Keys to success
The award-winning singer-songwriter Josh Groban talks exclusively to Sorted about his breakthrough duet with Celine Dion, a $50,000 surprise, and why he wants to replace Noel Fielding on Great British Bake Off…
How did you choose the songs you covered on your new album?
Part of the early process was getting a piano and singing through songs I’ve wanted to sing for a long time, songs people shared with me that they thought might be right or that they just love, and songs I haven’t listened to in a long time, but which have new meaning with what you’re going through in your life. Also songs where fans have said over and over, ‘Please sing this song!’
One of the good things on social media is talking about music, and fans telling you songs they love hearing you sing. You start to realise what feels good in your voice, and feels good in your soul.
It’s daunting picking classic songs that people know. In some ways it’s scarier than writing your own, because these songs have meant so much to people – they’re soundtracks to people’s lives.
I was surprised that you covered Robbie Williams’ song Angels alongside more established classics. How did that come about?
I love Robbie Williams, and America loves Robbie Williams! I grew up listening to those songs – they were part of my high school and college life. He has so many eras of amazing music, and that song has a message I love right now.
The song will always be Robbie’s – but like any great song, it can be done a number of ways. When you try to tackle a song that’s so beloved, by an artist who’s so beloved, you want to honour it, but you also want to try your own style on it, so I had fun singing it. When we finally get touring again, I’m going to have so much fun singing it live. Maybe I’ll get to sing it with Robbie!
You’ve done duets with the most amazing people including Barbara Streisand, Johnny Mathis, and Placido Domingo. Who’s been your favourite person to duet with?
The most life-changing duet for me was with Celine Dion when I was 16, and I was asked to sing The Prayer – that was the moment that started the trajectory of having a career in this business.
It made my life to sing Bridge Over Troubled Water with Paul Simon in New York, and I’ll never forget singing with the great Aretha Franklin at Radio City Music Hall for Nelson Mandela – but my favourite duet ever was with my dad.
I’d recorded Old Devil Moon with the great trumpet player Chris Botti, but Chris was touring and wasn’t able to do our LA concert. My dad had played trumpet all through college, then put it away for 30 years. I said to my dad: ‘You’ve got three months. Dust off the old trumpet, learn this song, then I want you to come up on stage!’ The song’s from Finian’s Rainbow, which is the first musical I had a lead role in, so doing that and being able to call out my Dad on stage – it meant a lot to us.
What inspired the two original tracks on the album?
I write my best songs on an airplane, or on a walk, just putting it into my phone, but whenever I unexpectedly have an idea, it’s always in a place that’s not convenient to write a song! I’ll have to wake myself up out of bed, or towel off and put my clothes on.
This album was going to be all covers. I thought, ‘The album after this, I’ll start refilling the tank to write again.’ But the world changed, and all I had was time by myself, and a piano. I listened to music to feel better, and get inspired, and I played the piano to express myself.
Writing these songs was therapeutic for me and I recorded them in my bedroom. They felt right for me, right now, because they express the hope, the gratitude and the idea that we have to take stock of the simple things in our lives that give us the most joy.
You’ve performed at the Vatican, the Emmy Awards and Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration – to name a few! Is there one performance that stands out to you?
I’ve been lucky to perform on so many wonderful stages. One of the most special was making my Broadway debut with my family flown in from LA, because that was my first dream, from that dorm room bed, when I wondered if I should sign the record deal. I knew I was giving up an amazing musical theatre education to take this risk, so all those years later, to step out on a Broadway stage for the first time in a lead role, with my parents in the audience, was very special. Particularly after all the countless theatre productions I did at school, and making costumes in my bedroom, and the flood of memories of what this meant to me growing up. It’s amazing when you can see things through the lens of your family, so whenever they’ve been in the audience, it’s meant a lot to me.
I read that you were raised in a Christian household. In what way has that shaped you?
I was raised in an interesting household, religiously. My father’s side of the family is Jewish, and my mom’s side were raised Episcopalian. Growing up, we had Christmases, but the idea of faith was more open-ended. My brother and I were raised on humanism and love, and the idea that we could find, in our own ways and our own time, a personal connection to spirituality. We didn’t have Bible study, we were just taught the tenets of trying to be a good person, and loving somebody as you’d want to be loved. I felt lucky that I was raised with that kind of love and understanding.
