Godhead, or gimmick? A lot of Josh Groban fans have been waiting with bated breath to find out which it would be, ever since it was announced that the operatically voiced star would be working with Rick Rubin, the Beastie Boys' one-time Svengali. Rubin, of course, has been involved in the reclamation of many an artistic reputation in recent years, producing albums for legends like Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond. But Groban's previous albums with David Foster reliably sold millions apiece without any need for image rehabilitation.
Illuminations pulls off a neat hat trick: Mom will still love getting it for Christmas—and it will be blasting the tinsel off trees across America come Dec. 26, as is the music industry's fondest hope. But Mom's blogger son may be giving Groban a chance this time, too. It's not just the Nick Cave cover, either. There's an un-self-conscious austerity to the musical grandiosity this time that, per the title, puts Groban's gifts in a whole new light. And Rubin didn't even have to put him in a long black coat to do it.
We sat down with Groban and Rubin in the famous basement studios at Capitol Records while they were finishing up work on Illuminations. Here are excerpts from that conversation:
YAHOO: In working with Rick, were you wanting to signal a big musical change, or just looking to experiment a different mix of personalities?
GROBAN: This is my fifth record, and one of the things that attracted me to getting in the room with somebody new was just the idea of being a little bit scared again. I've made a lot of records in a relatively short amount of time. For me, it's very easy to get comfortable and to have kind of a security blanket of sound. I wanted to be in a position with this record where I could learn something. That's a risk, but I felt like that risk was greatly diminished just because of Rick's ear. Rick had said "We're gonna play to your strengths, and we're really gonna find and write A-level songs and just sing. People want to hear you sing." It was not a forced situation; it wasn't at all a gimmick or a feeling of "Let's do something different and change people's minds." We just really liked hanging, and we shared the same sensibilities about what we would do together.
YAHOO: Sometimes when Rick is working with somebody, that leads to words like "reinvention."
GROBAN: I think there's a certain reinvention, but not in the way that your idea of it is. I'll let Rick speak.
RUBIN: Sonically to me, it sounds a lot different than anything he's worked on before. And I do think we have really, really good songs, and that's one of the reasons it's really taken so long, because we spent a long time of both him writing songs and us finding songs, and then doing original-sounding arrangements, and making a really natural-sounding album. Oneof the buzzwords we used early on was the idea of it being "fine art," as opposed to it being classical-crossover pop. The feeling was more a true classical experience, without trying to modernize it. It's modern in a different way—for a different reason than it having a rhythm section, which a lot of the classical crossover records have.
GROBAN: I mean, my voice has always naturally fallen kind of in between two worlds. It's not anything I ever tried to do consciously. And there can be some confusion from a producer's standpoint of: how should I surround it? And the cool thing about what Rick and I have done together is, he has surrounded what I do naturally with the purest possible elements. Touring, we can do whatever we want. But instrumentally, with the fine art thing, we really basically said that if it can't be at (L.A.'s) Disney Hall or Carnegie Hall, we don't want that instrument on the record. If you like that groove, find a way to do it with tymps or Brazilian percussion or something acoustic. So that's yet another reason why it's taken a little while. Because it takes a certain amount of tools out of your shed, and it takes the security blanket away.
RUBIN: Those were serious limitations put on it on purpose, to force us to come up with solutions for it not to sound like the other records Josh has made. But at the same time, if you're a fan of Josh, it hopefully will be your favorite album he's made. It's not a left turn.
YAHOO: So there is no pop instrumentation per se?
GROBAN: I mean, there are some really catchy modern songs. It's not to say we weren't thinking in terms of what is best about pop music.
RUBIN: But there are practically no western elements on the album. It's all sort of either classical instruments or world instruments.
GROBAN: We thought, Let's not put anything on the record that will sound dated five years from now.
RUBIN: It has to sound forever. It has to sound like it could be a hundred years ago; it'll sound the same in a hundred years.
