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Keith Urban: The Rolling Stone Country Interview

Nashville idol reflects on his incredible journey to music superstardom and personal peace

June 1, 2014 12:00 PM ET
Keith Urban, RS Country 1211
Keith Urban
Nino Muñoz

It's moving day at American Idol. If judge Keith Urban needs a not-so-subtle reminder that it's time to pack up for the season, there’s a fork lift outside of his trailer ready to cart away boxes. But the self-proclaimed "gypsy" is already looking ahead to summer and a different view: "Before I know it, this trailer will turn into a tour bus and it will look and feel the same and I'll be on the road," he says.

Urban, 46, isn’t just one of the biggest stars in country; he's also one of its biggest risk takers. On his current album, Fuse, he collaborated with an eclectic group of eight producers, who helped him find a chart-topping mix of synths, digital beats and on-the-nose Nashville hooks.

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Mixing it up is nothing new for Urban. Since the release of his self-titled solo album in 1999, he has shown an uncanny knack for incorporating a rock sensibility into his brand of country music — he credits the punk-rock spirit he absorbed coming up through Australia’s pub circuit — while thoroughly and lovingly embracing country's past with a deft touch few other artists can match. His unwavering dedication to keeping country music's legacy alive radiates through his annual All 4 the Hall concerts, which have raised more than $2 million for the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum's preservation and educational efforts.

Along the way, Urban has landed 31 Top 10 country songs, won four Grammy Awards and five Academy of Country Music Awards, and is one of only a handful of country artists to be nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Original Song. His guitar prowess has led him to collaborate with artists as talented and diverse as the Rolling Stones, John Mayer, Alicia Keys, Steven Tyler and John Fogerty.

When Urban is not stationed in Los Angeles for Idol or on tour, he lives in Nashville with his wife, Nicole Kidman, and their two young daughters, Sunday Rose and Faith Margaret (he calls them Sunny and Fifi). It’s a city the Australian fell in love with during his first visit 25 years ago. As usual, though, Urban remains a moving target: his tenth headlining tour, the Raise ‘Em Up Tour, starts June 14th in Australia.

In the first-ever interview published on Rolling Stone Country, Urban opens up on his musical evolution, his devastating addictions and his own, romantic definition of being born again.

How did you develop your sound?
I grew up playing contemporary country music, not traditional: Ronnie Milsap, Alabama's songs, Glen Campbell. And then the West Coast rock thing was a big influence: Jackson Browne, Fleetwood Mac, Linda Ronstadt. Then playing in pubs in Australia. There's a punk spirit in Australian pub rock & roll.

When was your first trip to Nashville?
The first trip I made was in 1989, and I was 22. My manager and I came and through a friend of a friend of a friend we knew someone who knew someone who said that somebody at RCA would take a meeting with us. They weren't there, and so we met with whoever else would see us that day.

What kind of feedback did you get from your demo tape?
Well, it wasn't glowing. I appreciate that they were at least pleasant. They were not mean or anything, but I just didn't fit in yet.

You came back for good in 1992. How was it different going from visiting to moving permanently?
It instantly felt like home to me... Nashville felt very familiar to me because I grew up with so much American culture. I would say 95 percent, if not more, of all the television we watched growing up, my brother and I, was all American sitcoms, American movies, American dramas, everything. I just waltzed into Nashville and the way everyone talked sounded completely normal to me.

So you didn't feel lonely?
After a while I did, mostly because I was just musically lost. I couldn't figure out how to fit into what was going on and be true to myself.

Did you start gigging right away?
I didn't. I was looking forward to that because that is what I felt was my strong suit. I didn't feel like a writer. I still don't to this day. Nashville is full of great songwriters, you know the Harlan Howards… I am not cut from that. I'm a performer and a musician, entertainer, and I love writing and have had some luck in writing, but I don't call myself a writer.

Yet every day you were going into MCA Publishing and writing.
I had a little beat-up Chevy, a piece-of-shit car. I would drive it every day down to Music Row to try and write songs and I would be crying because I would be like, "I can't do this. I don't know how to sit in a windowless room with a yellow legal pad, an acoustic guitar and a pencil." I didn't feel like I was contributing anything. And I knew I was learning so much from these guys who were so freaking good... I think if I could have driven home I would've. But I couldn't.

