Going for a song
Josh Groban on Paul Simon´s Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes
I remember becoming interested at a young age in sounds and styles of music that were pretty left of centre from what was normally heard on the radio and television. Los Angeles, where I grew up, was a great melting pot for cultural activity, and I was lucky enough to have cool parents who, without being pushy, made sure that my brother and I were exposed to as many performances and albums as possible. Every now and again, though, an album or a song comes into your life that doesn´t just entertain you, it totally changes the way you think about music and the possibilities it holds as a universal language. For me, the album was Paul Simon´s Graceland, the song was Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes, and I was eight years old.
Lying on the floor of my room, I was transported to another place, closing my eyes in complete wonder as I was introduced - like much of the world - to the eclectic musical tapestry of Simon´s poignant lyrics and sweet Americana melodies, mixed with the pulsing, vibrant instruments and voices of Africa. At the beginning of Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes, the incredible Ladysmith Black Mambazo set the tone with their a cappella sound. I remember thinking to myself, ´Well, I don´t understand what they´re singing about, but I sure do feel it and somehow get it.´¯ As I´m also a singer who decided to throw a few languages onto an album, it always brings me back there when a fan says: ´I didn´t understand that song in Italian, but I got it; I understood it through the emotion.´¯
A thrill on a par with discovering this song and this group was being able to record with them on my new album. I was prepared to take a trip to South Africa to sing with them, but they happened to be in New York, so we met there. I was terrified and honoured to be in the same room with them working on a song I wrote with Dave Matthews, called Lullaby, and one I found in South Africa, called Weeping, about the end of apartheid. I felt like a kid again, listening to them sing, and was overjoyed to hear Joseph Shabalala and the group that he founded performing just as beautifully more than 20 years later.
Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes has, I think, many meanings, about love, imagination and poverty. I believe that the best songs have multiple meanings, depending on who might be listening. For me, this song let me dream. Simon happened to be rehearsing across the street from that studio I was recording in, and wanted to stop in to say hello. I was never able to get into this much detail when talking to him, but at least I was able to stand in a room, surrounded by some of my heroes, and just say, ´Thanks.´¯
Josh Groban is a singer-songwriter; his latest album, Awake, is out now