For all its country curveballs, Ripcord — Keith Urban's widest-reaching album to date, full of synthesizers, samplers, Steve Miller-inspired guitar leads and guest appearances by left-field collaborators like Pitbull and Chic's Nile Rodgers — began simply enough: with a drum machine and a six-string banjo.
"I've written mostly with drum machines and 'ganjos' over the last 20 years or so," Urban tells Rolling Stone Country, taking a seat in front of a recording console at Nashville's Blackbird Studios. "More often than not, once we get into the studio, the poor old drum machine gets pushed to the back and the drummer takes over. And yet so much of the whole origin of the creation is the drum machine and the banjo working together."
Urban's drum machine remains in the driver's seat throughout Ripcord, an album fueled equally by twang and technology. Urban calls it "a mix of the machine fighting the human, and them trying to figure out how to live harmoniously together." Like 2013's Fuse, the songs are thick with analog instruments and digital flourishes, all glued together by a songwriter who happily rattles off a range of artists — from Naughty Boy to Don Williams to the New Radicals — as influences on Ripcord's 13 tracks. Urban has planted his feet on both sides of the country/pop divide before, but he's never sounded this rhythmic. Everything, from the synthesizer burbling beneath the album's R&B-tinged duet with Carrie Underwood, "The Fighter," to the Middle Eastern-influenced burst of banjo that kicks off the first track, "Gone Tomorrow (Here Today)," is deeply rooted in a beat.
"The ganjo — the way I've always played it, particularly with flatpicking — is much more like a sequencer," Urban says, picking up the instrument and launching into the "Gone Tomorrow" riff by way of explanation. "I treat it like a sequencer. Instead of a keyboard playing that part, I play it on ganjo, which to me is just more sonically interesting."
"Sonically interesting" and "time efficient" don't always go hand in hand, though. It took a year and a half to record Ripcord, with Urban working on songs between tour dates, family commitments and the final two seasons of American Idol. The process took him around the world. He swapped guitar ideas with Nile Rodgers in New York City, took a stab at the "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16" vocals in Australia, collaborated with co-producer busbee in London and did the lion's share of work in both Nashville and Los Angeles. Months later, the process seems like a bit of a blur. . .although Urban's memories of jamming with Rodgers for the first time remain clear.
"I've loved him for all my life," Urban gushes. "Ever since I heard that first Chic song, I was like, 'Man, who's playing that guitar?' I always thought it was his right wrist that's the magic mojo, and it is — but man, that left one! The way it shapes chords and the way it mutes strings with his fingers. . .it's part of this rhythmic combination like I've never seen on anybody before. He just has an extraordinary gift. And he's got the same guitar he's had since the Seventies. This funky old Strat. It's the guitar. So when he picked that up and started playing it, and we had a drum loop going and I had the ganjo going, we were just like two kids in a candy store. It was so fun."
The two got together several times during the months that followed, steadily putting the finishing touches on a Nashville-gone-nightclub song called "Sun Don't Let Me Down." The track was all but complete when Urban heard a Pitbull single on the radio one afternoon. Inspired, he and Rodgers reached out to the rapper, hoping he'd be willing to add a verse to the slow-simmering build-up before "Sun"'s final chorus. Pitbull accepted. The result is the first hip-hop cameo on any Keith Urban album.
"Rhythm is everything, and [Pitbull]'s got the Cuban blood, so his sense of rhythm is super cool," says Urban. "I just wanted him on the track. I wanted what he does. It wasn't about having a rapper on there. . .The thing that separates this record from any others is I never second guessed anything. If an idea hit me, I'd act on it. You can always change it after the fact. But I wasn't thinking in terms of limitations or parameters. If Pitbull didn't respond to the track, we would've just left it how it was. It wasn't like I was going to find another rapper."
Although "Sun Don't Let Me Down" is the only Urban/Rodgers collaboration to make its way onto Ripcord, there's more music in the vault. "We jammed for five to six hours nonstop, creating piece after piece after piece," remembers Urban, grabbing his laptop and cuing up a few of the pair's half-finished songs as proof. Like Ripcord itself, the unused Urban/Rodgers tracks are a mixing pot of influences, with everything from disco beats to bluegrass breakdowns tossed into the mix. Urban, who smiles widely as each clip plays, hopes to turn those ideas into fully-fledged tunes at some point.
"The studio to me is just like a fantastic sandbox," he says. "I get in there and may have this specific idea to build this kind of sandcastle — it's gonna look like this, be like that — but then you start playing with other kids in the sandbox and something completely different comes from it. I love the frustration of that — the constant balancing act of maintaining my vision and not going off my path, but also not being so dogmatic that I don't open myself up to other possibilities. It's a constant balancing act."
After the album hits stores May 6th, Urban will shift his balance again, this time to focus on a worldwide tour that launches in early June. Maren Morris and Brett Eldredge are lined up to join him, followed by Carrie Underwood during a year-end run of Australian amphitheaters. There will be new songs to play, new arrangements to whip up, new fans to make. He's planning on bringing along his ganjo and drum machine, too, just in case any new ideas float down from the ether.