“Picking life-changing albums is a big task!” say Josh Groban, who’s in an affable fluster about the job MusicRadar has given him. “When I think of albums of that stature I think of the ones I grew up with, the ones that changed the course of what I wanted to do with my life, or that had songs that gave me influences I didn’t know I’d tap into later.”
With his big vocal talent, boy-next-door good looks and two-decade, multi-platinum career, it’s impossible to begrudge the LA star his success. And it’s not just because he pays his good fortune forward through charity and humanitarian work.
His Find Your Light Foundation (fylf.org) funds arts education for children, and he has been an ambassador for the 46664 Project, Nelson Mandela’s HIV/AIDS awareness campaign. It's also because, on a more human level, Groban (who isn’t 40 until February) lightens his serious approach to his craft with an unforced charm and a popular touch. His easy blend of intelligence, humour and self-deprecation has helped him break past the ‘housewife’s choice’ category that might have otherwise contained him, and helped him reach an even broader audience.
A host of hit live albums chart his worldwide touring success, and his new release, Harmony, is his ninth studio album. Among the others Noël, his collection of perennial Christmas classics was the best-selling album in the US in 2007, certified six times platinum there and rising. His collection of songs from the musicals, Stages, was a UK No.1 album in 2015, and his catalogue’s filled with classy, Radio 2-friendly pop and light classical interpretations, from Westlife’s You Raise Me Up to Ennio Morricone’s theme for Cinema Paradiso. But for all that he’s also, very nearly, cool.
He gets it, as he proved all the way back in 2010, when he guest-hosted an episode of the BBC’s cult pop quiz Never Mind The Buzzcocks. There he held his own with the brilliantly mordant Brit comedians Phill Jupitus and Noel Fielding, and it turns out that Groban’s very fond of his turn on the show. “Never Mind The Buzzcocks really was a breakthrough for me,” he says. “As a singer often you don’t get to show the whole picture of who you are – you often go on a talk show and just sing your song. But UK TV does this so well – wit is a sport in that part of the world and you have to be able to not take yourself seriously, even if you do a serious thing.
"It was eye-opening for me to see that it was okay to send myself up a little bit, to play against type. I can sing you a song that’ll make you cry, but I can also tell this poop joke – and people are okay with that. It took way longer [in the US] to break out of that mould. The blessing and curse of exploding at home much faster than in the UK is that you get a real shot-out-of-a-cannon branding very quickly. Within that slow burn in the UK I got to show more colour, and I feel a fuller picture has developed there.”
The fuse on that cannon was lit in the late 90s. In 1997, when Groban was just 16, his vocal coach had brought him to the attention of legendary producer David Foster (Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Michael Bublé among a myriad of A-listers). Then in February ’99, as Groban studied for his college major in Theatre, Foster asked him to come to the rehearsals for the Grammys at the Shrine Auditorium. He would be singing The Prayer in duet with Celine Dion, deputising for an absent Andrea Bocelli. Days away from his 18th birthday, Groban wowed Dion and Foster alike with his work.
This was a classic case of a ‘big break’ and it led to everything that came after, but unbelievably he originally turned it down. “I’m such an idiot,” he says now, shaking his head with a smile. “The thing is, I didn’t have stars in my eyes – I’m from LA so you’d think it would be in my DNA to know when a big thing’s going to happen, but I had my sights set on acting and theatre. I was blown away and surprised that this big producer was interested in me as a rehearsal singer, and it was probably just nerves, but my first instinct was, ‘Can I really do this justice?’
"You learn later in life that often times when that door swings open it’s better to just say yes and and figure it out later! At that age we all think we’re invincible, I told David, ‘I’m not sure this is in my range, I’m not sure I can do it, I think I’m going to pass on this one’. As if that would ever happen again! I’m very thankful that he called back and said, ‘No – get your ass over here!’”
Along with his music career he did also get his wish to act too, with roles on TV (in smash hit TV drama Ally McBeal, and the more recent Netflix comedy The Good Cop) and in movies (Crazy Stupid Love starring Steve Carrell; Muppets Most Wanted with, er, The Muppets). Given his theatre background it’s surprising that – despite being deluged with offers over the years – he didn’t take on a Broadway show until 2017. He chose to make his debut in Natasha, Pierre And The Great Comet Of 1812, a highly acclaimed adaptation of part of Tolstoy’s classic War And Peace, for which he earned a Tony nomination.
“There’d been a lots of asks to do three weeks in this, three months in that,” he says, “and they were very tempting because that was always my dream, But because that dream so important to me it was also equally important I didn’t dive into the stereotype of a three-month ‘stunt cast’.
