The warning signs are everywhere. Under no circumstances am I to use the word 'popera' when talking to Josh Groban.
The American singer, actor, housewives' heartthrob and best-selling MOR star has an aversion to the term that is evident from earlier interviews. It narks him terribly.
So how else does one describe Groban's musical milieu? Like his UK counterpart Russell Watson and the boys of Il Divo, he has cornered the market in operatic-style ballads that display an impressive vocal range packaged in an appealing geekiness.
Two separate fan bases
In doing so, he has built up two separate fan bases - the young, relatively conservative pop/rock crowd who find him palatable without being cheesy and the older generation of females who want to mother him and then some.
It is the latter crowd that shows signs of wanting a little more than his voice – the kind of fans whose fantasy might involve having Groban singing to them in the bathroom while they were taking a long soak in the tub surrounded by scented candles.
When he plonks himself down in a huge squashy sofa in The Soho Hotel it is easy to see his appeal. Cute without being intimidatingly good-looking, he is tousled and smiley – closer to Tim Burton’s younger, friendlier brother than Ross Poldark’s smouldering sensuality.
Elton John and Stevie Wonder
His rise in the US was meteoric and unplanned. Studying to be an actor he was four months into his first year at Carnegie Mellon University when a series of lucky encounters (he had stood in for Andrea Bocelli at the 1998 Grammy Awards, duetting with Celine Dion) led to a guest slot on the hugely popular Rosie O’Donnell Show. He was 19.
Now 34, he has appeared in TV series like Ally McBeal, shared the stage with Elton John and Stevie Wonder and duetted with everyone from Barbra Streisand to Michael Ball. His record sales have reached 25 million, most of those in the US.
It has taken him a little longer to get established in the UK. On the day we talk earlier this year he has just heard that his latest album, Stages, has topped the charts. It is his first UK number one and he is pleased. Really pleased.
"It's an emotional experience for all of us," he says with a boyish grin. "It happened for me very quickly in the States, almost alarmingly so. I’m glad I have had to wait ten years to prove how much the UK market meant to me. I had no time to savour it in the States."
He is better known in Britain for his appearances on TV’s Never Mind the Buzzcocks where he first was invited in 2008 to be the dumb Yank and the butt of the Brit stand-ups. He turned the tables on them by delivering off-the-cuff one-liners and witty ripostes to such an extent he was invited back as guest quizmaster in 2010. Given the conservatism of his major audience, it was a bold move to make.
Songs that got him singing
"I didn't need to be protective about that side of me,” he says. “I don't go 'off brand'. It just gave me the chance to show my other side. Britain seems to be a culture where you can have the serious and the silly side by side. You don’t get that choice everywhere."
His latest album, Stages, is his seventh. Unlike his previous records it is entirely composed of Broadway musical show songs. What made him decide to shift gear away from the light classical material and adult-orientated pop/rock on this occasion? And why hadn’t he done so before? After all, among his many appearances was a concert performance of the musical Chess at the Royal Albert Hall in 2008.
"These are the songs that got me singing in the first place,” he says. “I could have done these songs at 18. I had the voice. But I didn't have the life experience to do it. People are also rediscovering these shows. Chess at the Albert Hall was an eye-opening experience."
Grounded and unstarry
Given the speed of his success, in the US at least, Groban appears remarkably grounded and unstarry. Yes, he doesn’t have to worry about paying the rent ever again, yes he has the glamorous girlfriend (actress Kat Dennings, star of Thor movies and TV’s Two Broke Girls) and yes he attends a lot of charity balls - but usually as a contributor rather than a mere partygoer. He is the kind of Facebook friend you would like as a real friend.
Much of his attitude he puts down to his parents, Lindy and Jack, who gave him sound advice when he was young.
“My Mom and Dad have been married for forty-six years,” he says with some pride. “They’re a Norman Rockwell family. My dad was in business but he was also a jazz trumpeter. Mom was a full-time mother but also an art teacher. The emphasis on education was always present. They set me up to understand how hard I would have to work. They gave me a foundation for the discipline I would have to have.”
Fame and fortune
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Groban has since decamped to New York where he finds it easier to lead something like a normal life. Fame and fortune brings its rewards and pitfalls in equal measure.
"In New York people are respectful. If ever I get to the point where I couldn't get on a subway in New York I'd be really unhappy. I do have a problem in LA. The celebrity culture is out of control – it’s like celebrity whale watching.
The dirty little secret is that most people are inviting it. I try and stay away from that scene because I value my privacy. I need to keep myself grounded in the mud."
Like Benedict Cumberbatch whose female followers call themselves 'Cumberb*tches', Groban’s female fans have their own nomenclature – Grobanites. Are there differences between the generations? Is there a mother/daughter thing going on? Hoping he will see the funny side, I suggest that the knickers tossed onto the stage are on the larger size. He does.
"Older fans are screaming and waiting outside the studios all day long. The younger ones are already on Twitter and Facebook. I haven't reached the Tom Jones level. Nobody throws me the keys to their hotel rooms," he laughs.
Josh Groban would make me sick if he wasn't such a nice guy. He can sing, act, make funny and has his own children's educational charity - Find Your Life Foundation. Is there anything he can't do?
"I can't dance," he says ruefully. "You'll never see me on Strictly Come Dancing." Phew.
UK tour details http://www.joshgroban.com/tour
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