Art Talk with Josh Groban

by Paulette Beete
Standing publicity shot of singer Josh Groban

Josh Groban. Photo by Olaf Heine

"Art matters because it is the one true great connector in a world that seems to be very unconnected, and it's important now more than ever to shine a huge light on that connectivity that we have, that we often forget." -- Josh Groban 

The best way to sum up Josh Groban in one word? Surprising. There’s the familiar vaguely pre-Raphaelite curls, the boyish face (though he’s now a ripe old 33), and of course, that voice that is both expansive and earnest. But there’s also the impish Groban who makes self-deprecating video selfies for his fans on his website, the hilarious Groban who’s got mad game on Twitter, and the Groban who dispenses mantra-like advice learned from uber-producer Rick Rubin (yes, that Rick Rubin--he produced Groban’s 2011 Illuminations). Don’t forget the passionate arts education advocate who helms the Find Your Light Foundation, the actor who’s guested on Ally McBeal and Glee, and broken Emma Stone’s heart in Crazy Stupid Love, and most recently the Groban who’s giving Ryan Seacrest a serious run for his money as the host of the ABC reality competition Rising Star. And while you may be familiar with Groban’s renditions of the adult contemporary hits "You Raise Me Up" and "The Prayer," he’s also covered songs by Glen Hansard, Nick Cave, Simon and Garfunkel, and Linkin Park. In other words, Josh Groban is so much more than you think he is. We spoke to him by phone on a media day for his summer tour--to promote his newest album All That Echoes--about songwriting, why arts education matters, and what Paul Simon has in common with a Transformer.


NEA: How long have you been writing your own material and what led to you making that leap from just singing?


GROBAN: My first album I didn't write anything at all, and I was absolutely okay with that. And I'm still okay with it. But the problem was that once you hit, once you break into the business… you start to get people writing for you and you start to get inundated with songs and ideas and people wanting to push their stamp on you. I'd always written; I just didn't know what I was doing was writing. I’d had a piano since I was a kid and every day after school I would come home and I would improvise. I would just sit at the piano; I taught myself to play piano…. It was my way of getting out all the angst from school life out of my system. I didn't view it as writing; I viewed it as almost therapeutic. Cut to when I had a record deal--and I was continuing to play and play and play and play--and I realized that so many of the songs that were coming my direction were not me. They weren't my vision; they weren't my life. They weren't my stories, and they weren't melodies that really connected with me. They were melodies that felt like "Ah, if I sing this maybe we'll get a radio hit," or they felt very formulaic. Rick Rubin [the producer] said it to me best once, and he said you have to write songs that are coming from you and not just being presented by you as a vocalist and as a generic voice. And that was it. It started out as frustration, kind of saying, "I don't want to sing this." I said, “Okay, if you don't want to sing, get off your ass and use all the improvisation stuff you've been doing and structure it. Learn about how to formulate a song and take the risk and decide you're going to do this now.” Because it is a risk. People aren't going to want to see you go outside your box, and so I've been very lucky that I've had  the support from great producers to do that because it's made my singing and my career much more versatile and meaningful to be able to do that.


NEA: What do you think makes a great song?


GROBAN: What makes a great song? I think that a great song is something that can be expressed truly by the person who writes it. It has to be something that is unique to them and a story that is right for them and lyrics [and] notes that are right for that voice. I mean, when I write I'm always thinking about “Can I sing this honestly?” But then I think, at the same time, a truly great song has to have universal legs so it can have that connection and appeal to other people so they can sing it and wrap their own story around it, wrap their own voice around it. And those songs that could be done in any genre and still have the same effect I think are the ones that stand the test of time. I'm always really honored when I hear people of different genres covering stuff that I've written, that's always fun. For me, I like covering other people's songs in a way that they would not have expected perhaps, and I think that's the best sign. And truly simplicity is oftentimes the key to that. It's just a melody you can't get out of your head and something that just is so good and so simple, why didn't someone else write it first?


NEA: Do you think there’s a story that you’re always trying to tell or a set of questions that you continually return to as a songwriter?


GROBAN: I think that every song is different and written for different reasons, but yes, generally it starts with an unexplained kind of tension that you have within yourself. It's because generally there are unanswered questions within yourself. It doesn't have to be angsty or bad, but it's in you and sometimes the only way to get that out or exorcise it is to get it out on the piano and to play it out. And sometimes you need to do that for different reasons. There are days where you just had a crap day and you're really angsty and you feel like your heart’s been broken or something like that and you just say to yourself, Okay what's the melody that expresses how I feel right now? Sometimes you see a story or a person you connect with in a book or a story that's going on in the world or whatever it is and [writing music  is] your way of expressing how you feel about it. And then with the lyrics you can choose as to how specific you want to get. I tend to like, and Rick Rubin said this to me too, I tend to like stuff that's a little more poetic, a little more universal, stuff that people can interpret as they will, put their own stories into it. I'm not much of a journal entry kind of writer. But the meaning is there and the personal nature of it is always there.


NEA: How much do you keep the audience in mind when you're writing?


GROBAN: Keeping my audience in mind is always at the forefront of my creative process but only so much as to say that I feel, especially at this point, but I've always tried to feel this way, that really trying to write the best thing possible for me and also trying to think of my audience every step of the way is not a different thought process. That generally I feel like if I go about it in a way that is honest and give meaning to all the emotion, we're all human and if I'm doing something that my fans have liked, then generally we agree a lot of the time on what's right. If I have a big emotional connection to something, generally they do too. If there are times when I put something out there and I say "I just don't know, maybe in the back of my head this could have been better," they feel the same way. I've never felt like I've been able to pull one over on them either…. So I generally think that I write for myself and I write for my own meter, my own goosebump meter, and if I do that well then generally they're with me too.


