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With 'Illuminations,' Josh Groban sees the light

The singer's new album helps address a yearning to step away from his patented brand of high-gloss middlebrow pop and into Rick Rubin territory.

October 31, 2010|By Ann Powers, Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic

Josh Groban got confused after exiting a subway station into Greenwich Village on a recent gorgeous fall day in New York. "I'm at Minetta Street and 6th Avenue," he told his lunch date on the phone, citing an intersection that doesn't quite exist.

Josh Groban: An article about singer Josh Groban in the Oct. 31 Arts & Books section said that songwriter Dan Wilson collaborated on the Dixie Chicks album "Not Ready to Make Nice." The name of the album was "Taking the Long Way." Also, the article misspelled the word "click" as "clique" in one of Groban's quotes about why he wanted to take a new tack in his music. The quote should have read, "I was getting so tired of the click, so tired of singing to a synthesizer demo and then sitting there, watching the orchestra play to my demo." —

It was an understandable mistake for the 29-year-old singer, who'd moved from Malibu only a month earlier and hadn't yet mastered the veiny map of lower Manhattan. "I'll meet you in front of the American Apparel store," he finally said, choosing a natural landmark for a native Angeleno like himself.

Soon enough, the classically trained crooner regained his bearings, explaining how he'd almost rented an apartment on Minetta Lane (not Street) before choosing the convenience of a midtown high-rise. He was dressed for downtown, anyway, in a pageboy cap and jeans and trademark rough facial stubble, blending in with the students and aspiring creatives sitting in the Grey Dog Café, his favorite spot nearby. Of course, it's not that easy to tell the tourists from the residents in the Village these days. Groban can take his time adjusting.

"These past years have been very chaotic," said Groban. "I finally feel like I can relax." About two years ago, after nearly a decade as a tuxedo-clad vibrato jock whose deliberately majestic music helped define contemporary middlebrow pop — and sold millions of albums, including a Christmas release that topped the 2007 year-end charts — Groban decided to get lost.

"So many of the records I've made in the past, we've been striving for a perfect sound," he said. "I was getting so tired of the clique, so tired of singing to a synthesizer demo and then sitting there, watching the orchestra play to my demo. Yeah, we'd all high-five in the studio, like, 'That sounds great.' But it's not gratifying as a singer."

Groban was practically born into the world of L.A. studio high-fives; raised in Hancock Park and discovered as a teen by the producer David Foster, the epic-pop specialist behind talents ranging from Celine Dion to Charice, Groban is the kind of affable demigod who uses the phrase "he's a friend" to describe music industry kingpins and movie stars alike. In Los Angeles, he'd jog straight up Doheny listening to indie rock on his headphones to relax after studio sessions, and get snapped squiring starlets to the multiplex at the Grove.

New York offers different pleasures, not least of which is pedestrian semi-anonymity. He can walk to Lincoln Center to hear the New York Philharmonic and make lunch dates with Wynton Marsalis, whose ecumenical sermons on American music he fervently admires. His new management company, the rock-oriented Q-Prime, is based here. And though he recorded "Illuminations" in L.A. under the mentorship of Rick Rubin, rock's biker-bearded guru of authenticity, its feels like a New York record, its best songs falling somewhere between the Broadway stage and the cabaret at Café Carlyle.

The chances Groban had taken in the past, like covering Linkin Park songs, touring with the African singer Angelique Kidjo ("She's one of my best friends," he specifies) and collaborating with art-pop stars such as Imogen Heap, had left him wanting something different. His self-deprecating turns on television, playing himself in "Glee" or clowning around with Jimmy Kimmel, were only half-satisfying. A long relationship with actress January Jones had gone kaput in 2006: "This has not been a three-year period of grand love for me," he admitted. Thirty was starting to look like a midlife crisis.

"I've had to say to critics, 'Who are you to criticize me if I'm reaching a million people?'" Groban said of the four albums, centered around a baritone as big as a Pacific sunset, that made him America's most wholesome dream date. "I'm not going to dog someone if they're doing that. But I can only think of my quest. I've not been satisfied being merely a tone. I'm making the choice to venture off."

Groban's makeover is subtle on "Illuminations," which will be released Nov. 15. Instead of abandoning the style that made him famous, with its swelling strings, uplifting lyrics and careful cosmopolitan sheen, Rubin, best known for his work with artists including the Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, encouraged the singer to rework it from within.

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