InDepth InterView: Josh Groban Discusses ALL THAT ECHOES Album & Live Concert Event, Plus CHESS on Broadway?, GLEE & More
Today we are talking to a tremendously successful recording artist and performer who has won the hearts of millions with his best-selling studio albums and chart-topping songs, as well as with his copious concert appearances and theatrical endeavors over the last decade - the endlessly charming and immensely gifted Josh Groban. Analyzing all aspects of this evening's Fathom live concert event - available to view in select cities nationwide tonight - Groban and I shine a light on what we can expect from the unprecedented concert showcase (including a live Q&A) as well as what songs culled from his vast oeuvre we can anticipate enjoying. Also, Groban opens up about the inspiration, song selection process, recording, refining and release of his new album, ALL THAT ECHOES, and shares stories and insights into some of his previous efforts, as well. Plus, Groban shares his infectious enthusiasm for CHESS and recounts backstage stories of his participation in two legendary presentations of the iconic 1980s rock opera - collectively including castmates as diverse as Idina Menzel, Kerry Ellis, Adam Pascal, Sutton Foster, Raul Esparza and many more - and reveals his desire to pursue doing the show again in the future, perhaps even on Broadway sometime soon. Additionally, Groban and I discuss his appearances on GLEE and THE OFFICE, his affection for the music of Stephen Sondheim, his thoughts on LES MISERABLES and lip-synching, self-duets and much, much more in this career-spanning chat!
More information on Josh Groban LIVE: ALL THAT ECHOES, showing in movie theaters nationwide tonight, February 4, is available here.
Anthems & Echoes
PC: Given your massive fan base, have you seen your audience grow with the popularity of GLEE and SMASH and the movie musical renaissance?
JG: Oh, man - let me tell you, one of the coolest things that I have noticed throughout the course of the last five or six years has been that Broadway music and that kind of sound has made its way so deep into popular culture - so, when I look out at the audience at my shows, I just feel like, "If I can't get the theatre fans to come out to my shows, then I am doing something wrong." [Laughs.]
PC: You've definitely done something right, then, given your huge fanbase on BroadwayWorld alone!
JG: Yeah, I love them all and I love seeing that.
PC: Despite current vogue, it's kind of shocking to think that the last musical theatre song to top the charts was "One Night In Bangkok" from CHESS, thirty years ago.
JG: [Big Laugh.] That's insane! When you put it that way, it's not only surprising, but kind of depressing. I would have thought SMASH or GLEE would have had something from Broadway get in there - but, I guess we're talking Top 40, so you're right.
PC: When you appeared on GLEE, did you discuss with Ryan Murphy the possibility of singing anything?
JG: No. You see, when I talked to Ryan about doing the show, it was like: they've got all these amazing singers already on the show and they have a sound established that is really unique, and, so, I think the thing that was funny to him about me coming on the show would be to have me play a bit of a bizarre version of myself and kind of be more of a mentor-judge type thing than someone there to just sing or something.
PC: And how! It was a very memorable appearance, song or not.
JG: Thank you. Yeah, you know, the singing thing is something that I do 24/7, so to be able to come onto a show like that and not sing and kind of be a complete weirdo was a lot of fun and I think kind of funny to watch.
PC: You at least got to sing a little bit when you appeared on THE OFFICE.
JG: That's true - I did. That show was a lot of fun to do, too.
PC: Did you enjoy working with the GLEE Cast, in particular?
JG: Oh, yeah - I know a lot of the people in that cast actually and I know that they work really, really hard on that show; we're talking like a theatre discipline! Like, they are rehearsing constantly and they are singing in the hallways, waiting to shoot, and stuff like that. They really are working so, so, so hard on that show.
PC: Your CHESS co-star Idina Menzel also had a wonderful character arc for many episodes in Season Three.
JG: That's right! Idina was on the show, too. She is so great in everything she does. Idina is just the best.
