Josh Groban Talks "Illuminations," "Glee," Rick Rubin and Slipknot
Tue, 19 Oct 2010 08:25:22
Check any pre-conceived notions you might have cultivated about singer Josh Groban at the door.
Groban's soaring, powerhouse voice is influenced by classical music, opera and pop, which, on paper, is a seemingly self-indulgent blend. It's also one that attracts soccer moms and suburbanites and it has served him well, as it has made him one of the best-selling artists of his time.
But Groban and his music aren't limited by such associations, especially since he manages to imbue his songs with warmth and depth, passion and emotion. Moreover, Groban isn't afraid to take risks and walk his musical tightrope without the safety of a net. For Illuminations, due out November 15, Groban partnered up with uber producer Rick Rubin, whose resume is littered with names like Cash (as in Johnny), Diamond (as in Neil), Boys (as in Beastie), Timberlake (as in Justin) and Smith (as in Todd, AKA LL Cool J). Don't forget Slayer and Slipknot, either. All in all, the Groban/Rubin union was a pairing that caused raised eyebrows and had fans of both artist scratching their heads.
While Rubin works a vast array of artists, none fall into the same realm as Groban. The anomalous pairing is what makes Illuminations a magical experience that fills your ears with Groban's so-pretty-it-hurts vocals without too much polish or nary any sterile or icy chill.
Groban spoke to ARTISTdirect's Amy Sciarretto on a rainy evening from the confines of his new Manhattan residence. He was earth, funny and candid and revealed his improv past; an astute understanding of his fanbase; his guest spot on Glee; returning a favor to Slipknot; and how it's the character of the song itself that takes him to that place where he can sing with more emotion than a championship game in one of the major sports.
Visit JoshGroban.com to keep update on the Groban goings on!
What is your current location? Didn't you recently move to NYC?
I am in New York, semi-permanently. I moved here last month. It's different.
There's a lot of noise to adjust to as part of the culture shock, huh?
If the noise was a problem, I'd not have moved here. I am the person who needs to sleep with a fan on at night, so a little noise is comforting, you know?
Did you know that Corey Taylor, the singer of Slipknot and Stone Sour, loves you!
The Slipknot guys are awesome. They are actually really cool guys and I think [Corey] wore a t-shirt of mine on stage as a joke and I have yet to reciprocate the favor. I need to wear a Slipknot t-shirt at one of my concerts.
Will you really adorn yourself with a Slipknot tee?
Hell yeah! I absolutely will. Fair is fair. I am loving the cross-species love there, between the two us.
So let's talk about the new album, Illuminations. Your voice is obviously the album's showpiece! I remember Henry Rollins once said something to the effect that Whitney Houston may have a powerhouse voice, but it doesn't move him an inch, suggesting that it lacked the "oomph." I don't get that "lack of oomph" with Illuminations. There is fire there.
Interesting. That's art. Different people are moved by different things. It's beauty and vastness. Somethings are based on chemical makeup or how we were raised, so different things move us in different ways. Whitney Houston might say the same thing about Henry Rollins not moving her an inch, but that doesn't mean they are both not brilliant.
Your voice is just so beautiful and emotive – how do you "get" to that place? Do you have to conjure memories to summon the emotion when you lay down your vocals?
I have a real connection to music. Even as a kid, I found music to be my best and most honest outlet. It was a language I could understand. I was too shy to make friends, but I could remember a melody if I heard it once. I could sit down with a piano and figure it out. It gave me that sense of understanding in a world of misunderstanding.
I do my warm ups so my voice in good shape, but going "there" emotionally and creatively? It is the song that I connect with; it has to hit me when I perform it. It's the song. I can't sing stuff that doesn't move me; I am not a good liar. That's the blueprint. It started with the piano and a dry vocal on this record. If it didn't move Rick or I, then it was not worth the bells and whistles being put on it. We didn't make real noise for a year. We blueprinted these songs. There wasn't the trap of too much self-satisfaction, which is so easy to fall into in the studio world. You get excited about a song and you are close to it, and you think, 'Wait till we throw bells and whistles on this' and you listen to it in the car for a week, thinking, 'This is the greatest thing I've ever done' and then you play it for someone…and it doesn't connect. You can't be like, 'If this only had those French horns on it, it'd be different.' That's a crutch. We were just playing melodies and lyrics. If Rick and I looked at each other, and didn't think, 'Wow, that's freaking awesome,' we didn't bother having it arranged.
Can you give us a good story about working with Rick Rubin? Any insight into the man who has worked with everyone from Slayer to Neil Diamond to the Beastie Boys? Since Justin Timberlake and Josh Groban couldn't be more different?