"If I did Broadway I wanted to give it a good amount of time – I wanted to rehearse with the cast, and do it for a year, at least 200 performances. And it had to be something challenging for me, and forward-thinking for Broadway. I knew with Comet that night after night 1200 people would come in and get what they didn’t know they wanted. It was a chance to introduce an audience to a new experimental work – I was lending my platform to a show that deserves the world.”
Coming at the tail-end of this dumpster fire of a year, Harmony sees him return with the kind of robust, popular selection of songs that has charmed his millions of fans, who happily describe themselves as ‘Grobanites’.
He applies that strong, distinctive tenor/baritone voice to a set of some of his favourite standards. Some are modern: Robbie Williams’ Angels; Sting’s Shape Of My Heart; I Can’t Make You Love Me, popularisd by Bonnie Raitt. Others are timeless: Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now (a duet witth Sara Bareilles); Ewan MacColl’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, and – cleaving to those musical roots – The Impossible Dream, from Man From La Mancha.
As 2020 panned out and the whole world’s plans changed, Groban also found himself unexpectedly writing two brand new songs for the record on spec. Your Face and The Fullest are positive, thankful tunes that offer some much-needed optimism in these dissonant times of ours.
“I was writing almost as therapy,” he says, “just trying to take stock of what’s important. I had the news on mute, and I was looking at the faces of nurses and school students, and I was seeing looks of fear and despair, but also of hope. It made me realise that when we turn off the noise and the pundits, deep down we have so much in us, we’re so much stronger than we think possible.”
And on that positive note, Josh Groban runs down those albums that changed the course of his life…
1. Paul Simon – Graceland (1986)
"This was one of the first albums I got, when I was about 10 years old, back when CDs were invented (now they’re coasters…) I always loved Simon & Garfunkel and loved Paul’s songwriting, his lyricism, and the sweet voice that he uses to talk about the human condition. But Graceland was such a breakthrough. Here he was doing what he does so well and joining forces with sounds I’d never heard before – drums I’d never heard, voices that were so beautiful.
"It opened up my eyes to the world of South African music. The main thing I took away from it was how freeing the music pollination could be – you could be influenced by different styles and create something together that neither of you could have created by yourself.
"Graceland said to me that exploration can be fun, educational and take you to places you never would have thought. As a kid growing up with a certain style of music, it knocked all these walls down for me.
"Later, South Africa was one of the first countries I went platinum in. I was told early on that there were enormous audiences there for me, and it was this sort of full-circle thing. My first trip there I wound up totally immersing myself in all aspects of the culture I grew up listening to.
"I sat with Nelson Mandela there, I found songs that I took with me, like an anti-apartheid song called Weeping that I recorded with Ladysmith Black Mambazo [on 2006 album Awake]. I didn’t realise as a kid that that Graceland would shape these wonderful memories for me as an adult."
2. Pearl Jam – Ten (1991)
"This album was the sound of junior high school for me, my sixth/seventh grade – that time when you’re hitting 13 and starting to get confused and angry for no reason, with all these emotions bubbling up.
"There was something about hearing Eddie Vedder’s voice, and Ten has so much electricity to it – there isn’t a dud song on there. Every year for Thanksgiving my family and I would take road trips, we’d drive upstate, and I had my Sony Walkman and I’d listen to this over and over..."
3. Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong – The Complete Norman Granz Sessions (1957)
"My dad’s been in business his whole life, but his passion has always been jazz and he’s an amazing jazz trumpeter. So I was raised on some great jazz music. I worship Ella Fitzgerald, and the dance between her and Louis here was just so wonderful.
It’s such a sweet album cover too – it’s just the two of them sitting in folding chairs and smiling at the camera, there’s no fluff. And the musicians here were incredible – Louis Belsome and Buddy Rich were the drummers, and it’s just awesome music. My favourite track is Autumn In New York, one of the definitive versions of that song."
4. Björk – Debut (1993)
"This is another album that changed my perspective on shapeshifting and how much experimentation was possible. After years of taking very rigid vocal training, the thing that popped out about Björk for me the first time I heard this was how wild and expressive her voice was. It was obviously in her control, but she was painting with all these colours I hadn’t heard before.
From a vocal interpretation standpoint it showed me what was possible. I’ve referenced the drums on Human Behaviour so often when talking to producers – there’s so much to be drawn from the drum programming on that song. When I want a certain echo, tom or mallet feel or snare sound I wind up saying, ‘Listen to Human Behaviour! Something like that!’
"What I loved about her voice wound up being what I came to love about the rest of her tracks – she took liberties, explored, created worlds you could close your eyes and disappear into. She’s on the list of people I’d be too intimidated to meet."
