photos by RUSS HARRINGTON
People, especially women, talk about being thick-skinned, and I want to say, ‘I’m so sorry. What happened?’,” Keith Urban says, discussing the deep undercurrent of awareness and humanism in his songs. “To be raw and vulnerable, that’s the beauty of it.
“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.”
It certainly runs through songs like the free-spirit celebrating “Cop Car,” the girl in a smothering relationship “Stupid Boy” and his recent No. 1 with Carrie Underwood, “The Fighter.” In the latter, especially, Urban affirms and embraces being there for someone so hurt by love, so closed down that it’s hard to make the kind of connection that matters, or establish the real trust required.
Opening with “I know he hurt you/ Made you scared of love, too scared to love…” and “He didn’t deserve you/ Cause your precious heart is a precious heart/ He didn’t know what he had…,” it distills the essence of how the Australian with the startling musicianship looks at the state of humanity around him.
“A lot of those really simple tough lines in ‘The Fighter’ are straight from early in my relationship with Nic (wife Nicole Kidman). 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 … 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, that 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. I had to learn it.”
Urban has always been one of country music’s seemingly more evolved males. With the good hair and the kind smile, not to mention the razor sharp guitar-playing and the voice that glows with warmth and sunshine, he’s almost custom crafted to be a rock star.
Born in New Zealand, then raised in Australia, he was well on his way to a successful career, but Urban’s wild heart needed more. Having released a few albums – and charted a few singles in his homeland – he packed up his things and moved to Nashville where he played guitar, formed a band called The Ranch and nothing quite clicked. But it was never about clicking, it was about the music.
“I never made a conscious decision to make this my job,” he marvels. “I say it’s like a kid crawling, and saying, ‘I think I’m going to walk.’ It’s an instinct, a need. That’s how music is for me.”
Not that those walls he was banging into didn’t leave bruises. Laughing, he admits, “There was a time early on in Nashville where I lost a bit of passion for (the music). It almost felt like a parlor trick – the little kid gets onstage and plays. But it coincided with hitting wall after wall, roadblock after roadblock, not really having any success.”
Preordained doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. In spite of the hipster buzz on Urban – and The Ranch was everyone who knew anything about music’s favorite insider pick – things hadn’t clicked. Still there was no question: music was the only path.
“My dad was a dreamer,” Urban remembers. “He’d play Don Williams records really loud at 6:30 in the morning. The low end was full, and he’d crank it up. Every one of those early Don Williams records, they’re bone dry – simple, simple records. Nothing watered down, but the thump is just there.”
So imprinted, Urban’s quest was set. Striking out on his own as the century turned, he found No. 1 with “But For The Grace of God” and more importantly, the slightly churning, imminently clean “Where The Blacktop Ends” from his self-titled debut. Lean rock underscoring classic songwriting wasn’t the norm in a world of big foot-stomping redneckery and javelin-throwing girl singers, but the path was cut.
Golden Road and Be Here solidified his Eric Clapton-esque take – remember Clapton, like Williams, had a hit with the low impact shuffle “Tulsa Time” – on country music. It also ushered in an era of staggering intimacy – “Raining On Sunday,” “Tonight I Wanna Cry,” “Making Memories of Us,” “You’ll Think of Me” – and unerring positivity – “Somebody Like You,” “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me,” “You Look Good in My Shirt.”
Though none of those things seem envelope-pushing now, they were then. And Urban has continued pushing the edges, whether it was bringing the ganjo, an electric guitar/banjo hybrid, to prominence as an earmark of his sound, working with diverse producers ranging from rock-leaning Dan Huff, pop-grounded Busbee or funk legend Nile Rodgers, or bringing Pitbull in for his current album’s euphoric “Sun Don’t Let Me Down.”
“As a guitar player, I’d wanted to play in the studio with that guy,” he says delightedly, of the prospect of engaging Rodgers, the man who produced Madonna, helped forge David Bowie’s Serious Moonlight/Let’s Dance era and grounded disco institution Chic. He continues, “Play that funk guitar – and me on my ganjo?! Get a cool drum beat loop going, and see?”
