By Benjamin Cassidy
Few singers have a more distinctive voice than Josh Groban, and few venues are better suited to host his ballyhooed baritone than Tanglewood. The 38-year-old’s operatic pop is a natural fit at the site that hosts classical and popular music during the summer months.
“A multidimensional music-loving audience is built into a place like Tanglewood, which makes an artist like myself who kind of dances between a lot of different worlds vocally feel very welcome and feel like I can really let all my influences hang out, and it will be accepted, and it will be understood,” Groban told UpCountry during a late May phone interview.
Renowned composer and conductor John Williams first invited Groban to perform at Tanglewood in the early 2000s. Groban recalled being struck by the campus’ natural beauty, as well as all of the picnickers on the lawn.
Most recently, he appeared with the Boston Pops at the Koussevitzky Music Shed in 2014. Since that time, the multi-platinum artist has released an album of musical theater covers; picked up a Tony nomination for his Broadway role in “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812”; starred alongside Tony Danza in a Netflix show, “The Good Cop,” which was canceled after one season; and released “Bridges,” an album of original material that features collaborations with Sarah McLachlan (“Run”), Jennifer Nettles (“99 Years”) and Andrea Bocelli (“We Will Meet Once Again”).
The last of those feats, and the April release of a CD/DVD package titled “Josh Groban Bridges Live: Madison Square Garden,” was set to bring Groban to Tanglewood’s Shed once again July 2. Before the concert at what he calls “one of my favorite places to be of all time,” Groban answered some questions about “Bridges,” “The Good Cop” and what’s next for his career.
Q: A lot has happened for you since your last Tanglewood show. Most recently, we have the “Bridges” tour. There’s a lot of hope in these songs and also a fair amount of longing. Do you feel that those are both forces in your life these days, hope and longing?
A: I think that having both of those things are key ingredients to having inspiration about anything in your life. For me, musically, artistically, you want to have those things. We’re in a moment right now, between social media and politics and cable news and all that, where there’s a lot of hope. There’s a lot of longing. There’s a lot of fear. There’s a lot of division. And I wanted to make an album — I’ve made some melancholy albums in the past — I wanted to make an album that was more hopeful.
Sometimes you’ve got to sing the music you need to hear. Sometimes you have to sing the message you need to hear and hope that it will be universal enough that other people wanted to hear it as well. So, I wrote, and I wrote and I wrote, and a lot of the songs I was writing were optimistic. They just were.
They were about inspiring new generations and thinking about myself at a young age when I was confused and anxious and shy, and what would I want to hear if I were somebody out there? So, that on top of the fact that I just got to work with some incredible producers and co-writers that were able to help those ideas come to fruition and do it with a modern approach so that I was able to sing in a way that feels very “me” but was able to do it with a surrounding that felt contemporary but not square-peg-in-a-round-hole.
It was just a hugely inspiring experience. I loved doing it, and every note that I sang on it, I was thinking to myself, “This is going to be really fun live.” So, to be able to have these songs now in my arsenal to bring out onstage is really a lot of fun.
Q: You collaborated with Andrea Bocelli on “We Will Meet Once Again.” Was that a full-circle moment for you, given how your career started?
A: It was 100 percent full circle. It was a duet 20 years in the making for me. I stood in for him. The story goes: I was a teenager and stood in for him [at a 1998 Grammy Awards rehearsal], and all these years later, to be able to be a peer of his and to be able to write a song that could fit our voices together, which is not always easy to do for a tenor and a baritone, to be able to do that, and to do it with a message that is, for me, very special.
I don’t want to know what he’s thinking of with the lyric. Maybe he’s thinking of his son or his family or whatever else, but for me, it really represented the full-circle journey of that 17-year-old kid singing in his place and then being able to do a song with that message with him in a studio. It was very special. I loved the song, and I love his voice — always have. I’m so happy we were able to do that together.
Q: During my research for this, I was surprised the album hadn’t been reviewed more. I was wondering if you feel like people struggle to define your music, if you feel like you’re sort of a genre unto yourself?
A: [Laughs] Yeah, I think there’s a couple reasons for that. I did notice that as well.
