NEW YORK — Josh Groban got confused after exiting a subway station into Greenwich Village on a recent gorgeous fall day.
“I'm at Minetta Street and 6th Avenue,” he told his lunch date on the phone, citing an intersection that doesn't quite exist.
The 29-year-old singer had moved from Malibu only a month earlier and hadn't yet mastered the veiny map of lower Manhattan.
Soon enough, he regained his bearings, explaining how he'd almost rented an apartment on Minetta Lane (not Street) before choosing the convenience of a midtown high-rise. He was dressed for downtown, anyway, in jeans and trademark rough facial stubble, blending in with the students and aspiring creatives sitting in the Grey Dog Cafe, his favorite spot nearby.
“These past years have been very chaotic,” said Groban. “I finally feel like I can relax.”
About two years ago, after nearly a decade as a tuxedo-clad vibrato jock whose deliberately majestic music helped define contemporary middlebrow pop — and sold millions of albums, including a Christmas release that topped the 2007 year-end charts — Groban decided to get lost.
A paparazzi magnet in Los Angeles, Groban enjoys semianonymity in New York. He can walk to Lincoln Center to hear the New York Philharmonic and make lunch dates with Wynton Marsalis, whose ecumenical sermons on American music he fervently admires. And though he recorded “Illuminations” in L.A. under the mentorship of Rick Rubin, it feels like a New York record, its best songs falling somewhere between the Broadway stage and the cabaret at Cafe Carlyle.
The chances Groban had taken in the past, like covering Linkin Park songs, touring with the African singer Angelique Kidjo , and collaborating with art-pop stars such as Imogen Heap, had left him wanting something different. His self-deprecating turns on television, playing himself in Glee or clowning around with Jimmy Kimmel, were only half-satisfying. A long relationship with actress January Jones had gone kaput in 2006. “This has not been a three-year period of grand love for me,” he admitted. Thirty was starting to look like a midlife crisis.
Groban's makeover is subtle on “Illuminations,” which will be released Nov. 15. Instead of abandoning the style that made him famous, with its swelling strings, uplifting lyrics, and careful cosmopolitan sheen, Rubin, best known for his work with artists including the Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, encouraged the singer to rework it from within.
At first, Groban said, Rubin brought him a selection of cover songs from credibility-lending rock artists including Fleet Foxes, R.E.M., and Nick Cave. But only one — Cave's romantic ballad “Straight to You” — made the cut.
“Most of the material Josh recorded in the past was covers, so that was the precedent in place,” Rubin wrote in a recent e-mail interview. “We started down that familiar road for him and at the same time he started playing pieces of music for me. ... Eventually, many of the songs he was writing were as good or better than the songs we found for him to sing, and he had a passion for those he didn't always have for the covers.”
Rubin had given Groban the hardest task imaginable: to confront the much-derided middlebrow pop style that had made him famous and make it better, less formulaic, more subtle.
He paired Groban with the songwriter Dan Wilson, who's collaborated with dozens of artists but is best known for helping the Dixie Chicks go beyond the confines of country music on the Grammy-winning, Rubin-produced album “Not Ready to Make Nice.”
“My hope for the sessions was to make songs that sounded really personal, without being casual,” said Wilson in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “Josh has that amazing, glorious voice that sounds like angels descending — how to do something that sounds more intimate? There's a level of casual lyricwriting
that may never be quite right for Josh's voice. Ben Folds can put car keys and coffee cups and references to N.W.A into his lyrics. Josh's voice explodes those things.”
Coming to terms with the extravagance he can't shake, Groban still rides the swells of melody, which he calls “my way of getting things out of my system.” On “Illuminations,” though, Groban does so within comparatively restrained songs and arrangements.
“Illuminations” reveals that Groban hasn't been faking his fondness for the kind of music he makes. He's proud of the work that he's put into his voice and glad that his performances move people. He's making changes, but he has no desire to abandon himself.
“I challenge everybody else in this,” he said. “ Explore, and dare to really reach people. ”