Josh Groban has a beautiful dark twisted fantasy, one involving long roads, grimy fingernails and rest-stop meatloaf: "I would love to be a truck driver for a year," the 32-year-old singer tells me. "Just go off and driiive."
The poperatic You Raise Me Up belter might be overstating his need for freedom just a smidge. He's a smart aleck; you learn that fast when chatting him up during a 20-minute phone call. But at this point in his career — when his comedic chops are garnering as much buzz as his all-world vocal cords — being a creative ramblin' man is appealing. Singer, actor, comedian, old-school multifaceted showman.
Don't fence Groban in, man.
"I don't think I could give up music like Justin (Timberlake) did (for a few years)," says the Los Angeles native, who brings his current tour to the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Nov. 8.
"But sometimes you feel like you're just out of batteries. . . . Widening what people see you as gives you more options to express yourself. If you can go and make a silly comedy, you don't have to go and make a funny song."
Often playing against his clean-cut, classicist rep, Groban — taking a break from his award-winning music — has put in legit knee-slapping work on TV (Glee, The Office, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and the silver screen (Crazy, Stupid Love).
When Jimmy Kimmel recently brought a certain unhinged rapper on his show, the late-night host reran a bit that has since garnered more than 5 million YouTube hits: "Josh Groban's The Best Tweets of Kanye West," in which the straight-faced crooner makes music out of such loopy, and real, Kanye Twitter musings as "Man...whatever happened to my antique fish tank?"
When I tell Groban that his uplifting take on "I make awesome decisions in bike stores" could have been a big hit, he laughs: "I gave up some of my best melodies for that bit! They literally put the tweets in front of me and gave me a mike and a piano and said go. Every one of those melodies was off the cuff."
Groban says the "pie in the face" stuff allows him a certain confidence musically, of "not being afraid to be put on a pedestal vocally." He's not going to apologize for having peerless pipes, but he's not a humorless bore, either. "I don't blame people for being surprised (by my humor). My music, especially in the beginning, was serious as a heart attack! But you have to start with a broadstroke image. Then, after a while, you can show different sides of yourself."
Diehard fans of his music — he's especially swoon-worthy in the eyes of female fans and Aunt Shirleys everywhere — need not worry about him giving up his No. 1 talent: knocking 'em flat with his "tenor in training," a thick, soaring prodigious blast of opera-lite for the rest of us.
He'll duet with anyone, anywhere — Beyoncé, Placido Domingo, Barbra Streisand, Sarah Brightman, even Ellen DeGeneres for a not-too-shabby Total Eclipse of the Heart — and he makes everyone better.
But his biggest duet? Groban was discovered when he filled in for a sick Andrea Bocelli during rehearsals for the 1999 Grammy Awards. Just 17 and a protege of producer David Foster, Groban rehearsed yowza duet The Prayer with Celine Dion. Grammys host Rosie O'Donnell invited the unknown onto her talk show. "That moment could have ended then and there," Groban says. "But it was a great opportunity, and I thought: This is an open door. Keep going and work your a-- off."
New album All That Echoes blends those rafter-rattling, aria-appropriate vocals with more pop-savvy production by Rob Cavallo, who is best known as a producer for punk trio Green Day.
Yeah, I know: weird.
"Rob and I ran into each other at Kid Rock's house. We were like, what are we both doing here at the same party? But we were extremely compatible."
Wait, hold on a sec: Josh Groban — whose earnest Christmas album Noel is one of the bestselling holiday LPs ever — was getting funky at Kid Rock's house?!
"Kid Rock and I were neighbors when I lived Malibu. He throws a great party."
Oh. Okay. Carry on.
Regarding Cavallo, Groban says, "Sometimes you can't look at it on paper. You just have to go in there and make sound."
And make big sound he does, keeping it clean but sexy, a precious commodity these days.
In a strange, hubba-hubba coincidence, Groban's local stop is around the same time as major visits from fellow class acts Drake, John Legend, Michael Bublé and Harry Connick Jr., all of whom blend genres and entertainment platforms.
When asked who's the hunkiest of the lot, Groban deadpans: "I'd put me at No. 1, but I'm a little bit biased."
He's joking, of course.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.