‘Now is not the time for silence’: Inside Josh Groban’s musical awakening during the pandemic
Although he’s always kept quiet regarding his personal life — a decision the 39-year-old singer made years ago when his career started taking off — he opened up a bit about his day-to-day life at home during the pandemic.
If there’s any image that encapsulates how the pandemic has changed live music, it’s a dressed-down Josh Groban, crouched in his shower, holding a laptop with a dirty camera lens and singing “You Raise Me Up” a cappella for thousands of people on Facebook.
“It doesn’t get more corona than that,” Groban recently told the Deseret News. “The acoustics though in there — to be fair, that really was the best sounding spot in the house to sing.”
Groban didn’t plan to sing from his shower on that Friday in March — about a week after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. He had spent the first 25 minutes of his short concert sitting at the piano in his bedroom. But the video and audio quality wasn’t great.
In between songs, Groban laughed as he read the comments trickling in on Facebook: “Somebody just said the audio sounds like I’m down in a well!”
Hence the move to the shower.
But what began as somewhat of a joke for Groban evolved into something meaningful — even therapeutic. The shower songs continued as the months dragged on and the COVID-19 cases spiked — “Over the Rainbow,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “Hallelujah,” “What a Wonderful World” and, right up into a heated election cycle, “America the Beautiful.”
But beyond singing in the shower, Groban discovered other ways to stay connected with his fans during a time when concert venues nationwide remain shuttered. During the spring and summer, the singer held movie nights where he streamed old concerts on YouTube and took questions from fans. As of Friday, his new album is officially out. He’s currently doing a series of livestreamed concerts (the next one is Thanksgiving Day). And he’s got a special concert PBS is airing exclusively on Nov. 28.
“I love to make music because I love how it reaches people,” Groban said. “I love to be able to tell stories, and to be able to feel less alone through those stories. When you take something like COVID — which beyond the horrible physical things that are happening — I think even if you don’t get it, we’re all feeling the mental health part of just feeling that disconnect.
“We need to connect,” he continued. “And I think there’s a re-appreciation of what art does in our lives to help us do that — especially right now. Music can play a really wonderful part in staying sane through all this.”
From shower songs to releasing an album to virtual concerts, Groban has had a robust musical awakening the past several months. Although he’s always kept relatively quiet regarding his personal life — a decision the 39-year-old singer made years ago when his career started taking off — he opened up a bit about his day-to-day life at home during the pandemic and what it’s like to let fans into his world virtually rather than from a big stage.
Losing the calendar, finding creativity
When all of his shows were canceled and his calendar became more of a decorative item, Groban could’ve gone into hibernation.
But he likes to keep busy — keep moving, keep singing.
Over the last eight months, he’s had days where his life feels like a scene from “Groundhog Day.” To pass time, he’s stared out the window, sat at the piano and rotated between angsty and calming music playlists that reflect his mood — everything from the ’90s rock of Pearl Jam, Nirvana and SoundGarden to the quieter sounds of Yo-Yo Ma and Ella Fitzgerald.
He’s used some of the extended downtime to learn how to cook and improve his conversational French. He’s become more involved philanthropically, using his organization to raise money for arts education — something taking even more of a hit during the pandemic.
Sometimes he meditates. He often FaceTimes with his friends and family.
“I try to get up and think about small, fun things I can accomplish throughout the day,” he said. “We all have had days ... where the day just gets away from you. You wake up and then it’s dark and you don’t know what happened, you’re still on the couch. That’s going to happen, and that’s OK.”
But during this time, Groban has also found creativity.
Before the pandemic, he was about a third of the way through recording his new album. He had originally envisioned “Harmony” to be all covers — a tribute to classic songs he loved like Kenny Loggins’ “Celebrate Me Now,” Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and Elvis Presley’s “It’s Now or Never.”
COVID-19 changed that. Hunkered down at home and sitting more often at the piano in his bedroom, Groban found himself creating.
“If you like to write, you’re going to just start writing,” he said. “You have an idea, or the world around you changes in a way where you feel like you just have to get it out of your head. I didn’t write for the album — I just wrote.”
He didn’t expect the songs to go anywhere — at least right away. He figured they could maybe go on an album of original music at some point in the future. The two original songs certainly didn’t fit the plan for the album. But then again, he thought, nothing during the pandemic seemed to fit, either.
So with the blessing of his label, Groban decided to add the new songs — “Your Face” and “The Fullest” — to his cover album. Both were written at home, and he recorded the vocals for “Your Face” in his bedroom — a first in his career.
“For somebody who’s had my calendar planned since I was 18 years old, in some ways it was actually really freeing and nice to just say, ‘We’re just gonna go back to the basics here and just make music and have fun,’” Groban said. “And hopefully people will feel a little better because of it, because it made me feel better.”
Staying in, singing out
Groban has also found healing through his virtual concerts. The singer said thousands of people from 85 countries — many of which he’s never been to — tuned in for his latest livestream.
Although he couldn’t hear his audience clap and cheer, or feed off their energy as he sang Broadway hits on that Saturday in October, Groban imagined their faces.
“It’s inspirational — I just have to internalize it rather than feeling it in the room, which is a different instinct,” he said. “But there is something powerful to that, too. … And I can still make my band laugh, so I still crack corny jokes.”
Like the shower songs, his first livestream started out on a whim — more or less another step in an ongoing process of trial and error.
“What it shows me is that we actually are way more resilient, and we are way more inspired to keep creating in any way we can,” said Groban, adding that he’s watched several plays and concerts via Zoom and other outlets during the pandemic.
“Everybody could’ve just packed it in and said, ‘Look, these are going to be the dark times and we’re just going to be quiet until we come out of it,’” he continued. “What it shows us first of all is that I don’t think anybody wants this to be the new normal. I think that when we come back to the point where we can all be in a room and cheer our heads off and do the full show and celebrate that, it will be like a renaissance — bigger than anything we’ve ever had in the past because we all miss it so much and we realize how much we need it.”
In the meantime, though, Groban will sing from his shower or his bedroom or from a small studio in Los Angeles — pretty much anywhere he can. His livestreams pick up again on Nov. 26 with a concert celebrating his new album. And then he’ll perform his first holiday-themed concert on Dec. 19.
For Groban, the pandemic has only reiterated that nothing can ever replace the palpable energy of a live, in-person performance. But for now, these livestreams are providing him — and his fans, he hopes — with healing during a time riddled with uncertainty.
“It’s something we can still all do together,” he said. “Now is not the time for silence. We need music to connect us. I don’t even mean just COVID — we’re so divided. Everybody is so scared, they’re so angry. And it’s such a time of great anxiety that now more than ever I feel grateful that the reaching out that I’m getting from fans really is that it’s providing kind of a universal language at a time when we’re all feeling like we don’t understand each other, and even ourselves.”
“It’s good for my soul,” he added. “It’s given me a huge bright spot on an otherwise tragic year, and hopefully it’s done a little bit of that for other people as well.”