Earlier this month Josh Groban's "All That Echoes" knocked Justin Bieber's new album out of the top spot on the Billboard 200, and that's not the crooner's only incursion into territory normally reserved for pop stars.
The crossover artist's latest release features material by Stevie Wonder and Jimmy Webb, while a deluxe edition available at Target adds Groban's take on the Dave Matthews Band's frat-house staple "Satellite." The album's producer? Rob Cavallo of Green Day and Adam Lambert fame.
"Rob told me, 'Make your wheelhouse bigger. You have more in you than you think you do,'" Groban, 31, said recently over coffee in West Hollywood.
Bookishly stylish in a wool cardigan and slim-fit jeans, the singer — an L.A. native who ascended the music industry's ranks in the early 2000s with a series of records long on sweeping semi-operatic fare — measured his thoughts as he spoke, though he also kept an eye on a big-screen television showing an NFL playoff game. "He really kind of mentally slapped me around and said, 'Look, we'll know when it's too far.'"
Groban's outreach to pop and rock reflects a larger trend in the classical-crossover scene that encompasses platinum-selling artists such as Andrea Bocelli, Sarah Brightman and Charlotte Church: Where these singers once strove to make classical repertoire safe for pop audiences, they now seem more interested in remaking pop as the stuff of everyday sophistication.
On Bocelli's "Passione" — which bowed at No. 2 on the album chart after its release in January — the blind Italian tenor familiar from seemingly countless PBS specials shares lush duets with Jennifer Lopez and Nelly Furtado and applies a coat of Mediterranean lacquer to Neil Diamond's "September Morn." (Next month PBS is to premiere a Bocelli program, "Love in Portofino," in which he "puts classical music aside for an evening of international favorites," according to a press release. He'll also play the Hollywood Bowl on June 8 and Anaheim's Honda Center on June 9.)
The Tenors, from Canada, used their recent "Lead With Your Heart" to mingle "Nessun Dorma" with Elton John's "Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word." The Croatian duo 2Cellos performs songs by Rihanna, Muse and the Police on its new "In2ition," which features guest vocals from singers including John and the electro-pop starlet Sky Ferreira. And on an album due in the U.S. in April, Brightman is set to take on a tune by the Icelandic art-rock band Sigur Rós.
The classical-crossover genre "has definitely grown," said David Foster, the producer and songwriter (and current Verve Music Group chairman) who helped develop the style with his work on Bocelli's and Groban's early records. A longtime music-industry fixture responsible for huge hits in the early and mid-'90s by singers such as Whitney Houston and Celine Dion, Foster said he turned to more traditional material after Britney Spears and 'N Sync ushered in the teen-pop sound in the late '90s.
"Being 50 years old at the time, I was left behind," Foster said with a laugh. "But by then I'd learned some important advice, which is to retreat and attack in another direction." The impetus was commercial, he admitted: "I wanted to keep selling CDs." But success secured more artistic freedom. "If there's one thing I've done since that turn in my own career, it's that I've tried not to set any rules in this genre." It's an openness that Foster said attracts a star like Lopez to a project like "Passione," which he produced.
"I said to her manager, 'From where I sit, this doesn't alienate one person in her fan base,'" Foster recalled. "'It can only get her new fans.'"
Groban, scheduled to headline the Hollywood Bowl's July 4th Fireworks Spectacular, isn't immune to such concerns about his audience. Three years after having the No. 1-selling album of 2007, the holiday disc "Noel," he initiated his move toward pop with "Illuminations." Co-written under the supervision of rock/hip-hop producer Rick Rubin, the album was satisfying creatively, says Groban, but it didn't sell nearly as well as its predecessors. It was an experience that left the singer feeling "a little gun-shy" about further experimentation. "The music-business side of me for a minute was like, I read the Amazon reviews of 'Illuminations,'" Groban said. "What do the fans want to hear?"
Whatever the answer, he decided against a return to his initial style. Indeed, with its electric guitar and muscular rock drumming, "All That Echoes," feels in some ways bolder — less classical, more crossover — than the quieter "Illuminations." Groban delivers sharp melodic hooks with arena-ready gusto in "Brave" and "False Alarms," which he co-wrote. And he closes the album with a stirring rendition of Wonder's "I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)" that climaxes with R&B vocal runs better suited to the church than to the cathedral.
"This is an evolution record for Josh," said Cavallo, who also heads Groban's label, Warner Bros. Records. "He's classical, but he's also rock; he's traditional but also modern. I think we're just starting to see what he's all about."
Groban said that push toward self-definition needn't equate to a journey out of the pop-classical scene. Referring to acts such as the Tenors and Bocelli — the latter of whom Groban famously stood in for during a 1999 Grammy Awards rehearsal — the singer insisted, "I'm proud to be [associated] with artists of that caliber." But like many of those peers, he sees room within the genre for change. At this point, he said, "the formula bores the hell out of me."