04 May, 2011

Q & A...

Here's yet another great interview from Mike Diver and the BBC Music Blog.

Artist: Josh Groban
Album: Illuminations
Recommended by: Loose Ends, Edith Bowman's Album Show

Since releasing his debut album in 2001 (after singing beside the likes of Elton John and Stevie Wonder!), Los Angeles-born singer Josh Groban has gone on to sell over 24 million albums worldwide. Balancing on the fine line between easy listening and pop with occasional classical leanings, his songs have reached a wide variety of audiences. With his latest collection, Illuminations, Groban has set his sights on UK listeners like never before - you might well have caught him guest presenting Never Mind The Buzzcocks in 2010. The album, produced by Rick Rubin, also marks the first time Groban has co-written his own material. Clearly, the man is stepping up a few gears and moving into a new stage of his career. We caught up with him on a recent promo tour, at his London hotel...
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So it seems, from where UK observers are sat, that this record represents something of a push into the British market. Is the idea at the moment to take your huge stateside success and try to plant some of it on this side of the Atlantic? It already feels like this is your most successful record here, though I've not seen any figures...
I'm the same - I've not seen the figures but this does feel like it's my biggest record here so far. And I think, in my head, there's been a concerted effort to reach UK audiences since album one - but it had to happen a certain way in the United States, and certain stars have simply lined up. This time around TV shows, over here, have given me the time of day. There have been a number of things with this campaign which made us think: the spaghetti against the wall approach is actually working, you know? It's sticking this time. So before I'd be saying, "What, one appearance and then we fly back?" That's not how you break an artist. This time, though, I've been able to do several things on each visit. And also, I've made it a priority within my team to do whatever we can. My sleeves are rolled up for this album, so I said: "I'm ready to work." I know I'll get exhausted, and I know I can't be everywhere at once, but I must've been here six or seven times for this album, so I'm really happy to see that the hard work is paying off.
Illuminations seems to have been really well received in the UK, critically. Is that some sort of vindication, after knocking on the door here so many times and getting turned away, at least in terms of reviews?
I think so, yeah. You can't force anyone to accept you, or take you in as their own. In the States it started with the music, and then I had to show people that I was a real boy, a real human being too.
You were rather thrown into the deep end in the States, of course.
Very much so. Everything exploded for me. And I think the luxury of breaking the UK step by step, year by year, peeling away the layers of the onion, has enabled people to see who I am first, and then introduce them to my music second. It's been great to go on shows like ...Buzzcocks, and Graham Norton's show, and be myself. I love that this country has been more open to accepting this image, of a well-rounded person, rather than someone who just does this one thing.
It must have taken you a while to make yourself heard, around and shortly after the first few albums. I imagine everyone was telling you to do this, to sing that... You were only 19 when the debut came out, so it must have been a very dizzying, confusing but exciting time for you.
Yes. First of all, I was terrified. Nothing can prepare you for that sort of pressure, for going from blissful anonymity to the flavour of the whatever... People knew my name, and immediately began to judge me. I can understand why certain people go off the deep end. I was lucky - even in the States, when things were blowing up for me, I was never a hyped artist, or a press darling. I was never made to feel like a God among men in the States; it was always a case of me having a connection with my fans, and everyone else was kind of dismissive. I think, when I look back in hindsight, that kept me really grounded, and feeling like I should keep doing what's real, as the superficial stuff isn't paying me any attention. All I had was the music and the fans, so that kept things going the right way.
By not being everyone's flavour of the month, you seem to have achieved success through being that somebody's flavour instead. It's quite an unusual approach, by today's standards. The National, maybe, are the last band I can think of who've achieved a high level of success very slowly, over here.
Well, I never expect to be the one at a big party who everyone is stopping to turn to look at; but I always have the silent satisfaction that I've usually sold more records than anyone else at the same party. (Laughs) You know, I'm kinda like a silent assassin. I've kept my head down, flown under the radar, and quietly had a really successful career. For me, that's the best of all worlds. I don't have to worry about paparazzi, and I can make albums that I know my fans will want to hear all of - which is today's market is a real blessing. And if people turn their heads, then they turn their heads. There's still a long way to go, but at least some people are listening now. It's an old-school approach, you know. Slippery When Wet was Bon Jovi's third album - nowadays, nobody would have waited that long. For me, to take 10 years to break the UK... are you kidding? I'm lucky, as most people wouldn't even get 15 minutes. In the old days you could grow from album to album, so I feel really lucky to have been able to take my time.
Do you think if you'd exploded into popularity now, but didn't impact on the UK relatively simultaneously, that you'd have the chance to work slowly over here?
