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Think You Know Josh Groban? Think Again

In an interview, the singer/actor talks about popera, dating and his upcoming album

“I can’t believe you can’t say tits on PBS.”

These are basically the first words that spill out of Josh Groban’s mouth as he sits down at the hip Tribeca watering hole Tiny’s to talk about his new album. He’s telling a story about performing in a televised tribute to Marvin Hamlisch and his amusement over a censored lyric. It’s an unexpected introduction to the favorite heartthrob of housewives everywhere. Or then again, maybe it’s not. Because as the evening progresses, a suspicion is confirmed: This opera boy’s public persona couldn’t be further from his real-life game.

Groban is that rare artist who is as welcome at Lincoln Center as at Rick Rubin’s house, as likely to sing a duet with Barbra Streisand as to appear in a skit on Jimmy Kimmel Live (where he memorably set Kanye West’s absurdist tweets to music: “I make awesome decisions in bike stores.”). Groban’s latest record, All That Echoes (released last month), was produced by Rob Cavallo—better known for his work with hard-charging bands like Green Day and My Chemical Romance than with baritones. Ask Groban where he met Cavallo, and he’ll tell you slyly: “At a dinner party at Kid Rock’s place… as you do.”

The Book of Groban started when he was discovered as a teenager by the producer David Foster, who sent him to fill in for an ailing Andrea Bocelli at a rehearsal with Céline Dion for the 1999 Grammy Awards. Rosie O’Donnell happened to be in the room and booked him for her show, and he became a “popera” sensation overnight. Groban has since sold more than 25 million albums worldwide, earning the enduring love of the Obama White House, Gayle King and a legion of rapture-ready fans calling themselves “Grobanites.” But if you’ve been paying close attention, you’ve seen glimpses of that other Josh Groban in the wings all along. You know, the smart comedy nerd and undercover ladies’ man who dated Mad Men‘s January Jones for three years and weathered a rumored dalliance with Katy Perry (though neither has ever gone on the record about it). And while music remains his first love, he’s been making serious inroads in Hollywood, too, meeting with David Letterman’s company, Worldwide Pants, about collaborating on a daytime talk show (their idea) and playing Emma Stone’s douche-bag boyfriend in Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Regarding acting, he says with a smile, there’s often some push-back from casting directors. “I’m always the long shot. I walk in there and they go, ‘We played your song at my mom’s funeral. Now make us laugh.'” He’s happy to play the fool—he finds the Twitter account “Josh Groban’s Hair” to be ridiculous fun—but rest assured, he’s in on the joke.

The perception of him as a “classical crossover” is a very real obstacle, and one that makes him bristle. Sitting in a corner table upstairs at Tiny’s, a spot he’s visited enough that he suggests ordering the duck duo, Groban explains: “I hate the word popera. People assume if there’s an orchestra, it’s not for them. Or that it’s stuffy and the personalities behind it must go home and think how great their music is and how everything else is beneath them.” Being shoved into a box that doesn’t quite fit clearly rankles him. “The main misconception,” he says above the restaurant’s alt-rock sound track, “is that I’m not a normal 32-year-old guy.” When pressed for proof, he runs through a litany of “unlikely” happenings in his life. Like the time he and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers collaborated on a duet of “Ave Maria.” Or how he wrote a “party anthem” for hard-core rocker Andrew W.K. Or how Mindy Kaling reached out via Twitter to offer him a guest spot on The Office. Or what the vibe is like at Kid Rock’s epic dinner parties. “He’ll invite a teacher he met in Brooklyn, then someone from the Beastie Boys, a professor and me. We’ll all sit at this long table and have political conversations. Then we’ll get drunk and dance on his stripper pole.”

