Josh Groban finds fresh inspiration from his adopted hometown and tries out a new sound on his fifth studio album.
Josh Groban’s last studio album, the Christmas-themed Nöel, was the biggest-selling CD of 2007 and has gone on to sell 5 million copies — as big a number as you’re likely to see in these tumultuous record-industry times. Nonetheless, Groban says that for his highly anticipated follow-up, “I felt like it was time to grow a little bit.” That’s right, folks: This 29-year-old singer won’t be satisfied until every last resident of Earth has joined the Josh Groban fan club.
In reality, the growth Groban sought on Illuminations (143/Reprise Records, $19) was of the artistic variety. “I had gotten very comfortable making four very successful records in a very specific way,” he says over an iced latte at West Hollywood’s members-only Soho House, “and I felt like I needed to be scared again. It was time to try something new.”
To make that happen, he recruited producer Rick Rubin, best known for his work with rock bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Metallica, as well as for a series of late-career collaborations with Johnny Cash. “Rick wasn’t trying to reinvent my wheel,” Groban clarifies. “He was just trying to make it more pure.”
The result certainly succeeds in that regard: Where on his previous records Groban’s vocals were sometimes overpowered by stadium-grade pop-classical arrangements, Illuminations offers a more stripped-down sound, one that allows you to appreciate the grain and the detail in his singing. “I like the idea that nothing was recorded with any kind of enhancement or compression or tuning,” he says. “The knobs were not utilized.” That intimate sonic character in turn inspired a newly personal approach toward songwriting, much of which Groban did with former Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson, a Rubin-camp regular who also contributed to the Dixie Chicks’ Grammy-winning
album Taking the Long Way
“Part of the mystery of Josh is that he’s a pretty normal guy whose voice just happens to be this force of nature,” Wilson says. “It’s so powerful that it makes you imagine that his persona must be like that, too — that he’s on the prow of the ship buffeting these storms at sea. Once we had time to just hang out, that Zeus-like illusion went away and we could really get into what he wanted to write about.”
Among those topics was Groban’s fascination with New York City, where he recently relocated from Los Angeles, his lifelong home. (One of Illuminations’ highlights is a wintry ballad called “Bells of New York City.”) “I’ve always felt a real connection to the city,” he says. “I love walking around, going to a park and reading a book, you know? I just think everybody who goes to New York feels enriched in some way or another.” Of course, Groban says with a laugh, for a media star about to enter the promotional fray yet again, there’s a practical angle to his move as well. “When I got a fruit basket for my 70th stay at a certain hotel,” he says, “I was like, ‘It’s time to get a spot here.’ ”