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Josh Groban: Back to the 'sweet spot'

The baritone pop idol on singing 'big,' staying goofy and brain farts

By Melinda Newman
Special to MSN Music

Josh Groban / Olaf Heine
Josh Groban

On Josh Groban's last album, the Rick Rubin-produced "Illuminations," the singer reined in his famous baritone to focus on the songs' intimacy. For its successor, "All That Echoes," he yearned to return to the "sweet spot" in his singing voice. "While I don't regret anything from that process and would make an album like that again in a heartbeat, I think my voice is naturally kind of big," he says. "It was nice to not be shy about that on this record."

His voice isn't the only thing that's big: Groban is one of the top-selling artists of the last decade, having sold more than 25 million albums worldwide.

On "All That Echoes," Groban blends his own compositions with songs written by some of popular music's top songwriters, including Jimmy Webb, Glen Hansard and Stevie Wonder. He talked to MSN Music about the rock approach he took to record "Echoes," the other celebrity he's often confused with, and what fan request instantly triggers "a brain fart."

MSN Music: Rob Cavallo, who's best known for working with acts like Green Day and My Chemical Romance, primarily produced "All That Echoes" and brought in rock musicians such as Paul McCartney's drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. and Jane's Addiction bassist Chris Chaney to play on the album, alongside orchestral players. How did you respond to that energy?

Josh Groban: That kind of synergy that we all had together is basically the main ingredient for everything that happened on this record. That's why we named the album what we did. It really was amazing for me from a music perspective to see the orchestral musicians that we had there every day on harp, violin and cello on one side of the studio and then on the other side, you had guys like Matt (Chamberlain) and Abe and Chris Chaney. They balanced each other out in such an amazing way.

You then put the mic in front of me while that's going on and you can't help but be inspired by that communication. You can't help but feel you're a part of something that's a moment, not just a performance.

Many of the takes on the record came from the first couple of takes. We were still figuring it out and there's an energy and an urgency when you're all looking at each other and going, "What are we going to play next?" It was the most fun I've ever had in the studio because of that.

On "All That Echoes, your songs sit alongside songs by some of the best songwriters of the last 100 years. How intimidating was that?

Honestly, the most stressful time I have in the studio is when I'm paying homage to a song or a writer that I've idolized. You want to do your version as best you can that brings your world to it, but at the same time is just paying tribute to what a gorgeous song it is. (When) I know that I'm writing music to put on the same piece of work as those songs, I'm not writing to say that this is supposed to stand up to those songs or to compete with those songs. It's all one package. I don't think of it as my songs going toe-to-toe with some of the greatest songs ever written. I think of it as "These are songs that I am honored to sing and here are some songs that come from me, and if they all seem to fit well on an album, well, great."

You're singing in Italian, Spanish and English here. You sang in Portuguese on the last album. You're just showing off, aren't you?

[laughs] I sang in Japanese this year too for a special thing in Japan. But no, honestly, it's not about showing off. I, ever since I was little, loved listening to songs in other languages. I loved the musicality of the sound of the words. As I grew older and I started being put in a world with David Foster and the idea that I can sing to an American audience and beyond and not be afraid to keep these languages, it was actually a freeing thing because these songs get completely lost in translation when you translate them back into English.

Bing: More on Josh Groban

Are you aware that your hair has its own Twitter account

I've become aware and I have no clue who it is who has made that Twitter account, but I can't help but laugh.

Speaking of, you're 31 now and after appearing fairly serious at first, you've developed this ability to be endearingly goofy, whether it's setting Kanye West's tweets to music or your funny interview with Kid President. When did you develop that?

It's always been in me. I think it's just a matter of when you're young and terrified in the business, you're very careful. As you start to feel like you're taking ownership of your own image, you start to realize the more that you are yourself, the more people to respond to it.

You're playing your new song "Happy In My Heartache" on the Valentine's Day episode of "CSI: NY" Is it harder to play yourself or to play a character like you did in "Crazy, Stupid, Love" or "The Office?"

I'm just happy I get to play somebody who's alive on "CSI." That's really exciting to me, to not be a corpse. I'm just singing the song so there's not much acting involved. But I do love acting. I've always loved falling into a role, shedding your skin a little bit, and diving into that. I'd love to do more character comedy roles in the future.

You were in the running to be Kelly Ripa's co-host. Is your own talk show something you'd like to have?

I enjoy doing that a lot. I loved the humor that Kelly and I were able to have. Certainly it was the earliest I'd ever been up in the morning. I always knew that at some point I would say goodbye to them and go back to making an album. I couldn't have taken that as a day job even if I wanted to. If you navigate it intelligently, you can be a music artist, you can tour, you can do a talk show, movies. You can really be the whole package if you do it correctly and you're honest to who you are, so that's the goal.

What's the scariest thing one of your die-hard fans, known as Grobanites, has ever given you or asked you to sign?

[laughs] Hmm, due to restraining orders, I'm not legally allowed to talk about it. The true answer to that when they ask me to sign their skin so that they can get the signature tattooed. That is the scariest thing I could possibly do because I have the handwriting of either a four-year old or a doctor. I can't like, for the life of me, if I'm thinking about "J-O-S," I brain fart and I think, "God they've given me a Sharpie, I have to make this perfect." It's terrifying because you say to yourself, "God, my signature is now part of this woman's life, I have to stay famous. Now, I can't retire even if I want to because her tattoo won't mean anything." It's a whole lot of pressure. It's very flattering and very frightening at the same time.

You told Graham Norton you'd been confused for James Blunt. Is there anyone else that you frequently get mistaken for?

People get my name confused with Josh Brolin all the time. They'll be like "Josh Groban's hosting 'SNL?' Finally." and I'll be like "No guys. Sorry, it's Josh Brolin." As far as looks, there was a guy, Ethan, from "Survivor." I've gotten confused for reality show people who have their 15-minute burst of fame. Strangely, they thought I looked like one of the "Bachelors." I haven't been to the gym in four months, I have no idea why you think I'm "The Bachelor." I think I've got kind of a unique look. My hair has a Twitter, for crying out loud.

Melinda Newman is the former West Coast bureau chief for Billboard magazine. She has covered music and entertainment for the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, MSN, AOL Music, Hitfix.com, Variety, People Country and other outlets. Recent interviews include Taylor Swift, Susan Sarandon, Pink, Jeff Bridges, Brad Paisley, Foo Fighters, Katy Perry and Carly Simon.

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