The world-class vocalist also hints at the possible sound of his next album and reveals his teenage past as a heavy metal drummer.
Josh Groban released his new live album, Josh Groban Bridges Live: Madison Square Garden, on Friday (April 19), as well as his accompanying concert special on DVD. Filmed at the iconic New York City venue, the LP and film capture the magic of his Bridges Tour, the 2019 leg of which kicks off June 7 at the Ravinia Festival in Highland, Ill.
The day before the live album’s release, Groban chatted exclusively with Billboard about his favorite moments performing at Madison Square Garden, how world music may influence his next album and his secret past as a hard-rock drummer.
You've done multiple live albums and concert specials in the past. What made this collection of songs feel like the right time to do Madison Square Garden?
Well, I had taken a break from arena stage tours for a few years for a couple of different reasons. One, I had made a musical theater album [2015’s Stages] that then turned into a tour that we felt would fit best in the intimacy of theaters. … Coming back out with an album that was more original music [2018’s Bridges] and had a little bit more of a pop sensibility, it was exciting to fill that space again. I've always loved doing larger venues — there's always just kind of an energy that always permeates, which is really fun.
And the Garden is a place that holds so many special memories for us. I'll never forget the first time I played there. Just feeling like the love from the city is something that you never forget. It's a very intimidating place to play, it's a very intimidating city to play in, and when you feel like you're embraced by that venue and by the city as a performer, there really isn't anything better. And so we knew we were coming back around to the Garden with this show, we knew we had something really special and we just said, "Let's film it. Let's set up a bunch of cameras and hope for the best." And you never know when you're just filming one night live whether or not you're gonna capture what you want to capture, but we knew that a certain specialness always happens at The Garden. And so we did! We set up a ton of cameras and the resulting night was one that we were just so happy was captured, and now we're just so excited that people are going to be able to see it.
What are most excited for people to be able to see who weren't at the show?
Well, whenever I release a concert film of mine, it's always great because you know you're going to reach way more people than would have bought tickets. So you're doing two things with it: you're allowing fans who've been to the show already to relive their experience and then you're also letting people who maybe didn't have a chance to see the show, or maybe weren't even interested in seeing the show, get a sense of what the show really is…So with a concert film, it's obviously not ever going to be the same as the live experience, but it's fun to bring your show into other people's living rooms.
Which song do you feel got the best or biggest reaction or response from the crowd at that show?
To me, my favorite moments in the show are the ones in the middle of the audience — we've got this B stage and the main band and orchestra takes a little bit of a break on the main stage — and it just becomes a very intimate show. Nothing fancy, just a little square stage in the middle of the audience, and you're surrounded by a full arena. That's where my duets with Idina Menzel are, and that's where I was able to sing two songs that I felt were very special to me in that venue. One was "She's Always a Woman," which is a Billy Joel song…And then after that, I did "Bring Him Home" from Les Miserables. There's nothing more vulnerable than singing an emotional and really challenging song in that environment with just your voice and a piano. With all the bells and whistles you can throw into an arena show budget, for me, just having that chance to stand in the middle of such an iconic venue and just sing as I would've in my bedroom when I was 15 years old, that's the moment that gives me the most chills.
And also, in this actual concert film, there were a couple of young boys who knew every word of "Bring Him Home." You can see them in the corner of the screen, mouthing along to the song. So often when I'm out there, I think of my younger self and of the 'pinch me' moments of like, "I can't believe I was a kid in the audience and now I get to be here, singing in a place like this." And then when you see kids out there singing along, you think "Well maybe that's the moment." Maybe that's their moment where they turned on a lightbulb and decided to get into music. Maybe they'll even play there one day. Those are the full circle moments.
Wow, yeah, I have chills. Did you feel like you were living your Billy Joel fantasy moment as you were covering "She's Always A Woman?"
