Interview by Holly Gleason

It all started with a ganjo. Two decades ago, a musical whiz kid heard a sound in his head, but couldn’t explain it to the banjo player summoned to the Castle Recording Studio, where his band, The Ranch, was tracking. Frustrated, he stopped at a music store on his way home. What he needed was a banjo with six tuning pegs, something that played like the guitar; walking into Corner Music, there it was.

“It was $900, which I didn’t have,” laughs Keith Urban. “I bought it on layaway, took it to the studio the next day, put it on one song, then another. Twenty-one years later, I’m still playing it.”

Along the way, he’s racked up 19 #1s and 36 consecutive Top 5 hits, won 10 Country Music Association Awards, including Entertainer of the Year, and four Grammys; shared stages with The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton; created and co-hosted (with Vince Gill) the Country Music Hall of Fame’s star-studded All for the Hall benefit concerts, which have raised millions of dollars; and yes, been the guy on American Idol, who married Oscar winner Nicole Kidman in 2006.

Urban, whose own songs veer from tender ballad to churning mid-tempos to the dust-up light rocker, can deftly discuss Red Hot Chili Peppers’ brand new The Getaway, Trevor Horn’s clean, progressive production style, Shel Silverstein‘s “missing oh!,” cutting-edge sound technology and Waylon Jennings’ thump with equal ease. Always an innovator, he found Luna Halo’s Nathan Barlowe— who created an instrument deemed “The Phantom,” eight iPads linked together, run through a processor containing every track from Urban’s albums and triggered via touch, trigger and drum machine. “One of the things I spend my money on is paying for my records,” he says, “so I’m willing to experiment.”

Ripcord, his eighth solo album for Capitol Nashville, finds the perennial sonic explorer teaming with Nile Rodgers, Pitbull, Carrie Underwood, Jeff Bhasker and busbee, as well as regular co-producers Dann Huff and Nathan Chapman. With wafts of EDM rhythms, minor keys, drum machines, retro songs, spare moments and sculpted arrangements, the 13-song package opens with... a ganjo.

How important is music to you?
As important as breathing. No question about it. It’s in my blood, my DNA, my family’s history—so many generations are all musicians.

Was there ever a time without it?
I started playing guitar when I was six. I never made a conscious decision to make this my job, or my living. It’s like a kid who’s crawling around saying, “I think I’m going to walk for the rest of my life.” It’s really all I know.

Is it so ingrained, you don’t even have to think about it?
When I do, that’s when I get in trouble. There was a time early on in Nashville where I lost a bit of passion for music. It almost felt like a parlor trick: The little kid gets onstage and plays. It coincided with hitting wall after wall, all these road blocks, and having no success.

Well, you’ve been very committed to always moving your music forward. Is that intentional?
I’m reading this book right now about Elvis in Nashville, and his relationship with it. It’s almost a diary: his studio work, the sessions and players, even momentarily trying to date the governor’s daughter. And I relate to what was happening to Nashville in the ’50s with rock & roll exploding.

Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley created “Countypolitan.” They intentionally got rid of fiddles and violins and string sections; they got rid of steel guitar and got Floyd Kramer and these pretty piano parts. People were outraged! “What did you do to our honky-tonk music?” Today, the equivalent of scrapping the fiddle might be adding the ganjo or using a synth track, or losing the drums and adding more loops. It’s trying to see how the modern technology fits.

Are you apologizing?
No, exploring. But it’s also one record. It’s not like the last statement from me; it’s always where I currently am. I might go back to a more stripped-down three-piece bar band. In the end, no matter what the songs are, I can pull out an acoustic guitar and play it at The Bluebird.

I grew up on country music, but also swamped in the Top 40 radio I grew up with in Brisbane, where there was just one radio station. So I like pop, great melodies, musical hooks, sing-along choruses. I love lyrical writers like Jimmy Webb and Rodney Crowell, but I love pop and rock music as well.

Are you musically restless?
I think of it more in terms of passionate and curious—and engaged. “Restless” sounds a little dissatisfied and not able to be satiated. Believe me, I’m very satiated.

Then is it about being different?
I have an issue with the word “different” [laughs]. Anybody can be different. That’s so easy. But to be moving, to be connected and engaged: That’s the thing. Expand the music, but maintain some of the familiarity.

You’ve always had a strong undertow of pro-female songs, like “Stupid Boy,” “Cop Car” and Ripcord’s “The Fighter” with Carrie Underwood. Are you a feminist?
I love Joseph Campbell. He talks a lot about the women-power movement, how the whole thing got so extreme and women got very hardened over by it. The pressure of it all made women tough, and I want to support the purity and beauty of women, that feminine piece of it, so the beauty doesn’t become hardened into something that paves over what’s special. People, especially women, talk about being thick-skinned, and I want to say, “I’m so sorry. What happened?” To be raw and vulnerable, that’s the beauty of it.

