Josh Groban, the man with the powerhouse tenor and boyish good looks, in the same studio with Rick Rubin, the uber producer with the biker beard and Metallica résumé?
A curious collaboration indeed.
For his fifth studio album, “Illuminations," the 30-year-old Groban was surprised to find himself working with the legendary producer known for his genius with such acts at Linkin Park, Run-D.M.C., Slayer and Johnny Cash – artists that don’t exactly come to mind when you think of Groban’spure, soaring vocals on such pop-classical crossover hits as “You Raise Me Up" or “Awake."
The result was Rubin’s first foray into orchestral music and Groban’s most personal record to date. He co-wrote 11 of the 13 songs (several with Semisonic’s Dan Wilson), and with Rubin’s urging, stripped away some of the pop influences that have marked his previous work. “Illuminations" debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard charts in November, has gone platinum and is fueling Groban’s current arena tour, an intimate production in which he takes questions from the audience via texts each show.
Groban checked in by phone for a quick 10-minute chat to talk about how working with Rubin allowed him to let down that perfectly tousled hair of his, the tough assignment of playing Emma Stone’s fiancé (“a douchebag lawyer") in the ensemblecomedy “Crazy Stupid Love," and how his traveing companion on the tour bus, a Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier named Sweeney, is making his mark all over the country.
You’ve had a few weeks off before the second leg of the Straight to You Tour kicks off Friday. Did you treat the break as your summer vacation, especially now that you’ve recently moved to New York?
Yeah, it is like a summer vacation to me. My schedule when I’m off the road is generally not locked in with everyone else’s schedules. I don’t have a 9-to-5 job. Everybody else has spring break or summer break, but generally I’m in thestudio during that time. I’ve never been able to experience a break when everyone else is experiencing a break, so this is very nice. After finishing 18 shows and being so pleased with how everything has been going, and to come back to New York and just lay out in the park and say, “This is a proper vacation," because I’m terrible at taking those.
I think your fans might have a hard time imagining you and Rick hanging out in the studio together. Can you talk about what that experience was like, both musically and just as a couple of guys?
Nobody was more surprised that we were together than he and I. We met through a mutual friend, and I think the first thing I was taken with when I met him was just how open and kind he was about all kinds of music. I think everybody, even Rick Rubin, can get locked into an image of a certain kind of thing, a certain kind of style. As a couple of guys in the music business, we just had a wonderful two-hour talk the first time we met, without any idea we were ever going to work together. We just became friends.
I mentioned to him I was kind of writing some songs for the next record, and he said, “Well, play them for me. I’d love to give you an ear and give you advice if I can." I thought, “Wow, fantastic. Rick wants to hear my songs. That’d be great." So I took him up on it…
He definitely has a style. His footprint is definitely heard on his records. But we both found it very interesting to figure out what our formula would be. That’s why I think the record took a long time. It’s a square peg in a round hole until it isn’t. We had a great time exploring and figuring out what that pattern would be.
I’ve read that many of the songs on the record were done in a single take. Was that an adjustment for you?
It’s definitely nerve-wracking when you walk into the studio and all the musicians are sitting there, and you’re going to go in there, too, and you’re just going to play. With technology now, sometimes it might sound like everything is happening at once, but it isn’t. Rick’s mentality is sometimes you can do things in a way where it’s more important to capture a moment than it is to perfect a performance. For me, coming from a world that I think has a much more rigid and rehearsed mentality, technique-wise, it was really nice to kind of let my hair down a little and go in there and just kind of feel the room.
Did you set out to write a personal album with “Illuminations," or was it a case of as you’re going through the songwriting process it just turns out to be one because of where you are in your life?
I’m always in the mindset to find or write songs that I feel lyrically I can tell that story. That it’s something I can sympathize with. That it’s something I can relate to and that I can then express. Musically, it’s always important that I feel passionate about a melody or a beat that makes it really interesting to me… I’ve always loved writing three or four songs a record, but with Rick, he really kind of gave me the motto of that he wanted these songs like they were coming from me, not just being presented to me as a vocalist.
It was a lofty task to say, “Go off and write and write and write and write and write." I did it full well knowing songs may not make the record… It wound up being kind of a culmination of all those kinds of personal writing experiences, and so it is a little scary. You wind up putting something out there that feels very vulnerable.
Have you seen your fan base diversify in recent years, especially with you doing things like “Glee" and singing Kanye West tweets on “Jimmy Kimmel Live"? Are you to the point yet of Grobanites, the next generation?
(Laughs.) Like “Star Trek." “Grobanites: The Next Generation." It’s super fun to see when I walk out there. It’s everybody. It’s a huge mixture of people. I don’t think there’s any one stereotype that could be put into the fan base now. It’s nice to see that my fans since day one are still sticking with me, and then it’s very, very cool to see a number of different people I wouldn’t have expected to see on the last tour. It’s about growing without alienating. Certainly being able to do things I think more represent who I am on all sides, like the “Glee" thing or something on Jimmy Kimmel or even making a record with Rick, it’s nice to go out there and feel the energy from people who I assume is their first concert of mine.
So are you prepared to become a huge movie star when “Crazy Stupid Love" opens in theaters later this month?
(Laughs.) I’m excited for it to be released, just because I can’t wait to see it. It’s such a great film. I’m very, very honored to have a little role in it. It was just fun. After spending so many days in the office doing studio work for the record — that kind of wound up being my day to day — to find myself in a film studio where I had so much to learn and everything was kind of awe-inspiring… You want to talk about being able to kind of sit back and learn from the best. I got to work with Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Julianne Moore, who was so nice to me. It was just a dream.
How’s your touring partner Sweeney? Any chance his popularity could eclipse yours at some point?
His audience is growing by leaps and bounds as well. He has an even more diverse crowd than I do, because he also has the animal kingdom. He’s asleep on my floor right now. It’s now kind of a tour tradition for me to have him out on the road with me. He just kind of keeps a smile on my face and everybody else’s face. He keeps a whole crew of 80 people smiling every day. He runs around the arena and has such a blast. It makes the road less lonely for me. I think he has a blast as well. He has probably peed on a bush in every state in this great country.