Unlikely Star Groban Is King of Highbrow Pop

Excerpted from the magazine for Billboard.com.

Josh Groban recalls going into a record store to buy a copy of his debut album on the night of its release late in 2001. "They couldn't figure out who I was asking for. 'Josh Gorgan? Who?'" Groban recalls with a smile.

It's doubtful the 22-year-old singer would suffer a similar fate with his second studio album, "Closer."

The new disc from 143/Reprise/Warner Bros. hit stores Nov. 11 and soared onto The Billboard 200 at No. 4, with first-week U.S. sales of 375,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Groban enjoyed relentless TV exposure throughout 2002, including his introduction in an episode of Fox TV's "Ally McBeal" and in-depth segments on ABC's "20/20" and "The Oprah Winfrey Show" that aired multiple times.

It all combined to turn a skinny, curly-haired guy that sings anthemic operatic ballads in English, Italian, French and Spanish into an unlikely pop star.

"When Josh goes on television and opens his mouth, there is this magical vulnerable quality about him that drives people nuts," says Diarmuid Quinn, executive VP for Warner Bros. Records. "People just melt."

Groban's self-titled debut album went on to sell 3.6 million copies in the U.S. It was followed in late 2002 by "Josh Groban in Concert," based on his PBS "Great Performances" special. The CD/DVD moved another 531,000 copies. Ultimately, the two sets made Groban last year's best-selling new male artist.

Even though David Foster (head of the 143 imprint) again predominantly produced the new set, Groban focused on breaking new ground. In addition to singing in four languages and playing piano for the first time on the record, he co-wrote three songs. Other producers include Walter Afanasieff and Eric Mouquet of world music act Deep Forest.

"I got back into the studio after two years and just made a list of the things I wanted to explore," Groban says. "I wanted to step forward in the range of difficulty of the songs. I also had my own point of view and wanted to try and write the kind of songs that I would want to listen to."

"Closer" delivers a rich tapestry of styles from an artist who obviously has avoided being painted into a stylistic corner by either his label or fans.

"You Raise Me Up," originally recorded by new age duo Secret Garden, "felt right immediately," Groban says. "It's so uplifting and positive, and you can attribute it to anybody-family member, teacher, God, spouse. It was a perfect shot out of the box for the CD."

The track "My Confession" -- which Richard Page wrote specifically for Groban -- also has commercial potential, as does a meteoric reading of Lara Fabian's break-up ballad, "Broken Vow."

Groban dueted with Fabian on "For Always," the theme to the Stephen Spielberg film "A.I.," and sang "Broken Vow" as part of his PBS special. "It's quite possibly one of the most gorgeous songs of lost love I have heard in my life," he says. "It's a real favorite of mine."

The singer also tackles an adaptation of the sweeping "Mi Mancherai" from the film "Il Postino" (featuring violinist Joshua Bell) and the grandiose "Hymne A L'amour," originally recorded by Edith Piaf.

A further highlight is the Mouquet-produced ballad, "Remember When It Rained," in which Groban sings, "Tears of hope run down my skin/Tears for you that will not dry/They magnify the one within/And let the outside slowly die." Groban wrote the lyric, co-wrote the music with Mouquet and plays piano on the track.

The singer says many songs were pitched to him after his breakthrough, but none covered everything he wanted to express. "It prompted me to sit down at the piano and really work on that myself," he says.

A 40-date North American headlining tour -- his first -- that launches in January 2004 has already sold out. Promotional visits to England, France, Norway and Sweden are all on the books as well.

"Everyone always tells you to make sure you get rest, eat healthy, take care of yourself -- none of which is an option," Groban says with a laugh. "You've just got to roll your sleeves up and know that this is your time to push harder than you ever thought you could."

That work ethic has prompted novel opportunities for such a new artist. More than 1 billion viewers watched him perform at the closing ceremonies of the Salt Lake City Olympics last year. Recently, the Carnegie-Mellon musical-theater major made his Broadway debut in a concert benefit performance of "Chess."

"It's all come with such a payoff," Groban says of the opportunities he has had. "The reaction from fans is such a burst of energy. When things go so far beyond what you ever expected, you don't even feel the roller coaster. It's just a wonderful rush."

Excerpted from the Dec. 6, 2003, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Billboard.com Premium Services section.

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