As I look back now, I just can’t believe how many stars were aligning for me when I was 16. I kind of knew I could sing, but it took mentors and teachers to tell me ‘I think you can do this’ to put me out there. It was really at 16 that that started to happen. A producer named David Foster was looking for a singer for an event and he said to a voice teacher I was working with, ‘Who have you got who’s young and can sing a song from Phantom of the Opera?’ I recorded a tape and he said ‘OK’. It changed my life.
Every time I’ve been able to work with an artist that has achieved legend status, the common denominator is that they never stopped striving to learn more and get better. You see a lot of people who go from being nobody to being a global star in five minutes. It’s really hard to know how to deal with it. I think that one of the things that kept me on the straight and narrow was that the people that I really looked up to growing up – the people who had been doing this for 40 or 50 years like Paul Simon, Neil Young, Tony Bennett – are people who just never stop trying to get better. They always find ways to scare themselves.
I’m glad I can’t go back in time and tell that 16-year-old kid that you’re going to sing with legends like Aretha Franklin. I would have gone from being a shy and humble kid to being absolutely intolerable. At 37, 38, sure you can have a bit of ego – you’ve earned it. But at 16, you just gotta keep that head down and don’t pay attention to the noise.
I was still really insecure at 16, because there was so much coming at me. I just didn’t know which end was up. There was a lot of stress about whether I was performing well enough for the people around me. I put every bit of emphasis on whether or not I was doing well for other people. I wasn’t putting enough on enjoying it, and appreciating it. So, I’d say to that kid, ‘Yes, you’ve got to work hard but try to smell the roses a little bit.’
I’d also go back and tell that kid there are going to be times that you’re going to have to work really, really hard when no one is looking. You’re going to have to rely on your own self-confidence and not on external validation. With anyone who has a career that goes beyond 15, 20 years, you’re always going to have times when you feel like you’re the hot thing and times when you don’t. So, I’d tell that kid to be prepared. Get a hobby and get a pet. My dog is 14. He’s a soft-coated wheaten terrier. He’s been on four tours with me and has been my absolute best friend.
My dream growing up was to do theatre. I’d lock myself in my room and sing Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Then I got signed as a teenager to this record deal that changed my life. But always in the back of my head I was thinking, I just love the theatrical world. In the last two years, I got to be the lead in a Tony-nominated show. And I got to host the Tonys last year. I got to stand up on stage and tell jokes to Andrew Lloyd Webber. So, it’s been a pretty incredible, full-circle path back to my original dream. I’d tell 16-year-old me that there will be forks in the road, but when you do things based on your gut – and take a risk because of passion – you never know how things will come back around. And maybe it wouldn’t have happened if you’d just been stubborn and stuck to the path you had decided.
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Both my parents were very musical, but neither of them went into music professionally. My mum was an art teacher. She became a full-time mum when my brother and I were born, but continued to love and follow art. My dad was a jazz trumpet player, but his mum said to him, ‘That’s not a way to make a living’. Fair point, but he was really good. He also has a brilliant business mind, which is the one thing that he did not pass down to me, so he went into that. My parents made sure that my brother and I both had an exposure to an arts education. That’s why I’m such a proponent of arts education in schools – because it was our safe haven.
I was 16 in the Nineties. Baggy clothes were in. Ironic T-shirts were super in. I was wearing concert tees, like Nirvana, Pearl Jam. But honestly, I became one of those weird theatre kids. I had this outfit that I really liked, and every day I said to myself, ‘Surely they won’t remember I wore this yesterday’. I look back at myself and I’m like, ‘Josh, you’re wearing the same damn thing in every photograph’. I had no fashion sense. Here’s my psychopath uniform from my final two years of high school: steel-toed Doc Marten boots, weird khakis and a turtle neck. It was not pretty. It wasn’t until I got signed, at 18, that I realised what a stylist could do.
I was so much of a control freak when I was 16 that I was scared to do anything
I was at an arts high school, so the good news was that I was surrounded by other students who were kind of quirky and didn’t feel like they fitted in. At another school I would have been really picked on, but at the school I was at I felt like we were all weirdos together. Theatre is so social, it’s natural that you become friends with people and you start to date a little. So, at 16, I got my first girlfriend. It wasn’t a long relationship but it was a relationship.
The dating advice I would give my 16-year-old self would be – go with the electric face razor, not the Gillette blade at that age. I would say, cut your hair every now and then. There is such a thing as too wild. And if you got a big date night, get that second sweater, man.
I’ve always been rule-abiding. Any of my friends could break a law and get away with it. If I do it, I’m always the one who gets caught. I was so much of a control freak when I was 16 that I was scared to do anything. I didn’t really allow myself to get caught up in drinking, drugs and things like that. I was just so focused on the work. When you’re a singer, your instrument is inside you, so anything you put in your body, it will have an effect on how you sound. Thrown into a party-filled business, I’m actually proud of 16-year-old me for looking to the bigger goal. And for not indulging in things that would have made me feel cooler in the moment, but probably would have led me down a darker path.
If I could go back in time to my 16-year-old self, I would warn every man, woman and child in 1998 about Donald Trump. I would make sure that everyone had a Donald Trump safety preparation kit. I’d pack a backpack at 16, preparing myself for 2017, to just go to the woods for a few years.
Josh Groban’s album Bridges is out on September 21. He stars in new Netflix series The Good Cop launching this month and plays live dates in London and Manchester in December. joshgroban.com