In 2019, Josh Groban was making headway on creating an album that had long been on his to-do list: recording versions of favorite classic songs in pop and other genres.
Then the pandemic hit and the album he was going to call “Harmony” ceased.
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“I didn’t even know if ‘Harmony’ would finish being made,” Groban said during an early June phone interview.
When the decision came during Covid-19 shutdowns to resume recording the collection of cover songs, Groban discovered the album needed to shift with the unusual times. He changed the track listing of songs to be featured.
“Even though we knew we wanted this album to be mostly covers, what you want to say and the kind of songs you want to sing, it changes as the world changes around you,” he said. “So different songs started to rise to the top as we were going through this crazy thing all together.”
One of the big issues he had to overcome was to record during a time when musicians had to be socially distanced, unable to travel to studios to record their parts. In this case, Groban was in Los Angeles, his producer, Bernie Herms, was in Nashville, and the orchestra that was a key part in the arrangements was in London. But technology provided a solution with a plug-in called “Audiomovers” that links together multiple recording locations.
“[It gave us] the ability to connect with each other on a sonic level that is of the highest quality,” Groban said. “It’s as if somebody is in the room next to you.”
Groban described they would share audio files back and forth in real time.
“It allows you to share the airwaves and to jam with each other from across oceans in real time and for it to sound as good as it would be if you were in the same room,” he said. “That’s not the way I love to make music. I like us all to be in the same place. But when you’re making an album or making a movie, sometimes you have to do what you have to do to get the final product and get the final message across.”
As for the music itself, Groban pointed to two songs not originally under consideration for “Harmony” until the pandemic put a new backdrop on the project. He wanted to choose works that inspired healing.
He admitted having a bit of trepidation, if not skepticism backed by “the big I” (intimidation), to record Robert Goulet’s classic “Impossible Dream.”
“[It’s] a song I was maybe waiting to sing for maybe another musical theater album or something along those lines,” Groban said. “In my head, I just always thought of it as a kind of big, brash ballad, and I didn’t really give it the thought that it deserved.”
Then he honed in on the lyrics, he said, for the first time. Emotions swelled with its resonation upon every note.
“[W]e’ve all tried to take these small steps forward in the face of these enormous challenges,” Groban said. “The song felt both politically, emotionally, health-wise, socially (right). There were so many things that happened over the course of that year and a half, two years, that suddenly those lyrics made even more sense to me.”
The second song he was compelled by, yet feared taking on, was Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” He had to put in a call to a friend, American singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles, for reassurance.
“‘I know we both love her and love this song,'” Groban recalled. “‘I didn’t know if it was the right time, but now I kind of feel like it’s the right time.’ And she said, ‘Yes, it’s the right time. Let’s do it.'”
Another change with the album was Groban’s decision to include a pair of originals, “Your Face” and “The Fullest.” The latter has a gospel touch, with Kirk Franklin making a guest appearance on the track.
“Harmony” also includes Groban’s versions of contemporary pop standards as Kenny Loggins’ “Celebrate Me Home” Sting’s “Shape of My Heart” (a duet with Leslie Odom Jr.) and Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” He also covers Elvis’ “It’s Now or Never” and Frank Sinatra’s “The World We Knew (Over and Over).”
Overall, “Harmony” brings a sense of comfort and optimism in a time when the world suddenly became a lot more uncertain.
What makes the songs stand out, besides Groban’s exceptional singing, are the orchestral arrangements. They bring a different musical element and put “Harmony” squarely within the classical crossover/pop realm that Groban has occupied since he came on the scene in 2001 with his self-titled debut. It sold more than four million copies worldwide and was followed by an even more popular outing, the 2003 release “Closer,” which featured the smash hit “You Raise Me Up.”
Now 41, Groban has largely maintained his popularity, releasing seven more studio albums, while also making an impact as a TV actor (“The Office,” “The Crazy Ones” and “The Good Cop”) and on the big screen (“Crazy Stupid Love” and “Muppets Most Wanted”). He also has taken on Broadway and won the 2017 Tony Award as Best Actor for his lead role as Pierre Bezukhov in “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.”
Having been off the road since the pandemic hit, Groban said he is excited to be back on tour. The show mixes the new release of “Harmony” with back catalog material, plus a visual presentation that was designed expressly for the outdoor amphitheaters that host the concerts.
“When you’re playing outdoors, so much of your environment is setting the tone already for you,” Groban said. “I made this mistake when I was younger, trying to force feed a big arena set into a bunch of outdoor sheds and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, we’re wasting all this natural beauty trying to put all of these bells and whistles up here.’ So we’re really excited about the design for the summer tour because it’s classic; it’s going to be beautiful; it’s also going to let a lot of the natural beauty of these venues do the talking, as well as the music, of course.”
Groban’s tour also features the venerable Preservation Hall Jazz Band and emerging singer/songwriter Eleri Ward, as well as violinist Lucia Micarelli.
“It’s going to be a night of gratitude, of really just us singing our faces off for people again,” Groban said.
Josh Groban performs at downtown Wilmington’s Live Oak Bank Pavilion on Friday, July 15, 7 p.m. Tickets start at $32.50.
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