PC: Would you be open to performing with her again in the future, such as you did in CHESS and the PBS SOUNDSTAGE show?
JG: I would love to! I would love to sing with her again, so soon. She is one of my dearest friends and she and Taye [Diggs] are obviously just legendary stage actors. So, yeah, it has been a joy to get to know her and work with her. And, you know, it's one thing when you can do something in a concert format - like that SOUNDSTAGE thing we did; and, obviously, that was a lot of fun - but, to be able to work with her from a theatrical, rehearsal standpoint - like on CHESS - was just a totally different experience.
PC: How so?
JG: It's just that you become like family when you are doing something like that. Singing with Idina is one thing, but acting and singing with her is a whole other ballgame.
PC: High praise, indeed. Kerry Ellis also spoke so favorably of working with you on CHESS when she did this column.
JG: Oh, she's just got an amazing voice, right?! She really blew me away when she did CHESS with us in London. I know [Queen's] Brian May is a big proponent of hers and I am a fan, too - she's just got one of the greatest voices onstage right now.
PC: You have a particular affection for Queen, correct?
JG: Yes, I definitely do. I love Queen.
PC: Have you ever recorded any Queen songs?
JG: No, I don't think I have ever recorded any Queen songs. At the moment and pretty much always, Queen has been the band for most of my go-to karaoke songs, you know? [Laughs.]
PC: So many hits.
JG: There are - and they are so fun to sing! But, when you've got someone like Freddie Mercury singing them - someone who just nailed those songs to the wall with these quintessential original versions - it becomes daunting to sing a Queen song. At least doing it for real - recording it and everything.
PC: A high bar has been set.
JG: Yeah, they are a real challenge. So, what can you do?! I would love to do it at some point, though, in the future - definitely.
PC: Your new album, ALL THAT ECHOES, is gorgeous. Am I correct in hearing your voice growing into a tenor range at this point?
JG: Oh, well, I think that, as funny as it may sound, when I don't think about it as much and I relax, my range just kind of expands naturally. For this album, these songs were mostly recorded in real time with a lot of the musicians right in the room with us, so we were all just kind of flying by the seat of our pants in there. So, all the vocals were just one or two takes for the most part - we just did them through and sometimes even recorded our first time through it and then we moved on to the next one.
PC: That method is a true testament to your talent, then.
JG: Also, oftentimes when I write, I write higher than where my range sits, so what I do is I either try to transpose it down to something that is warmer in my voice, or, sometimes, I'll just tighten up my shoelaces and sing it, you know? [Laughs.]
PC: As you clearly did on a few of these songs. There are some stunning high notes.
JG: Yeah - it is a very range-y album. A lot of these songs are a real challenge to sing and that's what I wanted for this album - songs that kind of express both the older and newer side of where I am at right now musically. But, also, from a vocal standpoint, these songs allowed me to really sing my ass off.
PC: Your voice developed quite considerably between the two CHESS concerts you starred in, as well - the Actor's Fund and then the Royal Albert Hall a few years later. What are your memories of the first one?
JG: The Actor's Fund CHESS concert was a really special evening for me. It was like every childhood dream of mine coming to fruition on that night. I mean, it wasn't that long before that concert that I had taken a leave of absence from the Carnegie Mellon musical theatre program. So, I was thinking to myself at the time, [Sighs.] "Oh, man. Now that I've just signed this contract, will I ever be able to see Broadway again? Will I ever be able to live that dream?" I felt like I was taking a huge risk by walking away from one of the greatest musical theatre programs in the country.
PC: Without a doubt.
JG: Without that reaching out from the Broadway community like that so early in my career - and to have them be that warm and that welcoming to me - was not only just such a great honor for me, especially at such a young age, but also one of those pinch-me moments where every time I was not singing onstage I was just looking out at the New Amsterdam theatre and thinking to myself, "Wow. I am so honored to here. Right now, I'm actually singing for the first time on a Broadway stage." [Pause. Sighs.] So, you're just chasing the dragon after that. There is no matching that first feeling.