In the past, producers I worked with seemed, from a journalistic standpoint, to be 'right in the wheelhouse of what Josh does.' When I said I was working with Rick, people were scratching their heads. People were like, 'Wait, he hasn't worked with Celine Dion! What is Josh doing?' Rick happened naturally, unexpectedly and organically. We were introduced by a music friend, Guy Oseary, who said he could hook up a meeting. The idea was to get two people in a room and talk.
I am a huge rock and folk and country fan and I am a fan of Rick, sonically, like what he brings out. When a record has the Rick Rubin stamp, I know I am hearing the best record that artist has ever made. Keeping genres aside, I was intrigued how he gets records made.
He appears like he'd be an intimidating figure, with his long and furry beard and the glasses. There's a bit of a mystique to Mr. Rubin.
He is intimidating and you are left with the mythology if you don't see him. When I met him, I gave him a hug, and could see why so many artists love working with him. He is one of few guys in industry who has had all this success and worked with so many legends, but not one ounce of him has gone to the dark side of the industry. He is not thinking one bit cynically or commercially. He can do whatever he wants, but he still does things the 100 percent right way. That is so refreshing. He never did a record like mine so we decided to take the plunge together and go out of our comfort zones. It was a big risk for him to work with me and for me to work with him and we were both excited by that risk. It was not for money but the fact we were both interested in what each other did. Two years later, we made a record that would surprise people in how 'not different' it is. Rick made a Josh record!
What did he bring out of you that was new for you?
He liked the singing and orchestration on my other records, but he didn't like the fluff. We did things in one take, in the same room, recorded in same way that he did Neil [Diamond] or Johnny [Cash].
He produced Slipknot's Vol. 3: (The Subliminal Verses). He can probably get you that t-shirt!
That's true [laughs!] It's come full circle. I can guest on the next Slipknot record, since they could use one more drummer.
Who is a Josh Groban fan? A lot of people assume it's just mature women that buy your records. Is that a misconception? Can Illuminations attract a younger audience?
My fanbase is not just people who are knee deep in cats anymore! [Laughs] It is amazing to me. Here is the thing: I started out, with stuff on PBS and on Oprah, and I was on a lot of things that were geared towards older female audience, which is wonderful. I have such a wonderful fanbase and they have not gone anywhere, and thank God that they haven't! The more I've been comfortable, with having a mature voice and being a 29-year-old guy who happens to like this kind of music and exploring the classical element… at one point, I had to assume there are others out there like me and if I be myself, others will follow.
The last five years were a great time, doing what is exciting for me. I love meeting fans from all walks of life; I always want to keep the diehards and continue to expand my fanbase without alienating my fans. I am so proud of those fans that have been with me from the beginning. They created a community that he defied radio, critics and the MTV nation, by being grassroots. They make music fun for me.
Let's do a quick 'Josh's Guide to Listening to the Record.' Take us through like two of the songs you want fans to check out first.
"Higher Window." All the love songs are written in the grey area of love, where you experience great love and you are thinking cheesily, and all the sudden, the big love ballads make sense to you, after years of being cynical about them. I was not in a love song mood; I was in a mood for the imperfect moments. For me, it's not the happy ending, but about being undeniably magnetized in an imperfect situation.
On the opposite side of the scale is "War at Home." It came again from a trip to Walter Reade Hospital in DC, where I was talking to soldiers. Theirs is a struggle we ignore as a country -- the veterans who come home and fight battles for rest of their lives.
How was it appearing on Glee and will you make a return appearance?
We'll see. As everyone says, that's up to [creator] Ryan Murphy. It was fun to do it last year. I was playing myself, so the writers have to have a reason why I'd fly to a high school in Ohio. If they figure something out, it'd be a pleasure to do it again.
A lot of artists are refusing to let Glee use their music. What do you think about that? On one hand, it can put an artist on the pop culture map. On the other, the show is reaching such massive mainstream levels that might not gel with some artists with more "indie" mindsets.
The show has reached the pinnacle of pop stardom, which is not so rock 'n' roll, but even so, turning down Glee is like cutting your nose off to spite your face.
Are you and Rick Rubin friends now?
We are great friends now. It's a real connection. It was a wonderful experience. When's the next one?
You also worked on a film with Steve Carrell. Are you comfortable with comedy?
I started in improv comedy and then got into serious singing. It's a fun movie. It's heartfelt and the script is incredible. I play Emma Stone's fiancée, which was not too shabby. They let me go loose and be funny and improvise and have fun. It's coming out next year and is called Crazy Stupid Love. Ryan Gosling and Julianne Moore are also in it. I have a couple of scenes.
What's it with all your big voices having comedy backgrounds? Michael Buble also has a comedic past.
Everyone has light and dark and it's always fun for the opportunity.
Are you excited for Josh Groban's new album?
Check out our "Rogue on Rogue" feature with Corey Taylor of Slipknot and Stone Sour and Wes Craven here!