MOMENTOUS MONDAYS: INFLUENTIAL ARTISTS OF ALL TIME – WEEK 6: JOSH GROBAN

To say that I am 100% prepared to write about this artist would be a lie. Because I’m not. Frankly, with everything that has been happening this week, from work to what has been suddenly portrayed on the news, the research for this artist has been minimal, to say the least. Nevertheless, what I have heard (and what I will continue to hear) has blown my own expectation of the genre of classical opera/pop that this artist is famous for, right out of the water. When I was younger, I used to have an aversion to anything of that musical variety. Not really sure why, but if I’m going to be completely honest, I’d say that I was too much in my CCM bubble not to notice the great quality music that exists (and continues to do so) outside the confines of whatever is to be sung on Sunday mornings at church service…I’m sure you get the picture, right? Music is a gift from the Lord, and it is up to us as stewards of this gift to bring hope and encouragement into the light, and to bring to listeners a sense of camaraderie and unity in times of difficulty, to ask questions that may not have been asked if it had not been for the music. There are many genres of music, and many people stand tall within their own genres. As I’ve discussed in these blog posts in previous weeks, artists like Michael W. Smith places a firm stamp on the CCM/Christian pop ‘genre’, while bands like Switchfoot and Lifehouse influence heavily on the rock music scene. Avril Lavigne’s music imprints a mark on pop/punk while Delta Goodrem is very prominent in Australian music. And so which artist stands out amongst the opera/pop genre? Well, Josh Groban, of course!

Yes, I have decided to go there. Josh Groban, popular opera/pop singer, famous for ‘You Raise Me Up’, and if nothing else, has delivered a great flawless performance on that song, that by hearing that song alone ought to have Josh deservingly added to my own very list of influential artists of all time. Yes, just by listening to that very song (and nothing else by Josh), I’ve asserted (and since then by hearing most of his discography) and will continue to assert, his prominence, influence and impact in a genre of pop/opera, something that isn’t entirely covered to the effectiveness as it should, in an industry that heavily promotes mainstream pop (and not necessarily good mainstream pop) ahead of everything else. What I’ve said about this influential list, that influential doesn’t necessarily mean popular, nor should it; still stands. Josh Groban is one such artist that follows such a trend as this- he is very good in his field of music in which he specialises, but popular on a grander scale that encompasses a variety of genres across multiple cultures and time periods…not so much. And that’s ok.

Josh, by standards placed on music today, isn’t that popular. Aside from his chart-topping song ‘You Raise Me Up’, the fact that most of his other material didn’t stand out to me when I initially started to take the plunge and listen to his music, is staying a lot, not about Josh at all, but about the current state of music right now, and what they emphasise and which artists they place importance upon. Nevertheless, here we are, with Josh Groban releasing album after album, full of emotion and power, some songs in English, and others in Italian, French and Spanish, bringing together I’m sure, fans of other-language music, other than English. Which is good for an artist to incorporate other music styles and other languages in an album, to bring about diversity and a sense that music can not only cross music styles, but also countries as well.

Dubbed as a singer, songwriter, actor, and record producer, Josh has delivered arguably some of the most emotive, heartfelt, and dare I say, spiritual, songs I’ve heard in quite some time. Rarely do I see songs that are in the mainstream have spiritual significance, songs that can be used and applied in various different ways, and Josh’s music is testament to the fact that even if artists are not realising it, God can and does use whatever is composed and released to touch people’s lives and hearts as they search for a song to fully express their own shortcomings and failures, but also express their joys, celebrations, emotional highs, and searching questions, as well. Music is not just the act of listening to a song and that’s it- there’s a soul touching aspect to it all as well. Music, like food, is the universal language, and Josh’s music further confirms what I’ve continued to say throughout this Monday blog series- that music, be it Christian, mainstream or somewhere in between, can impact and affect a culture far beyond what we can fathom or even comprehend. Josh Groban’s career of both original songs and covers, of both English songs and other-language songs, has done just that. Though not popular now as much has before, the fact that his four first full-length albums have been certified multi-platinum over the years, counts for a lot. Though prior to this listening experience, I’ve only heard ‘You Raise Me Up’, now I can appreciate more of the genre, and understand that creating a musical and sonic landscape where opera and pop can thrive together in one tracklist is perhaps one of the most difficult things to do as a musician. That Josh Groban’s voice alone makes me proud to say that his music is one of the most lyrically inspiring and musically challenging that I’ve heard, ever since Bart Millard’s, way back when ‘I Can Only Imagine’ was released in 2001!