NEA: How do you know when a song is done, when it's ready to go out into the world?


GROBAN: It's a great question and one that I've had to continue to find the answer to even 13, 14 years in the business out. When I first started, David Foster [who was my producer] had to say to me "Josh it's done, be done with it," cause I would sit with earphones on and I would try to find any little blemish, any little thing that was just not perfect. David would have to say to me, "People are looking at what we've done already. They love it; it's got a specialness to it. Don't mess with it." I'm a perfectionist, and as a perfectionist sometimes you have to let go of it before you yourself think it's perfect because there's a magic to it, because there's a pathos to it. So I think when it's truly done it's a combination of those things that you were really anal about, but then I also think it's a combination of that with the thing that even you as the writer weren't necessarily expecting to happen or had little to no control over…. Maybe it's a scratch lyric that you put in there not thinking about it. “Oh I'll just put this in there just as a place-holder.” And for whatever reason [it will have] a real connection to people. And you're thinking to yourself, “That's just a scratch lyric. I'll go finish that later.” No, it's got a connection. It came out of you. It worked. Accept that that's what it is and move on. I think that as a writer it's very easy to over-control even what you're writing yourself, and sometimes you just have to let the music do its thing.


NEA: Who are some of the songwriters you admire?


GROBAN: I was a huge Paul Simon fan. I was a fan just of his lyric writing and his poetry. I was a fan of his take on Americana with Simon and Garfunkel. And then when he of course brought such a cross-pollination of world music that as [a young] kid totally opened my eyes to Peruvian music, to South African music, to New Orleans music. He was one of those with Peter Gabriel and David Byrne and a lot of those guys who weren't afraid to infuse pop music with world and folk music. And something just lit up in me. I was like, “Oh my god, what are these sounds? What is this rhythm? Because you were listening to a guy who kind of sounded, for all purposes, he sounds a little square when he's singing. He's a very literal folk singer. He doesn't really swing a whole lot in his singing. But he surrounded that with all this flying off the walls rhythm and sound from different parts of the world. And he made it fit. So that to me was a really big turning point for me where I was able to see that his world and their worlds came together in a way that never could have existed alone. And they created this thing together where both of them were kind of dissonant, but together they are like Transformers--they came together to make this thing that is unique. And it's a huge challenge especially in today's kind of pop industry, [which] starts to feel more and more homogenized. I'm not sure if Graceland would be at the top of the charts today, which is scary. But that kind of thing really inspired me.


NEA: I know you're a big supporter of arts education programs. You've done master classes for Young Arts and promoted arts education in other ways. Can you talk about why you think arts education is so important, and how that informs your vision for the Find Your Light Foundation?


GROBAN: I was fortunate enough to have had a really wonderful arts upbringing. I grew up in Los Angeles, and my parents are artistic but not in the arts. They saw the passion in me and they exposed me to a lot of culture and art. I was able to get the bug and then go to arts camps like Interlochen and places like that. And I had the ideal artistic foundation to do what I'm doing. I grew up and started to realize that this is something that is essential for, I think, the well-roundedness of young people. It's something that is a necessity for growth and for universal values and for self-expression. It can help in so many different ways. As somebody who was one of the very lucky ones I kind of looked at it as a challenge, as a duty to try and provide other young people the same experience I was lucky enough to have. So part of that has been my collaboration with great organizations that do that like NEA and American for the Arts. And then with my foundation, Find Your Light, which started with a check that my fans gave me for $70,000 when I was playing the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. They'd taken all the autographs, put them on eBay, and gave the money back to me saying, “We want you to start a foundation.” So together we've raised a couple million dollars and we try to find those schools where the instruments are thrown away and the programs are getting cut. We're doing our best to reach out to those schools that reach out to us for help. And so it's an ongoing process that I have found to be to most rewarding in my career.


NEA: Someone asked you about arts education on a Facebook chat, and you said "We need to make sure that we have solid arts education in our schools so (like it or not) they get exposed to it." How do you get those kids interested that just don't see the value of the arts in their day-to-day lives or just don't think the arts are for them?


GROBAN: I think that the reason that having [arts education] as part of the curriculum is so important is that in the same way that having math is so important or having English is so important or creative writing or whatever it is, physical education, there are some kids that just don't want to go outside and having that exercise is good for them…. I hated math, but I took it and I'm glad that I took it. And by the way for every one of me that hated it there was another one who thrived in it and who has now become a business manager or a lawyer or a mathematician. It's important to have [arts] in the curriculum so that the kids that won't normally have any interest in it get exposed to it. They become more well rounded and it teaches them about universal connective tissue that we have as human beings. Maybe after class they won't do anything else with it. It'll just ruminate in their heads and they will have become better people just like the other courses make them better people. And then there are the kids who are like me or the math wizard or the English wizard who are going to go on to be a professor or a novelist. There are the kids that wouldn't normally get the exposure that by having that course gave them that pinpoint of light…. I know what a hellish experience [school] can be [until] you find that thing that you say this is for me. This is my truest way of communicating. I can I put up with all the other nonsense that goes on at this age because I have this goal, I have this thing that I am enjoying doing. The arts did that for me, and if the arts can do it that for one person in a class, two people in class, ten people in a class, whatever it is, then it will show itself as being worthy of being part of the curriculum because it is giving those kids something that they would not have otherwise known existed in the world.


NEA: My last question is a fill-in-the-blank. Art matters because...


GROBAN: Art matters because it is a hate-killer. Art matters because it is the one true great connector in a world that seems to be very unconnected, and it's important now more than ever to shine a huge light on that connectivity that we have, that we often forget. 


If you liked this interview, you may also like our interviews with Jake Shimabukuro, Herb Alpert, Samantha Crain, and Renee Fleming