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Josh Groban enjoys a year of changes

for Journal Register Newspapers

Posted: Friday, July 15, 2011

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Josh Groban certainly doesn’t have anything broken or in need of fixing in his career.

The 30-year-old classically trained singer has sold more than 24 million albums worldwide — 21 million of them in the U.S. He’s notched 14 Top 20 Adult-Contemporary hits and has guested on albums by Nelly Furtado, Placido Domingo, Barbra Streisand, Charlotte Church and Groban’s producer, David Foster.

And for fun he’s dabbled in acting, cameoing on TV’s “Ally McBeal” and yucking it up with late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel — setting Kanye West tweets to music for his most recent appearance. And on July 29 Groban will make his feature film debut in the romantic comedy “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”

It’s all part of what Groban calls a “strange, serendipitous” life. But where most would simply stay the course, Groban has made some significant changes during the past year — on his latest album, “Illuminations,” and on the tour to support it.

“Illuminations,” Groban’s fifth studio release, came out in November and has already been certified platinum. But after 11 years of working with mentor David Foster, the producer who introduced him to the world by having him sub for an ailing Andrea Bocelli at the 1999 Grammy Awards ceremony, Groban hooked up for “Illuminations” with Rick Rubin. The Grammy Award winner — whose résumé ranges from early hip-hop heroes such as Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys to rockers Slayer, Tom Petty and Kid Rock, country favorites the Dixie Chicks and iconic figures Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond — may seem like a strange bedfellow for Groban, but he and Rubin crafted a 13-song set that’s melodic with a more stripped-down kind of lushness than its predecessors.

And because Groban wrote or co-wrote 11 of the tracks, it also feels far more personal and more like the work of a songwriter than a singer.

“Up until this record I relied primarily on stuff that was off the shelf,” says Groban, whose last album, 2007’s holiday themed “Noel,” was a five-times platinum chart-topper. “When people start sending you songs, you either hit the jackpot, a song like (2003’s) ‘You Raise Me Up,’ or you get a whole lot of songs that you say to yourself, ‘Is this really what people think of me?,’ which is often the case.

“So one of the things Rick and I wanted to tackle was to add a personal flavor to whatever it is that I do and not just sing the same song and not rely on songs that maybe don’t mean as much to me personally. So he sent me off to write.”

Groban says he did have “a good set of cover songs that we could have done” for the album, but the writing — with collaborators such as Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, Rufus Wainwright and his late mother, Kate McGarrigle, and British producer Marius de Vries, among others — went well. Groban “was excited about what was coming out, so we just went there.

“I was looking for a nice challenge, and it was really very rewarding.”

He’s approaching this year’s Straight To You Tour in much the same mindset. Reflecting the more direct sonic approach of “Illuminations,” he’s stepped away from the orchestras he would hire in each city to accompany him, instead bolstering his rhythm section with string and brass quartets that travel with him and provide an opportunity “to really have an incredibly adaptable and focused and rehearsed (group) that can decided to go someplace that maybe we didn’t go the night before and stuff like that.

“It’s very, very easy to get out there and say, “OK, I’ve got a chance now to really get out there and put on a big show,” Groban explains. “But one of the things we’ve really learned in the past few years is the power of simplicity, the power of intimacy, the power of an honest to goodness connection with your crowd. That’s more of what I’m going for this time.”

Nevertheless, he promises, “it’s not going to be stripped-down in dynamic.”

“The energy will still be there; it’s not going to be like people are sitting in a living room. But we can be a little looser, and you can certainly expect the unexpected when it comes to the set list.”

Groban — who recently launched the nonprofit Find Your Light Foundation to help fund programs for apsiring musicians — also hopes these changes will also allow him to be more surprising to fans as his career goes on. With plans to be on the road into 2012 supporting “Illuminations” he’s not sure what will be next, but Groban does feel a fresh sense of freedom that he considers to be his new standard operating procedure.

“I just feel really blessed that I’m able to be in this game and play it by own rules,” he says. “I know that’s something that’s very rare, and it’s something I’m very grateful for.”

Unwitting infamy from U-M on Twitter

Josh Groban found himself the unwitting part of a big Michigan story last fall when embattled (and now former) University of Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez played the singer’s 2003 hit “You Raise Me Up” at the team’s annual banquet.

Rodriguez told the crowd that night that he found solace in the words of Groban’s song, which were written by Irish composer and novelist Brendan Graham. He then had the song played while he and the team held hands.

Groban recalls that he “saw Twitter blow up over something I had absolutely nothing to do with.” He added his own message to the mostly derisive onslaught, tweeting “Coach Rodriguez, I’m very flattered but crying to You Raise Me Up is SO five years ago.” Groban suggested Guns N’ Roses “Welcome to the Jungle” instead.

Groban, a Los Angeles native, has no lingering thoughts about what happened at Michigan, but he is a college football fan who rooted for the University of Southern California. “I really love college football,” he says. “It’s really fun to see that kind of passion and energy — minus the greed and scandal, of course.”

Josh Groban and ELEW perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, July 16, at the Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $99.50 and $79.50. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.

Web Site: www.palacenet.com

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