KEITH URBAN: CMA Sunday Headliner Keith Urban Talks Artistry, Vulnerability

Jun 02 2019
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KEITH URBAN: CMA Sunday Headliner Keith Urban Talks Artistry, Vulnerability

By: Holly Gleason

Keith Urban had a plan.

“I told Nicole before they even read the nominees, ‘If we go to the left, straight up the stairs and over the stage, we can get right to the car,’” says the man who headlines CMA Music Fest’s Sunday night Nissan Stadium show when asked what he was thinking in the moments before being named the 2018 Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year. “We’d already planned our escape....”

And then Kix Brooks, Ronnie Dunn and Reba McEntire opened the envelope, read the winner — and a very stunned Keith Urban threw his hands over his face. Laughing now, the perennial favorite songwriter-guitarist-vocalist offers that his next thought, “was probably just ‘Holy shit!’ Having been nominated many times, year after year after year, I’ve come to be grateful for the nomination. After nine years you start to think, ‘OK, the award is the nomination,’ and be at peace with that. So many great people are vying for the category, just being nominated is pretty awesome, really.”

The humility is genuine. The Australian superstar who’s constantly pressing the boundaries of what his music can embody in a world of so much status quo is a big believer in the larger community. Not just among his artistic peers, but also his fellow man.

When he got to Las Vegas for the Academy of Country Music Awards, again nominated for Entertainer of the Year, he eschewed a flashy performance, a big hit or a lot of production. Instead he stood alone on a dark stage as a few piano notes fell to deliver a hushed take on Irish singer-songwriter Foy Vance’s incredibly adult lullaby “Burden.” 

An obscure song that serves as an offer of support and an invitation of surrender amidst life’s tumult, the stunning moment. Stood out in a night of collaborations, fire, dancers. Instead of playing guitar, Urban stood unadorned, almost whispering, “Let me carry your burden/ If something's not right I will let you know/ Like the paint that's drying on a heart that's poor/ Let me carry your burden...”

The antithesis of Las Vegas, awards shows, bold-faced star power, the song Urban had spent a day riding around London on a bicycle listening to over and over was the statement he felt compelled to make. As “Burden” built and swelled, instruments joining in, the stage remained dark, the superstar almost left in the shadows instead of the expected bright, hot spotlights.

“I’ve been both people in that song,” confesses the soft-spoken artist. “The comforter and the one who needs comfort, we’ve all been there. You hear those words, and we’ve all felt them...”

Vance, who’s opened tours for Ed Sheeran, had no notion it was happening. Indeed, he didn’t know that Urban had fallen for his song. Nor that he had — upon returning from Europe — booked notes Americana producer Dave Cobb to record the song. “Burden’s creator had no idea until the song hit the streaming services; he’d missed the performance. Thankfully, he felt his truth in Urban’s recording.

“He got my number from someone, and I got a text, saying ‘Well, that was lovely,’” Urban recalls. The men did not meet until May when they went into the studio together, looking to see if perhaps there were intersection points between their humanity and musicality. Joking, Urban notes, “We spent five hours getting to know each other, and then wrote the song in 20 minutes.”

Never mind that less than three hours after his haunting performance, he won an equally unexpected ACM Entertainer of the Year Award. 

“What’s the odds of winning the lottery twice?” he concedes. “Historically, they are very different organizations, memberships — and very different kind of outcomes.”

Even in the winning, Urban remains hardwired for music and people more than acclaim. 

 “What some readers don’t know is every nominee has a camera on them, all stuck in front of you, so there’s no idea who the winner is. Whereas in the old days, there would be a camera would be hovering in the general vicinity of the winner... and you’d have a bit of a clue, an idea you could be the winner. Now, it’s not like that — and it’s such a surreal moment.”

He says of winning awards in general, “There’s this gratitude for the support (from the community) for the work that you do.” But you get the sense having the platform to bring a song no one had heard, one he felt spoke a message people needed was as potent a moment that night as taking home the top prize.

“I think [empathy, awareness] just goes with being an artist. The creativity comes from somewhere. For me, it’s how I feel about creativity. It’s a very strong spiritualism.”

Urban pauses. It’s a sunny day in Tennessee. “We Were,” a brisk midtempo radio friendly single, is rising up the charts. He has a beautiful wife in Oscar-winning actress Nicole Kidman, a lovely family, a fairy tale life. Perhaps he is weighing whether to keep going, or maybe he’s just taking in the beauty of it all.

“My level of presence and serenity is directly proportional to the gratitude that I have. Actual gratitude, being present and thankful. It comes out in what and how I do... It doesn’t mean that I don’t get pissed off, and angry, and jealous, because I do! But it means that even in those things, if I can come back to gratitude, I can find my way.”

Joking the year’s accolades are “all relative” and “it feels like an upswing of sorts,” the man who plays guitar like musical liquid silver is grateful for all that has happened. And at the same time, those awards — awards he is grateful for — are the last thing he’s thinking about on his journey.

Again, laughing about the way things have played out for a man who’s beaten demons, pounded the road, sought true expression, the goals were much, much simpler. “When I first started playing the guitar at six years of age, I wanted to keep doing that for as long as I possibly could. When I started writing songs, it was the same thing: to be able to continue making music.

“Coming up in country music festivals and playing all over Australia at 9, those were my roots. Then I got completely indoctrinated by Top 40 radio as a young teen, all the music that was being played from Motown to pop. My Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours happened as a very punk rockish thing, playing these sweaty, tiny bars all over Australia.

“Rough, sweaty, beer-soaked clubs for five hours, four sets a night from 9:15 to 2. Sometimes it was solo with a PA on stick, with a duo or a little group. But it was playing music, so much music, not knowing what it meant, but being everything in your soul.”

