It seems no one knew what to expect when Josh Groban teamed with super-producer Rick Rubin for the singer's fifth album, Illuminations - least of all Groban and Rubin. Fittingly, the results both defy and exceed any possible expectations as each of the collaborators stepped out of his zone and together they created an entirely new zone, one where folk meets classical, where art meets intimacy, where immediacy meets timelessness and where, most importantly, Groban was free to express himself more fully, more truly than ever before.
"These are my stories," says Groban, who co-wrote 11 of the 13 songs on the collection, complemented by personalized if surprising selections written by Nick Cave and the poignant mother-son collaboration by Kate McGarrigle and Rufus Wainwright. "Every one of these songs, someone's going to know it's about them. I'm going to get a text message about every one! This is a very personal record."
Groban had certainly never made a record like this before. But then neither had Rubin, whose nonpareil career runs from the early days of rap with Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys through the hard-edged rock of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Metallica to Johnny Cash's latter-day life-embracing American Recordings series. What the combination brought out was a new range of expression and emotional connection from Groban, music that taps into generations of Americana and reaches across the oceans and lyrics drawn straight from the heart. In the course of the album, we see aspects of Groban unknown in the acclaimed stretch since he first stepped into the spotlight as a teenager, beyond even the personality and wit he flashed in his much-shared Emmy Awards medley and his noted guest role in last season's Glee finale. The words he offers in "Hidden Away" could almost address the mission of the album itself:
Sing it out
So I can finally breathe in
I can take it all the same
Reaching out for someone I believe in
All I really need today
Illuminations was three years in the making, but the writing and recording came in bursts of creativity, maximizing the spontaneity and personal touch. Groban teamed with singer-songwriter Dan Wilson (former leader of the band Semisonic and co-writer of several pieces on the Dixie Chicks' Not Ready to Make Nice including the 2007 Grammy song of the year title track) on most of the songs. Most of the recordings were done live in a casual setting with Groban playing piano and singing alongside acoustic guitarists Matt Sweeney and Smokey Hormel and, on some songs, iconic organist Spooner Oldham. From those sessions, orchestrations were crafted by David Campbell for nine songs and James Newton-Howard for two, while Brazilian great Carlinhos Brown created the dynamic setting for "Voce Existe Em Mim (You Exist In Me)" in his Bahia home, including the power of an all-girl drum corps - the only drums on the album.
The partnership of Rubin and Groban developed organically and out of deep mutual respect. After an exploratory meeting, both were eager to take on a full album project.
"From Day 1 it wasn't about anything to prove, but two people finding a place to work together - two scared people," Groban quips. "We wanted to find our line . and walk past it. This from Rick's view was to be a fine art record. That grandness was something we wanted to embrace. We started out thinking we'd do a little folkie record. We wanted the looseness of that, the rawness of an intimate folk record and the power and warmth of a classical record."
Rubin right from the start challenged Groban to tap deeper into his full range of talents than he had before, as a singer, musician and, crucially, a writer.
"Rick picked a few songs he liked for me and said, 'Beat these.'" Groban recalls. "He said he'd be fine making a covers record with me, but if I wanted to do something special I should write songs that speak for me. So I went into a hole and wrote feverishly. I didn't try to better the classics he gave me, but wrote songs that were more me."
The song "Hidden Away" is a prime example of how this took shape. With the core band's tracks recorded all in one take - Groban's vocals included - it mixes intimate warmth and grandeur. The opening piano chords and the unfolding melody evoke a timeless Americana, a thread from Stephen Foster through Aaron Copland through Paul Simon and Randy Newman, as Groban makes a heartfelt plea not to hide true love or one's true self.
That and the other Groban-Wilson teamings came very naturally, bringing the best out of each's talents. Generally they'd sit one day to come up with the melody and musical ideas, with a few lyrical ideas sketched out. Then after sleeping on it a night, they'd reconvene to finish the words and fill out the music. "My strength is melody," Groban says. "And his is helping find lyrics that don't sound trite on the melody."
For "Love Only Knows," Rubin heard Groban's piano and voice rendition and then instructed the guitarists to adapt the piano part for the introduction. The result is almost folk-Bach beauty, joined soon by the piano and voice, with swelling strings (recorded at the famed Capitol Records studio) following to bring a lush sweep to the song. Again, the core band was recorded live, vocals and all - this time despite Groban being a bit under the weather. "Rick said, 'We can always redo it,' but he had the microphone set so I could sing and play," Groban says. "And we used it!" Again, it brings a very personal, human touch to the words, powerful lines of yearning to live and love fully and honestly.
"Voce Existe Em Mim (You Exist In Me)" brought Groban into new territory, not just for the contributions of Brazilian lyricist Lester Mendez (with whom he'd worked when duetting on Nelly Furtado's Spanish-language album) and superstar arranger Brown, but for the language. "I'd never sung in Portuguese," he says, noting that he loved the sensuous tones of the tongue. Brown's drum troupe gives the song a vivid exuberance and blends with Campbell's glissando strings for a joyous, intercontinental celebration.
For "L'Ora Del Addio (Farewell Time)," Groban ventures into more familiar linguistic territory, showing off the Italian chops familiar to fans. The song's a musical collaboration with veteran Walter Afanasieff (his partner for "Per Te" on the Closer album) with lyrics by Italian songwriter Marco Marinangeli. It brings back the romantic, operative approach Groban's been known for, but with some new aspects. "Rick's assignment was to come up with that classical vibe," he says. "I'd take my right hand and play melodies, and Walter's ability to come up with these Rachmaninoff type chords to them was uncanny.
There was a side to Rick that wanted us to take on these big, soaring melodies."
Bringing it back home, but no less exotic, is "Bells of New York City," a love ballad to the Big Apple - where Californian Groban has set up his new home. The song started with a simple piano improvisation that Wilson loved and helped nurture into a full musical cityscape with dramatic strings and percussion (including, yes, bells) and a tone that hints at the Irish and other cultures that have made New York everything it is.
The choice of Nick Cave's "Straight to You" may seem a strange one to some, and Groban - a long-time Cave fan - was a bit skeptical at first as to whether it was a good fit. But again he credits Rubin's vision in shaping the arrangement of the yearning lyrics and moving melody in what proved to be a perfect match of singer and song.
"Au Jardin Des Sans Pourquoi" came from Groban's friendship with Rufus Wainwright. When the idea of Wainwright contributing a song came up, he asked Groban if it would be okay if it was something he'd written with his mother, Kate McGarrigle, one of the most cherished folk-pop singer-songwriters of modern music. After sending Groban the song, Wainwright revealed that it was the first time he had ever co-written with his mother - and it proved to be the only time, as McGarrigle passed away last year from cancer. For Groban, an already poignant song (the title means "The Garden Without Why's") became a moving tribute to his friend and his beloved, talented mother.
Giving the album another facet are two musical interludes, including "The Wandering Kind," which Groban wrote when he was all of 12 years old. "I don't know where this came from when I was 12," he says, of the piece, a waltz that runs through some crazy modulations. "But I always liked it. I played it for Rick and said, 'I can't make a song of this. It's all over the place. Can we do an instrumental?'"
With cello, stand-up bass, mandolin, acoustic guitar, accordion and Groban's piano breezily underscores the pan-cultural American sweep of the album, as well as the deeply personal accomplishment this represents - a little aside marking a true achievement for a growing artist.
"I was given the very lofty task of having more responsibility on this album than I've ever had," he says. "The bar was set high from the beginning. That's why it took so long. But I can say that more of me went into this record than anything I've done."