I wouldn’t say I fall into one religion, necessarily – especially now. Having a tightly controlled life, and wanting to know all the answers can lead to cynicism when it comes to faith, but I’ve felt more comfortable, especially in the last four years, being OK with a wider notion of faith in terms of just putting my hands up and letting go, and being at peace with what’s unknown.
If I were to go back to school, I’d love to study all religions. I have wonderful conversations about art, religion and politics, and how it’s all intertwined. I’m still on that journey, I’m still trying to define it, but also I feel a deep sense of peace in the not so defined.
What are the highs and lows of fame?
It’s a privilege to have a voice and a platform, where you can express yourself and people want to hear your expression. It’s incredible travelling around the world and seeing it through the lens of music – you realise we all have so much in common.
Travel is sometimes a pitfall too – you have to leave your friends and loved ones behind. It’s lonely, especially as a solo singer. You’re constantly in a recording studio, or a tour bus, or a hotel room, so you’re experiencing a lot, but often in an isolated way.
You get a lot of praise and criticism. There’s so much noise, and sometimes it’s hard to listen to your truest inner voice. You have to learn to trust your instincts. I try to amplify those instincts and that voice, to remember the nucleus to who you are, why you’re here, why you love to do this, and what makes you you. When there’s a hype around you, that can be hard to go back to.
You’ve popped up on some brilliant TV shows like Glee, Ally McBeal and The Muppets. Are there any TV shows you haven’t been in yet that you’d still like to be in?
I’ve been in so many shows I’ve loved, like The Office and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I’d love to have been in Breaking Bad playing a real bad guy, and if I could bring back Peewee’s Playhouse I’d want to be in that. It was my Saturday morning show and the most amazing actors made cameos in insane outfits.
I’m starting to get into cooking and I’d love to take a lesson on one of the cooking shows. If Noel wants a break from Great British Bake Off I’d volunteer. I’d be a terrible judge, but it would be incredible – my whole face would be covered in frosting!
You’ve performed at a lot of charity events and you have your own charitable foundation. Why is it important to you to give back?
I love giving back to lots of charities, but the arts are something I have personal experience with. Growing up, I was lucky to have a family environment that nurtured the arts and arts education. My dad had played trumpet, and my mom was an arts teacher before my brother and I were born, so they understood the value of the arts, and I got to go to arts camp, and take lessons, and see concerts at the Hollywood Bowl.
My fan base is so philanthropic, they surprised me with a $50,000 cheque at a concert. They stopped the show and said, ‘We’ve sold all our autographs and we’re giving this money back to you – we want you to start a foundation.’ So I created the Find Your Light Foundation which gives kids the experiences I was lucky enough to have growing up.
There are so many kids trying to cope with their neighbourhood, their family life, their school life. If we find real talent, that’s a bonus, but the main purpose is to give kids a purpose, because it’s proven that when the arts are incorporated into the curriculum, your whole life changes. Parents come to their school productions and they have something to talk about. Kids that had behavioural problems, or who felt shy and trapped inside themselves, suddenly, with a drum or a monologue or a dance, get to know their own thoughts and emotions for the first time, and the kid who was sitting in the back row starts sitting at the front.
The best way I can give back is to make sure as many youngsters as possible get to have that chance to express themselves through the arts.
What are your hopes for 2021?
We’re in a unique position now, in that many of our hopes are the same. Prior to this year, we all had our own treadmills we were running on, and our own thoughts about what we wanted to accomplish, what diet we want to try, all the stuff we wanted. I think this New Year’s Eve will be sobering for a lot of people, including myself.
In my country, we’re so divided. Between the election and the pandemic, we’re all exhausted, isolated and afraid, so my hope for ’21 is that we find vaccines, and get over this pandemic and connect safely with each other again, which is something we all crave. I hope we all come back to what makes us who we are. Music will play a big part of that for me. I’d love to travel and sing in front of an audience again – but my main hope for ’21 is that we start bridging the divide we have right now.