Note: the above videos are covers of ‘You Raise Me Up’, the first by popular group Westlife, and the latter by Youtube sensation Peter Hollens.

While I reckon that it is only ‘You Raise Me Up’ that has garnered much success and recognition that now, when anyone thinks of Josh Groban, they only think of that track; that doesn’t mean that Josh doesn’t have any other radio hits, or even covers from other artists that he’s sung so eloquently on. Because looking through his whole career, he’s certainly covered some powerful, big songs, and other originally written ones have certainly become standouts as well. And yes, he did exist before 2003 (when ‘You Raise Me Up’ was recorded and placed on his second album, Closer)- he did record an album in 2001 (though not as popular has he second one), with hit songs ‘To Where You Are’ and ‘You’re Still You’. ‘To Where You Are’ is a song where Josh the persona (or the persona being someone else), has a longing to be close to where someone who’s passed away- a notion that those who have passed and are now in heaven can still give advice and be close to people who have been left behind; while ‘You’re Still You’ is a song of admiration and gratitude, a sort-of ‘placing someone on a pedestal’ song, which by all accounts isn’t healthy at all, but for the sake of a song, is shown in such a way as being a compliment to the person that is elevated. Nevertheless, Josh’s earlier songs, especially these two (alongside ‘You Raise Me Up’) solidified his early years as an artist. While even now listeners still gravitate to his earlier music (as I’m sure with any artist or band, it seems that across the board, artist’s earlier music feel less tainted by current trends and truer to what the artist wants to reveal about not only themselves but about society as well!), Josh’s discography throughout the years, be it covers or originals, have inspired and encouraged, myself included (of late), as we are met with one of the world’s most calming and emotion-building singers in a long, long time. Doesn’t matter that he’s not that popular now- his new album Bridges that released in 2018, as of right now, has only made 1.5% monetary sales compared to his highest grossing album in his career, Closer (yes, that is the one with ‘You Raise Me Up’ included in the track listing!). What matters is his passion and heart, and songs he’s recorded, be it covers from stage productions, musicals, movies, and other soundtrack-like material, or even original songs; moving the listener in ways that challenges them to live a better life in the future than they have in the past!

‘…it’s exceedingly lonely, you know everybody always sees the smiles, the instragram. When you go out on stage, you try to kill it each night. People don’t see the demons that you have, and I am somebody that I’ve been very honest about the fact that I’ve battled anxiety and depression my whole life, even when I was a kid. Especially when you’re in a performance based job, where you have to put on…and it’s very lonely, when you’re a solo artist, you’re going from hotel to hotel, your tour bus, the dressing room, the vocal booth, back to hotel, back to stage, you see people in passing, but you don’t really get to spend time connecting with a lot of people. And then on top of that, you have things like social media and things like that, where anybody can share their opinion all day long, and it’s very isolating, and so you know I wrote a song on the new album called ‘River’ and it is about that, it’s about finding those things that break you out of that place, that help you even in the smallest ways see the light when you’re at your darkest place…’ Taken from a very candid video interview Josh Groban had with Fredrik Skavlan, Scandinavia’s biggest talk show host, as he discussed about depression, anxiety, loneliness, and his new album Bridges, I am amazed at how honest and thoughtful Josh Groban is, and how real and raw the interview was. Josh’s ability to articulate his own thoughts in the interview has impressed me, and while for me I’m only a fan of Josh’s only for a short while, what I will say is this- talking about loneliness and depression, cannot be easily for someone who was thrusted into the spotlight at such an early age. For Josh to start off his music career as a stand-in for Italian tenor singer Andrea Bocelli way back in the late 1990s where Josh was rehearsing a part for ‘The Prayer’- initially a duet between Andrea and Celine Dion; cannot have been easy. And now here we are in 2019, years later, and Josh is still standing tall, and with a lot of albums and chart-topping songs to show us his versatility and ability to break down barriers between listeners and the preconceived ideas they may have of operatic pop in general!

