The Josh Groban you don't know -- The balladeer's quirky side (he likes Grand Theft Auto!)

Ladies and gentlemen, here is the Josh Groban you know and love (or, quite possibly, loathe): he who has been an honored performer at the Vatican, the Olympics, and the Nobel Peace Prize Concert. He who, as the earnest poster boy of pop-classical crossover, makes grown men weep at the sound of his musical congress with Barbra Streisand and Celine Dion. And he who has perhaps single-handedly saved PBS from penury with his constant pledge-driving appearances.

The Josh Groban standing now in a spacious hotel suite overlooking New York’s Central Park, however, is not that guy. It turns out that Groban is actually kind of…cool. Dressed in a newsboy cap, jeans, and fashionably nerdy eyeglasses, the California native seems like any other 27-year-old guy. Indeed, once he’s finished discussing his new CD/DVD, Awake Live, he tells this reporter, ”when you leave, I’m going to lock myself in my room and beat Grand Theft Auto IV. I’m obsessed.”

But he’s not in any rush to dismiss his guest, either. Groban leads the conversation easily from stories about his beloved wheaten terrier, Sweeney, as in Sweeney Todd (”It was a much cooler name before the movie came out,” he says wryly. ”Thanks, Johnny Depp”), to his love of hip-hop, indie rock, and yes, videogames. ”I rarely get to show that I get the joke,” he acknowledges of his choirboy persona. ”But I’m really not as serious as I’m made out to be.”

He’s certainly taken steps to tweak his image lately, working with artists like Herbie Hancock and Imogen Heap, making a witty cameo in Jimmy Kimmel’s ”I’m F—ing Ben Affleck” video, and even hitting the town with party buddy John Mayer on a recent night out in NYC. (Groban and his longtime girlfriend, Mad Men actress January Jones, split in 2006.)

It’s not all a ruse to hawk more records, either. He is now seven releases into a career that few can dispute has been incredibly successful — his Christmas disc, Noël was the best-selling CD of last year, and he has moved more than 18 million albums — but Groban remains a punching bag of sorts for his beyond-wholesome ”classical crossover” songcraft and bombastic opera-house arrangements. ”I think critics sometimes look for some deeper evil plot,” he says, ”but it’s just me. I’ve got this voice and these are songs I like to sing, and I hope you enjoy them. That’s all.”

Brought up in a close-knit, arts-minded home in L.A.’s Hancock Park neighborhood, Groban hooked in to music at an early age, and was encouraged to make the most of his innate gifts — within limits. ”My parents were always supportive and made sure I had a piano to play. But when I wanted drums,” he adds with a laugh, ”I had to write a four-page essay. It was like the kid in A Christmas Story.” A fortuitous friend-of-a-friend connection with his mentor, the Grammy-winning mega-producer David Foster, had him serenading an audience of 25,000 at then California governor Gray Davis’ inauguration with The Phantom of the Opera‘s ”All I Ask of You” at only 17 (”in a really ill-fitting tux,” he adds). By 20, his eponymous debut, produced by Foster, was a hit; it would go on to sell 6.5 million copies worldwide.

Awake Live, recorded last August in Salt Lake City, will feature many of his massively popular singles: ”You Raise Me Up,” ”Lullaby,” ”You Are Loved (Don’t Give Up).” But while he says he’s been ”adding my own identity to the music and doing more writing and producing,” don’t expect him to pull a sudden 180. ”I’m not going to scare you and suddenly be like, Josh Groban is Chris Gaines,” he promises, referring to Garth Brooks’ disastrous rock-star alter ego. ”No leather pants…I’m just a normal guy, really.” And with that, he’s off to play Grand Theft Auto. You can’t help but think he’ll probably beat it.

Groban’s Must List

The classical singer shares his current faves — from the highbrow to the low.

Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules
”It’s [edited] by David Sedaris and is introducing me to a lot of authors I like.”

Into the Wild
”Emile Hirsch was amazing. The album, by Eddie Vedder, is spectacular. I think it’s comparable to when Aimee Mann did Magnolia.”

Grizzly Bear
”I met them at this recent Paul Simon tribute in Brooklyn. They took Paul’s songs and they deconstructed them so brilliantly. Plus, they’re really nice guys.”

Guitar Hero
”I’m lightning fast on Guitar Hero. I think it comes from the piano playing. But it’s not like there’s Piano Hero or Voice Hero.”