08 July, 2011

Local Attraction...

Article by: Jon Bream, Star Tribune

The singer/songrwriter returns to the city that gave him much of the material on his latest album.

Minneapolis is going to be a very special place to play," Josh Groban said the other day.

Does that sound like standard show-biz blather, or what? He probably says that about every city.

Well, no. Minneapolis is where Groban wrote six of the 13 songs on his new album, "Illuminations." He is genuinely excited to sing them Friday at Target Center.

The classical-meets-pop star left Los Angeles for the Land of 10,000 Musical Hooks at the insistence of Minneapolis songwriter-for-hire Dan Wilson. And Groban is glad he did.

"It makes my brain calmer when I get to sit in a room with someone like Dan," he said.

Bringing Groban to Minneapolis was "like the urban equivalent of going to the woods," said Wilson, who, ironically, recently relocated to Los Angeles to pursue more songwriting opportunities. "It's not calmer in L.A."

Groban, 30, had a specific vision for his fifth studio album: a singer/songwriter project driven more by songs and his voice and less by elaborate production. So producer Rick Rubin -- known for his work with Beastie Boys, Metallica and late-years Johnny Cash -- paired him with Wilson, who won a song-of-the-year Grammy for co-writing the Dixie Chicks' "Not Ready to Make Nice." He also co-wrote three songs on Adele's current blockbuster, "21."

Groban had never written more than three or four songs on an album, but on "Illuminations" -- thanks to Wilson and others -- he helped write all but two pieces.

He came to Minneapolis a half-dozen times during the winter of 2008-09 and the fall of '09 for three-day writing sessions. He and Wilson would walk and talk about ideas en route to Starbucks. Or sometimes ideas would be exchanged over lunch at Common Roots or the Wilde Roast Cafe. Then they'd write at Wilson's house in Kenwood.

At night, Groban would often explore Minneapolis on his own. He recalls hanging out at the Local (and drinking Jameson whiskeys). "One night I was there and a dad and a son were having a beer and cheering and I said, 'What's the occasion?' 'My son just pitched his first game tonight for the Twins.' [We're guessing Anthony Swarzak, Jeff Manship or Brian Duensing.]

"You meet people. A lot of times I just people-watched. I have no problem just sitting somewhere and being alone with my thoughts and trying to get inspired. I always woke up early, at 8 or 9 in the morning, and had my double espresso."

Neil Diamond to the rescue

One challenge was to create lyrics that fit the formality of Groban's classically trained baritone. Wilson was surprised not only by Groban's lyric-writing skills but by his ability to rewrite spontaneously.

"He's fearless about generating something new as an alternative right then and there," said Wilson, the former Semisonic frontman who has written with Jason Mraz, John Legend and others. "It's not something everyone can do. He's really got a natural access to ideas. He's more able to get a lyric flow going than most artists."

Wilson figured out a trick to get over the occasional bump in the songwriting process.

"Josh had cracked me up one afternoon with a spot-on Neil Diamond impression of a new song he made up on the spot in the style of Neil Diamond. He's super quick-witted. Later that night, we were stuck. Jokingly, I said: 'What would Neil Diamond do right now?' Josh sang four lines and we used them all. They were great -- and funny, too. They served the song ['Higher Window'].

"We did that [exercise] here and there, but it wouldn't be fair to Neil Diamond. He's still writing songs."

"Illuminations" is warmer and more intimate than its majestic-sounding, David Foster-produced predecessors. There's still romance and drama, whether Groban is singing in English, French, Italian or Portuguese, but less bombast. Fans have responded enthusiastically, buying more than 1 million copies since "Illuminations" was released in November.

NYC, Oprah, movies

After recording his album last year, Groban moved to New York.

"It gets me out of the house," he said from his Manhattan apartment. "In Los Angeles, I'm always thinking about: What's the drive time? What's the traffic? What's parking going to be like? In New York, I just walk without any plan and just kind of accept everything that comes my way. I learn something new every day."

In May, he appeared on one of Oprah Winfrey's final shows, singing her favorite song, "Over the Rainbow," with Patti LaBelle. It was a challenge to merge their styles, he said. "In one hour of rehearsal that morning in total secrecy, we found a way to make itwork."

Groban also squeezed in a small role in the Steve Carell/Emma Stone film "Crazy Stupid Love," which opens July 29. "I play a kind of caddish lawyer who's Emma Stone's fiancé. He's the kind of guy who is blissfully ignorant to his own douche-bag behavior," said Groban, who has acted on TV's "Ally McBeal" and "Glee." "After spending a year in the recording studio, it was fun to let my hair down that way. For the film world, I just want to do more comedy. That's basically where I feel most comfortable, which is ironic because the music is so serious."

But he's not always serious between songs -- especially on his current tour.

"I've never felt freer onstage," he said of his interaction with the crowd. "It's the most fun I've ever had in my career, to be honest."

The concert features a Q&A segment in which fans text questions. In some cities, people have asked to sing a song with him. Maybe someone at Target Center will offer to buy him a Jameson.

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