With every album since 2013’s Fuse, Keith Urban has had less and less creative fucks to give. Sticking to the confines of the country music genre hasn’t interested him in years. Listen to “Even the Stars Fall 4 U” on Fuse, “The Fighter” on Ripcord, or “Coming Home” on Graffiti U. Each of them led, measuredly and deliberately, to The Speed of Now Part 1, his new album on which he unapologetically embraces kinetic and often electronic sounds. Put on headphones and listen to “Out the Cage,” which — to nod to one of Urban’s favorite films — turns the dance vibes of 2016’s “The Fighter” up to 11. We talked to the prolific Nashville star about collaborating with viral rapper Breland, Spinal Tap, and when he thinks he’ll be able to perform his “kind of gig” in pandemic times.
You released many of these songs as stand-alones, but the sequencing of The Speed of Now makes it feel like a cohesive album.
Oh, the sequencing, I obsessed over it for a long, long time. I find sequencing to be a bit of a Rubik’s cube and changing one song collapses all the colors that were almost on one side of the cube. To have the diversity flow through and have a sense of cohesiveness was the biggest goal for the record.
It opens with back-to-back guest shots. “Out the Cage” features Nile Rodgers and Breland, and “One Too Many” is a duet with Pink. Why did you decide to do that instead of space them out?
I struggled with that the most because it felt so weird to open with two guested songs. I was like, “What am I doing here?” But I took the people I was singing with, Breland and Pink, out of the equation and just looked at the songs and the energy, the feel, the subject matter, the key, the tempo, everything about them. Even the keys of songs is important to me as far as transitions from one song into the next. I hate albums that have like three songs in a row that are all in the same key. It’s like, “Oh, God, come on.”
“Out the Cage” is lightning fast, in its production and your vocal delivery. How’d you find that tempo?
I like writing from a place of energy. I guess that’s really being a guitar player. I love having a rhythmic foundation to create upon, whether that’s writing with drum machines, which I’ve done most of my career, or loops. Heck, I’ve written stuff with just a metronome. Just because the hypnotic click, click, click lets you mess with the rhythms as a player. I always loved “Firestarter” by the Prodigy, that kind of Nineties English beat that Fatboy Slim used a lot. There’s something in that that I know I can assimilate into my world and have it feel organic.
You co-wrote it with Breland. What’d he bring to the table?
I picked up the banjo and this riff came out. Breland said, “Why don’t we sing something over that lick?” And I’m like, “Oh, it’s pretty quick.” And he goes, “Yeah, but that’s the point of it!” I live for that fast syncopated staccato sort of vocal styling. And we were off and running.
You co-wrote the very Keith Urban-sounding track “Soul Food” with him too.
What was great about working with somebody like Breland, because he’s 24, was we’d start playing this thing and I’m like, “It sounds like some sort of Fleetwood Mac song.” I didn’t mean it disrespectfully, just that it felt like something I had done many, many, many times before. And Breland lit up: “It is like a Fleetwood Mac song.” He was excited by the fact and it was those two worlds coming together, where for me it felt like something I’d done many times, and for him it felt like something completely fresh. Having that perspective kept the song alive. That’s one of the great examples of why I love collaborating so much.
“Say Something” is a call to raise one’s voice, but on more of an interpersonal level than about specific issues.
I wanted to take it into a personal place, because I thought “Say Something” isn’t just about speaking up socially. I thought about my dad. I was raised in a house with a father who was always like “Ah, you know, just don’t rock the boat. Don’t speak out against things; just be quiet.” I was raised like that, and that way of being was somewhat problematic in our family, because we also didn’t say anything. We didn’t speak about things. We weren’t really an intimate family. Since marrying [actress Nicole Kidman] and raising our girls, our family now is very, very different on that front. I wanted to make that second verse a bit more personal. Lines like “I don’t want to be like my father was/scared to rock the boat never speaking up/I want to live my truths wide open” gave the title another dimension. I’m not really a jump-on-a-soapbox kind of guy, but there’s other places that things need to be said, even saying sorry to somebody that has drifted out of your life. There are so many things I wished I’d said to my father and I didn’t get the chance before he died.
As you get older, you seem more and more willing to take musical risks. Ripcord, Graffiti U, The Speed of Now: they’re all you saying, “Ah, fuck it, let’s try this.” Accurate?
[Laughs] It’s about continuing to wake up. Every year I wake up a little more, for better and worse. I feel like I’m emerging up out of the dream every year and more of the facade is falling away. I’m seeing things and feeling things in a much more real way. I was thinking about that great line in Spinal Tap where they’re standing over Elvis’ grave and one of them says, “Oh, it just gives you a whole new perspective.” And [Michael McKean] goes, “Too much fucking perspective.” Every year unfolds and there’s a bit too much fucking perspective. But I use it to my advantage and go, “Let’s explore.” I don’t mean to sound all hippie-dippy, but I’m very drawn to and driven by what connects everything far more than what separates us.
You did a drive-in show for healthcare workers early during the pandemic. What’s your take on getting back on a stage?
I think separating out all the various kinds of performance from the broad-stroke “back on the road” conversation is really imperative, because whoever your audience is, and the way in which you love to play, factors into it huge. I remember when this pandemic was really starting to unfold, and people were like, “I don’t know how long it’s gonna be before everyone’s back packed into a club.” I’m like, that depends on your audience, because if you’re playing to people in their twenties, they will mosh-pit tomorrow. I’m not broad-stroking everybody. I’m saying lots of that age group are gonna be like, “We’re going. We’re going to the festival. What are you talking about?” I’m not saying it’s right or wrong. I’m just saying that’s kind of more of the fact. If you’re playing to an older audience, they’re not going to go so quickly.
I don’t like to play to people sitting. I like people engaged and packed in and ideally a bit sweaty and definitely rowdy. That’s my ideal kind of audience. I don’t like an audience that is very silent and attentive. It’s not my kind of gig. So that may be a little bit longer before that comes back.