Singing Phenomenon Josh Groban on Life, Love and ‘Lullaby’ Hello! (Canada Edition)
November 20, 2006
By Nicholas Jennings
Josh, who lived with his family until recently, counts Oprah among his earliest and biggest supporters. His road to fame came quickly after he was discovered by Canadian producer David Foster and performed on the 2001 season finale of Ally McBeal.
With his tousled brown hair, matching brown eyes and aw-shucks demeanor, Josh Groban doesn’t seem anything like a multimillion-selling pop artist. Dressed in jeans, sneakers and army-surplus-style sweater, the singer with the golden operatic baritone comes across like the local grocery clerk or the neighbourhood math whiz – more boy next door than global superstar. Yet Josh, who has sung for presidents, princes and kings, the Vatican, the Oscars and the Olympics, is every bit the international phenomenon. His first two albums have sold more than 13 million copies worldwide. He has recorded with Barbra Streisand and Sarah Brightman and performs sold-out concerts wherever he goes – to mostly female fans, many old enough to be his mother.
The Los Angeles-born singer was discovered by Canadian producer David Foster, who had Josh perform with Celine Dion as a stand-in for Andrea Bocelli at a rehearsal for the 1999 Grammy Awards. After signing with David’s 146 Records label, Josh began making his mark with the rich, romantic style showcased in several languages on his self-titled debut album and the follow-up, Closer. His breakthrough came initially through TV, most notably as the Malcolm Wyatt character who sang in the 2001 season finale of Ally McBeal. His popularity was further boosted by his own PBS concert special.
Although fame came fast to Josh, who boasts a large network of fans called “Grobanites,” the 25-year-old singer remains unusually unaffected. Until recently, he still lived with his parents and his brother. His only pop-star trappings have been his relationship with the actress January Jones, which ended earlier this year, and his purchase three years ago of a Porsche 911 Carrera. On the eve of the release of his third album, Awake, Hello! Sat down to talk with the boyish singer about his career, his charity and his obsession with video games.
Your breakthrough came in a most unusual way.
Finding a mass audience for that first album was a huge challenge, because without MTV or, at that time, any radio support, it was a big question mark. Oprah was one of my earliest and biggest supporters. I also appeared on the show 20/20. The next week [my album] went from No. 120 on the charts to No. 11. Singing for two billion people at the Olympics didn’t affect my record sales. I was still a complete unknown. I started wondering, “What does it take?” Then that 20/20 program came along and all the light bulbs switched on and that was that.
Does it surprise you how big you’ve become?
It’s incredible, but the potential’s also there for it to become formulaic. I didn’t want to rest on that success. I thought, “OK, if this is becoming a kind of sub-genre, how do I form my specific identity so people don’t think of me as a genre, but just think of me as me?” One of the things I did was try more writing on my new album. I wrote four songs and was involved in the production of three tracks.
You’ve always made a point of signing in Spanish, Italian and French, as well as English.
Yeah, and that’s probably why people always say I do opera, yet I’ve actually never done a song from the opera repertoire. Foreign languages are so beautiful and very musical. To me, it’s far more important to get the emotional message across and make people feel something, whether they understand the words or not, than to sing in a language I know they’ll get but not necessarily feel.
Tell me about the new song “Lullaby,” which you co-wrote with Dave Matthews.
That came about because of another song that I found in South Africa called “Weeping” that I did on this album. That song just floored me when I heard it. It was written as a protest song by a guy named Dan Heymann, who was a soldier under the apartheid regime. It’s about connecting with our common humanity and not forgetting that we’re all human beings. Then I thought that if I’m doing that song for adults, I want to write a song for the kids, so that’s how Dave and I came up with “Lullaby.”
Was it inspired by your trip to South Africa?
Exactly. I met Nelson Mandela and went to Soweto, where I met all these children. When you see them, you see the hope that they have and the positive energy they have for the future. You walk away just completely in awe.
Speaking of awe, I gather that you’re a fan of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who joined you on those two songs.
Yes, they’re amazing. We recorded with them in California and New York where, it turned out, other South African musicians from the Graceland album were working with Paul Simon. So we wound up recording with them as well. Paul came and listened to the track. He’s one of my biggest idols, so that was a huge thrill. Now, I’m ruined. It’s something I want to explore more deeply.
Yes, there’s no question that classical styles and world styles and pop music c an blend really easily. The people I’ve always been inspired by, like Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel, have never been afraid to tap into those sounds. I feel that we’re in an exciting time where people are ready to accept all sorts of music.
Is there a Broadway production in your future?
I’ve always loved rock acts like Queen that weren’t afraid to go grand in a brilliant way. I’d love to do something on Broadway myself, but it will have to wait for now.
How do you spend your down time?
[Laughing] Playing video games, mostly.
I’m not as much of a nut about them as I used to be. But everything’s so crazy that I’ve got to just veg out when I’m not working. It helps you recharge your batteries. My mom will say to me, “Just calm down, hang up the phone, turn off your computer, go get into a video game and chill out.” And it’s true.
Do you still drive your Porsche?
I’m actually thinking of trading the Porsche in for a Prius. I’ve been very inspired by the movie An Inconvenient Truth. I think it’s time to make the sacrifices to do things for the better. I did buy a house in Malibu recently, but I’ve been generally pretty conservative with money.
You contribute a lot to your own Josh Groban Foundation.
My fans are tremendous. They’ve really helped me get my foundation off the ground. They’ve auctioned off autographs, made things like blankets and cookbooks. So far, they’ve raised over $250,000. The foundation keeps me involved, along with my parents, who are helping me with it. There are about seven or eight charitable organizations that we’re channeling money to, but in times of an unexpected crisis like [hurricane] Katrina, we obviously focus on those situations as well.
Your female fans will want to know if you’re single or attached right now.
I’m single at the moment.
That’ll be good news to them.
[Laughs] Well, it would be good news if I had any time to date.
And if you did have time, where would you take your date?
Probably to the zoo [Laughs]. I love zoos. Or just out for a walk. I love exploring and having little adventures. I like to get out of the hotel and walk around. When you’re in a great city like Toronto or London, it’s easy to find cool little areas to shop or just sit and have a glass of wine. That’s something I really like to do.