PC: What a way to put it! Very depictive.
JG: [Laughs.] Yeah! I'll never forget that night - either of the CHESS concerts.
PC: "Hollow Talk" is one of my favorite tracks on ALL THAT ECHOES and I was curious if you could tell me about the lyric-first composing process you and Rob Cavallo utilized?
JG: You know, Rob came out and saw my show, and, really, the vibe that we went for on this album came directly from the feeling that we got live onstage. So, this is a very live album - not only in the way we recorded, but also in the blueprinting process where we would kind of throw adjectives at each other about what we wanted the album to sound like and what the songs should feel like.
PC: So, it was very collaborative, then?
JG: Very. We wanted it to not be afraid to be grand - we wanted it to be cinematic; we wanted it to be dynamic. We weren't consciously thinking, like, "Let's be experimental," or "Let's be overly clever," or whatever. But, we did say to each other that if, you know, a song was going somewhere - if it was naturally going to a place that we thought might be interesting or challenging a little bit - then let's go there with it, with both the covers and original songs. It was like, "Let's enjoy the challenge. Let's try to find a way to see where that wave goes." So, everyday when we were done we just walked out of there saying, "Man, I can't believe what's coming out of the speakers!" We never would have expected it in the beginning of the day to come out like it did. So, it all felt very right and we just went with it.
PC: In addition to the original songs, ALL THAT ECHOES contains some very impressive covers. Tell me about your choice to include Stevie Wonder's "I Believe" - he's so unique and quite hard to top.
JG: He's so unique - so unique. Yeah, the good and bad thing about something like that; the daunting part is the Stevie Wonder part - much like Queen or anything classic like that - and you are just terrified to go ahead and record something that is so iconic; the good part is that his version is so unique and his version is so essentially him, that there then is no comparison, really. Anytime anybody sings a Stevie Wonder song, it is going to be different [than his]. So, it's just a universal melody that we just fell in love with and it's a lyrical message that represented to me kind of where I am in my life and what we all wanted the album to end on; which is, I've been far from perfect and love sucks sometimes, but when it comes around next time I am not going to let it go. [Pause.] So, I think that with all the ups and downs on the record, that was the way we really wanted to end things.
PC: Dave Matthews is a songwriter you previously collaborated with whom you cover in the bonus track, "Satellite".
JG: Right. Dave and I wrote "Lullaby" together and "Satellite" is, obviously, one he wrote for his debut album.
PC: What prompted its inclusion on ALL THAT ECHOES?
JG: Well, I have always loved the song and I was actually out on tour a while back and I was listening to the song and paying particular attention to this really incredible guitar part he has in the beginning of it and I was playing around with the harp sound of my piano along with it. And, so, I thought to myself, "How do we incorporate the plucking of the guitar into an orchestral world?" Actually, playing around with that song is what kind of got a lot of things started for the rest of the CD, now that you mention it - which is, "How do we get some of the rhythm section instruments to fit into an orchestral world? How do we make it sound just as urgent?"
PC: Not an easy job.
JG: Definitely not. So, "Satellite" was one of the very first songs we ever recorded and I think it is really gorgeous. I'm happy we are including it as a bonus track.
PC: Would you consider collaborating with Dave in the future on a project, perhaps a Tim Reynolds-esque live double album experience?
JG: Oh, I would love to - I would love it. I love Dave. He is an amazing musician, obviously, and he is also an incredible guy - a really wonderful poet and wordsmith. He's someone who I wish would write a musical sometime - he just has such a wonderful way of telling stories.
JG: But, yeah, you know, every time I walk into an album project, I assume it is going to end up being a covers album. I mean, I assume that's just what it is going to be. I never expect to write so much since I enjoy writing so much in my free time that when I say to myself, "OK. I am going to just have two or three of my own songs on this record," and then I end up sometimes having ten or eleven; or, in the case of this album, seven. It's just a thrilling surprise to me when that happens. But, first and foremost, I consider myself a vocalist and I have always loved interpreting great songs.
