Joining Keith Urban in a recording studio is a little like escorting a kid through a candy shop. On a rainy Monday afternoon in Nashville, Urban is sitting in front of the console at Starstruck Studios on Music Row, ready and eager to dial up tracks, samples and sounds from his 10th studio album, Graffiti U, out today.
"It’s always such a feeling for me, making music, and capturing what moves me," he tells Rolling Stone Country. "Every song on this record right now, each song spoke to me for different reasons."
Graffiti U follows Urban's 2016 release Ripcord, a Grammy-nominated album that flexed Urban's pop muscles on tracks like the Carrie Underwood duet "The Fighter" and also spawned the 2017 CMA Awards Single of the Year "Blue Ain't Your Color."
In many ways, Graffiti U picks up where Ripcord left off, particularly in its exploration of sounds and textures that aren't traditionally associated with country music. Accordingly, guests on Graffiti U range from country newcomers like Kassi Ashton and Lindsay Ell to genre-defying songwriters Shy Carter and Julia Michaels.
Opening track "Coming Home," released as a single to country radio in March, chops and screws the famed guitar lick from Merle Haggard's classic "Mama Tried," merging old influences with new as Michaels makes a guest appearance during the song's bridge. The Haggard sample caused a ripple of controversy, but Urban is unfazed, happy to incorporate one of his favorite pieces of music into a song of his own.
"I worked with this guy J.R. Rotem, who's a great instrumentalist-producer-songwriter, and he took that sample straight from the album and pitched it down, put some chords around it, and the song started to come to life," Urban says. "It was really beautiful, how the whole thing was quite organic. That sample drove what became the story in the lyric as well. I didn't set out to write a song called 'Coming Home,' but hearing that sample in that context drove all of that out."
Finding a musical flourish or unusual sound and turning it into a song is one of Urban's biggest sources of inspiration. Speaking with him about songwriting, one gets the sense of him as a sonic scavenger, snatching bits here and there and stitching them into the fabric of his songs and ideas.
When asked what music inspired Graffiti U, he says, "Everything new... Julia’s records of course, Charlie Puth, everything that was coming out new, really. Strains of Daft Punk on something like 'Gemini' – that fusion of programmed music with a human feel – which they're really the masters at. There really is still nobody better at making programmed music sound so human. It's like giving the robot a soul."
Robots – soul or not – and country have never exactly been comfortable bedfellows, but adhering to strict genre conventions has never been a major concern of Urban's. Ripcord featured guest spots from Nile Rodgers and rapper Pitbull, who appeared together on "Sun Don't Let Me Down," sequenced just a few spots after the far more traditional "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16."
"The listener is always going to decide what genre it fits into," he says. "I’ve always made music that has felt not as country necessarily, that someone in Nashville may say, 'Oh, this isn't very country,' but everybody else would say, 'That's totally country. What else is it?' It's all relative to where you are, what you're immersed in, and how you define genres as a listener. My goal was to keep capturing my musical heart where it is right now. And it's in motion. So this is musically where I'm at right now."
If Graffiti U really is where Urban is at, it sounds like he's in a pretty good place. Many of the album's tracks skew up-tempo, even danceable – the Kassi Ashton duet "Drop Top," with its prominent bass and club-ready chorus, wouldn't sound out of place on an EDM playlist. "My Wave," one of two Shy Carter collaborations, is the sonic equivalent of a piña colada. And "Gemini," Urban's Daft Punk homage, paints a colorful portrait of his relationship with wife Nicole Kidman, the chorus unapologetically revealing, "She's a maniac in the bed / But a brainiac in her head."
Urban wrote "Gemini" with Michaels, Justin Trantor and Ian Kirkpatrick during a studio session in Los Angeles. "Julia and Justin asked me about Nic, they go, 'Tell us about your wife,'" he says. "I said, 'Well, you know, she’s Gemini.' Julia started singing, 'Baby she's both,' just that line... So the whole song started to unfold from there. So I told them more about my wife and I said, 'She is Gemini, but she's not a contradiction. She can roll with things.' And there was the opening line right there. It was quite therapeutic to get it all out."
He credits Michaels specifically with the maniac/brainiac couplet, saying, "My first reaction was, 'Oh, I don’t know if I’d say that.' And she goes, 'You pretty much just did.' Again, it’s really one of the things I love about the way she writes. It’s unfiltered. It’s pure. It’s truth. It was such a playful song, that in the context of that kind of song, which is super sexy to begin with, it just went together for me."
Michaels' influence is elsewhere on the album, including the lovelorn ballad "Parallel Line," which also features a writing credit from Ed Sheeran. Like Michaels, Sheeran is one of Urban's favorite young songwriters. "Ed is one of the really few guys who will put his heart on his sleeve," he says. "He has no problem in being vulnerable. The fears that us guys have about getting our heart broken by somebody, we never talk about that. That's what I love so much about Ed, his willingness to be honest."
In mid-June, Urban will kick off the 58-date Graffiti U World Tour, transforming his work on Graffiti U and previous albums into new and updated versions. "Songs, they live in a recorded form, but they don't really live until you play them live. They just sit dormant, waiting to be brought to life." Like working in the studio, the stage affords Urban another outlet to connect and experiment with his songs, the raw materials that originally spoke to him during the creative process.
"I hope that people can find their own personal connection to the stories, and how the songs make them feel," he says towards the end of the conversation. "Graffiti U is such personal expression, that I hope that the album makes someone feel inspired to be personally expressive in whatever they do in their own life. If the music does that, it's a beautiful thing."