Fans fell in love with Josh Groban’s powerful voice. Now his dry wit has turned him into a TV star
Josh Groban has enjoyed the sort of success that most singers can only dream of. Over his 20-year career, the 37-year-old California-born crooner, famous for his soaring renditions of songs such as You Raise Me Up and All I Ask of You from The Phantom of the Opera, has sold an astonishing 30 million records.
But despite his hordes of adoring (mainly middle-aged, female) fans, Groban says that, until very recently, he was largely shunned by his industry. “It’s changed with time,
but my early career was basically about me finding an enormous audience and being ignored by everyone else,” he grins, sipping Diet Coke in a Soho hotel. “I was one of the top-selling artists in the US, but no one was writing about me, I wasn’t being nominated, I couldn’t get a reservation in a restaurant. In the music world, I was a ghost.”
Having been spotted at age 17 while a student at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, Groban embarked on his career in the heyday of boy bands such as Boyz II Men and hip-hop stars such as Puff Daddy.
“They were the flashy poppy thing of the moment and then you had me – this teenager with a baby face and baritone voice singing songs about standing on mountains. Well, no thank you!” Groban smiles.
He felt the gulf most acutely during a 2002 trip to London, where he attended a party for Justin Timberlake’s first solo album.
“Justin was dancing in the middle of the club, with a circle around him and people coming out with bottles of champagne with sparklers coming out of them and an entourage with seven Range Rovers. I remember walking back alone to my hotel thinking, ‘Wow, that looks like a lot of fun. It’s a different universe.’”
Yet Groban never seriously considered reinventing himself as a pretty-boy rocker. “I can mimic Axl Rose at karaoke, but I knew to be true to myself, my path to longevity would be my purity of voice and singing the way I wanted to sound,” he says.
In hindsight, he’s also relieved to have avoided such intense fame. “I follow the popular singers on Instagram, and I think ‘Man, that yacht looks nice,’” he says. “But I already had a hard time dealing with the pressures of being plucked from school at 17 and thrown in front of a very much more educated and somewhat older fan base that expected quite a lot from me.
“If I’d also had all this hot air thrown at me and – God forbid – if I’d been introduced to other means of escaping the anxiety at that age, I think it would have steered me from the course.”
Bespectacled, with a neat beard and in a denim jacket, Groban still looks far more like a software developer than a megastar. Affable and completely unpretentious, his live shows are full of banter with his fans, or “Grobanites”.
Over the years, his quick humour has helped broaden his appeal, gaining him a social media following of around three million (though recently he’s stepped back on the tweeting, because “Twitter gives people the impression that every little thought they have is the most important thing that needs to be heard”). His dry, self-deprecating wit also made him a popular co-host of this year’s Tony Awards.
And it helped make his name here, after hilarious appearances on The Graham Norton Show and Never Mind The Buzzcocks.
“In America, for years they were like, ‘Don’t tell jokes just sing a song.’ In Britain, it was the other way round. There was an understanding of my weirdness from the get-go and the music came later. At first I was playing a half-filled Hammersmith Apollo, but every time I’ve played here, 1,000 people have told another 1,000 people, so I’ve gone on a trajectory that I like.”
It’s fair to say Groban has now “broken” Britain, last month headlining Proms in the Park alongside Gladys Knight and Joseph Calleja. In December, he’ll be at the O2 and Manchester Arena performing songs from his new, eighth album, Bridges, including lush covers of classics such as Bridge Over Troubled Water and his new powerhouse ballad Symphony.
Critics have long sniped at such middlebrow “crossover” fodder, something that once made Groban bristle, but now he’s toughened up. “Ultimately, if you count more people that like you than don’t, you’re doing OK. It’s easier said than done, as my shrink will say, but the more you talk to other artists, the more you realise there’s insecurity all round.”
His credibility’s been boosted by the long list of names he’s duetted with, which features Aretha Franklin, Neil Young and Andrea Bocelli, while producers he’s collaborated with include Metallica’s Rick Rubin and Björk’s Marius de Vries. “Nobody’s been more surprised at the musical worlds I’ve tapped into,” he says. Unfulfilled ambitions include working with Adele, Pharrell Williams, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and composer Philip Glass.
For now, Groban’s exploring a new type of crossover: being a leading man. Last year, he starred in the Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. And now he has his first high-profile TV role in a new Netflix comedy drama. The Good Cop stars Groban as Tony Jr, a by-the-book New York detective, who lives with his crooked ex-policeman father Tony Sr, played by Tony Danza, of Taxi fame.
The show has a charming Seventies feel, with the odd couple’s interactions overshadowing the often grisly cases. “[Show creator] Andy Breckman’s aim was to make a comedy that if you put on mute you’d think was a drama,” Groban smiles. “Right now all the cop shows are fighting with each other as to who can be grislier, edgier and more realistic. In contrast, he wanted to make a family-friendly, mystery-driven whodunit like Columbo or Poirot.”
Groban’s droll and – in the nicest possible way – slightly dorky persona makes him perfect for the role. “My character is pathologically honest, which makes Tony a real pain to be around, and in some ways I was able to draw from my very paranoid, anxious teenage life in playing him,” he laughs.
What – to paraphrase the Theresa May question – is the naughtiest thing he’s ever done? “She said running through wheat fields, didn’t she? Was she streaking? She wasn’t? Bless her! Yup, that’s my level of naughtiness. I have been known to speed and I drank a little at college wine and cheese parties – but I’d have been the legal age in the UK, so that’s not very impressive. I didn’t try weed until it was legal in California; I won’t try anything unless it’s technically allowed. I envy people who don’t stick to the rules. I wish I could have a bit more fun.”
The eldest of two sons, Groban had a middle-class “Norman Rockwellian” childhood in Los Angeles, but at school he was bullied. “I was shy, sensitive and very insecure until I did the first school play – then I thought ‘Aha! None of the rest of this matters’.”
Today, he lives in New York, though his girlfriend, writer and actor Schuyler Helford (past flames include singer Katy Perry and actor January Jones pre-Mad Men fame) is based in Los Angeles, meaning his most constant companion is Sweeney, his 14-year-old Wheaten Terrier (named in honour of his favourite musical).
“Being a solo artist can be lonely. People change around you and sometimes have ulterior motives, so just to have this warm, fuzzy thing around is wonderful,” he sighs. Devoted Grobanites might say the same thing about his angelic voice booming from their speakers.
Josh Groban’s album Bridges and the Netflix series The Good Cop are out now. Touring in December