PC: This album is more a personal expression than anything else, you'd say?
JG: It is. I mean, even these covers are pretty obscure.
PC: Jimmy Webb is another masterful songwriter you sing on this album - "The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress" is another album highlight. I take it you are a fan of his?
JG: Oh, yes. Jimmy Webb is one of the most amazing songwriters ever. I really like him a lot. He really is one of the greats.
PC: When was the first time you heard that song?
JG: Oh, gosh! I've listened to that song for a long time - really, since I was a teenager listening to it on the radio; I think that was the first time. Since then, I've heard the Joe Cocker version; I've heard the Art Garfunkel version - which I think is just beautiful. I think I just tend to like those love songs that are melancholy. [Laughs.]
PC: It's your thing.
JG: It is.
PC: Why so, do you think?
JG: I love love songs that represent a choice and a challenge - that always seemed so much more real to me, you know?
PC: The pursuit.
JG: Yeah. I mean, when Jimmy Webb sings that song himself, he doesn't have, you know, the most perfect performance voice, but there is just such a pathos to the way he sings and there is such a pathos to the way he writes that feels equal parts hopeful and sad. There is just something about them - a haunting quality - to all of his love songs that I just really like.
PC: How did you decide to include that on the album?
JG: Well, my manager Gail sort of presented that song later on in the process to us and we were listening to it and we all suddenly felt like, "Yeah! This song." And, I just thought, "Yeah, this is really wonderful. I just can't wait to record it." And, even if we didn't record it, I knew it was one I wanted to include in my live shows.
PC: Have you ever sung any Bacharach/David material? So many of their songs seem as though they would fit you so well.
JG: Embarrassingly so, I haven't. As you know, it's such a rich repertoire - I mean, those are some of my favorite songs of all time! As we are talking about it, though, yeah, you are definitely right - I need to do an album of some of those classic songs like theirs and some others because they really are my favorites.
PC: Why haven't you done one yet?
JG: Well, there is usually a year or two between albums, so it's pretty interesting - the continuity of what we choose to include for each record. You know, there are songs that I wrote for this record that we all believe are wonderful songs, but we just don't feel they are right for this album - they might be right for the next album, but not this one. The same is true for some classic songs that we recorded - we felt like, "Man, wouldn't it be great to release these?" But, at the end of the day, they didn't feel right for the album, so we didn't. But, continuity has a lot to do with those decisions - so, someday soon I may end up doing an all-classics album. We'll see.
PC: Have you ever toyed around with duetting with yourself ala Barbra Streisand in her legendary Bacharach medley?
JG: [Big Laugh.]
PC: You could pull it off if anyone could these days!
JG: Well, I've never done like a full duet - like, you know, "Featuring Josh Groban," written on the poster with a star next to my own name. [Laughs.] But, seriously, it's funny you say that because I do do back-up vocals on my own stuff sometimes. It's kind of a secret that if you do your own backing vocals you can create a really unique sound. So, on this album, I did do some back-up vocals and I did some on "February Song" on the AWAKE album, too.
PC: And on the ONCE cover, "Falling Slowly" on this album, yes?
JG: Yes. I did that on "Falling Slowly" on this one - we decided not to do it as a duet basically just because the original is so famous. Also, I think the message of that song is really special when done as a solo - it can be a real outpouring of romance from one single person to another single person.
PC: What an interesting way to reinvent it.
JG: Some of the harmonies that I really missed in it, I just kind of popped them back in myself. So, in a way, I guess it is kind of a duet with myself. [Laughs.]
PC: Are you a fan of ONCE, the musical, onstage?
JG: Oh, I am! I actually introduced them at the Tony Awards last year and I just adore the show and the cast - Steve Kazee is so wonderful and so deserving of that award. I even like the little joke they tell about me in the show.