With influences ranging from Radiohead and Paul Simon, to Sting, Peter Gabriel, Bjork and Freddie Mercury; Josh’s full vocal range on display in most, if not all, of his music, is something to be in awe of. Out of any artist within the modern music era (after 2000), I’d say that Josh is up there in terms of vocal ability. And as you look throughout his career, you can’t help but smile and enjoy his music, even if some of it is in a language other than English. Songs like ‘Caruso’, ‘Un Giorno Per Noi’, ‘Hymne a l’amour’, ‘Você Existe Em Mim’ and ‘E ti prometterò’ have all been prominent non-English songs throughout his career, and though I don’t understand any other language that well other than English, I have since become fascinated with songs not in English, and understand that a song and it’s emotion and heart translated in it, is far greater and bigger than the language in which it is sung. I don’t tend to understand each of these songs I’ve just mentioned, yet, even still, God can still work through them and impact the listener (myself included), and it is through these songs that I’m sure the Lord has done just that! Coupled with the fact that within all of his chart-topping non-English tracks, you have the English ones too, and the artistry and talent that is Josh Groban is something to be inspired by and behold- songs like ‘You are Loved (Don’t Give Up)’, ‘The Prayer’, ‘February Song’, ‘If I Walk Away’, ‘The Mystery of Your Gift’, ‘Brave’ and ‘Dust and Ashes’ are all songs that have stood out for Josh throughout the years, not to mention Josh’s powerful cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Believe (When I Fall in Love, It Will Be Forever)’ that charted tremendous success in 2013. It is these songs that remind me that one man ought to be more than one song that has made him famous- in this case, Josh and his music is so much more than ‘You Raise Me Up’- sure that is the starting point, but it shouldn’t end there. Josh’s ability to create a song, or even make an existing song his own, is what I reckon will propel his career even further and increase his own longevity as an artist moving forward.

If nothing else, Josh’s legacy when everything is said and done, is that he is a great singer, and has the ability to take a song that is not his, and transform it and add his own vocal flair, reintroducing listeners to songs that would otherwise have been buried had it not been for some sort of revival Josh has undertaken throughout his career to record songs that are timeless, but may not have been heard by many of late. ‘Feels Like Home’ is one of these songs- a song that I’m sure everybody knows, or at least has heard once, but no one can place their finger on it. Written by popular soundtrack writer Randy Newman, the song itself is a love song in its purest form, and in some ways, is somewhat spiritual, reminding us all of the fact that this love portrayed in the song is just a fraction of how much God Himself, the creator of the universe, loves us. Josh also unveiled to the world a cover album in the form of Stages, songs written for musicals and stage productions, songs that are famous, some that aren’t as so, but all in all, encompassed by Josh into a 15 song set that brings to life melodies from years ago. You have ‘Pure Imagination’, originally sung by actor Gene Wilder from the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, as well as songs ‘Bring Him Home’ and ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ from the musical Les Miserables. Everyone knows ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ from the production The Wizard of Oz, and ‘All I Ask of You’, a duet with Kelly Clarkson, originally from The Phantom of the Opera…well, who doesn’t know and love The Phantom of the Opera, arguably one of today’s most inspiring and emotive stage productions/musicals there has ever been? Then there’s the lesser known songs (i.e.: the rest of Stages) in which I have no clue of the stage production referenced in each song, which is ok, because it doesn’t give me bias when hearing the melody as I don’t have to compare it to the original recording. Nevertheless, Stages as a whole encapsulates a moment where we realise that songs from musicals have something to them that no other song from any other genre has…and while for me it took some time getting used to hearing these anthemic melodies, though I am a much more CCM/pop person myself; what I have nevertheless come to realise that music from stage productions is a gift, and something to be treasured and enjoyed, both now but also in years to come.