[Laughs] It's impossible not to, in your own head, when you're sitting at a piano in the middle of Madison Square Garden singing a Billy Joel song. There are moments like two or three seconds at a time where you just try to imagine that you're him, you know? It's like, I'm not Josh in that moment, I'm in a Billy Joel cover band that just happens to be playing Madison Square Garden. Yeah, it's impossible not to let the fan in you just kind of take over for a second. I think if you don't, you're jaded and you've gone to the dark side.
You mentioned during the special also that you've played pretty much every venue in New York other than the sticky clubs. What would a Josh Groban show in a sticky club look like?
[Laughs]That's a really good question. I probably wouldn't be singing, I would probably just be playing the drums! When I was in high school, I played in rock bands — I drummed as often as possible and played for anybody who needed a drummer. And then like singing was a thing that I would do kind of in private. I'm also not a great drummer, so it's always like the thing that you have the most fun doing but you're not the most prolific at that you do the most, you know? Then the thing that you're really brilliant at, you're like "Oh I don't want to show people this."
So for me, I always knew singing was my thing but drums, especially like super heavy, heavy rock drums, were something that I just felt like, "Oh yeah, let's do this, let's set up a kit anywhere we go, let's just play." And I had fun doing it because it was kind of no pressure. I knew it wasn't gonna be my career…And yeah, if there were a Josh Groban show at a sticky club, I probably would be in the background. I'd probably be in the dark playing for somebody with a voice much better suited for a place much cooler.
So you wrote "99 Years," which you perform in the show with Jennifer Nettles, inspired sort of by your parents' marriage and they were in the audience that night.
Mmhmm, they were.
How did it feel to perform for them at Madison Square Garden right after their 50th anniversary?
First of all, I'm so grateful that they've been so happy together…I had been really inspired by their commitment to each other and their path together. I think that as you get older and wiser and have more perspective on the ups and downs of life, you start to really appreciate more and more and just what an extraordinary thing that is to have kept it together, and to have had the bond, and how lucky everybody in their orbit is that they've had that bond. And so I wrote about that path.
What my parents have — and what I think a lot of people in that generation who've been together a long time have — is that they just kind of went in not knowing, not having the hashtag-filtered existence in their mind. They just wanted to go on the path together, and then the things that happened, happened. And then all of a sudden you realize you've developed this book of memories as you look back on all of those years. You see that these points of life that you hit were the result of diving in together, whatever the destination. And I think that's something that especially my generation needs to get better at doing, because I think we're all so concerned about the curating now. Everything that's sold to my generation is about curating the perfect path and the perfect result, and I was inspired by their willingness to just be in love. That's it. And whatever happens, happens. And then before you know it, you've written the most incredible story for each other. So that was kind of the root behind that.
Wow, yeah, I think that's something that everybody could probably learn.
Yeah, totally. May the world be inspired by my two parents. [Laughs] That's the goal of "99 Years."
During the special you also addressed a number of important topics like arts education, mental health and depression. Why is it important for you to use your platform for social good?
I realize more and more as I've toured that I love to tell backstories about songs too. I have always loved talking a little bit — it's like reading a playbill or a program and just seeing a little bit of the director's or the author's preface before you see a show. Sometimes it can really help in understanding on a deeper level what the song is. And I think that I learned it when people that I admire and respect dare to go there and dare to talk about what makes them human. What a relief that is, as a listener, as a fan, to know you're not alone. And so having a platform, not only to share the light and dark of my life but also to raise awareness of things that are near and dear to my heart, like arts education, is a call to action for me. Arts education is considered in many, many districts in many, many cities across the country to be an extracurricular and unnecessary, but it saved me — a teacher pulling me out to the front to sing a song, my cast mates in high school doing shows. Being in musicals, whether I was a chorus member or a lead, being able to play the piano at lunch breaks. Being able to play the drums after school. This stuff kept me on the right side of the fence. It absolutely clicked my brain into a place of self-love and self-confidence when I would've gone the 180 from that at that time in my life. So I've seen it change my life and I've seen it change so many countless lives. So my foundation [Find Your Light Foundation] is focused on arts education and that's something that I like to talk about on stage because it's a huge reason why I'm even up there to begin with.
