Groban Isn't Rock But He Is On a Roll
September 1, 2004
By Tom Harrison
Josh Groban would be the first to admit that his music isn't rock 'n' roll, but that doesn't mean there is no rock 'n' roll in his background or that he has blinders on.
"I paid my dues," he insists during a day off from a tour that brings him tonight to Vancouver, a city with which he grew acquainted thanks to producer, and former Vancouverite, David Foster. Before his successful career as a purveyor of art songs, Groban played bars in rock bands and will sit in on drums during his shows. During a lively interview, he'll mention Wilco or any other act that indicates he is aware.
Art songs, though, might not adequately describe what Groban does. His second album, Closer, is punctuated by pop that is Italian or French in origin. Perhaps if Groban did an album of Belgian Jacques Brel's songs he'd be admired as a modern Scott Walker and the "art songs" label would fit better. Groban, however, handily out-sells the reclusive, obscure Walker and his singing in a foreign language is utterly convincing whereas many English-speaking singers, who have tried singing in Italian or French, are not.
"No," Groban agrees. "It's one of the reasons I wanted to do it. I love languages. In school, I studied Japanese, which is the toughest language to learn. I love diving into the homework. You have to believe it with your entire body."
The multi-platinum achievements of Josh Groban's two albums might be indicative of a public thirst for something different, which might explain the unexpected popularity of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, the eventual breakout of Norah Jones, the posthumous successes of Eva Cassidy or Israel Kamakawiwo'ole.
"I agree. Music listeners are much more keen," says Groban. "They're aware that they're being force-fed. I'm glad that people are discovering the music on their own."
The implication is that Groban always knew there was a place for him. He knew what he wanted to do.
"Well, I think with the first album, I found beautiful music right off the bat. Having a clear idea really helped. With each song I had a different vision in mind. I wanted a good story. There are different stories in different languages."
And if song publishers open their catalogs to thousands of English songs, there are thousands more in other languages. Groban's success assures that.
"It's much better," Groban agrees. "It's much easier to find songs. Being able to get that opens me up incredibly."
Now, he is writing his own music.
"It was easier than I thought it would be," he confesses. "So, on the first album, I wrote as much as possible and let them (David Foster, et al.) do the rest."
From L.A., Josh Groban grew up with an interest in musical theatre, citing Broadway's Mandy Patinkin as a hero. He was discovered by Foster when the producer needed a singer to fill in for Andrea Bocelli at the rehearsals for the 1999 Grammy Awards. Being at the right place at the right time led to a mass of good fortune (meeting Celine Dion and Rosie O'Donnell) and ultimately to Foster producing his first record.
"By the time I was reaching the end of the first album I realized I had learned so much." Groban says. "That lasted for three seconds. I realized then that there still was a lot more to learn."
One thing he learned was to be true to himself. If romantic, quasi-operatic ballads were what he wanted to do, then that was the way to go. It wasn't the way the recording industry was going, but what the hell? Now, however, the recording industry wants more Josh Grobans. For his part, Josh Groban just will seek good stories and sing them as straight as possible.
"Tricks wouldn't last a second," he acknowledges. "I'm a bad liar. This is me; this is honest."