Which brings me to his brand-new album Bridges, the album that I heard (aside from ‘You Raise Me Up’) much in its entirety first before any of his earlier material. An album produced by Bernie Herms, husband of popular CCM songstress and artist Natalie Grant (and also an accomplished producer himself!), Bridges that as a whole, features more of a gospel and anthemic sound (akin to that of Stages in an atmospheric sense) compared to anything else he’s ever recorded- many of his songs can be read in a variety of different ways…and that’s ok. While we don’t know exactly the faith of Josh, only that when his parents married, Josh’s father converted from Judaism to Christianity upon marrying Josh’s mother; what I will say about Bridges is that Josh doesn’t shy away from heavy topics. ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ features on this album, a cover from the popular Simon and Garfunkel song, and reminds us of the comforting nature we all must acquire when people we know are in despair, while a song like ‘Run’, a duet with Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan, has been a pillar for people over the years as a gauntlet of inspiration as people press on and run through adversity and trial. ‘Granted’ allows us all to face our own mortality, realising that we only have a finite time on this planet, so we ought not to take anything for granted, while ‘Symphony’ is a heartfelt song about coming as we are (can either be to our loved ones or even to God Himself) and wondering what we have to bring to them is enough, them deserving a symphony but us only having brought simple songs and words that fumble and don’t rhyme. It is a song that shows us our internal wrestle between what we know we should bring to the person (or God) in our own states of love and affection, verses what truly is, as we come broken and hurt, in need of healing and restoration. It is a state of being we have to reconcile with on a constant basis, and ‘Symphony’ allows us to tap into these feelings that may otherwise have been buried. ‘River’, another song dear to Josh as per the video interview earlier, is a quasi-gospel song about going down to the river for healing and perspective, and a duet with country singer Jennifer Nettles called ’99 Years’ is a song of hope and togetherness, a song directed to budding young couples as expectation and hope in staying together and love growing stronger through difficulty, is brought to the fore.

As a whole, Josh’s music has touched millions of people around the world, and over the course of this last week or so, mine as well. This is an artist truly blessed with something meaningful to say, and is impacting culture and people around the world with his own music, cover songs, and songs not in English, all in the time of breaking down stereotypes about what they believe to be operatic pop and what they reckon Josh’s music sounds like, I’m sure only based upon hearing his one famous song ‘You Raise Me Up’. Regardless of rash opinions and quick-to-judge listeners, prior to me actively picking Josh Groban as an artist to explore this week, I was also one of these people that assumed Josh was this, when in fact, he was so much more. Listening to operatic pop and music from stage productions has broadened my own horizons on music and made me appreciate the world of classical music, opera, anthemic pop and stage productions much more than initially thought. Sure I was impacted and inspired by artists previously in these Momentous Mondays blogs (artists like Avril Lavigne and Lifehouse have given me a reignited love for hard hitting pop-punk and rock, respectively), but to delve into a relatively unknown genre of music and come out the other side as someone that can appreciate a softer style of music, through musicals, is a powerful feat. God has certainly worked through Josh’s music, reminding me that He can, and He will, speak through anyone He chooses, and Josh’s music, with all the multi-faceted layers, is evidence of this!

I’ve said this before in previous posts, and I’ll say so again- the song has to be believable, and the artist singing the songs have to believe, or at least appear as if they believe, the themes in the songs they’re singing (if nothing else, cause I’m sure there are many songs sung by many artists, where the artist doesn’t believe them at all!). Josh Groban, I feel, is one such artist where the belief in the song carries through in his vocal delivery, and the passion and heart evidenced throughout much of his music career. So as we carry about our weeks, let us be immersed in the music that is unique and different, understanding that all music, created by God, has its place in the industry. That music that harms is not by God, but rather, twisted by man to fulfil plans and desires not aligned with the Father’s. And where does Josh Groban’s music fit in? Let’s just say that much of his discography has stirred up things in myself that would otherwise have been dormant, like I’m sure my appreciate and dare I say it, love, for classical music with a pop edge. Josh Groban the artist is as needed in both the classical music genre, and mainstream music industries, as they are needed in society, full stop. So let us sit back and enjoy Josh Groban and his music, and what they have to offer. And be reminded that influential need not be the same as popular!

Does Josh Groban make the list for you all when you write your own ‘Best Influential Artists of All Time’ list? Is there any song (other than ‘You Raise Me Up’) that has impacted you on your journey through life thus far? Let us know in the comments. Till next time!

 

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