PC: Did you anticipate the joke's inclusion when you saw it or hadn't they gotten it approved by you?
JG: I had no idea, actually! [Laughs.] I thought it was funny, though. I don't think they asked - I think you can say anything you want about anybody, really; it's a free country, after all. But, yeah, I love the show.
PC: Would you consider playing Kazee's role someday onstage?
JG: Yeah, I think I would. I kind of have a list of dream roles I'd love to do someday, if not something brand new, but that is one that I would probably be too old to do by the time the revival comes around or whatever, I think. But, you never know!
PC: On that topic: have you considered taking on the title role in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA - or its sequel, LOVE NEVER DIES - in the future?
JG: You know, I have had a wonderful time singing some of that music. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA was one of the first shows I saw when I was a kid, so it will always have a very special place in my heart. It's just brilliant. So, to answer your question: sure! You know, since I went from being a musical theatre student to having to be a kind of professional recording artist at 17, all the thoughts of all I wanted to do on Broadway and all the shows I wanted to tackle, considering that I possibly could now is almost too much to even organize in my own brain because there is so much I would love to do. But, there will come a point sometime very soon where I will be taking a little break from the CD touring and concerts and really start focusing - for at least a year - on New York theatre.
PC: What a revelation - and what fantastic news!
JG: At this point, though, I am just not sure what show it will be - maybe it is CHESS, maybe it is something else. I think that, deep down, I want it to be a show that I can introduce to people - and I think that a show like PHANTOM is just so famous and so prolific.... You know, it usually takes a couple of things to get me maybe-interested in a lead role; the first is if the music is brilliant, which, in that case, I think it is. The second thing is if I can show something new to an audience - something that they didn't know they wanted or something they didn't expect. That's what I remember from the shows that I loved the most when I was kid - people sitting down and not knowing what really to expect and then just walking on air afterwards. That would be my ideal experience for the audience to have.
PC: CHESS just sold out its Off-West End mounting coming up - it seems primed and ready for a big Broadway revival, don't you think?
JG: It's so brilliant - it's just so great. Tim Rice and I actually just had lunch in New York not too long ago and he is really dying to find a way to bring it back to Broadway. I told him that I would personally love to work with him hand in hand in making that happen soon. As you know, and as they talked about in that article in The New York Times recently, with shows trying to make it to Broadway, a million things could happen between now and then that could prevent it from happening.
PC: But, they have their Russian chess champion ready to go if it does happen!
JG: Yeah - it would be amazing. It really would. As I told Tim, I am very interested in it and that would be a perfect example of a show that I think people are dying to see but don't even know it; having music of that weight and that intelligence on Broadway right now. It might not have been the right time the other couple of times they tried it, but it might be the right time now. Who knows?
PC: Or even a Fathom presentation of a show to follow-up PHANTOM 25, LOVE NEVER DIES, COMPANY, and, now, your live concert. That's the futue.
JG: Exactly! Exactly. Fathom is just such a great way to see shows and live events - I mean, I've seen a couple of the Met broadcasts that they've done and it was just a wonderful experience. I think it is so, so cool that fans can see something in such high quality from a sound and visuals point of view - HD and 5.1 surround sound and a big screen like that. It's something I've actually never done myself - a live concert that I know other people will be watching in movie theaters - so it will be interesting to do. In the last ten years I have experienced a lot of things, but this is something I have not done yet.
PC: Will you be singing "February Song" since it is February, after all?
JG: [Laughs.] Yes, I will be. I will be. Of course. That's a song I've always loved singing live.
PC: There is so much controversy about Beyonce's inauguration lipsynching and the use of vocal sweetening and such onstage these days - as well as some of the imperfect sounds in LES MISERABLES onscreen. What are your personal thoughts on the matter, given your pitch perfect voice?