You mentioned both Idina Menzel and Jennifer Nettles, who appeared with you in the special and on the album. Who are some other artists you would love to collaborate with that you haven't yet?
I still have a pretty long bucket list, believe it or not. I've been able to sing with so many of my heroes now, I feel like I've had to make new dreams. But there are still people I would just love, love, love to work with. There are instrumentalists like Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman. Singers like Adele and Sam Smith. Björk is somebody I've wanted to work with for a while. I also feel like I haven't tapped into my love of world music as much as I would like to.
I've used a lot of influences on different albums. I've always loved Celtic music and Irish and Scottish music, so that flavor's been in my albums. I've loved African music, from Cameroon specifically, South African music, for as long as I can remember. So I've had a chance to put that on my some of my albums, working with people like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Angelique Kidjo has just been so, so wonderful. But I think in the future, there is definitely a project I have rolling around in my head that involves hearing voices around the world, and collaborating with voices around the world. I think that's something that would be really inspiring to me as I'm kicking the can around my apartment and trying to figure out what the hell to do next, there's a lot there I think that I would have fun with.
Definitely. And maybe with a Josh Groban drum solo somewhere in the album!
And then you just have to have the random section, or maybe you make it a bonus track…My audience still listens to CDs so maybe I just tell them, "Just keep it playing for 48 minutes after track 13 and you'll hear just an absolutely roaring, gothic death metal, triple-bass extravaganza followed by instantaneous combustion." R.I.P. me.
So the next leg of your tour kicks off soon. Will anything be different from the last run of shows?
I'm so excited about my collaborators. To be out on the road with Jennifer Nettles is just such a thrill. We're going to have so much fun. We're obviously going to sing "99 Years" but we're gonna probably sing a couple other things as well that are going to be a surprise for the audience. [I’m] getting together with my friend Chris Botti again, we've always got musical tricks up our sleeves, and we're going to have an incredible time reuniting on those shows as well. I'll definitely mix and match because now a couple months have passed since the last leg of the tour, there's more ideas about what might be on the next record and so there's lots of opportunities, especially with some of the outdoor symphony shows where you can play around and throw some things in front of these orchestras that you haven't done in a while. Summer shows have kind of a looser vibe than fall and winter shows, so you get a chance to experiment and explore. I'm also just excited to get back out in front of an audience again. I make music to play live. That's just, that to me is the biggest goal when I'm recording in album is that I can't wait to get the songs in front of an audience.
Two of the songs that you close out with in the special and also on the tour are obviously "You Raise Me Up" and "To Where You Are." How do you feel about the enduring legacy of those early songs that remain so special to so many of your fans?
Well it's really gratifying. When songs have the benefit of hindsight and time, lots of things start to happen with them. You really start to hear from people about how those songs made it into the soundtracks of their lives. [It] gives you the bigger picture of just how important it is that we all express ourselves and get out and sing our songs. Because you just don't know who it's going to reach and how. Also as a performer, I enjoy singing those songs more now than I ever did when they first came out because I was just so young. Like, I was singing these really emotional, very weighted songs that I felt that I could sing very well, and I could approximate emotionally very well, but I was also such a kid that…I didn't really understand the full weight of what I was singing about back then. Even though I was singing them very, very well, even though they were connecting with lots of people, I think when you go back and you revisit songs after you've been in the business for 15 or 18 years or whatever it's been, you have a larger tank of stuff to pull from that gives deeper meaning to songs that you did a long, long time ago. And so that's for me, personally, what I really enjoy about singing those songs at the end and revisiting songs like that. I just think they get better with time.
You've been juggling a lot of other projects in the past few years, from being on Broadway to hosting the Tonys to your Netflix series The Good Cop. Is anything else coming up that you're working on?
Umm…not really. [Laughs] I don't know what to do next. I don't know. I'm gonna finish up these dates and then kind of figure that out. I think that it's important sometimes to sit in the unknown for a minute…I'm gonna take some flying lessons. I'm learning Japanese. [Laughs] I don't know, maybe I'll switch careers for a few years and then come back to it.