Everything in your soul has always been Urban’s compass. A kid consumed by music that lived to play his guitar, he arrived in America and played those same scruffy bars. With the Ranch, he signed to Capitol Nashville and failed to ignite. Everyone spoke of how ragingly talented the young Aussie was, but somehow it didn’t translate.

Being an outlier, he understood that one can fly at something or one can fly towards their own heart. Conventional wisdom yields any number of Xerox cowboys rising up the charts, having hits, but perhaps being hard to differentiate from each other. Not that Urban was worrying about the marketing thrust, or being one more of those.

“It’s all a result of all it,” he explains. “I was trying to make music that I felt, for me, somebody who loves a lot of different things. There are all kinds of fusions and bringing things together, more than any one thing, I want to see where it can go. Maybe the question is: how liberated? Because that’s all I ever wanted: to be able to create liberally.”

He sees that same wide-open spirit in Lil NasX’s massive “Old Town Road,” which sparked controversy when topping – then being removed — from Billboard’s Hot Country Charts after its streaming tsunami drowned Music Row. As debates about racism, marketing, categorization raged in the national media, Urban — fresh from his Entertainer of the Year sweep — quietly posted a soulful, banjo/vocal performance on his social media platforms.

“It’s a great song and a great performance,” he says of Lil Nas X’s creation. “It spoke to me the same way that I felt when I rode around, trying to make it. The cowboy imagery for being a loner out there, a young kid sleeping on coaches and doing anything he can to follow his dream is a perfect metaphor for what that struggle is.

“It was so bad ass, the way he did it, and simple. In the studio, I had my banjo, and I thought, ‘Well, let’s see how this feels...’ And it felt pretty good. So I did it.”

Not to crusade, not to jam an agenda, just to celebrate music. The delight is palpable when he says, “It speaks to me the same way ‘Happier’ did. ‘Old Town Road’ fuses so many things into this gumbo that is so original you can’t label it. Isn’t that what we’re all striving for?”

Still in a world of shut-up-and-sing, one might be reticent about singing’n’posting. After all, Urban is a beloved sex symbol, a musician’s musician, an ambassador for the genre. There’s no win for him in championing an artist he’d never met. He knows what’s being hinted at, and he admits he’s never going to be a preacher.

“Yeah, some people said, ‘Maybe don’t do that,’” he recalls. “I heard, ‘It’s such a controversial thing to do right now. Country radio might be upset...’ 

“But right now, there’s far too much emphasis on what something isn’t — and there is so much being missed. It boggles the mind. And I wanted to maybe clear some air around the song itself. No judgement, just music.”

To that end, Urban leans into music as a healer, a salvation, a comfort. Also, a source of unrepentant joy. After he’d cut “We Were,” he found out his friend Eric Church was the co-writer. Texts were exchanged: Church was genuinely surprised the guitarist loved country’s rebel rocker’s song enough to make it his next single.

Playing it solo at the Ryman during Country Radio Seminar, Urban shone. The words of innocence melting into the stiff industry crowd brought a reality to the universal trope of coming of age that matched tenderness with knowing. 

“It was an almost visceral feeling rather than singling out words or lines,” he says of its initial impact, “and I didn’t just hear it, I felt it. After that certain lines just rose up... You know, ‘By the time we knew time was runnin' out/ We done run out of time/ And we were downtown Saturday night/ Last-call cover band/ Til the last song played/ Never thought we'd fade/ Like the stamp on the back of her hand...’ was the perfect expression of a young relationship.

“So intense, so bright, so forever in that moment. There is an innocence in that, an exploratory rite of passage that everyone passes through. I grew up in a small town in Australia. We had a water town, a field, those backroads, all those images halfway around the world, I flew through them, too. It’s the truth of how we grow up and who we become.

“Maybe it’s the vulnerability (of how you feel) more than the innocence. 

“It’s become a real badge of honor to have a thick skin. But when people claim that, I feel so terrible for them. To be so hardened, you don’t feel? It’s a terrible thing. And there are certain things you don’t need to know. Or when you know there’s toxicities that exist, why would you continue to be around them? Holding on to those sweet things helps. What do you need to maintain your spirit?

“We’re all individually responsible for that.”

That individual empowerment — even in the twinges and hard times — exists unstated in much of what Urban does. It’s a quest, fuel, a raison d’etre in his journey. It’s also why he’s such a fan of The Contributor and the network of street papers sold by the homeless around the globe. Admitting he always buys when he sees them for sale, he knows several of his Nashville vendors, “Part of me wishes there wasn’t a need to have that, but I love the sense of community I feel and sense. You can feel an actual communal spirit, the giving that’s not being forced on anyone, the taking ownership of this news.

“They say in order to have self-esteem, you have to do esteemable acts. Everything isn’t about what you achieve, it’s what you give to others, something people give you. Anybody can do it, can share their smile, their place... My parents were very much that way. Growing up, there was compassion and empathy, a belief every person has a story to tell — and if you listen, we all have more in common than things that make us different.”

For a man who cites Ghandi’s “My life is my message” as an ethos to live by, it fits. The antithesis of what stars are supposed to embrace, it’s evolution over red carpets, kindness over gossip column name drops. In a world of utter Kardashianity, where fame for its own sake seems the new drug of choice, Urban is pressing towards another kind of life.

“I’m waking up,” he begins, “every year, a little more. I see and feel things differently – and it’s something I’m constantly evolving towards. I’m much more interested in. being attracted to somebody’s way of being. I discover music more by it coming and speaking to me than hype. It pulls me toward it, and makes me curious.

“I want to live a balanced life the best I can. To me, if you can eradicate perfection and replace it with authenticity, it’s far more achievable. It’s more honest, more livable.” 

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