Keith Urban: The evolution of an entertainer

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Keith Urban

Keith Urban joins me from the studio where he is working on some exciting new projects as he chats to me to gush about the upcoming ‘The Speed of Now’ tour. For anyone that has had the pleasure of seeing Keith Urban live, you wont need me to tell you – or the award shows in fact – that he is the true definition of a born entertainer!   

Following a motif 

Urban has been writing and releasing music since before I was born and at around ten/eleven years old, in the mid-noughties, I began listening to country radio stations on iTunes – before the days of Apple radio. It was on one of these stations that I first heard Keith Urban singing a tear-jerker of a song that made me fall in love with his voice, his heart and his soul which he channelled so honestly into his music. The song in question was ‘Tonight I Wanna Cry’. “I wrote that with Monty Powell. We’d written a lot of songs together and I showed up at his house one morning with a bottle of wine – never a good look at 10am. We cracked open the bottle, and I just had a piano there and I just started flowing with this song. So it really came quite quickly and fluidly. I think it was a truth about where I was in my life at that time.”  

Since then, Urban’s music has changed and evolved but with every album that comes out, that same excitement and anticipation builds up inside. His approach to his writing and musicianship hasn’t changed over the years, “The first part of writing any song for me is some kind of inspiration, its usually music driven and the story that I want to tell tends to come through the music before it finds lyric form. Even songs like ‘Tonight I Wanna Cry.” Urban begins as he reflects upon his process. He continues, “There’s a reason why so many of my songs start with motifs, because a lot of the time theyre the first thing that comes and they’re saying so much already, without any lyric. Then a melody comes, painting the way to the story. Then the lyrics tend to come last.” 

It’s such a different response to what I hear from most country artists, but then again, Keith Urban is not most country artists! “I’ve had people ask me, why do you write from the music, do you have nothing to say? But I realised I say it through the music. So it’s an interesting process and writing it’s elusive, and fascinating and frustrating and magical.” Urban wrote with one of the fastest rising stars of the genre, Breland, for his latest record, ‘The Speed of Now’ right there in the studio where he sits now. It was the start of a great working relationship and friendship. ‘The Speed Of Now’ was a great success, topping the charts in Australia and America. It featured five songs that Urban had a hand in co-writing and the others were outside cuts. I was keen to hear what he looked for in other peoples songs when it came to narrowing down a selection to take into the studio. 

“If it’s a song I didn’t write, then something in it just speaks to me really,” he begins. “it’s that feeling you get when you hear a song for the first time on the radio and you sit up and listen. What is it that you like about it? It could be lyric, it could be a melody, it could be a beat, could be the singer’s voice, who you make out with while you’re listening to it, whatever it is, something grabs you and that that’s the same thing for me when I am listening for songs to potentially record because writers ask me all the time, ‘What are you looking for? Do you want up tempo? Do you want ballads? What do you want?I’m like, it’s not like that for me.”   

Dynamic duets 

One of the songs on the record was the hit ‘One Too Many’ which features GRAMMY award-winning artist P!nk. The song charted all around the world and was certified 2x Platinum in Australia. “I heard the demo and just loved the song immediately,” Urban’s face lights up as he reflects. “I think a lot of your readers have that experience when you hear a song, you can often see the scene right away. I had that with ‘One Too ManyI definitely could see the scene; the bar, the people singing, the phones, the bartender, the whole thing. So I just wanted to record the song and finding that right voice was key.” 

Urban had always been a fan of P!nk and so it seemed like the perfect solution. “I love her artistry, I love her heart, her humanity, her sense of discovery and curiosity,” Urban gushes. “I’ve always wanted to sing something with her, this song came along and I went, ‘Oh my God, this might be the song’. I sent it to her and fingers crossed, hoped she liked it. I didn’t hear from her for a long, long time. It was, of course, through the pandemic and it turned out that there was a lot of things paused through the pandemic. She got back to me and says she loves the song and would love to do it. So she put her vocal on it. The first time I heard her voice was right here in the studio, she sent me the session and I put it up on those speakers behind me and hit play. Hearing her singing that song for the first time, I was just covered in chills, I just couldn’t believe it.” 

As brilliant as Urban is at writing songs and picking out tracks that are really going to shine on a record, it is his live shows that really stand out to me as being the best concerts you’ll ever see so when he comes to record an album, he imagines how those songs will best translate to the stage. “I think of it from a live standpoint, because I’ve been playing live my whole life. I have so many years of experience of watching a crowd react to certain things. When I heard that song and it got to the line at the very end of the song come take me home, I went, if I was in a pub, I would be singing that line as loud and out of tune as I possibly could. Where a whole drunken crowd comes in, it was me, my bass player and my keyboard player around a microphone in the studio singing as sloppy, and slightly out of tune and out of time as we could and we just multitracked it again and again till there was probably 30 or 40 of us recreating that vibe in a pub or a bar.” 

Early Inspirations 

Since Urban approaches each aspect of the industry wondering how he’s going to translate this in a live setting, the pandemic threw up a number of challenges. “Ive never been in a position where I put an album out and couldn’t go on tour,” Urban says. “We go out and tour and watch those songs come to life with everybody singing along, it’s one of the things I look forward to. I really felt like I had so many great sing along songs on ‘The Speed Of Now’.”  

