The tenor and the maverick producer worked for more than a year mapping out the album Illuminations. They went over songs, musicians, played piano parts and more – without recording a note in the studio.
While that process has brought magical, often Grammy-winning results for acts as varied as Johnny Cash, the Dixie Chicks, Metallica and the Beastie Boys, for Groban, it was “extremely scary and very frustrating at times.”
“I’m the kind of personality where I need to hear something; I need to put the paint on the canvas to kind of see what colors we’re working with. And we just blueprinted for a year; I mean, we didn’t even make noise,” Groban said in a recent interview.
“He would kind of have me on this guiding process until we had a body of work that we hadn’t recorded, and I was about to explode.”
Yet after working with another Grammy-winning producer and songwriter, David Foster, for his entire recording career, the 29-year-old Groban was willing to shake up his creative process, even if it sometimes made him uncomfortable.
“Rick has a rich history of extraordinary work, and I’ve been fairly new to the industry but have done things a certain way for about 10 years now,” Groban said. “We were both excited about the idea of kinda learning from each other and exploring.”
Groban seemed to be pairing with his polar opposite. The bearded Rubin was a groundbreaker in hip-hop before he moved to metal, folk, country and pop, and his Midas touch is revered in the music industry. While he has produced platinum results, Rubin often works on projects that generate more critical acclaim than mainstream success.
Though he’s classically inspired, the lanky and still boyish-looking Groban is as clean-cut and mainstream as they come in pop. Since he made his debut in 2001, his soaring anthems and soothing yet stirring ballads have sold millions of albums; his 2007 Christmas CD, Noel, was the best-selling album of the year.
But despite an amazing voice and enviable sales record, Groban hasn’t been a critics’ darling, perhaps because of the kind of music he sings.
So bemusement greeted the news that Groban and Rubin were working together.
“People didn’t really know what to make of it,” Rubin said. “People were intrigued by the idea and thought it was an unusual pairing.”
Rubin had never worked in the classically inspired arena, but wasn’t intimidated. He called it an “exciting genre.”
“I think it’s an advantage because I don’t have all of the classical crossover baggage, and my goal of it was not to make a classical crossover album, but a fine-art album that people who like classical (will like),” he said.
There was a bit of skepticism that it might be some kind of gimmick, but Groban insists there was nothing calculated about working together. He and Rubin clicked after a meeting about music, and a partnership was born.
“The fact that we were even in a room together is where the gimmick ended, and we were really just focused on making the best record possible because in the end, critical acclaim doesn’t come unless you make good work, and it actually could have the adverse effect,” Groban said.
“If Rick and I had gotten into a room together and rested on the laurels of just that, and made a record that was just mediocre, people would have slaughtered both of us. So, we actually had more pressure, because I think the expectations are always higher when you’re collaborating with someone of that legend.”
If there wasn’t enough pressure on Groban, Rubin gave him a collection of stellar tracks written by others. He told Groban that he wanted him to write for “Illuminations,” but his songs had to be of the same quality.
“I said, ‘The bar is set high, because we have these songs,’“ Rubin recalled. “‘If you want to write songs, they have to be as good as this to replace these songs,’ and he did that.”
Groban, who has written a few songs in the past, co-wrote 11 of the 13 songs on the album. He worked with a varied cast that included Rufus Wainwright and musicians like acoustic guitarist Matt Sweeney.
“I’ve never played with guys like that before. ... The way we recorded this album was just different than anything I’ve done,” he said.
It was certainly a step away from the work he did with Foster, who discovered Groban and produced his albums. Groban even records for Foster’s label, 143 Records.
But there were no hard feelings when they parted ways for Illuminations. Foster recently saw Groban in concert and was amazed at his growth, and says he may limit the number of albums he produces with artists because they need to grow in other ways.
“It was a marriage that worked great ... it served both of us very well. But I don’t have the talent to know when you find a great singer that they have other talents,” Foster says. “I didn’t know he was going to turn into a really good songwriter. I didn’t know he was even a piano player, and now he’s a really good piano player. ... This growth has been gigantic for him.”
That growth has been more than artistic. The Los Angeles native recently moved to New York City, and as he approaches the age of 30, he feels more confident and secure.
“I was signed so young ... I almost feel like at 30, I’m finally coming of age. I feel like I can take ownership of it and I can actually enjoy it a little bit. ... I was so close to it and so nervous about it finally going away, it was like constant paranoia, even with all the success,” he acknowledged.
“I’ve been in the business for 10 years, 11 years, and I feel like, ‘OK, let’s keep this going. You haven’t gone anywhere.’ And I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”