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Aimsel Ponti

Aimsel Ponti is a Content Producer at MaineToday.com and a music writer for MaineToday.com and the Portland Press Herald. She has been obsessed with - and inspired by - music since she listened to Monkees records borrowed from the town library when she was six years old. She bought her first Rolling Stones record at a flea market when she was in 7th grade and discovered David Bowie a year later. She's a HUGE fan of the local music scene and covers it along with national musical happenings in her "Face the Music" column and with artist interviews that appear in print in the Portland Press Herald and online at Mainetoday.com. You'll also find her out and about absorbing live music like a sponge and roaming around local record shops and flea markets. Aimsel is also the host of Music from 207 on 98.9 WCLZ and appears monthly on the News Center Maine TV show “207” to talk about...music of course.

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Posted: June 17, 2019

Q&A with Josh Groban, on tour with ‘Bridges’

Written by: Aimsel Ponti

Photo by Brian Bowen Smith

Josh Groban is a multiplatinum, Grammy-nominated singer with a huge voice that borders on operatic and that made him an international superstar. His debut album was released in 2001 when he was 20. Seven have followed, including last year’s “Bridges,” which is the reason for his Monday night performance at Portland’s Cross Insurance Arena. Groban, now 38, will be joined by Grammy-winning trumpeter Chris Botti.

“Bridges” by Josh Groban was released on 9/21/18
Album art courtesy of Reprise Records

Groban’s 2003 version of Secret Garden’s “You Raise Me Up”  has amassed more than 43 million streams on Spotify, and the video has been viewed more than 76 million times on YouTube. Groban also earned a 2017 Tony Award nomination for best actor in a musical for his role of Pierre Bezukhov in “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.”

Last year was especially good for Groban, as he co-hosted the Tony Awards and starred in the Netflix original series “The Good Cop” with Tony Danza.

Groban, a Los Angeles native who lives in New York City, recently spoke by telephone in a conversation that touched on the first album he bought (Pearl Jam’s “Ten”) and his ideal duet partners (Bob Marley and Björk among them), but was mostly about his music, his current tour and his approach to political activism. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: You co-wrote nine of the songs on “Bridges.” What does your co-writing process look like?
A: I would say 99 percent of the time we’re in the same room bouncing ideas off of each other. A lot of the time, it will start with kind of half an idea that I’ll have on my phone. I spend a lot of times in dressing rooms with a piano, and so there’s a lot of time pacing with nervous energy and just kind of playing just to exorcise the demons a little bit. A lot of times great stuff comes out of that, and I wind up saying, “Oh, that’s good, I’m gonna put that down.” Then when I collaborate with someone and we’re ever in a bind, I’ll say, “Hey, let’s listen to some of these ideas,” and more times than not, these kind of weird, half-ideas that are in my phone will turn into a song that makes the album. It’s really fun when that happens.

Q: “Bridges” has a gorgeous cover of the Snow Patrol song “Run” that you sing as a duet with Sarah McLachlan. How did that end up on the album?
A: It wound up on the album because I did it on tour just as a fun (thing). I’ve always loved the song. I did a summer tour where I was joined by Sarah McLachlan, and we wound up doing “Run” every night. … It became such a fan favorite moment of the show and always got a standing ovation. So as soon as I was making “Bridges,” I called Sarah. She jumped, and we recorded it, and I love it.

Q: When did you first start playing Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” live?
Watch a live clip of Groban singing it:

A: The first time was with Paul Simon. We were honoring him at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York (in 2008), and he agreed to come out and sing it with me. So for three nights in a row, my first time ever singing it was with him. Since then, I’ve sung it on TV, at concerts, in a wedding. I’ve sung it with so many people.

Q: So it was only a matter of time before you recorded it?
A: It was one of those songs that I almost needed 15 years of performing it to finally feel ready to record it because it’s so classic.

Q: You have a long history with trumpeter Chris Botti. What are some of the best parts about having him on the road with you?
A: I think touring with an incredible instrumentalist like Chris brings the show to a whole new energy level. He can whale on that thing like nobody I have ever heard. … He’s so much fun to watch live and we just get on so swimmingly, we’ve been friends for a long time. It’s really special to have him, and Portland is in for a treat for sure.

Q: You’ve done TV, been in a Broadway show and, of course, have a huge music career. Are there shared emotions with taking these different types of stages?
A: I think the shared emotion, if I’m doing it correctly, is fear. I think that if it’s something I know is important to me, there’s going to be nervousness, there’s going to be trepidation. All of the things that have meant the most to me in my career, the really risk-taking stuff, whether it’s you know, hosting something or taking on Broadway or making an album that I felt was left of center, have been the most rewarding for me. Some have failed spectacularly, some have succeeded spectacularly. But they’ve always been the most rewarding to me.

Q: Tell me more about this.
A: Sometimes fans want the same thing over and over again, and so I’m always trying to find that balance of challenging myself, challenging my voice and challenging my audience’s ears, as well, to expand their lane with me. I think when you can grow with your audience that makes for a much more nuanced relationship with your fans going forward. So a show like “Bridges” is a combination of all of it; it’s the new, and it’s also the old. Singing songs from my first few albums that the fans love that I can now sing back in hindsight in having had so much more life experience.

Q: It sounds like you had to grow into some of your songs?
A: They’re more fun for me to sing now than they were when I first recorded them. I hadn’t lived those things yet. I’m singing about grand love and loss, and I’m being looked at by a much older audience saying, “Oh, he’s really reaching me and what I’ve gone through in my life.” But as a 17- and 18-year-old, I hadn’t gone through those things.

Q: You recently retweeted a tweet from the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) about the ongoing abortion rights battles in states like Georgia and Alabama. Is it accurate to say that it’s important for you to speak out about issues that are important to you, even if it costs you some fans?
A: I would preface by saying that sometimes social media can be an echo chamber. And so having a pedestal and having a voice, I try and pick and choose very carefully when I decide to amplify that voice so that it doesn’t get lost. That said, there are times in history where you have no choice but to speak up because it’s the right thing to do, and this is a situation where I feel that some of these laws that are coming into place, hopefully they ultimately won’t, but at the moment it’s very scary and a signal of potentially some very dangerous times to come, and I think that it’s important that those of us, whether we’re men or women, that support pro-choice, that support women, speak up to say, “This is not OK.” The kind of fans I like to have are the ones that can listen to my music and disagree with certain things of mine politically.

Josh Groban with Chris Botti

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Monday, June 24
WHERE: Cross Insurance Arena, 1 Civic Center Square, Portland
HOW MUCH: $44.50 to $162.50
TICKETS & INFO: crossarenaportland.com

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