How did you adjust?
When I first moved to town, I was sharing a house with this freebaser, so it was like getting thrown into some strange diabolical land. I sort of bypassed all the other stuff and went straight into that. I remember trying [freebase] one night. It was insane. But at the time, probably '93ish, I was so driven to get my career up and running that I pushed it aside – at first. Later on I fell into that little world more heavily.

You were working with your band, the Ranch, your first few years in town, including putting an album out on Capitol in 1997. Why did the band break up?
I was a mess. I wasn't leading. Everybody wanted to start writing songs, and [I] was like, "Uh, we're not that kind of band." I realized I opened the Pandora's box here and I am not going down with the ship.

The Dixie Chicks recorded "Some Days You Gotta Dance," a song that was on the Ranch's album, for their LP, Fly, and asked you to play on it. What was that like?
I got on a bit of a three-day bender and couldn't come to the session and had to call them and tell them I'm going to be a bit late. Then I would call them and say I'm going to be a bit later. And then I would call them and be a bit later. And I completely missed the session. I lived like a street away. It was ridiculous. I could have walked there with my guitar in hand and I couldn't make it. I remember just feeling so ashamed and disgusted at myself. I finally [showed up] the next day.

Are you on the finished record?  
I'm on the record. I think they brought in another guitarist that ghosted my playing, so I think there are two players on there. I'm not sure how much of mine actually ended up on there.

You went into rehab for the first time in 1998. Was playing sober new for you?
The Ranch was a mess, period, because we were in a shit van going all over the country playing to three people. It was soul sucking to the ultimate degree. So I just drank, but I didn't really play high or anything like that. I liked to get crazy after the gig and when I would do lots of drugs is when I was home off the road. If we were home for five days, I'd be fucked up most of the time, and then I would sort of get it together, fall into the van, sleep to whatever, Wichita, Kansas, then I would sort of come to and then we would play the show that night.

Your first solo album for Capitol came out in 1999. How do you look back on it now?
I view this as a fairly safe album. It's a simple album. I was coming out of the whole Ranch demise, drug demise, a relationship that was a mess because of me. And I just felt really grateful that something was going to click. I remember hearing "Where the Black Top Ends" coming back over the speakers and I think I called my mom in Australia, and I'm like, "Mom, I think this record's going to do really well!" The one thing that always [tickles] me about that record is we finally chose the [cover] photo and [my label head's] like, "It looks like the photo that comes with the frame." It was just awesome. That's exactly what it looks like.

Your next album, 2002's Golden Road, started your long affiliation with producer Dann Huff. You didn't want to work with him at first, why?
I'd done half an album already. I was writing all the songs, finding all the songs. I recorded them with Justin Niebank engineering. And then someone said, "You should work with Dann Huff." I said, "No, I don't want to work with a guitar player, because I think he'll just be telling me how to play." [Then] I talked with Dann and said "[Come to the studio], I want to see what you do. You can't bring anyone." I remember specifically thinking, "What could anyone possibly bring into a session to elevate it to another place that I can't already do?" I'd been so burned by Emperor's New Clothes bullshit. And Dann shows up. He listened to us run "Somebody Like You" and he's like, "OK, change this arrangement here. You do that over there. Change that sound over there. Come in over there." Their musicianship just went to a whole other level. I was like, "Holy hell! This guy's really good, like really good." That started a very mutually beneficial relationship.

You've worked together ever since. Did you ever butt heads?
We butted heads because Dann likes to do things over and over and over and over again. I remember distinctly doing this guitar solo on "Somebody Like You," and I swear Dann had me do it a thousand times. I was going insane. And Dann's like, "Excellent! One more time!" And I'm like, "I'm going to kill someone here in a minute." And out of sheer frustration, instead of playing a solo, I played [hums a different melody], which became the end of the song. And that came from Dann driving me again and again and again. He said to me, "That's what I'm waiting for. I'm waiting for you to break out of the pattern and do something." And he says, "Whether you do it out of anger or frustration or whatever doesn't matter. You just have to go somewhere else." I'm like, "Oh my God, if you work like this all the time, I'm gonna be dead by the time this record's finished."

And yet you came back several more times.
Yeah, because the results were really good and I felt like a lot of the times my way of being within that process needed to mature.

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