Keith Urban’s Year of Living Dangerously

Interview by Holly Gleason

From the moment Keith Urban left The Ranch, his rock-country power trio, the compact, New Zealand-born, Brisbane-raised guitarist transcended labels. The world-class musician’s guitar playing is as fluid and inventive as his seemingly effortless ability to vocally inhabit a song. The four-time Grammy-winner has been the Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year twice and Male Vocalist three times, as well as the 2019 Academy of Country Music EOTY.  

Not that he’s in it for awards. Urban—whose The Speed of Now, Part 1 just dropped via his longtime label, Capitol Nashville—is musically peripatetic. For his latest, the man who’s teamed with Pitbull, Carrie Underwood, John Mayer, Miranda Lambert and Eric Church has thrown down a gauntlet that includes Breland, Nile Rodgers and P!nk.

The man who made the “ganjo” a reality on Country radio lives life seeking the best each day has to offer. Urban, wife Nicole Kidman and their kids locked down in Australia, returns to host the ACM Awards —and launch another #1 country album.

The album’s title turned out to be prophetic.
Its actual title should be relevant to any time. But it is crazy I chose the title before all this. We’d been touring overseas, and even last year it seemed like the world was picking up the pace. You find yourself asking, “What’s the end game here?” And it isn’t just the environment, but the pace is unsustainable. The struggle to keep up with this computer in my pocket...

Then COVID hit.
Yeah. Anything that’s ended up strong and good in my life started out terrible. The things in my life that are so wonderful came from very dark places. There are a lot of things that need to be calibrated. Everything has to be reassessed. Based on the absurdity, here we are in the big reset—and even that’s just flying by.

And it’s more than the Coronavirus.
The big, complicated diversity of America! Ultimately, the way we do things will be the way we have to do things. It’ll be better than anything we have done before once we figure it out.

You’ve embraced diversity, whether ganjo or Pitbull. You’re so musically curious. You’ve got Breland on a couple tracks.
[Amazon Music’s] Dan McCarroll told me last year about “My Truck.” I listened and said, “Wow! Who is this guy?” Then I read an interview and was fascinated. I got his phone number, called him up and we talked for 45 minutes. I said, “If you’re ever going to be in Nashville, we should try to write.” He lives in Atlanta, and he says, “How ’bout Friday?” And I say, “Oh, you’re gonna be in Nashville?” He says, “Well, I will be.”

How was that?
Breland has so much immediacy and simplicity; it was refreshing. With “Out the Cage,” I said, “I wanna write something with an English house, Fatboy Slim/Prodigy feel. We created a drum loop, I grabbed my ganjo and started playing this riff. He’s like, “Hey why don’t we...?” We were off. Days of that immediacy really took hold. The whole song is about running, taking off, being liberated.

Explain the push/pull of creating it.
Working on the lyric, I went, “Every time I feel like I can’t take any more...” He said, “I get angry...” I said, “I can’t say that [laughs]. It’s too literal.” And he said, “Yes, but that’s what you feel. So why wouldn’t you say it?”

“Out the Cage” is nervy. It starts this album with a lot of intent.
Quarantining, lockdown and social distancing will do that to you. But it’s more than that; it’s rejecting all kinds of oppression. It’s dead-end jobs, crap relationships, anywhere you’re limited or held back. Negativity and insecurity, all that stuff that holds you back.

Rhythm and groove are important here too.
Being the child of a drummer, that gets in there. And it’s a good thing. It opens up so many possibilities.

“Soul Food” is this delicious, nutritious slice of pop yumminess.
It’s the common ground: the country/R&B/pop place where it all comes together. Harry Styles could sing it, Breland, Ed Sheeran. It’s not one style; it’s who’s singing it. I love when a song can go where the singer wants to be.

There’s P!nk and “One Too Many.”
When I heard it, I could see the story all the way. They might be in that stuck-together dance. When you get that phone call, “Come and get me [laughs].” We’ve all had those relationships.

You also dive into the ghosts of gone relationships with “Change Your Mind.”
I love questions being posed in songs, and this one floored me. It was so simple, but I’d never heard it put so simply. Such a beautiful way of dealing with it. It’s other people but also relationships with myself—that’s often the most complicated.

Amazing what a few words can do.
I read this interview with Bono, where he talks about the power of one word. In the song “One,” at the end of the chorus, he said, “In the ’60s, it would’ve been ‘got,’ which sounds like an obligation. U2 used ‘get,’ which sounds like grace.” That perspective allows me as a listener to connect, to get pulled towards it.

“God Whispered Your Name” sure invites us to grace.
If you don’t believe in God, substitute the word “love”—it’ll work. I think we need it right now.

You recorded with Benmont Tench and Pino Palladino on what might have been Ed Cherney’s final session.
I’d been a fan of Ed’s for a long time. I got a call, asking, “Would you like to record with Ed Cherney? He’s available.” I said, “Yes!” “And Benmont Tench?” “Yes!” And then we got Matt Chamberlain, Pino Palladino. Just listening to those three guys, all on the floor, playing together—and Ed capturing the magic. It was so lovely and so vibey, one of those perfect moments.

In a time of upset and disruption, you’re creatively finding such breadth. And you’re always reaching new places.
I had the closest thing to artistic paralysis I’ve ever had. You couldn’t play live or go down to the studio. I figured, “Okay, I’ll put on my sweatpants”—and I sat on the couch watching TV with the family. I was like Jeff Daniels in the bathroom in Dumb and Dumber. So I called up a friend, and we were talking about it. They told me, “Everything you’ve said is what you can’t do, but tell me one thing you can do.” I thought a moment. “Well, I could call an engineer friend who’s quarantining, take his temperature—and if it’s okay, we could record something in the studio, I guess.” Then we put on the drive-in concert [for Nashville’s frontline workers]. That really put me in motion.

An amazing turnaround.
If COVID’s gift was anything, it was to not even make plans. 2020 is an Etch A Sketch. It’s the year to throw out your Sharpies and get a dry-erase board.

Perhaps the circumstances contributed to this far-reaching music.
There’s a spirit I’m hoping remains from beginning to end. Each track has a spirit I’m trying to not get in the way of. I’m not always successful; sometimes I crowd too many things on the tracks, and the song ends up trying to get out from under the tracks.

I’m just trying to make a “me” record, not a proper “pop,” or “country,” or “rock” or anything record. It’s a very complicated process, and I have a very messy kitchen. I try so many things, and metaphorically, there’s just stuff everywhere.

You say that like it’s a bad thing.
For me, it’s always entering the forest with no path—every time. The bits I learned last time aren’t going to work, so, here we go again! I’ve learned that much. But somehow, I come out with just enough dishes to always have a lovely meal.

Your audience is rawk dudes who like to hear you play, women who love the ballads, young people who want to be lifted up. It seems to be working.
I’ve made enough records to know to walk in with a blank canvas, then make music. Trust that. We have way more in common than we are different. It’s an age-old truth for a reason.

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Allow us to apologize in advance.

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