5. Original Cast Recording – The Phantom Of The Opera (1987)
"The theatre nerd in me is finally coming out! I was eight or nine years old, driving around in my mom’s Wagoneer and listening to Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman sing these songs, and I’m listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s chords, those organ chords, the drama of the story, and I remember as a kid feeling emo for the first time, feeling like the outsider!
"I know for a lot of people it was The Cure, but for me my ‘goth’ was Phantom Of The Opera - the candelabras, the darkness. I made a papier-mâché Phantom mask, and went around the school grounds going [in a huge, theatrical voice] ‘DON’T LOOK AT ME!’.
"Did the jocks love it? Well, the more they bullied me the more I felt like the Phantom, so it was this endless cycle of getting more in tune with the character – I was all in! The final sequence where all Webber’s big hit themes reappear and the story is shifting as the Phantom lets the gates up – I don’t care how hard-edged or cynical [you may be], there’s not a time I watch that final scene and don’t get a bit weepy. It just gets me…"
6. Original Broadway Cast Recording – Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street (1979)
"This was my introduction to Stephen Sondheim. My dark gothy kid self was coming out in musical theatre, so it was Phantom and this murderous barber. Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury are on this original cast recording. Everything from that whistle at the beginning that scares the living shite out of you – it’s such a fun, scary story with one of the most brilliant operatic score, it’s one of Sondheim’s great masterpieces.
"It draws you in – such a great story and such iconic songs in that show. A Little Priest is incredible, but I think my favourite song in it is Epiphany. It’s this breakdown when Sweeney Todd decides to go from somebody seeking vengeance and justice to somebody just seeking chaos in order to heal his own tortured soul. It’s when he decides to really become a murderer…"
7. Billy Joel – The Stranger (1977)
"This is something a bit lighter! I started playing piano early on in my life. I was very lucky we had one at home, and that’s one of the reasons I have my own arts foundation. Having a piano – to be able to come home and sit and express myself on the keys – was life-saving for me.
"I took some lessons but am mostly self- taught. I taught myself by listening to albums by great pianists like Bruce Hornsby, Elton John and Billy Joel. I love all Billy’s stuff, but pound for pound The Stranger has so many extraordinary songs that inspired me."
"She’s Always A Woman is one of those great, ‘untouchable’ songs. I wasn’t going to do it, but my exception is if it’s done in honour of the person. Billy was being honoured by the Gershwin Awards in Washington DC [in 2014] and he asked me to do that one, so I did, just me and a flamenco guitar, and I loved it.
"Then at some point during rehearsals for the next tour we did it, and before you know it I’m in the middle of Madison Square Garden on this little mini stage surrounded by 18,000 people, and I’m looking at Billy Joel’s jersey – they have it there in honour of his 60-something show reign at the Garden (he’s done about a 100 there now).
"I had to stop after the first line of the song because of the weight of it, and paid tribute to him – what an honour to be singing this song in his house! That was another full-circle moment for me, from being that kid at our living room piano to being able to sing that song in Madison Square Garden…"
8. Ben Folds Five – The Unauthorized Biography Of Reinhold Messner (1999)
"This was during my freshman year at college, just out of a break-up and scared to death about being in a college environment for the first time, and where my life was going.
"We all have those albums that are the soundtracks to those moments, and if Pearl Jam was the soundtrack of my sixth grade, then this was the one for me when starting college.
"I love Ben Folds very much, love his writing. I’ve since got to know him very well – we’ve written together and worked together. He’s one of the most incredible improvising piano players that I’ve ever seen, and he’s an amazing proponent of arts education.
"Don’t Change Your Plans, that was the song for me – it’s a stunning, melancholy song about moving on, moving away to somewhere where the leaves are changing, leaving love behind in pursuit of something else."
9. Philip Glass – Glassworks (1982)
"This is another one of the first CDs that I ever got. It started my love of minimalist classical music, which probably a lot of my fans might not realise I love, but I do.
"There were a lot of very piano-based songs on here, and being somebody who was sitting at the piano a lot I’d learn a lot of them, and it wound up invigorating my love of that world.
"So I started listening to Steve Reich, John Adams, John Cage. Any time I’m in New York and the New York Philharmonic are doing a performance of that kind of work I’m always right there. I know it can be divisive – some people feel it’s lacking the sweeping catchy themes or melodies – but there’s something about that music that’s always been beautiful to me."
Josh Groban's new album Harmony is out on 20 November. He will perform a special livestream concert on 26 November. To preorder and tickets visit joshgroban.com