GROBAN: It's a very quick high when you work with some of those western instruments. It's immediate gratification. You get the drum set in there, you get the guitar in there, and everybody is nodding. When you have those elements taken away and you're put in a situation where you have to get the same energy but done differently, I think your meter for what works and what doesn't is more sensitive and more accurate. Because we've taken those elements out, we've had to sit there and go, "Okay, that's boring—why is it boring? What do we need to add?" and we add what's in our rulebook until we are excited again. Again, hopefully the hooks and vocals are just as pleasing to my fans.
RUBIN: Because it's inherent in the songs. But by not having those sounds that you hear on every record—not just classical crossover, on every record—you listen to it differently, and it's a little bit of a newer experience. Unless you already listen to a tremendous amount of classical or world music.
GROBAN: I don't even know what classifies something as "classical crossover." I have always not really been a fan of that term, because I've never crossed over from classical. My voice has always been what it is. But there's an enormous amount of repeating going on in the songs (in that genre), it seems like—a lot of the same songs over and over again. And I was actually very honored that Rick said, "Write."
RUBIN: And the bar was high, because early on, we found a bunch of songs we liked that Josh didn't write, and the rule was: "If your songs aren't every bit as good as an outside song, we're gonna use an outside song." And in many cases, Josh's songs were better than any of the outside songs, over and over again. Which, again, took time. For someone who hasn't written all the songs on their albums historically, it's really a feat.
GROBAN: A lot of the writing I did was with a wonderful guy named Dan Wilson. I would go to Minneapolis—I probably went there eight times this year—and that was stuff where we were just working on a piano and guitar, knowing that stuff would be replaced with strings or a mandolin or a hammer dulcimer or organ or whatever.
RUBIN: There were some things Josh and Dan came up with where it would be a great song, but it wasn't necessarily a great song for Josh to sing. Like, there were some songs that he wrote that would be great for another artist to sing, but probably didn't suit who he is and what people like about him. Finding those ones that walk the line of accomplishing all these different parameters is a hard job.
YAHOO: How did it work with Dan Wilson?
GROBAN: That was a pairing that Rick put together. I had known his work and loved his stuff in the band (Semisonic), and then been very fond of him as a songwriter, both for his solo work and for artists like the Dixie Chicks. Rick puts you in the right direction, even if it's unexpected at the moment. When I first met Dan, I felt, "Really nice guy; I'm not sure if his writing style is in the wheelhouse of my voice and what I do." But our personalities clicked, and when we got past that and just started thinking about "Let's make the best melodies we can," you really experience first-hand the universal quality of good music.
YAHOO: Who else did you write with, besides Dan Wilson?
GROBAN: I wrote a song that we eventually put into Portuguese, and sent it to Brazil, and had an amazing student drum corps lay some drums on it, and they sent it back and it's killer. The Portuguese song is called "Voce Existe Em Mim," which means "Your Voice Exists in Me." I wrote that with Lester Mendez, who I met because we did a duet on Nelly Furtado's Spanish record that he produced. And we sent it to this really legendary guy in Brazil called Carlinhos Brown for the lyric and for the percussion, and he sent back two hours of video footage of him working with an all-girl drum corps. It's nice to have some rhythm.
YAHOO: You can almost dance to that one.
GROBAN: Yeah, it's probably the closest I'll get to a dance song.
YAHOO: That's the first time you've sung in Portuguese, on record, right?
GROBAN: It's not easy, but it's such a musical language. It's different from Italian, different from Spanish. There's a very different way they pronounce their vowels and even pronounce their consonants. I've always been fascinated with the language. And to me oftentimes also, the melody dictates what language it needs to be in. I'm a melody guy; I'm not much of a lyric guy, even though Dan helped me a lot with the lyrics. Lester and I came up with this melody and thought, "This is a Portuguese melody." It's not an exact science, but it's something you feel.
YAHOO: And at the other extreme, there's "Straight to You."
GROBAN: My fans probably won't be familiar with this song. It's by Nick Cave, and James Newton Howard did the arrangement. Actually this was the first thing we ever recorded.
YAHOO: How many pieces in the orchestra?
GROBAN: It ranges from 25-30 to a day like today where we have almost 55 people in there. We have a 50-person choir coming in. The choir that was on "Straight to You" was I think just four or five people. That song, which originally felt like as brilliant an idea as it was left of field, wound up developing, to my pleasant surprise, really beautifully.