JG: Well, I try not to be too critical or cynical - you know, people's singing styles are so open to other people's personal tastes and what people like or don't like. With a movie like LES MIZ, I have my own personal feelings about what I wish had happened or had not happened in it, but I thought there were some moments that were really very poignant and very beautifully sung, but, also, some moments where they could have used a little lipsynching. As far as the Beyonce thing, I have no comment - I have no idea what even went down there. But, I think that the good thing that is happening right now is that people are actually thinking about singing. I think that vocals and singing and real singing - the conversation about singing - is now at the forefront of people's minds, coming after a decade or so where everything you heard on the radio and TV sounded like it was auto-tuned and squeezed within an inch of its life. For a while, it seemed like they felt it was necessary to use it in order for anything to achieve any semblance of popularity - and, now, with shows like THE VOICE and GLEE and people being up in arms about the Beyonce thing, I think it is good that people are actually thinking about what's good and what sounds right.
PC: A very illustrative point.
JG: Young people aren't afraid anymore of singing with their full voices, full out - they view it as something cool; they value it. So, ultimately, I think that is the best part of what is happening right now.
PC: Your influence on the current generation has something to do with that. You have been a very important part of the perception of the sound of modern music.
JG: Oh, thank you for saying that, Pat.
PC: I have to ask: will you be following up the best-selling Christmas album of the new century with a new holiday volume anytime soon?
JG: [Laughs.] Talk about daunting! When you have recorded a Christmas album that sold as many copies as that did - which was so surprising to me; I just thought it would be a nice little side project where I would sing some of the songs I grew up with and it just became this gigantic juggernaut. So, the quick and easy answer is: yeah! Sometime I would like to tap back into that well and see what more we could do with a holiday theme, but it has to be the right time.
PC: It will be hard to beat NOEL.
JG: You see, my goal with that record was to kind of create a chestnut, so to speak - the type of Christmas albums I grew up with; the type of albums I grew up listening to, where every year you took it off the shelf and listened to it. So, for me, personally, I will never not want to listen to my nostalgic Christmas albums that I grew up with.
PC: Such as?
JG: Oh, Gladys Knight & The Pips. Nat King Cole. Some of those big choirs, too. I mean, those are classic albums and I hope my Christmas album is a new classic for some people. Maybe one day....
PC: I would have thought Barbra Streisand's first Christmas album would be your favorite because it is so melancholy and sad!
JG: [Big Laugh.] Yeah, that actually is one of my favorites, too.
PC: She recorded a fantastic original Christmas song that Stephen Sondheim penned just for the second one, a reworked "I Remember". It would fit your voice like a glove. Do you know it?
JG: Yes. I have heard it. And, I agree - it is a beautiful and melancholy song; it is wonderful. I'd love to do it. You're right - you're giving me some great ideas!
PC: Another one: what about SWEENEY TODD someday? The ultimate baritone role. Your voice is so well-suited to it.
JG: Oh, you're making my day with these suggestions, Pat! Absolutely. You know, I grew up worshipping Stephen Sondheim, so, seriously, if I could think of the coolest Broadway-esque moments I've had over the last ten years, certainly making his acquaintance was one of them. I mean, to be able to sing for him at his birthday at the Hollywood Bowl was just... [Sighs.]
JG: Yeah. If I could think of one moment besides CHESS and that that I will never forget, it would be singing "Move On" with Barbara Cook at the Met for him. That was one of the greatest experiences I've had in my whole career. That was just such a fun night.
PC: Sondheim is such a generous genius, isn't he?
JG: He really is. He is so kind - such a kind guy. I remember I was all, "Mr. Sondheim! Mr. Sondheim! Mr. Sondheim!" that night and he just said, [Monotone.] "Call me Steve," and gave me a big hug. [Laughs.]
PC: What a great memory. This was absolutely awesome, Josh. Thank you so much for this today.
JG: I can't thank you enough for this, Pat. I love your column and I love what you write about, especially now that I have just moved to New York and I can see all of it. I love reading about it all. I really appreciate this. Bye.