Josh Groban on His ‘Harmony’ Album and Finding Peace With Livestreams as a ‘Testament to How Much We Need to Connect’
Since his 2001 debut, everything about vocalist and actor Josh Groban has been an evolution. The high lyric baritone with the big voice and four multi-platinum albums moved from covering songwriters’ operatic pop and lofty theater songs to penning his own more intimate, urbane material. These songs show up alongside those of such writers as Joni Mitchell and Kenny Loggins on his recently released “Harmony.”
Groban has also caught the intimacy bug by going from Broadway’s stages (for his debut in 2017’s “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812,” he won a Tony nomination for best actor in a musical) and the smaller screens of Netflix (2018’s “The Good Cop”) to singing in the shower on his socials (#showersongs). Luckily, Groban has also been on a “virtual concert tour” of interactive livestreamed events, with tickets on sale at JoshGroban.com/Livestream.
VARIETY: Your now-canceled comedy, “The Good Cop,” became essential quarantine viewing, with a cult audience really annoyed there’s no second season.
What’s filled your pandemic stay-at-home time?
When the quarantine started, I came off tour to go into lockdown. The music mindset, almost as self-preservation, took a back seat. I was scared like everyone else. It’s interesting how many of us went through our own solitary journey — learning new things — and that each of us believed we were going through such enlightenment alone. At first, I dusted off the kitchen counter to use up what I had in my fridge. Eventually I went down the YouTube rabbit hole, watching old videos of French chefs, and realized that, occasionally, cooking can be just salt, garlic, olive oil and heat. The most amazing things happen from simple ingredients. I saw correlations between making food and making music: nourishing for me, fun to create.
Before you got into full-blown livestreaming performance, you began broadcasting from your shower. Discuss.
I moved into a new house, had a keyboard in my bedroom, was asked to be part of an at-home concert series and, at some point, someone requested songs that were way more anthemic than the reverb in my bedroom suited. As a joke, I brought the iPad into my bathroom and told everyone I would sing in my shower if they sang along. When I finished, my manager texted to say how awesome it sounded, and that I should do more.
Was it out of sheer boredom or being a reverb snob that you did more concerts with a camera in your shower?
Yes. From there, I set up real livestreams, upped the sound and visual quality, and gave my crew the opportunity to work. Now, we have to see how winter goes (in regard to the pandemic). Maybe I’ll be back in the shower.
How comfortable are you with how cold more formal livestreams can be?
Comfort is a learning curve. Not hearing applause after a song is finished? I knew it would be awkward, but you never realize just how many inner demons singers have until there’s crickets at the end of a live number. If you’re doing a 90-minute show, it is a marathon for our energy level to not get validation. What helped, eventually, was interactive Q&As which added some spontaneous back-and-forth. It’s a testament to how much we need to connect that we’re OK with all this. The livestream experience could have been a failed experiment.
Though your evolution shows how capable you are of rich nuance and great dynamics, you are a big singer with a big presence; Orson Welles called it “the king role.” Considering that, how did you choose material for “Harmony” differently than, say, your first album?
I get the Orson Welles thing. As a singer, you’re looking to grow and expand the colors you can put in a song, whether it is kingly or intimate. The greatest growth a singer like me can have is finding ways to shade, and to find the quieter moments. That’s almost harder than showing off the big notes. You have to do what is honest within the realm of your voice.
Let’s talk about “The Impossible Dream.” The first thing some of us think of, seeing this on the “Harmony” track list, is singers of the past who tackled it, and the kitsch of Robert Goulet and Jim Nabors. How did you reclaim it as something un-kitsch?
The song’s a little trapped in time. Whenever there’s grandiose, baritone, inspirational songs — something that lives in our psyches or the cultural zeitgeist long enough — it can become a caricature. Part of the job of reinterpreting or revisiting something that unfairly took on that life is to, in the words of my voice coach, look at the lyrics. Take it back to the words, and the rest will follow. The words are gorgeous and relevant to all that’s going on now. Get rid of the accidental, undeserved kitsch stigma and you realize how beautiful a message this song is. Caged in as we are by this environment, the only way we can get ourselves to a place of proactivity and hope is to dream.
So maybe “The Impossible Dream” was cheesy once, but there isn’t room for cynicism now?
We have to build ourselves up to a point where we can beat the unbeatable foe, because we’ve been feeling so squashed by it for so long. So you just stand in front of a mic and go for it.
Is there something on “Harmony” you couldn’t have performed a decade ago because you hadn’t experienced its interiors?
I probably share this opinion with my duet partner (Sara Bareilles) when I say Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” Not for lack of wanting to do it. You just have to really have lived to get there. My favorite version is Joni’s own reinterpretation from 2000. I’d have to imagine it means different things to her now than when she first recorded it… When it came to us doing “Both Sides Now,” now, Sara had and got over COVID. We both had friends who died from it. I was finishing the album; I just texted her and thought this might be the best time to do it. That’s a great example of holding out for all the right reasons.