One of the big issues that had to be overcome was how to record during a time when musicians had to be socially distanced and were unable to travel and be in the same studio to record their parts. In this case, Groban was in Los Angeles, his producer, Bernie Herms, was in Nashville and the orchestra that was a key part in the song arrangements was in London. But technology provided a solution with a plug-in called Audiomovers that links together multiple recording locations.
“(It gave us) the ability to connect with each other on a sonic level that is of the highest quality. It’s as if somebody is in the room next to you,” Groban explained. “And where you’res bouncing back and forth your audio files in real time, it allows you to share the airwaves and to jam with each other from across oceans in real time and for it to sound as good as it would be if you were in the same room. That’s not the way I love to make music. I like us all to be in the same place. But when you’re making an album or making a movie, sometimes you have to do what you have to do to get the final product and get the final message across.”
As for the music itself, Groban pointed to two songs that weren’t originally under consideration for the “Harmony” album until the pandemic put a new backdrop on the project.
“There are a couple of songs that spring to mind that I don’t think, I might have been a little intimidated or skeptical of doing, that felt absolutely right after everything we had gone through, the first being ‘Impossible Dream,’ which is a song I was maybe waiting to sing for maybe another musical theater album or something along those lines,” Groban said. “But also, I had really known it to be kind of the (Robert) Goulet, just kind of the big, bold, inspirational with a capital ‘I’ (song). I hadn’t really sat and truly listened to the lyric, and that was my bad. But in my head, I just always thought of it as a kind of big, brash ballad and I didn’t really give it the thought that it deserved. And when I really looked at those lyrics, and when I found myself getting really emotional while I was singing it and how we’ve all tried to take these small steps forward in the face of these enormous challenges, it felt both politically, emotionally, health-wise, socially (right). There were so many things that happened over the course of that year and a half, two years, that suddenly those lyrics made even more sense to me.
“The other song, of course, is ‘Both Sides Now,’ the Joni Mitchell song, which I was just scared to sing,” he said. “I’d always wanted to sing it, but you always feel like you kind of have to have the stuff behind it before you tackle anything by Joni. I called my friend Sara Bareilles and said I know we both love her and love this song. I didn’t know if it was the right time, but now I kind of feel like it’s the right time. And she said ‘Yes, it’s the right time. Let’s do it.’ And so those are two examples of things where just all of us trying to heal really kind of influenced how we do it.”
Another change with the album was Groban’s decision to include a pair of original songs, “Your Face” and “The Fullest,” the latter of which takes on a bit of a gospel touch with Kirk Franklin guesting on the track.
Overall, “Harmony” brings a sense of comfort and optimism in a time when the world suddenly became a lot more uncertain and scary. In addition to the aforementioned songs, “Harmony” includes Groban’s versions of such contemporary pop standards as “Celebrate Me Home” (by Kenny Loggins), Sting’s “Shape of My Heart” (a duet with Leslie Odom Jr.) and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (a hit for Roberta Flack), while reaching back further for “It’s Now or Never” (the Elvis Presley hit) and also dipping into the Frank Sinatra catalog for “The World We Knew” (Over and Over).”
What makes the songs stand out, besides Groban’s exceptional singing, are the orchestral arrangements. They bring a different musical element to many of the songs and also put the “Harmony” album squarely within the classical crossover/pop realm that Groban has occupied since he came on the scene with a 2001 self-titled debut album that sold more than four million copies worldwide. That album was followed by an even more popular outing, the 2003 release “Closer,” which featured the smash hit “You Raise Me Up.”
Now 41, Groban has largely maintained his popularity since, releasing seven more studio albums, while also making an impact as an actor on television (“The Office,” “The Crazy Ones” and “The Good Cop), in movies (”Crazy Stupid Love” and “Muppets Most Wanted”) and on Broadway, where he won the 2017 best actor Tony Award for his lead role as Pierre Bezukhov in “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.”
Having been off the road since the pandemic hit, Groban is beyond grateful and excited to be back on tour. He promised a show that will balance songs from “Harmony” with back catalog material, plus a visual presentation that was designed expressly for the outdoor amphitheaters that will host the concerts.
“When you’re playing outdoors, so much of your environment is setting the tone already for you,” he said. “I made this mistake when I was younger trying to force feed a big arena set into a bunch of outdoor sheds and I’m thinking ‘Oh my God, we’re wasting all this natural beauty trying to put all of these bells and whistles up here.’ So we’re really excited about the design for the summer tour because it’s classic, it’s going to be beautiful, it’s also going to let a lot of the natural beauty of these venues do the talking, as well as the music, of course.
The evening will also feature performances from the venerable Preservation Hall Jazz Band and emerging singer/songwriter Eleri Ward, as well as violinist Lucia Micarelli.
“It’s going to be a night of gratitude, of really just us singing our faces off for people again,” Groban said.
7 p.m. July 16. $31-$191. Cadence Bank Amphitheatre at Chastain Park, 4469 Stella Drive, Atlanta. livenation.com.