Touring and playing a guitar has been a part of Urban’s life since he was very young. “I started playing guitar when I was six. This lady named Sue McCarthy, came by my parents corner store, and she wanted to put an ad in the window, teaching guitar lessons, and my dad just said, If you teach our son for free, we’ll put your ad in the window,” Urban laughs as he fondly recalls where it all began. His parents were a big influence and support of his career and he drew influence from the music they listened to growing up in Australia. “My dad played in this covers band in the 50s, so rock and roll hit all around the world by the late 50s and my dad was playing Bill Haley and the Comets, Elvis, Little Richard. As the 60s rolled around and rock and roll, splintered out into all kinds of stuff, my dad, at that point, really loved folk music, and then from folk over into country. But he really loved the American culture as well, movies and cars. We always had American cars growing up which is odd in Australia. So the music he primarily liked was American country music. Guys like Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, a bit more rugged, outlawry kind of guys, which is what I think my dad saw himself as, and my mum liked Everly Brothers, Neil Diamond.”  

Urban continues as he reflects upon his childhood. “My brother who’s two years older than me, always seemed to be a little bit more ahead with his musical tastes,” he laughs. “The first bands I remember him loving were Supertramp and ELO. When I got to Nashville, I couldn’t believe how many writers were obsessed with The Beatles, because I felt like I’d sort of missed the Beatles somehow. And my parents didn’t have any Beatles records. So the only Beatles songs I knew were what I heard on radio and playing in my cover bands. But I realised that I got influenced by them through other bands, particularly ELO, who was a huge musical influence on me. If there was a fifth member of The Beatles that might be Jeff Lynn, he certainly was so inspired by them – the sense of song structure and melodicism, hooks, arrangements.” But Urban is always listening to what’s around him and is inspired by his peers, citing The Weeknd, Brothers Osbourne, Olivia Rodrigo, Frank Ocean and Spoon as influences and these diverse influences explain the versatility and diversity of his music over the last few years. 

Inspiring the next generation  

But Urban has become an inspiration himself for so many over the years, including superstar, Taylor Swift. Swift looked up to Urban when she was starting out and opened up for him on tour in 2009. “Taylor was just one of those people, I think anybody could tell really quick that this is a girl immensely talented, enormous ambition and the talent and drive and work ethic to put it all together and go the distance and in my opinion, she’s just getting started.” Urban reflects upon his own support slots and the progression he’s made through the industry, “It’s great to be part of the through line of it all. I’m in the same boat Taylor is, there are people I was lucky enough to open for and learn from. Theres a Scottish comedian called Billy Connolly, who I opened for when I was very, very young in Australia. I learned so much from him on that tour. He apparently got his start opening for Elton and he’d learned so much from Elton so it’s just this continual through line that we start out as opening acts and hopefully get a chance to work with with really good headliners that take care of us. Although I’ve learned just as much from headliners who are complete assholes as well – how not to treat your opening act,” he laughs. 

Recently, Urban teamed up with Swift for a collaboration on ‘Fearless (Taylor’s Version)’ but collaboration is a big part of Urban’s artistry. “I think being a musician, there’s a natural, intrinsic collaborative desire in me anyway. I was an MD for a guy when I was 16 years old, he was like a cabaret singer and I had to wear a bow tie and a tux and be his musical director. I always learned something from collaboration. It brings something else out of my music and I can add something to my music that wasn’t there before.” 

Now Urban aims to inspire the next generation by helping get guitars into their hands and to do that, he has teamed up with Yamaha. “I love getting guitars into people’s hands, who want to play, I love that people want to play. The whole relationship was born of just wanting to get the best kind of guitar at the cheapest price into people’s hands so that more people could afford to get one and start learning. But also not start on a crap guitar like so many of us did. You know, my parents couldn’t afford a good guitar so I learned on a real bucket of crap and it made playing so challenging.” Whilst he is always the first to offer advice to young guitarists, “The only advice I ever give is, I think being a solid rhythm player is really key. I think too many players want to go straight to the Guitar Hero shredding stuff, which is great, but it’s great to have a foundation of rhythm and timing. So I think always find a hero rhythm guitarist,” he says. “I think not listening to one player, too much is incredibly important. The greatest thing you ever want is for someone to not quite figure out who your influences are. You’ve mashed them together so beautifully and blended your own thing that no one can quite tell.” 

As Keith Urban looks to the future in the studio, he prepares to finally take the last record, that we have come to know and love on the radio, on the road. “My whole focus has really been about the tour. Obviously getting to come back to the UK, which has been something on my dream list ever since we played there last time. So to get to come back and actually bring these songs, thats about all I can think about right now. It makes me so happy.” 

Keith will be touring the UK between April 28th and May 9th, in between working on a couple of albums, simultaneously in the studio. It’s a show not to be missed from one of the greatest entertainers of our generation.  

READ THE FULL INTERVIEW IN THE LATEST ISSUE OF THE MAGAZINE HERE!

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