How Josh Groban wrote his own playbook

It’s easy to poke fun at what is sometimes called adult contemporary music, or to roll your eyes at traditional pop singers like Céline Dion or Michael Bublé.

This likely stems from the fact that we’re not entirely comfortable consuming art that is so earnest and devoid of irony, at least not outside of the soundproofed walls of a private karaoke room.

On paper, Josh Groban — an operatic vocalist with a boyish mop of hair and a penchant for over-the-top show tunes — seems like a perfect target for this type of snark. And yet, since he rose to prominence over two decades ago with his epic, chart-topping rendition of “You Raise Me Up,” Groban has cultivated a remarkably affable and self-effacing public persona.

Chatting on the phone with the Star ahead of his show at the Budweiser Stage in Toronto, Groban was kind and easygoing — just an everyday guy who happens to have the velvety voice of an angel.

“It’s just about trying to be a full human being in this business,” he explained. “Sometimes people are pressured to not show all sides of themselves … A lot of the time you’re only seeing 25 per cent of your favourite artist.

“I love what I sing, and I feel very passionate and very earnest about the music. That being said, I’m also a complete weirdo who loves comedy and who loves theatre.”

Indeed, now in his early 40s and set to embark on a North American tour in support of his ninth studio album, “Harmony,” Groban has had a remarkably well-rounded career: in addition to selling over 35 million records worldwide, including three No. 1 albums, he’s also appeared on Broadway, nabbing a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical for his performance in “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.” Over the years, he’s hammed it up on countless late-night talk shows and appeared in dozens of TV shows and movies.

(For reference, check out his dramatic performance of Kanye West tweets on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” or his role as Emma Stone’s clueless boyfriend in the 2011 rom-com “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” He also appeared in the beloved sitcom “The Office,” playing Andy Bernard’s more successful younger brother.)

“There is light and dark in everything and in everybody,” he said. “I think that we sometimes make the mistake of needing to wrap people up in very tight packages in order to understand them. And that is, I think, a pitfall sometimes in journalism and when it comes to the public perception of an artist.”

Groban traces his ability to balance the various facets of his career back to his early days as a teenager working with David Foster, the legendary Canadian producer, composer and music executive.

“We decided we wouldn’t think about any trends or what was on the radio. We just wanted me to be me. And that could be all of these things at once,” he said. “David’s thing to me was always that you’ve got to compete with yourself, and you’ve got to hold onto the specialness and the nuance in your voice. It’s not about being perfect, but having uniqueness — about being the kind of voice that you can hear in a crowded restaurant and, in five seconds, you can say: ‘That’s Josh.’”

As legend goes, executives at Warner Bros. were originally hesitant to sign Groban to a record deal, over concerns that “they wouldn’t be able to get a voice like that on the radio.” Foster, moved by Groban’s voice — which sits somewhere between a baritone and a tenor — and his natural ability to navigate between pop, rock and classics, vouched for the 16-year-old. His 2001 debut record, which contained mostly classics, went multi-platinum.

“The good news is that when you’re dismissed for a while, they don’t know you’re writing your own playbook. So at some point you’re able to kind of say, well, there’s all these things that I’m now able to do because I was never offered into the trend. So I got to make my own way.”

Released late in 2020, Groban’s latest output, “Harmony,” is primarily a covers album. It includes 10 reinterpretations of classic pop songs, from Frank Sinatra’s “The World We Knew (Over and Over)” to Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” to Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Groban also teamed up with Broadway star Leslie Odom Jr. for a cover of Sting’s “Shape of My Heart” and gospel singer Kirk Franklin for an original track titled “The Fullest.”

Partially recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic, “Harmony” is a comforting — if occasionally bland — collection of music, which provides Groban fans with a familiar space of refuge and solace during a time of distress. Like a warm bath or a tight squeeze from an old friend.

“We made a very different classic song album than we would have, had the pandemic not happened,” Groban said. “The songs that wound up rising to the top were those that I either needed to write or needed to hear. They were songs about perspective. They were songs about balance. They were songs about holding on to the light in times of darkness. And it was incredible, you know, being in a studio singing these songs that I had heard for my entire life and hearing them anew, hearing it with fresh ears, with all that was going on.”

Groban admits he gets paranoid before recording covers, but gives credit to Canadian musician Bernie Herms, who arranged many of the songs on “Harmony.”

“Arrangers give you the pallet to say, ‘OK, this is something I think I can do and I can do differently.’ But I always have to wear my tight pants in the studio with Bernie because he’s always going to make me go for crazy high notes when I least expect it.

The album also includes a new rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” which Groban sings as a duet with Sara Bareilles. Though the original version was recorded over half a century ago, Groban said the song has never felt more relevant.

“The tragic and unusual thing about what we’ve all been through … is that path that we were so comfortably on got shattered to a million different paths. I can’t imagine a time where more people wouldn’t be feeling that sense that Joni was writing about — thinking about life and love and clouds, and it turns out every time you think you have an answer, there’s another question.”

Groban pointed out that his favourite version of “Both Sides Now” is actually the orchestral version arranged by Vince Mendoza and re-recorded by Mitchell in 2000, when she was in her mid-60s.

“To me, that’s the most powerful version of that song, because it comes from the perspective of having that wisdom,” he said.

“You just keep learning and you keep growing and adding more perspective to your life’s tool belt. And hopefully you continue to get a little bit of a clear answer in the many shades, in the many colours that make up the nuance of life.”

For his Tuesday performance in Toronto, Groban will be joined by the legendary New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band, with support from violinist and singer Lucia Micarelli and singer-songwriter Eleri Ward.

Like many performers, he says he’s thrilled to be back onstage, despite the uncertainty that still plagues the live music industry. In fact, Groban contracted COVID-19 just days before rehearsals for the tour began.

“It took me a couple of shows before I felt like I was back to (a point where) the audience would have no idea,” he said. “But inside I was walking on a tightrope walk, just trying to get through it.”

Now that he’s back to “100 per cent,” Groban said he and his band are having some of the most fun they’ve ever had.

“For all of us there is just this kind of looseness,” he explained. “Everybody was so battered and bruised by the last couple of years that we all just feel very healed when we’re together. And so in that regard, these shows are just pure connection.”


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