His delight is palpable. The actual musical love connection? “We ended up in a studio in New York. We hammed for hours and hours. We probably had five or six songs. We had this song (“Sun Don’t Let Me Down”), and that’s the one (for now) that just worked…”
But when you’re open to life, and you’re open to music, windows and doors have a way of opening. One day on the treadmill at the gym, an epiphany fell from the sound system. “In my gym, I listen to PitBull’s Globalization. His tone, his timber, the rhythm and his swagger – everything he sings, he has his tongue in his cheek, but it’s uber-sexy, uber-confident and so playful … We’d finished it, were recorded and done, but we had this section that built and doubled, and I went, ‘Ohhhh…’
“I literally jumped off my treadmill, called Nile and said, ‘Do you know Pitbull?’ He said, ‘Kinda…’ I had a feeling, because Nile knows everyone in the world. He reached out.”
The response was typical of a busy artist. Give me a couple weeks. Urban, gracious to a fault, didn’t expect much. Until a couple weeks later, an email arrived. “I had no idea, because he gave me no notice. We’d sent the track, but you do that. When I downloaded the attachment, there it was – and it was crazy good! There was Pitbull in all his glory. It rocked the track to a whole new place.”
Whole new places are Urban’s deal. As an artist, he’s willing to push back the cuticle. Cutting Sam Hunt’s “Cop Car,” he showed the awe of a young man falling for a wild child without pretense or machismo. With “Stupid Boy,” he told the tale of a young woman mentally and emotionally beaten down by a man in her life – only to find the narrator was the now chastened guy.
“Sarah Buxton had put out an album, and I was listening on the bus. I said to Nic, ‘I need a song like that.’ She said, ‘Why don’t you just cut that?’ And she was so clear (about it), ‘You’re the stupid boy. Sing the whole song, then at the end, put it out there.’”
Quietly, with ridiculous amounts of dignity, Urban said as much about emotional battery as any number of hotlines and late night PSAs. Letting the music do the heavy lifting is his gift. He is also a fierce advocate for women – writers, artists, executives – and isn’t afraid to use his platform to make that point.
When he was tapped for the “CMT Honors” a few years ago, rather than doing the expected marketing boogie, Urban arranged to perform James Brown’s “It’s A Man’s World.” Only his version of the sweltering slow soul burner came with a twist: he had local string player/arranger Kris Wilkinson help pull together an all-female band to deliver the fraughtly taut classic.
“I’m not a political person,” he explains, “when it comes to making statements. But I was dismayed by a number of things: the reaction to ‘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, I called Kris, who I’ve worked with on string sections over the years, and asked if she could put together a band 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.
“I like to create something, then move on. People can respond to it any way they want. It’s not meant to elicit any one response, but rather make people see and think and consider.”
It’s the quiet nudge instead of the shrieking crowd that often has the most impact. For Urban, who’s faced rejection, addiction, high profile celebrity and the eternal quest for more and better music, it is simplicity that holds the answers.
“It’s a short life, and we just have to enjoy it. I have a friend who says, ‘Life is fired at pointblank range.’ You have no control over most of it, so you really need to take control of how you respond to it.”
Considering the highs and lows, Urban is quick to ground his responses. “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 could bother you, but I’d much rather lean into the light because there is so much to love and enjoy.”
Knowing, too, it isn’t always that simple, the man who admits he spent a lot of time practicing as a young man, so he recognizes how active the choice may need to be. Pausing to consider what he’s been saying, he allows, “I think we’re all a product of our raising. There was a lot of volatility between my father and my brother, so I became the peacemaker. It was my nurture, but it was probably my nature, too – trying to keep the peace between people.”
Keeping the peace, raising the consciousness and singing the change you wish to see in the world make Urban a somewhat unlikely country star. And yet, it’s also what makes him a compelling presence on “American Idol,” a sought after star for all-genre things like Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival or co-host of the Country Music Hall of Fame’s annual All for the Hall event.
As the 2005 Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year, he’s never stopped striving, or encouraging. To him, all roads lead to answers. Not necessarily the expected or the desired, but it adds up.
“You have to try things,” he says, “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 … I’m always committed to trying, To scrap a lot of work and time to get where you need to be, it’s how you find out.
“But sometimes,” he finishes, “the magic is what’s left.”