Two decades into his career and Keith Urban's just had one of his biggest years yet. His Achtung Baby-inspired album Fuse debuted at Number One on the pop charts, he's packed arenas on his Light the Fuse tour throughout the country and he found time to reprise his role as a judge on American Idol, which returns next month. Rolling Stone spoke to the New Zealand singer about his favorite music of 2013, from Blood Orange to Lorde and Kanye West, why country music is filling arenas and what's in store for his next album. "I'm tinkering," he says. "I'm already ready to get back into the lab!"
What was your favorite album of year?
God, that's hard. Some can enlighten the game, like the Blood Orange record [Cupid Deluxe], which has been played nonstop in my car for a week. My wife [Nicole Kidman] turned me onto it. She was shooting a film in England. It was happening there, so I downloaded it. I love electronic music. It's a lot of what I listen to, because I hear fusion sounds in my head that it draws from. I just love the atmosphere and ambience and the sort of emotive soundscapes that comes from a lot of that music. This album captured it in a way that I don't think anybody really did. It took the best of Frank Ocean and Prince and New Radicals. I can kind of hear so many of my favorite artists and albums all in one album. I just find it amazing. It sounds great in my car, driving around Nashville.
I got into Lorde way back, early on. She's from New Zealand, where I was born. I just found her magnetic on so many levels. She was on Letterman and was really good. Then I saw her live at Later . . . With Jools Holland. She was even better. I didn't expect her to have that kind of performance ability necessarily at that age, and it was just riveting. She has a lot of artistic depth and gravitas for someone at that age. They aren't straight-up relationship songs in any way. It's a refreshing change to sort of have an artist talk about the circles she's in and the things she's going through. To write about those things is pretty extraordinary.
It's pretty cool two artists two decades apart in age can relate like that.
Definitely. My interpretation of "Love Club" is it's an Ecstasy club if I've ever heard one. For me, that's how I heard the song. And I went through my own journey in that world, thankfully a lot of years ago. I can connect to that song. It is. Those kinds of artists come along once in a while, but there very rare and fleeting.
What's your favorite song of the year?
Maybe "Mirrors" by Justin Timberlake. It just hits some deep melancholy places in me – the melodicism, the lyric. It's a special song. One moment he's dedicating it to his grandfather at the MTV Awards, then the next week he's turning around and saying it's about Jessica [Biel]. But I'm interested in my connection to it and what it means to me. And I like when songs can have a bit more ambiguity to them. It's nice if the writer dishes out several different stories, all contradictory. That would be my preferred way: keep it all blurry, so I can take my own personal connection away.
How did you connect to "Mirrors"?
I mean, my own personal struggles and how denial can play such a heavy role, and not recognizing the thing you need is right in front of you or right beside you. Looking around everywhere for the very things that are right there, whether it's looking at the person in the mirror being yourself – the mirrors metaphor is just wonderful. It's an infinite metaphor to write from. It touches on so many different phases of my life. There's been times when the very thing I was looking for was right inside me. If I just paused long enough to look past the facade, I would have seen the actual person I was looking for. But I was too busy running.
Do you have a specific way of looking at your career that has allowed you to stay visible, and play bigger and bigger shows as your career has progressed over the last decade?
I think personally I'm a huge music fan – relentlessly hungry, curious and passionate about new ways to express. That's really why I've been a musician my whole life anyway – new ways to express something, new ways to make a connection. On that Jools Holland show, I saw Kanye. His performance was so mesmerizing because it was so bold and different from any type of art form. That combination of having pre-recorded music but then having the sharpness and bold aggressiveness – minimalism, conviction, singing blatantly through a vocoder and being unapologetic about it – the whole thing just reeked of "totally new art form"; not just a musical performance, but an entirely new art form. And that stuff just exhilarates me, because there's endless new ways to make art, whether it's music or whatever.
Lorde was the same, just fixated like a statue and all her witchy qualities. The fact that we can still see new art forms being born right before our eyes in the field of music, if you get jaded by that . . . I don't understand how people can be anything but totally inspired by that . . . [Yeezus] was sonically riveting. That will get to me, that sort of just extremity, but with something underneath it, a view, conversation, message, dialogue, topics. I love the fact that they can be presented in such an unapologetic way. It's what all great art is born of.
How have these new sounds affected country?
It's slowly affecting it. And country is not a genre that welcomes extreme originality at any given time. It never has. It's just not that way. Country is like a town, and you can't just waltz into the town wearing something no one else is wearing, speak like no one else is speaking with a hairstyle no one else has got, and expect that they'll embrace you. It's not going to happen. It's not the streets of Paris. But country has an incredible history of knowing how to slowly absorb new elements to keep it evolving and moving at a particular pace that works for it. There will always be an artist that comes in and pushes the boundaries, like Eric Church's "Outsiders," but you know, for its time, right now it's really the equivalent of Shania Twain's midriff or Billy Ray Cyrus' sneakers or Chet Atkins putting strings on a session. All these things come along and disrupt the status quo, and we have a new way to create our music.
What's pushing country forward now?
Certainly the big "whoas," the big arena chants – so many of us play in arenas, so we need the big arena sing-along choruses. Those are appealing. And they're born of the places we play. There wasn't that many country artists playing arenas 20 years ago, 30 years ago. There wasn't a need for those big sing-along choruses. David Byrne has a great book called How Music Works, and there's a great chapter about how the environment kind of drives the creativity as well. The venue dictates a lot. So on one hand you can say, "Oh, you're just making these arena-ready songs." No, I found out I was playing in arenas and most of my songs didn't work, so I had to rethink what was going to work in this place. All these things start to infiltrate country for lots of different reasons. Bands like the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons, these bands have had an impact on country because there's a folk origin in those bands. Immediately we found the relationship to country, folk – perfect, I can bring that element in. And then there's some sonic elements we can bring in I think wo'nt freak people out because there's this folkism, we keep a somewhat rural lyric and we're good to go.
Why are so many more country acts packing arenas now?
I don't know. I think once it starts then there's an audience for that. Certainly when Garth [Brooks] brought in a Def Leppard-looking show, a Kiss show into an arena with a cowboy hat singing country songs, there was a perfect yin and yang. But in the process he changed the perception of what a country concert could be and where it could be. Before you know it, that culture exists now.
Florida Georgia Line's "Cruise" was one of the biggest country hits of the year.
I loved it. I was one of the early people to tweet about it. The second you heard it, you're like, this is going to be a behemoth. Any songwriter who thinks you can write those songs, why didn't you? That's what I always say. They're really hard to write because they're magical.
I was at the CMA Awards. Dean Dillon, a legendary songwriter, was honored that night, and he had his incredible speech that touched upon all the growing conversation and uneasiness about the state of country music right now. He said there's artists right now playing to thousands and thousands of people in arenas and big venues all over the world, and they're singing to their generation just as I did. I think when you put it in those terms, there's nothing more you can say to it. Luke Bryan sings to that generation. Florida Georgia Line sings to that generation. Taylor [Swift] sings to that generation. People ask me what is country music and I always say at the least, it is what's on country radio at the moment, because if it isn't, they wouldn't be playing. You can't say that's not country music, because apparently that's a country station and it's what they're playing 24 hours a day. You don't have to like it 24 hours a day, but you can't say what it is or what isn't.
What's next for you? Are you working on anything right now we don't know about?
I'm sort of slowly formulating the next record in my head. This one's just started, so we obviously hopefully have a good string of singles to come and certainly our touring's going to continue next year. But I'm already ready to get into the lab [laughs], tinkering, yeah. I have bits and pieces, just sounds, things and fusions and styles. Yeah, I love recording.