By Mikael Wood
Los Angeles Times
---- — LOS ANGELES — Last month Josh Groban’s “All That Echoes” knocked Justin Bieber’s new album out of the top spot on the Billboard 200, and that’s not the crooner’s only incursion into territory normally reserved for pop stars.
The crossover artist’s latest release features material by Stevie Wonder and Jimmy Webb, while a deluxe edition available at Target adds Groban’s take on the Dave Matthews Band’s frat-house staple “Satellite.” The album’s producer? Rob Cavallo of Green Day and Adam Lambert fame.
“Rob told me, ‘Make your wheelhouse bigger. You have more in you than you think you do,’” Groban, 31, said recently over coffee in West Hollywood.
Bookishly stylish in a wool cardigan and slim-fit jeans, the singer — an L.A. native who ascended the music industry’s ranks in the early 2000s with a series of records long on sweeping semi-operatic fare — measured his thoughts as he spoke, though he also kept an eye on a big-screen television showing an NFL playoff game. “He really kind of mentally slapped me around and said, ‘Look, we’ll know when it’s too far.’”
Groban’s outreach to pop and rock reflects a larger trend in the classical-crossover scene that encompasses platinum-selling artists such as Andrea Bocelli, Sarah Brightman and Charlotte Church: Where these singers once strove to make classical repertoire safe for pop audiences, they now seem more interested in remaking pop as the stuff of everyday sophistication.
Three years after having the No.1-selling album of 2007, the holiday disc “Noel,” Groban initiated his move toward pop with “Illuminations.” Co-written under the supervision of rock/hip-hop producer Rick Rubin, the album was satisfying creatively, says Groban, but it didn’t sell nearly as well as its predecessors. It was an experience that left the singer feeling “a little gun-shy” about further experimentation. “The music-business side of me for a minute was like, I read the Amazon reviews of ‘Illuminations,’” Groban said. “What do the fans want to hear?”
Whatever the answer, he decided against a return to his initial style. Indeed, with its electric guitar and muscular rock drumming, “All That Echoes,” feels in some ways bolder — less classical, more crossover — than the quieter “Illuminations.” Groban delivers sharp melodic hooks with arena-ready gusto in “Brave” and “False Alarms,” which he co-wrote. And he closes the album with a stirring rendition of Wonder’s “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)” that climaxes with R&B vocal runs better suited to the church than to the cathedral.
“This is an evolution record for Josh,” said Cavallo, who also heads Groban’s label, Warner Bros. Records. “He’s classical, but he’s also rock; he’s traditional but also modern. I think we’re just starting to see what he’s all about.”
Groban said that push toward self-definition needn’t equate to a journey out of the pop-classical scene. Referring to acts such as the Tenors and Bocelli — the latter of whom Groban famously stood in for during a 1999 Grammy Awards rehearsal — the singer insisted, “I’m proud to be (associated) with artists of that caliber.” But like many of those peers, he sees room within the genre for change. At this point, he said, “the formula bores the hell out of me.”