RUBIN: I don't know if you're familiar with the Nick Cave version, but it's a real rocker. It's got nothing to do with how we approached it. You wouldn't recognize it, probably, unless you really knew the song.
GROBAN: I don't think they'll be bummed, I really don't. I think on paper, they might be going: "Are we in for some rude awakening?" But I Rick and I knew that we were making something that, if done correctly, would eliminate some of the previous gimmicks, and at the same time, connect 100% with what my fans want to hear from me.
RUBIN: Because it really is, I think, (representative of) the classical side of what he does. And I feel like so many of those records have a cheesiness to them that they don't need. It's like someone trying to polish it up and make it into something, thinking that's what somebody wants. But I think people want the real thing. I think.
YAHOO: Are you playing all the piano on the album?
GROBAN: Most of it. We had someone that was in there doing it, and it just wasn't... I'd played it so much, it was better for me to just go in and sit down and do it. Other than some of the grand classical stuff where I really needed to stand and sing it, I'd say 90% of the piano is mine... We've done all of the orchestra tracking and most of the instrumental tracking in these two rooms at Capitol. We've done some guitar work and some vocal work at Shangri-la in Malibu. We've been between those two places. Almost everything you've heard has been one take in the room, live vocal with the orchestra. There hasn't been a lot of in-the-lab tweaking.
YAHOO: So you were singing live with the orchestra here in the room where Sinatra sang live with an orchestra.
GROBAN: Um-hm. We did stuff with (engineer) Allen Sides, and did some stuff with Al Schmitt who did a lot of those Frank records. A lot of the mikes are the same mikes; we've got a lot of the really old-school equipment in here. We really wanted to hear the bow on the string.
RUBIN: One of my conditions for working here was we only used equipment that could have been used on... I'm trying to remember the actual instruction that I told them that we had to use. Oh yeah: If it wasn't used on a Henry Mancini record, we couldn't use it.
YAHOO: And singing live with the orchestra really adds something?
GROBAN: It adds something for me, and hopefully it adds something for them.
RUBIN: I think they're inspired because they hear him singing, and I think the dynamics of their performance change when they hear him sing, and they're not just playing to track.
GROBAN: We're all in it together, when the downbeat happens. It's not a bad thing for both the orchestra and I to have that pressure going into it. It means we'll do a couple that aren't right, but it also means that when we finally get into that groove together, we don't really need to do too much to it afterwards, because we nailed it. And I'd like to think it's fun for them, because the majority of stuff they do nowadays is playing to a pre-recorded vocal track, or a film score, or doing 20 strings on a Justin Timberlake record. It's all to click and it's all like an afterthought. So for us to feel like if I hit a flat note wrong and if somebody hits a flat note on their violin... It's nice to have that adrenaline, especially when you sit around writing all year, to get into a place where the recording process feels like a performance. Oftentimes you record an album and then go on tour, and you say to yourself, "God, if only I'd had this kind of momentary inspiration to sing it this way when I was in the booth." And I think sometimes those kind of moments of inspiration happen when you've got the pressure of a performance, because you're open to those instincts. So it's been fun. Terrifying, but fun.
YAHOO: This album took a while. It was first announced you were working with Rick at the beginning of 2009. The label must have gotten on you to get it done.
GROBAN: Everybody's waited on bated breath. Other than the fact that I've signed on the dotted line in blood that they need to have it out at a certain time, we've really taken our time and the label has let us do our thing, which is great. I think that shows their tremendous respect for Rick and our instincts together. It will have been done the right way. I'm as impatient as all of them. I've been champing at the bit. Today, talking to you, is kind of our first "we're almost there." It feels good.
And then we'll tour, and say goodbye to any friends. I'll have to bring them free swag in two years, and then they'll talk to me again. I love touring, and I know these songs will yield a really fun, exciting tour for me and the fans. That's the other nice thing. I start seeing visuals when I listen to them now. That's how I know it's starting to get to a finished place, is that I start to imagine the next year with them. They're starting to feel like they're ready to enter the world.