A lot of those really simple, tough lines in “The Fighter” are straight from early in my relationship with Nic. I had such a learning curve in our marriage! When she’d get scared, I’d think she was angry; then I’d get defensive, go tearing out the driveway at 90 miles an hour. And that’s when it all gets pear-shaped. What she needs, and it’s all in the song, is for me to stay, to be close, to hear her. Get Closer: the album title alone was literally from this new awareness I had with this reality of how to react. When things are tough or upsetting, it’s about pulling her close. That’s what she needs, and I had to learn it.

It was like that with “Stupid Boy.” Sarah Buxton had put out an album and I was listening on the bus. I said to Nic, “I need a song like that.” And she said, “Why don’t you do this song?” And I was thinking it was a woman singing. Nicole was so clear: “You’re the stupid boy. Sing the whole song, and then at the end put it out there.”

It sounds very powerful.
First and foremost, my marriage with Nic informs everything. Nic is so unbelievably open; she doesn’t keep things in or bottle them up. She’s really a great communicator. Because of her, if I open up, every day, I’m listening and growing and learning. If I’m a better man, it’s because of her.

On the CMT Honors a few years ago, you did “It’s A Man’s World” with an all-female band. The effect was staggering. And then there’s the statement. I’m not a political person when it comes to making statements. But I was dismayed by a number of things: the reaction to [Little Big Town’s] “Girl Crush,” how few women were being recognized in the Entertainer of the Year categories, how few women were being played on the radio.

When they asked me to do CMT Honors, I thought about this. I called Kris Wilkinson, who’s worked on string sections with me over the years, and asked her if she could put an entire band together of women players: bass, drums, horns, all of it. After that, I didn’t really need to say anything; I let the music do the talking, because nothing speaks louder than a moment like that.

What was the response?
I don’t know. I like to create something and then move on. People can respond to it any way they want. It’s not meant to elicit any one response, but make people see and think and consider.

You really love collaborating and working with others.
Working with Nile and Dann [Huff], obviously, I love working with guitar players, but I also love working with people who are as curious as I am. Every producer I work with plays multiple instruments. They can go down any alley because they’re completely present and lost inside the music.

Urban in a studio groove with Nile Rodgers

Some—like Nile Rodgers—might not be conversant in ganjo.
As a guitar player, I wanted to play with that funk guitar, while I played my ganjo. I literally had that vision: Us in a room, just like that with a cool drumbeat loop going. That’s how I saw it. We ended up in a studio in New York, jamming for hours and hours. We probably have five or six songs, but “Sun Don’t Let Me Down” is the one that we finished. We’ll sort out the rest over time.

It’s an odd combination, at least on paper.
Absolutely. My dad was a drummer, and the records I always think about because of him are Don Williams’ records, especially they way he and Garth Fundis captured rhythm solidity.

He’d play Don Williams records really loud at 6:30 in the morning; the low end was full and he’d just crank it up! Every one of those early records was pretty much bone dry and simple. That’s how we woke up. And it’s amazing to me how many producers don’t know much about Don Williams, but when I play them the records, they lean in. It’s a common language, and the feel is so good, everyone relates.

Don Williams, obviously, was a pretty successful country singer from the ’70s and ’80s. Eric Clapton learned “Tulsa Time” from him; he cut Bob McDill’s “Come Early Morning” and “Good Ole Boys Like Me.” He wasn’t twangy, or slick.
Don Williams said the greatest thing: The song is the picture, and the record is the frame. You don’t want the frame to be too big or ornate, or you won’t see the picture. But if it’s too small, it won’t do the picture justice, either. And each picture needs its own frame.

Urban and band summon some sweet emotion with Steven Tyler.

Common ground. And the notion for Pitbull?
We’d finished the song. We’d recorded it, and it was done. But we had this section that built and doubled, and I was in my gym with Pitbull’s Globalization channel on, and it hit me: I wanted him on the song.

I jumped off the treadmill and called Nile to see if he knew Pitbull. He said, “Kinda,” and reached out, and the answer came back: “Give me a couple weeks, I’ve got some things going on.” We sent the track, and a couple weeks later, there’s an email in my inbox, and I had no idea what it was going to be, because we’d given him no input.

I gingerly kind of opened it up and listened. The reality is his tone, timber, the rhythm and the swagger every time he sings, it’s like he has his tongue in his cheek. I pressed play, and heard “Keith Urban, Mr. Worldwide, they say life is short, why don’t we live it up,” and I just laughed. He’s uber-confident, uber-sexy and so playful.

