Keith Urban might not have expected to learn of a long-lost relative when he showed up at the Austin Convention Center on Friday afternoon (an audience member claimed someone in her family was related to the country star), but that's just what he got, along with a number of pitches and invitations from members of the assembled crowd. He even took time to sign an autograph.
Urban, who's in Austin to perform a showcase Friday night at Stubb's BBQ, appeared as a featured speaker at South by Southwest for a conversation with Scott Goldman of the Grammy Museum. The 12-time CMA Award winner, who recently announced the new album Graffiti U, was engaging and often funny in a 75-minute discussion and Q&A session, touching on his musical influences, approaches to modern technology and the effects of his sobriety. Here are 10 things we learned from Urban's chat.
1. Johnny Cash made him realize he wanted to be a musician.
Urban's father, a rockabilly and folk musician who exposed his son to country music, took him to see his first concert at age 5: Johnny Cash. Though the venue only held a few thousand people, it felt like an arena to him. "I remember the roar when the guy walked out on stage. It never left me, the power of that when he played guitar and sang," said Urban. He was immediately hooked. "It was the recognition of this thing I was meant to do. Like, this feels familiar."
2. A childhood house fire awakened his philanthropic spirit.
At the age of 10, Urban's family home burned down. No one was hurt – he was at school at the time – but it was a traumatic experience. "We lost everything. The whole place burnt, done," he said. To the rescue came the local country music club, of which his parents were members. The group organized a fundraiser to help the family get back on their feet. "I saw this spirit at a young age and it certainly stuck with me," Urban said, adding that one of his great joys in performing is the ability to "bring everybody together."
3. His love of bluegrass killed his career as a metal musician.
One of Urban's earliest bands back in Australia was a metal act called Fractured Mirror. The singer loaned him his first Marshall stack, which he'd never played through before, but his tenure with the group didn't last long, thanks to an obsession with the bluegrass style of Ricky Skaggs' guitarist Ray Flacke. "I was playing a solo and started playing chicken-pickin' through the stack, and the band was like, 'What the?'" Urban recalled, laughing. "So they fired me."
4. He got some good advice over the years, though it wasn't always easy to hear at the time.
"A lot of advice is crap," Urban cautioned. The challenge is to weed out what's helpful from what's not. Some of the best advice he got came from a Sony employee who showed up regularly to Urban's shows when he was still unsigned. Finally, Urban asked why the man hadn't signed him. "'You're not doing anything wrong, you're just different. It'll be your biggest curse until it becomes your biggest blessing.' That hit me to my core," Urban admitted. "But what I took from that was that I needed to stay the course."
5. Being married made him better at relationships.
"Before I got married, I sucked at relationships. I couldn't give myself to a relationship. But I'd write songs about love and relationships," Urban said. One time, he played one such love song for a then-girlfriend, who wasn't impressed. "She looked at me and said, 'You're a fucking hypocrite.' And I couldn't argue. I realized I was writing from the place of the person I wanted to be," he admitted. Finding a happier balance in his life hasn't made it harder to write good songs. "Shit, who doesn't have adversity? There's a lifetime of stuff to draw from," he said.
6. He loves electronic music – and Post Malone.
Pointing to his long list of collaborators, Urban stressed the importance of being open-minded and expressed fascination "with the question of what qualifies as a musician these days." Even if your instrument is a MacBook Pro, he said, "you still have to compose things in a way that makes a compelling image. That, to me, is as compelling as someone playing a guitar or drums." Of particular interest to him these days: rapper Post Malone. "It's insane. I don't know what it is, I don't even think he knows what it is. But it's a beautiful thing," he raved.
7. Nicole Kidman helped him stop fearing mistakes.
Urban admitted that the schedules of he and his wife Nicole Kidman can pose some difficulties. While his tours may be plotted more than a year in advance, she can be called upon for a role at the drop of a hat. But he's learned a great deal from her approach to acting. "The way I approach it [now] is, 'Let's do it. We can scrap it after the fact.' I learned that from my wife. Try anything, do anything, it'll be very apparent if it sucks. But I have to try it," he said. "I would never have discovered [certain ideas] if I hadn't dared to suck."
8. Social media, however, can make you too self-aware.
"'Nothing to hide and everything to protect' is the mantra Nic and I have," Urban said in regards to using social media. Safeguarding their family may dictate what they put into the world on social platforms, but he also felt that such technology can have a negative effect on the creative process. "Self-awareness is very dangerous. Ultimately you're critiquing while you're creating, and that's just death," he said. "The fact is, it gets so cerebral. I don't know where this stuff comes from – the heart, the cosmos. It's mystical, it's alchemy."
9. Being engaged is important, but so is staying grounded.
Despite his role as an activist, Urban is wary of getting swept up in a cause. "The mob is very dangerous. It's a constant balance of being true to yourself, of not letting the mob rule. The mob just drifts from this cause over to this cause," he said. He and Kidman have made a point of staying disconnected as much as possible. "There's not much time for thinking anymore. Everyone just reacts. I'm trying to not get caught up in reacting. I'm trying to learn to respond instead of react," he added.
10. Sobriety helped make him a superstar.
Urban has been sober for a dozen years, a fact that he said he prefers to keep private in part because he doesn't want to alienate any of his fans. "It's something I needed because I'm alcoholically wired. I wish I'd gotten sober many years earlier than I did, but it is what it is," he said. "I knew I wasn't at my full potential, and that's what was starting to get to me. I was enslaved ... I was living a very, very small life." He was emphatic about the benefits, however, saying, "There's probably less fear. I can dare to suck, and it doesn't bother me as much as it would have."