Sundance Q&A: Josh Groban. No, seriously.
A few weeks ago, my colleague Simon Vozick-Levinson posted a PopWatch item wondering if the first-week sales totals for Josh Groban’s Noël — 669,000 copies sold — were just one digit off from indicating the bombastic young singer had a close and personal relationship with Satan. (The record went on to sell more than 3 million copies, making it the highest-selling album of 2007.) Nearly 100 of you responded, many violently, defending the singer and calling poor Simon a variety of not-so-nice names.
Whether Simon deserved it for poking the wasp’s nest is beside the point. All I know is that when I heard Groban would be performing a small acoustic show here at Sundance, I had to grab a couple minutes with him to get to the bottom of his fans and their devoted behavior. After the jump, my exceedingly pleasant — and dare I say opinion-altering — conversation with the man himself, in which he discusses fan loyalty, his plans for the Grammys, the surprise success of Noël, and moving away from “the glossy thing.”
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ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What the hell are you doing atSundance?
JOSH GROBAN: Oh man. Just FREE STUFF. No. I canceled all myswag suites to go see movies, and I’m glad I did.
What was the best thing you saw?
I was expecting to like the Patti Smith documentary [Patti Smith: Dream of Life] morethan I did. I was really giddy to see it, because I love who she is on stageand was looking forward to seeing who she is offstage, but it just lackedstructure, it was too long, it was a little bit self-indulgent.
And I heard it wasn’t much about the ’70s.
But there’s such a story there! And that’s the thing, even adocumentary is still a story, and it was just kind of like, She’s onstage, nowshe’s backstage…. It was interesting, and I liked watching the footage, but Iwould have liked to have known more about her family and the ’70s and all thethings she did to break those rules and become such an icon. And then I saw areally cute film a couple nights ago called The Deal, written by WilliamH. Macy. I thought it was really funny, and I love William H. Macy. Meg Ryanand LL Cool J are great in it, too.
How long have you been here?
Four or five days? The official reason I’m here is cause I’msinging.
Wait, you sing?
Uh. I’m starting to get into that a little bit. You know. Ican’t be a drummer forever. My band’s not too happy about that, but there’s avoice in me, and I know I can get it out.
There was some rumor on the Internet that you were heredoing a concert for Brad Pitt last night?
I heard that rumor, too. I love that rumor. I’ll take it.No, I think at one point he was interested in showing up last night, but hecouldn’t make it. You know, he’s one half of Brangelina. He’s a busy man.
He’s gotta save New Orleans.
I’d much rather him be there than at my show. But anyway,last night we did a benefit for my foundation, and it was really fun, we raiseda lot of money.
What’s your foundation?
It’s just called the Josh Groban Foundation. It started twoyears ago through a check that my fans gave me backstage at a show for $25,000.They knew that I always sang for charities, they knew that was something thatwas part of my life, but I didn’t have my own foundation at that point. So theycame up to me and said, ”All this money that we’ve gathered, we want you tohave in your pocket. We want you to have a foundation.” So my mom and I havejust kind of been doing it. We’ve raised $2 million so far.
And what’s it benefiting?
Organizations that generally benefit children around theworld through music, health care, and education. We try to find those placesthat fall through the cracks, where a little bit goes a long, long way. Werefurbished an orphanage in Durban, South Africa. We found a place in L.A. called the South Central Gifted Scholars fund, which is for kids who areabsolutely brilliant in hopeless surroundings. It’s a combination of hometownstuff, giving back to the music education I had in Los Angeles, and then stuff we find aroundthe world.
You mentioned your fans, so I have to ask you about this:You fascinate me, because you’re this guy who obviously has this great sense ofhumor, and yet your fans tend to be a little humorless when defending you. [Grobanlaughs] Like, if anyone writes anything even hinting at making fun ofyou…
Is that NEW to you from fans? [Laughs]
But they’re a specific breed. You, Rascal Flatts, Clay Aiken— what is it about you that compels these people to be so overprotective?
Um… I don’t know. They’ve got my back for sure when itcomes to that stuff. It certainly isn’t on orders from me. They’re very passionateabout the music. Maybe it’s the fact that it was kind of a slow climb from thebeginning. This wasn’t something that people wanted to pay much attention to,so my fans were very much grassroots. It spread because they were the onesgetting someone else to listen, stomping the sidewalk, because I was neverreally a press darling. And slowly but surely, we’ve made our mark. And I wishI could kind of tell them, ”I’m okay now. I can take care of myself. I don’tmind a little jab now and then.”
A colleague of mine wrote something alleging that the669,000 records you sold the first week of Noël were one flipped digitaway from the mark of the devil — 666 — so his theory was that Josh Groban isin cahoots with Satan.
