Josh Groban Wakes Up the Music Biz
Detroit Free Press
February 23, 2007
By Brian McCollum
Groban performed Tuesday in Grand Rapids on a tour to promote his new album, "Awake."
For a little insight into his success, Josh Groban can glance at his own iPod.
It's an eclectic lot of music: albums by British rockers Thom Yorke and Keane, tracks by hip-hoppers Jay-Z and Common, the new Red Hot Chili Peppers. A typically diverse slate of tastes for a young music fan in 2007.
It points to a big reason that Groban's classical pop has managed to find a thriving niche among pop audiences. He has been aided by a catch-all Internet that lifts genres once shut out from the mainstream. Groban concedes that his music likely wouldn't have flourished a decade ago, before technology allowed fans to signal that "there was an open-mindedness to different sounds, that radio and MTV weren't god and that a whole audience out there was being underserved."
"The digital world has helped me a great deal," says Groban, who will turn 26 on Tuesday. "The nice thing about it is the younger people in the digital world are doing the digital thing, but the older audience is still out buying the albums."
These are good times for the Los Angeles-born vocalist. His latest Warner Brothers release, "Awake," has sold 1.5 million copies since its November release, according to Nielsen Soundscan. Last weekend, he embarked on one of the new year's biggest tours, a two-month North American run that stops tonight at the Palace of Auburn Hills, this time with a full band and minus the orchestras that backed him on prior outings. He calls it a "fun, high-energy show, more of a pop show with a classical influence."
With his fluid baritone and a repertoire that makes equal room for Italian opera and "American Idol"-ready ballads -- including his global smash "You Raise Me Up" -- Groban has proved to be a reliable hit. His 2001 debut album, propelled by a cameo on television's "Ally McBeal," eventually moved 4.7 million copies. And 2003's "Closer," boosted by appearances on the Super Bowl and "The Oprah Winfrey Show," cemented his stock in the music world, selling 5.2 million copies and placing him at the front of the blossoming adult-pop phenomenon.
"I don't think audiences change much. Good music is good music," says Groban. "What changed is the business' willingness to let those artists into its world. We're in a time now where the big business is deciding that this can be sold, that it's profitable. It's nice to know that jazz music and classical music and orchestral music and world pop music are getting just as much in record sales and having just as much relevance."
Groban -- quietly thoughtful but inescapably confident in conversation -- defiantly rejects the notion that his music is groomed for older listeners, pointing to his sizable college-age following.
"I'll read these articles -- 'Oh, he's got all the moms,' " Groban says. "Well, OK, explain a sold-out concert at Madison Square Garden."
For Groban, the road to international stardom began at the Interlochen Arts Academy in northern Michigan. A "lonely kid dreaming about the arts" and a career in musical theater, Groban was into a second summer at Interlochen when his vocal coach introduced him to pop producer David Foster.
"There's no way I could have foreseen this," says Groban, looking back. "I really had simple ambitions for what I was given talent-wise -- I wanted to do theater, get up onstage, no matter how big, and interpret songs. Being discovered by David Foster totally flipped my world around. Here was this guy who had won 14 Grammys, at the top of the music industry. Here I'm this gawky teenage kid with a big booming voice that's the epitome of everything that's not considered pop music. It had not even been a possibility to me."
Groban's potent voice may be his meal ticket, but Foster has been crucial to the ride, serving as the singer's entry into the pop world and producing his breakthrough work. He was at Groban's side as work on the new album approached.
"Awake," which bowed at No. 2 on Billboard's album chart, is a twist on the standard Groban template. The inspirational balladry and classical fare come laced with drums and contributions from such guests as Dave Matthews, Herbie Hancock and art-rocker Imogen Heap. It's familiar enough to be comfortable for longtime fans, but ambitious enough to satisfy Groban's own restlessness.
The album came at a critical point in his career, says Groban, who confronted a pair of conflicting forces: a determination not to lapse into formula and a sense of duty to the classical crossover world he'd helped cultivate.
"Going into this album was really kind of scary," he says. "I figured out immediately that not only was it going to be daunting, it was going to be really risky because I wanted to go into some new areas. ... I didn't want to abandon the hand that feeds me, but it felt like it was time to have an evolution."
Groban seems intent not to coast. After making his name interpreting the songs of others, he has turned his attention to songwriting; five of his compositions landed on "Awake." And with inspiration from one of his personal favorites, the quirky Icelandic singer-songwriter Bjork, he's aiming to fine-tune his musical approach -- while continuing to bend genres and defy expectations.
"What you hear on the radio -- I don't think it's my calling. I'm not sure that's what my voice is meant to do," says Groban. "But at the same time, what people think of as pop music will change in the next 10 years or so. I'd love to explore with producers, using interesting beats, using my voice in what might not be considered traditional in the Justin Timberlake era. There are so many ways to go in music -- if I can lead my audience slowly in that direction, while doing what they still know and love, it could be a great happy medium for me and my fans."