When Josh Groban steps into an arena, there aren't many that can upstage him.(Source)
But there is one, and his name is Sweeney.
Granted, Sweeney is a dog: Groban's prized wheaten terrier, which he was looking forward to taking on a walk on a beautiful June morning in New York City.
"I take him on the road with me and he loves it," Groban said via phone. "We call it the 'wheaten greet' because he runs around the arenas and he meets fans. He's far more famous than I am."
Fans will more than likely see Sweeney on Groban's forthcoming Canadian dates on the Straight to You Tour, which will take Groban back in an arena setting after a string of smaller concerts earlier this year.
"The shows were very intimate, with about 1,200 seats, just piano and guitar, no set list, and Q&A," Groban said. "It wound up being the most fun I've ever had in my life. I realized there was a very special thing we could draw from this and bring to an arena environment.
"I wanted the arena show to be vibrant and energetic but have that intimacy and that connection with the audience. We can't do Q&A because there's too many people. So we have text messages fans send in so I can answer them, and there are stairs where I can literally climb into the audience and talk to people."
Groban added that, while they could have easily called it the Illuminations Tour - referring to the title from his latest album, released in November last year - the tour isn't about just one record; it's about all five of his albums.
Straight to You turns out to be a Nick Cave song Groban covered on Illuminations, and he thought the title represented "that feeling of intimacy and excitement we have to get back out there."
Illuminations marked a number of departures for Groban, having moved to New York from Los Angeles a year ago and working with famed producer Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash, Metallica) for the first time after four albums produced by the one who discovered Groban, "hit man" David Foster.
Groban also co-wrote most of the material on the album with the help of Semisonic's Dan Wilson, marking the first time Groban would lend his own creative touch to the material he sang, which made for a deeper personal exploration.
"The co-writing was a bit of a surprise for me," Groban said. "I trust Rick's ear tremendously and I trust his ability to take any style of music - and my style was completely new to him - and put it through his filter. I think his motto for me was, 'I know you can sing your ass off. I want these songs to be coming from you, rather than just being presented by you as a vocalist.'
"So he sent me off to do a lot of writing. I'm always writing and finding songs that are personal, but when you've got me working on a project for two and half years and you're having me write, it's going to get very introspective. It's just the nature of the beast: It's going to wind up being a more personal record, a more thoughtful record."
One can wonder if Foster, seeing one of his proteges taking on a new producer and adopting an entirely new creative approach, might have resented Groban working with Rubin and writing his own material.
"Not at all," Groban said. "My relationship with David is arguably better than it's ever been. He's always been a wonderful friend and mentor, and we've always known from the beginning that sometimes we'll work together and sometimes we won't. We have a much more meaningful relationship in each other's lives that goes far beyond whether we make an album together or not. He was skeptical of it at first, but, to be fair, Rick and I were skeptical, too."
Illuminations finds Groban in solitary mode, soul-searching on songs like Rufus Wainwright and mother Kate McGarrigle's heartbreaking Au jardin des sans-pourquoi (the last song the two would write together before McGarrigle's death) and singing, for the first time, in Portuguese on Voce Existe Em Mim.
New York admittedly played a big part in Groban's writing on Illuminations, with songs like Bells of New York City and Higher Window resonating deeply with Groban's operatic flair and hints of Brill Building influences.
"I always miss L.A.; it's where I was born and raised," Groban said. "I miss the feeling I get when I'm there and the people that I know. But I've needed this change. I've always felt deep down that New York was where I needed to be."
Beyond the music, Groban will be appearing in the comedy Crazy Stupid Love (to be released July 29) alongside Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore and Emma Stone, playing Stone's fiance, a lawyer who tells horrible jokes and whom everybody hates.
"It's a hysterical script, one of the best I've read in a long time," Groban said. "It was really nice to be given a chance to be a comedic actor and not have to worry about the singing. When you're surrounded by those kinds of people, it doesn't get any better than that."
Did he feel being far from Hollywood would hurt his movie career?
"Right, I didn't think about that," he said with a hearty laugh. "Well, back to Beverly Hills! I mean, Woody Allen is still making movies in New York, right? Maybe I'll try to meet him."
Groban plays Toronto July 18, London July 19, Ottawa July 22, Montreal July 23, Vancouver Aug. 30, Calgary Sept. 1, Edmonton Sept. 2, Winnipeg Sept. 4.
14 July, 2011
Seeing the light...
In anticipation of his upcoming Canadian shows... by Francois Marchand of the Vancouver Sun.