You’re a pretty powerful positivity broker. You always have been, all the way back to “Somebody Like You,” “Days Go By” and “Long Hot Summer.”
It’s a short life and we’ve just got to enjoy it. I have a friend who says, “Life is fired at point-blank range.” You have no control over most of it, so you really need to take control of how you respond to it. If the sun is out, and there’s a blue sky, it’s like that Kenny Chesney song, “I’m gonna save it for a rainy day,” all those things that could bother you. I’d much rather lean into the light. Because there is so much to love and enjoy.

And I think we’re all a product of our upbringing. There was a lot of volatility between my father and my brother, so I became the peacemaker. It was my nurture, but it’s probably my nature, too, trying to keep the peace between people.

Well, onstage you absolutely lift people up.
The thing I love about touring is for two hours, everybody’s pretty connected, and we’re all in agreement about this one song for three minutes. To see everyone having a good time and being as one? That’s the best.

During CMA Fest, we played the little HGTV Lodge. It holds maybe 100 people, and you only play for 30 minutes. I wanted to do it as a three-piece: guitar, bass, drums, little amps. I had the best time! I didn’t want to stop, and you could feel all that energy. That’s the spirit of a song, too. I either feel it and it speaks to me, or not. The lyrics, tempo, feel, melody: I love the universality in things. Growing up in Australia and playing country music from America, it was the big, big emotions and sentiments: “I Walk the Line,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today”—everyone understands that.

There’s no place or time; everyone fits. And I like love songs with “you and me” versus “him/her.” I love when gender doesn’t have to be assigned. It’s just people.

You’ve been able to integrate some pretty interesting things on Ripcord. There’s techno without pandering, Pitbull, nostalgia. And it all works together.
Derivative doesn’t interest me. When people say, “This Southern rock band sounds just like Skynyrd,” I think, “But we already have Lynyrd Skynyrd and they’re the best at it. Why would we want someone trying to do the same thing?” It’s not to say things that have come before shouldn’t be revisited. With “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” I was reluctant to record it. It was a waltz and structurally, it felt derivative and a bit nostalgic, but I was captivated by the lyric.

So we thought, “Well, let’s see what’s here, what we can do with it.” Matt Chamberlain had this drum machine, and I got a nylon-string guitar. And then he went back to real drums, and I lost interest. It was the same with an electric guitar. But when you had the drum machine, and the nylon strings, added some synth pads, it was interesting – and that’s an example of striving, experimenting.

What about the Phantom?
I called Jerry Flowers when we were putting the band together for the tour, and I said, “We need a new guy who’s a drummer, a DJ, a keyboard player—a utility guy.” He didn’t even blink; he said, “I’ve got this guy Nathan Barlowe. He plays this thing made of iPads with pedals and triggers. He’s a sonic sculptor kind of guy.”

Do you think there’s still a place for the more traditional things? Guitar players who really know how to do it? Actual instruments? Or is progress making that outmoded?
Maybe it’s more hoping that it cycles back to this desire to play real instruments, the actual sound of it. I look at Skrillex and those kinds of guys as they keep morphing and incorporating old records and real instruments into what they’re doing. Kids going to EDM raves are being interested in real organic sounds, the sound of real drums, because that’s what’s different. That’s what’s exotic to them. I think that’s how it cycles around.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers record, which I’m just obsessed with, takes them to this whole other place. I’m not a superfan; I bought Blood Sugar Sex Magic. But on this record, they worked with Danger Mouse, and he harnessed everything about them as a band—Josh’s guitar, the way Flea plays bass, Anthony’s singing, which is so unique—and captured them in a way that’s so modern.

And then there’s the ganjo.
Yes, the ganjo. That’s one of the things that allows me to propel forward and still keep the music rooted in what people know. It’s the first thing you hear on this record. When we went in, I could hear “Gone Tomorrow” fully formed. It was one of those places where there was a difference of opinion. Jeff Bhasker heard it way more old-school, more vintage-vinyl feeling. I heard it more Trevor Horn hyper-precision futuristic sounding, that very clean, intense and focused sound. I think it ended up somewhere in between.

But in precision, there’s not a lot of room for magic.
I think it’s a mixture of things: moments of extreme frustration, where I couldn’t capture the things I wanted the way I wanted. I have a handful of aborted sessions, or a week where we work every day, cut five songs, and only one turns out. You have to try things, to know they may not all work. Sometimes it’s just the wrong thing for that person. Or it’s the right person but the wrong time. Maybe the wrong song. But I’m always committed to trying. That speaks volumes, to scrap a lot of work and time to get where you need to be, but it’s how you find out. Sometimes the magic is what’s left.

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Gosh, we hope there are more press releases.
Unless the Senate manages to make this whole thing go away, that is.
No, not that one.
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