Yes, 100%. The business has changed so much since I started - albeit through no fault of the people who work at my label. It's just a bottom line thing, and everyone's working with a gun to their head. And that isn't conducive to real creative growth. There's a lot of pressure. I'd go so far to say that even if I'd had a hit single on the first album, if the album itself didn't perform to the standards expected today, I'd never get the chance to do a second one. But again, I've been very lucky to have so much support from my fans. I've seen at least two or three regime changes at the label, so to still be around is quite something.
When making this album, did you think that there'd be people picking it apart, only downloading certain tracks?
Well, this is where having the real, diligent focus of Rick Rubin was very helpful. I think he is an amazing grounding force to some amazing personalities that he works with. I needed someone to focus me - I was getting a little scattered by the business and was starting to freak out a little bit. I'd just done a Christmas record (2007's Noël) which I didn't think would do anything, but that was exploding. So, creatively, after that, where could I go? I was a bit confused. But I managed to relax, and realised that I didn't need to make an album out of pressure, or out of fear. When I first started talking to Rick, it seemed so odd on paper - but what we shared was actually genre. Even in his old interviews, when asked about hip hop and heavy metal, he didn't get into those worlds to be an impresario; he sees genres that he thinks he can somehow change for the better. So he came to this genre, and saw things he liked and other things he did not. So he was excited about taking a risk in working with me, and I was excited to have him in my ear. So I think having him, instead of several producers on one record, just eagle-eyeing it to make sure we stayed at a consistent level, was really helpful.
You look at the gap between albums on paper and it seems a long time - your last studio LP proper came out in 2006. Did Illuminations take longer than any other album in your career to come together?
Well, I toured a lot. If you don't do your homework, which I should have done, then you're on tour for a long time, and you come off without having written anything new. Now that I am writing a lot more, that's changed - I write everywhere, whether I'm touring or not. Rick and I had a prolonged getting-to-know-you period. We both wanted it to happen, but didn't want to force anything. Early on, we were not pleased with what was coming out of the speakers. His programmers and engineers are among the best in the business, but they're not able to make you sound that good if you weren't already. They will use their expertise to make the cleanest sound, but you have to sound good on top of that. I think there are a lot of proactive producers who get off on taking something rough and moulding it to their style, putting too much of themselves into it in the process, but Rick is all about the artist earning their face on the front of the record. So we went into a dry room, and if we weren't comfortable that day you could hear it on the track. So we rehearsed lots, and really worked on the arrangements - when, when we came to record, it was like a performance at Carnegie Hall. We'd made ourselves ready in the right way.
Did you feel that the best-of, 2008's The Collection, was a good way of effectively closing the first chapter of your career, now that you're writing your own material and working in a different way?
Definitely. My best-of thing here was a bit different to a lot of peoples' best-ofs - to them, such a release comes after they've peaked, but for me it was a way of introducing myself. But it was also a way to say goodbye to a part of my musical career - these are songs that I am proud of, and that will always be a part of what I do, but now it's time to move on and do something different. So it did feel like a changing of chapters of sorts.
Did Rick introduce you to much new music?
Oh yeah. Many of our early meetings were just listening sessions. We'd sit down at his house by the water, with this great speaker system, and go through tonnes of songs, mining them for ideas as well as simply listening for pleasure. We went through so many songs, through world music and rock... When we came across Straight to You, the Nick Cave song, we thought: "Wow, what a lyric, what a message... What a darkly dramatic opus". He suggested we do this arrangement of it, and I wasn't sure. With a cover song, you have to stay clear of just stylising it in a certain way, to tick a box. Rick was confident I could make it my own - he told me to not listen to Cave's version at all, once the decision was made, and instead just focus on the words and how I could interpret them. When we got together with James Newton Howard, to arrange it at Capitol Records, we had this demo but I was still terrified to perform it in front of everyone. What would the musicians think? But when we finished the first take, everyone tapped their instruments to say, there's something special here. That was the first song we recorded, and we always knew it would finish the album. And it was great to get a message from Nick Cave, via Rick, that he liked it.
Finally, what are your favourite albums of the year so far? Since Illuminations came out last year, I'll let any 2010 releases stand...
Oh man... Well, I listened to the new Adele record last night, and it's beautiful. Rick worked on that at the same time he was working on my album, so it was fun to hear how they each shaped up. She's also done a lot of writing with Dan Wilson, who I worked with a lot on Illuminations. I loved The National's album of last year, and was thrilled that Arcade Fire did so well at the Grammy Awards. It's a wonderful thing to see a band do things the right way, to come from grassroots to the radio, to worldwide success. It's a little like what Muse have achieved in the States. There's a lot of good stuff out there right now... Lykke Li I just listened to, as we were in Dublin at the same time. I think she's on the verge of really breaking big. I loved the last Neil Young record, Le Noise, too.

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