Kind of mean, but funny. But so he got dozens of commentsdefending you. Someone wrote, ”Who the heck do you think you are, writing thisgarbage? Oh, and for the people that say you hate Josh’s music or whatever, Ipity you, your shriveled up from rap-crap brain, and your bleeding ears.”
Yeah. Well, every fan is their own individual with their ownbrain. I can’t take responsibility for anything they say or write.
Does it make you feel more self-conscious about not wantingto disappoint them, because you know they are so dedicated?
I know that whether or not I disappoint them has everythingto do with music, and nothing to do with whether EW writes something snarkyabout me. So I know that my position with them is that I’m gonna just keepmaking music that I like, and they like, and we’ll just keep moving forward.Personally, I don’t give a rat’s ass what people write about me in magazines. They do. So they’re gonna write you. You’re not going to geta letter from me, though. [Laughs]
Noël did end up selling more records than anything onthe planet last year. Did you see that coming? It’s just Christmas carols.
Not at all. It was a surprise. But all the ducks lined up.It gave me an opportunity to sing melodies that were really right for my voice,we had the opportunity to work with the London Symphony at Abbey Road, and whether you’re a fan ofChristmas music or not, these songs are absolutely gorgeous. I’d already had agreat year on tour, so the album was a gift for the fans, a chestnut I recordedfor them. It became a perfect storm. I was in Europe doing promotion for otherstuff when that came out in America,and was getting the numbers every week, and it absolutely boggled my mind. Iwas thinking, Really? Because Ididn’t expect ANYONE to sell those numbers anymore, least of all me.
What are your Grammy plans? Lots of rumors there, too.
I have been in talks with everyone at the Grammys, andcertainly everyone there has always been really supportive of me. And we’llsee. I don’t feel I have any right to talk about it if it’s not set in stoneyet, but there’s something that possibly might happen.
And you’re gonna be in town regardless?
Yeah. It’ll be my first time at the Grammys since I stood in with Celine [Dion] when I was 17, so that’ll be a nice moment for me.
Maybe they won’t make you sing opera this time.
[Laughs] They might.
I was scanning your Wikipedia page on my way over here, andit said your influences include Radiohead and Björk. For the hipsters whoaren’t as familiar with your music, can you point to where they can hear thoseinfluences? They might like that.
I think the influence I get from them is not so much a sonicone, but the idea that they went into a genre that had a specific identity, andthey broke that identity. They are genre-less. You go to a Björk concertbecause you like Björk, not because you’re an electronica fan. You go becauseshe has a personality, and she has a voice and a pathos that is unique fromanybody else. Radiohead did the same thing with rock and roll. They dismantledthe genre and made it their own. And I think more and more in this day and age,when record labels have a gun to their head, and everybody’s trying to get intocookie cutter mode and radio has become so much more compressed nonsense, I’minspired by anybody that wasn’t afraid to go out there and do it the hard way.And even though what I do is extraordinarily different from them, I think it’sbeen really fun for me to kind of do it that way, and kind of scoff at anybodywho couldn’t put us in a category and got mad at it. If I can see 10 years downthe road that somebody would say, ”I like Josh just for Josh” — not becausethey’re into whatever genre they’ve put me in at the moment — then that wouldbe successful for me. That said, I kind of like to dip into electronic music. Ihad a great time working with Imogen Heap on the last album, and people like[producer] Marius de Vries, who worked with Rufus Wainwright and David Gray.Through them, I’m having a really fun and interesting time using my voice indifferent ways, and surrounding it with not so much the glossy thing, buttrying to let it just be a little more naked.
Okay, last thing. I was once at the Rockefeller Centerskating rink with my mother, and three times in a row, they played ”You RaiseMe Up” as some dude proposed to his girlfriend in the middle of the ice.
Like, the song would come on, some guy would propose, thesong would end, and then I am not kidding you, it would start right back upagain as some other dude proposed.
And by the third person, we were like, this is ridiculous.
So my question is, How do I get that song out of my head?
[Laughs] I don’t know! If I could tell you that, canyou tell me how to get ”You’re Beautiful” out of my head? That’s the thingabout a hit song. I will never be able to get away without singing that song onstage. It’s just a damn near perfect song as far as its universal appeal. Itcan be about a friend, about getting engaged — anybody can listen to that song,and not only is the melody sweeping and beautiful, but the lyric is poignantbut generic enough to let anybody put their own story to it. And again, it wasa surprise for us. And I’m always flattered. You get the negative letters, Iget the ones from people saying, ”I got engaged to that song.” So. [Laughs,possibly at Simon’s expense]
And that’s why Josh Groban’s life is better than mine.