On the one hand, my entire 20-year career, reviews for me have been almost entirely inconsequential. My fans don’t read them. They don’t care about them. Sometimes they’re great. Sometimes they’re s—. And it really doesn’t make a damn bit of difference for any artist, by the way, but I also think that, to a certain degree, you’re right. I think that after 20 years of doing this, I have kind of written a playbook all my own a little bit, which can feel a little lonely when it comes to the press.
But at the same time, I think that certain reviewers might say, “Well, I don’t know how to begin here, so maybe I just won’t touch it.” They wouldn’t want to, I don’t know, dive into something that isn’t their wheelhouse or isn’t their history or whatever else, which, I respect that. I’d rather that. I’d rather they just say, “This isn’t my bag, and I’m not going to write about it,” than set it up for something to just make them look cool, to make them look good.
But there’s another reason for that, and that is that I also put out my first-ever lead role in a Netflix show on the exact same day [Sept. 21, 2018] as the album came out. So, from a press perspective, if they’re going to talk about me on that day, the shiny new object was that I was starring in a new TV show, and that I’d never done before. So, I think that a lot of the attention went to reviewing that, went to talking about that, and the music, from a press side at least, was more of an afterthought.
From an actuality side, the show was more of the afterthought and the music has led to a yearlong tour. But from a press side of things, that was kind of the newer, fresher thing to talk about, so I understand that as well.
Q: Let’s talk about “The Good Cop.” What did you learn from working on that show, and were you surprised that it got canceled?
A: I wasn’t surprised; I wouldn’t have been surprised one way or the other, because Netflix doesn’t tell you ever what’s going on with it or who’s watching it. They keep all their analytics to themselves, so if you’re working on a show, you just kind of have faith that they’re going to market it to whoever their algorithm says to market it to and you don’t know. You just don’t know. … I loved, loved, loved working on this show. I loved the show.
I loved Andy Breckman, who gave me the opportunity to star in it. I’m eternally grateful to him. I loved the cast: Monica Barbaro, Tony Danza, Bill Kottkamp, Isiah Whitlock Jr., just extraordinary human beings and actors. Everybody involved with the show, of course, was deserving of another season and beyond. I think it got lost in the crowd. I think that it was at a time when streaming services were just gobbling up everything they could, and I think that it wasn’t edgy.
We were doing a very PG show that harkened back to some of the more feel-good, innocent, “Columbo”-esque kind of mystery show, along the lines of “Monk,” [which Breckman created], for instance. I think on a streaming service that I think people are growing accustomed to seeing things that they can’t see anywhere else on these services. We were a show that would’ve been a great show on a network, I think. And I think it got a little bit lost, unfortunately, in the viewership because there is so much competition as you scroll through any of these services. There are a million options.
It is what it is. I learned a lot. I would do it again in a heartbeat. And I loved doing it. And yes, of course I think it deserved a second season, but that wasn’t up to us.
Q: Before that, you had this very celebrated Broadway run. When can we expect to see you on the stage again? Anything in the works?
A: You know … potentially, yeah. I miss it. I really miss it. I have loved theater since I was in high school. Recording was a fork in the road for me. Whenever I find myself with theater people working on a stage telling stories through theater, I feel so inspired. I love it so much. It takes a long time to develop.
I was very spoiled by the show I was in, “Great Comet of 1812,” and I want to do something that feels just as inspiring to me, and that can take a few years to develop and find a team. So, there’s a lot that I’m looking at, a couple things very specifically that I’m hoping to do, but it wouldn’t be for two or three years from now.
Q: Anything else that you have on the horizon that you wanted to get out there in the world that you’ve got coming up this next year or so?
A: At the moment, I’m just so happy that the fans have wanted me to continue the “Bridges” tour. You never know what the response is going to be, and between the last leg we did, and the television special and now to be able to do this combination of indoor-outdoor shows, I’m just going to spend my summer enjoying that. I’m recording again. I just got in the studio this last week and am starting to sing some new material.
I’ve got some very special things to announce that I can’t announce yet for the coming year, for next year. But at the moment, I think I’m just going to go out there and sing my face off and finish the rest of the summer with a bang. •
If you go…
What: Popular Artist Series: Josh Groban at Tanglewood
When: 7 p.m., July 2
Where: Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood, 297 West St., Lenox, Mass.
Tickets: 888-266-1200, $32-$699
Benjamin Cassidy is the arts and entertainment reporter for The Berkshire Eagle. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School and the University of Michigan, Benjamin now lives in Dalton, Mass.