Groban isn’t fronting for a writer’s benefit. He’s just proud of the eclectic world he’s made while swimming upstream in an industry that’s seen healthier days. His latest album is a stab at amping up the slumbering genre he’s been shoehorned into. “The genre’s become almost like spa music,” he says. “It’s almost New Age. It’s lacking a rhythm.” Not so on this disc. Recorded at Ocean Way studios  on Sunset Boulevard—where Green Day recorded American IdiotAll That Echoes is a mash-up of sweeping ballads (“E Ti Prometerro”), SoulCycle-ready guilty pleasures (“Brave”) and emotionally executed covers (“Falling Slowly,” from Once). The recording process had a throw-everything-at-the-wall approach, with Groban playing drums on a redo of Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)” and covering an obscure track by a Danish indie band, Choir of Young Believers. It was also a damn good time.

“The cool thing about working in one studio space every day is that lots of people wind up coming in,” he says. “Who’s next door? Oh, it’s like, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Or the remaining members of the Wu-Tang Clan.” Groban’s 7-year-old Wheaten terrier, Sweeney, would wander down the hallways exploring the other studios. “He’d come back and his fur would stink of marijuana,” Groban says. “Some rapper would come in and be like, ‘Yo, whose dog is this? He’s adorable!’ ”

The album isn’t just a return to form; it’s also highly confessional. Groban says songwriting is “better than therapy,” and gossip columnists would be wise to listen to “False Alarms,” a strings-heavy ballad about a love gone wrong. “There’s nothing worse in a relationship than realizing you’re more invested than the other person and you have to let it go. It’s that old saying: When you squeeze the sand in your hand and it all falls out…” He declines to say exactly whom the song is about, but it’s a safe bet that we’d recognize her. “She will remain nameless publicly,” he says, standing firm. And he admits the ex in question doesn’t know the song is coming. “I do it Taylor Swift–style,” he says. “I like to surprise them with it.”

Groban is single these days, but he’s open to set-ups. “I heard a phrase I really liked the other day,” he says. “Love should be a friendship on fire. That’s what it should be.” Apparently that wasn’t the case with January Jones; the two split in 2006—and before you ask, he’s not her child’s mystery baby daddy. “I’m pretty certain our breakup [and the child’s birth were] enough years apart that that wouldn’t be possible,” he says. Still, Groban acknowledges that as he gets older, his mother has been pestering him to settle down. “How quickly the time passes between the requests ‘Please don’t get her pregnant’ and ‘When are you going to give me a baby?’ My parents take that energy out on my dog. He’s the grand-puppy.”

The artist might not be on the doorstep of fatherhood, but he’s certainly taking a real stab at happiness. Three years ago, he packed up and moved from Los Angeles to New York City, renting uptown before buying a loft in a converted dairy factory in Tribeca. “It was a series of breaking points,” he says. “The very thing that makes L.A. the perfect place for most people is the thing that makes me crazy. I don’t do very well with laid-back. I fester when I’m in Los Angeles. When I’m in New York, I focus on living in the present.” His New York love affair is at times predictable (Central Park, Bouchon Bakery), at times refreshingly nerdy (karaoke in Koreatown). “I do a mean Eddie Vedder,” he says of his sing-along nights. “Later, when everyone has gotten their food, it’s like, ‘You eat your nachos. Let me give you a 10-minute ‘November Rain.'”

It’s not a stretch to say that he’s entering a new phase of his career: He’s an established global brand, but he’s itching to color outside the lines and hopes fans will come with him. To that end, he’s completed a feature film, Coffee Town, written and directed by Arrested Development‘s Brad Copeland and produced by the CollegeHumor guys. Naturally, Groban plays a disgruntled barista, opposite Adrianne Palicki (Friday Night Lights). “There’s a scene where I piss in a cup of coffee,” he says. “I drop the F-bomb quite a few times.” And then there’s a proposed Broadway revival of the musical Chess in 2014; he meets with Tim Rice every couple of months to discuss the project. “We’re serious about it,” he says.

When you’ve sung a duet with Céline Dion before graduating from high school, you know YOLO. What Groban now seems to be, more than anything, is comfortable in his skin. “I started from such a place of uncertainty and insecurity as a terrified 17-year-old. I was a student and a pro at the same time. I was terrified to have a good time, terrified it was all going to go away. Honestly, I feel like I can take ownership of it and enjoy it.”