In the Studio: Keith Urban Looking to Make Country's 'Achtung Baby'

Singer on vocal surgery, taking inspiration from U2 and why purists shouldn’t hate cross-over country

Keith Urban performs in Nashville.
Christopher Polk/Getty Images
August 12, 2013 2:45 PM ET

Keith Urban kicks back on a control-room couch in Nashville's Blackbird Studio and sings the falsetto hook to his 2009 hit "Kiss a Girl": "Say goodbye to all these blues . . . " Just a couple of years ago, a vocal injury left him unable to hit those high notes on tour. But now – after surgery from the same doctor who treated John Mayer, followed by a year spent getting his voice back and another in the studio – the country star is re-emerging with an arena-ready, eclectic LP, Fuse (due out September 10th). "It's not like I've gone off and done a polka album or a screamo album," he says with a laugh. "I just wanted to see how far I could go before it's not me."

Working with a team of top producers including Dr. Dre protege Mike Elizondo, Pink collaborator Butch Walker and longtime associate Dann Huff, Urban cut a set of tunes that combines the big, open melodies he's known for with surprising electro elements. "If you put a really great, wicked drum loop under a song," he says, "you end up with something really interesting." Lead single "Little Bit of Everything" features dramatic strings and a heavy programmed beat; other highlights range from the stadium-size ballad "Cop Car," about a Bonnie and Clyde-style couple, to the uncharacteristically abrasive "Even Stars Fall 4 U."

"It's sort of industrial-punk-ish, relative to what I do," he says of the track. "Not like anything I've done before."

At a turning point in his career, Urban looked for inspiration to a landmark album by an adventurous group of fellow superstars. "I really love what U2 did with Achtung Baby," he says, explaining how he related to the crossroads the legendary Irish quartet found themselves at when transitioning into the Nineties.

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: U2, Achtung Baby

"Bono said, [Achtung Baby] had to be the sound of [U2] chopping down The Joshua Tree,' which I thought was great," Urban says, noting that he obsessively watched From the Sky Down, It Might Get Loud director Davis Guggenheim's 2011 documentary about the making of the album.

"That's where I found myself at," he says. "I can keep making the same record, but I don't want to do that."

While Urban says he's not comparing Fuse to Achtung Baby, he did aim to emulate U2's "fusion of machinery and organic elements," recognizing that he runs the risk of alienating fans of his earlier work. That's a big concern.

"I was recording [at a studio] one time and on the wall someone had written, 'There's two sure ways to lose your audience: Always give them what they want, and never give them what they want," he recalls. "It really stayed with me, because I went, 'Well, that is the job at hand."

Urban goes on to compare U2's transition from Joshua Tree to Achtung Baby to the aesthetic expansion and shape-shifting definition of country music as a whole. "There's nothing new about crossover country material," Urban says in defense of the genre's cyclical evolution. "That's happened since the Fifties. Glen Campbell was just much a pop star as he was a country star. There's really nothing much country about 'Wichita Lineman.' The singer makes it country. What Taylor [Swift] is doing [now], Barbara Mandrell was doing that in the Eighties, [and] Shania Twain did it in the Nineties.

"I've always found country to be basically like a church," he muses. "It's got to keep evolving, but it's gotta do it in a way that it doesn't lose its values or its core congregation. But it has to continue attracting new parishioners."

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