"It smells like religion," Keith Urban says, as he leads us through the massive room in Los Angeles's East West Studio where Frank Sinatra recorded hits including "My Way." The country singer has been finishing tracks here for several weeks, while also filming the remaining episodes of American Idol's final season. These days, Urban builds his studio schedule around other considerations — tour dates, Idol tapings, time traveling with wife Nicole Kidman and their two young daughters. It's one of the reasons his ninth studio album, Ripcord, is taking longer than any other album Urban has made.
"This is way more than I've ever cut before," says Urban, his laptop open next to him on the couch, so that he can cue up some of the 20 tracks he recorded in more studios than he can remember over these past 15 months. "It was a lot of searching, a lot of experimenting, and when you get to work with as many people as I did, you end up with a lot of stuff."
He's especially excited about a collaboration with Nile Rodgers and producer Mike Busbee called "Sun Don't Let Me Down," a refreshingly groove-driven tune that finds Urban pleading with the sun to give him a little more time to finish wooing his lady.
"In the end of the first verse, it actually references my wife," Urban says. "She's in a movie called To Die For and in one scene she's dancing in front of the headlights. So the lyric goes: 'There in the headlights, dancing like she's in a movie scene. To die for, and she's killing me.'"
With Urban on banjo and Rogers on guitar, the two lock into a rhythmic exchange that Urban says took them a minute to nail. "Nile does his thing and I do what I do," he says, "but I don't want either of those things — I want what we do."
"Sun" is also the first Urban tune to feature a rap verse, care of a guest appearance by Pitbull. "He brings a mischievous, sexy swagger to it, in a very different way," says the country superstar.
Many of the tracks being considered for Ripcord fall within familiar terrain for Urban — a waltz-like ballad called "Blue Ain't Your Color" and a U2-style anthem titled "Boy Gets a Truck," among others. But clearly Urban is most charged up about the crop of tunes with funkier leanings, including early single "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16" — already a chart-topper. And then there's "Gone Tomorrow, Here Today," which producer Jeff Bhasker calls "banjo fusion": It features a catchy little lick where Urban's banjo sounds like a sitar, and there's a verse he spits so quickly it's almost like he's rapping.
Ripcord hits stores May 6th. A world tour of the same name begins June 2nd in Kansas City.