. There is such a beauty to these languages; they are as musical as the music itself.''
It's actually his native tongue that gives him the most trouble.
``English is sometimes the hardest for me to remember onstage. I studied the foreign languages so much [the lyrics] are embedded in my head. With English, sometimes I have a brain fart.''
So far, few are complaining.
''The 15 minutes before the show is the slowest it could possibly be,'' Groban says, his youthful enthusiasm showing. ``When it is time and you hit the stage it's two hours before you know it. It's definitely a high. The bus ride to the next city, [sitting there] playing video games is a bummer.''