This weekend’s Arts & Leisure feature is on Josh Groban, the multi-platinum-selling operatic-pop star. A lifelong Angeleno now making his home in Manhattan, Groban has a new album produced by Def Jam cofounder / artist whisperer Rick Rubin. It’s not a wild departure, this album, but it does push Groban to the foreground as a songwriter.
Rubin was key in bringing out that side of him, and you might reasonably assume that the pairing was born of record-label strategizing. Both Groban and Rubin insist otherwise; each used the word “naturally” to describe how it happened. Here’s Groban:
As has often been reported, Groban doesn’t carry himself with any of the pomp or solemnity of his music. This can be a bit disarming.
He’s funny, in an earnest and often self-deprecating way. His affect is decidedly regular-guy, not celebrity-among-us. During a 15-minute afternoon stroll from the offices of his record label (near Radio City Music Hall) to his apartment (Columbus Circle), I saw no one pausing to take note of him, or to snap a cell phone picture.
Singing, of course, is where Groban turns serious. He’s a consummate professional, committed to the stewardship of his instrument. (He wore a wool scarf during that stroll, and during a subsequent walk with his dog.) Illuminations has him singing in a slightly higher register than on previous albums. He said this was an unintended consequence of the songs, which seemed to choose their keys. At times the combined effect is salutary: a song called “Love Only Knows,” which concerns itself with secrecy and disclosure, begins in a hushed falsetto, conveying a shaken confidentiality.
One of the most interesting things about Illuminations, for me, is the contrast between acoustic-folk intimacy and orchestral luster. This was the compromise reached by Groban and Rubin, who both came to the project with preconceptions. (More on that in the piece.)
Rubin looped in the songwriter Dan Wilson, a frequent collaborator, who reflected on the lyrical challenge this way: “With Josh’s voice, if you try to put in a lot of small personal details, like in a Ben Folds song, his voice would just blow that up. They wouldn’t have the gravity to hold up. Josh’s voice demands a timeless or weighty lyrical approach.”
Groban and Wilson wrote their songs together at Wilson’s house in Minneapolis, on piano and acoustic guitar. The sparseness was, ironically, Rubinesque. I think the end result strikes a fine balance, though Groban’s fans may hold out hope for yet more intimacy.
As he told me: “I want to release our demos. Because we recorded them basically in Dan’s living room, with the sound of the crackling fire in the background, and they were really special, because we had just freshly written them. So many of them then turned into these big orchestral pieces, but there were always these moments of end-of-the-day, piano and guitar, how-excited-are-we-about-this? I’ve got all the MP3s and I’m sure we’ll release them at some point.”