Josh Groban’s Rock Star Dreams Take Pop-Classical Route

Operatic young singer has platinum album and golden pipes.

He’s been on Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show and “Ally McBeal,” twice. He’s sung
with Celine Dion, the Corrs and teen classical sensation Charlotte Church.

He performed at the closing ceremonies of the Winter Olympics for an
audience of 2 billion, and his platinum debut recently broke into the
Billboard top 10.

But don’t feel bad if the name Josh Groban doesn’t immediately ring a bell.
It’s not like you’re going to hear a Neptunes remix of his latest hit. Not
yet, anyway.

“Everybody has those dreams of being a rock star when they stand in front of
the mirror,” the 20-year-old Los Angeles native said of his unlikely ascent
to pop stardom. “My parents exposed me to all kinds of music when I was a
kid. I had this love of telling a story with music. But when I realized that
I could sing I knew I had this kind of voice that was not a grunge-rock
voice.”

Turns out his voice is better suited to opera, though Groban prefers to call
his self-titled CD, released in November, a “pop album with classical
influences.” With the Richard Marx-penned power ballad “To Where You Are”
charting at adult radio, a lush version of the Johann Sebastian Bach wedding
staple “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and a handful of contemporary and
classical pieces sung in Italian and Spanish, Groban might be the most
unlikely pop star since those chanting Benedictine monks. Certainly the
smoldering eyes, the carefully coifed head of curly dark hair and a serious
set of pipes haven’t hurt.

The graduate of the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts is just as
comfortable wrapping that polished, rich voice around the sweeping title
theme to “Cinema Paradiso” or a cover of one of his favorite songs from
childhood, Don “American Pie” McLean’s “Vincent (Starry Starry Night).”

“I knew that I had to use my influences in all those genres and incorporate
that into the music I wanted to make,” said Groban, who was discovered by
Grammy-winning “Popstars” Svengali David Foster after performing at a 1999
inauguration party for California governor Gray Davis. That gig led to
Groban’s career-making opportunity to fill in for famed Italian tenor Andrea
Bocelli when the opera star was unable to rehearse his 1999 Grammy duet of
“The Prayer” with Dion due to a delayed flight. Once Rosie, who was in the
audience for the rehearsal, witnessed the singer she would later dub “opera
boy” (recently bumped up to Cruise-worthy “cutie patootie” status, he
noted), it was on.

“It’s hard to find edgy stuff that doesn’t sound cheesy in English,” Groban
said about the challenge of appealing to the Rosie-ites and young,
contemporary pop fans while not coming off like a Gen Y Michael Bolton. “And
as a new artist there’s always outside influences trying to tell you how to
make a song better for radio, how to do your hair.”

Those attempts at molding him into a more traditional pop star didn’t last
long. “I realized those things weren’t right for me,” he said. “I’m not a
good enough liar to look comfortable when I’m not. And, while it’s always
flattering to be compared to someone [like Michael Bolton] who has sold
millions of records, he’s a rock blues singer, which I’m not. Being compared
to Andrea Bocelli is also flattering, but I’m really not going to touch that
classical stuff for now.”

While everyone was trying to make the well-rounded Groban fit into a square
peg, a weird thing happened — his audience found him. He said he’s been
amazed at the breadth of ages and backgrounds of the thousands who’ve
weighed in on everything Josh at the forums on his Web site. Like him, they
listen to everything from System of a Down and Linkin Park to classical pop
singer Sarah Brightman and Luciano Pavarotti.

They range from a 58-year old Delaware housewife to a 20-something-male
Wal-Mart employee and a skateboarder from rural New York. Recently, a
13-year-old Korean girl from the Philippines, Veronica, waded into the land
fans call “Grobania” for the first time. She explained that while she loves
hip-hop, she has fallen for Groban’s “cute surfer style” and has learned to
love opera, even though she used to “easily get headaches from loud opera
singers.”

Working with the “pop, pop, pop”-leaning Foster clearly helped Groban avoid
some of the sticky pitfalls of being a young man in middle-aged diva’s game.
From reprising the Dion/Bocelli duet on “The Prayer” with Church to hooking
up with Rhys Fulber of techno duo Delirium for a pair of ambient pop
ballads, Groban’s album offers a little something for the entire rainbow
coalition of fans posting on his site.

“I was completely shocked when it entered the top 10,” Groban said shortly
after his ascent. “After the ‘Ally McBeal’ appearance it was peaking around
#41 for a while and I was getting a lot of pats on the back. Then, it
trickled back down and I thought, ‘Okay, this is where it probably belongs.’
I mean, how do I compete with the Pink’s and Goo Goo Dolls of the world?
Now, to be up there with them is incredible. I guess that shows that there
must be an audience for this music.”

For now, despite Rosie’s nickname, Groban said he will avoid singing opera
because it’s not where his heart is. “I’m just really interested in pushing
the boundaries of what pop music is now.”

I'm so fancy.