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.
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.
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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.
On your third album, Be Here, you co-wrote nine of the songs. Did you feel like you were finally finding your voice as a songwriter?
I really clicked with Monty Powell and a couple of new writers that I started to click with. So that was a good period for that. And no coincidence, I produced a few less songs on my own on this record. And as my confidence in Dann grew, my feeling of “I have to produce these on my own” got less.
You went on your first headlining tour to support Be Here. Were you scared?
I couldn’t wait, because this is what I love doing. I’ve been playing for years and years and years… This is “Finally!” And I was very lucky to have [had] great support slots. Kenny Chesney was so fun, he was really good to me.
What’s been your worst stage blunder?
I had this idea that it would be really cool in a show to do a song completely in the dark in the arena. No one can see me. No one can see anything. I thought, I’ll do it [at] the piano. I’ll light all these candles and I’ll talk to the audience about how much you get overwhelmed with visual stimuli and all this stuff in concerts. And while I’m saying this, I’m starting to blow out a candle. And so I wondered [makes blowing sound] if maybe tonight [blowing sound] we could experience what it would be like to just… hear.. the… music?” It’s very dramatic, I put the mic in there [makes horrible off-key piano sound] I couldn’t see the keys! [laughs] It was such a mess. And the roadie ran out. He’s got a flashlight over the keyboard and I couldn’t find the mic. We really should’ve rehearsed this. It was hysterical.
What song was it?
We were trying to do “Tonight I Wanna Cry.”
It ended up being prophetic.
[Laughs] Oh, it was so bad!
What goes on in your head when you‘re walking from the dressing room to the stage?
I’m really anxious, I’m giddy to get out there because it’s almost like it’s a tennis match. It’s a thing that I am trying to get as right as possible and there are so many things that I go, “Oh, I could have done that better.” By the end of that show, I can’t wait for the next opportunity to play that game again.
You’d already met Nicole by the time you made 2006’s Love, Pain & The Whole Crazy Thing. How did she influence the making of the record?
The first thing that I think about with this record is how everything’s about to come undone, not long after this [cover] picture was taken, actually. I’m already in a bit of trouble. We shot this over in England where Nic was doing something at the time. I think we were mixing [the album] to coincide with her being there. I wasn’t in any recovery program of any sort. I wasn’t in AA. I didn’t have a sponsor. I didn’t have anything. Meeting Nic and falling in love with Nic and starting a relationship with Nic became — I realize now in hindsight — my sobriety. That was how I was able to keep it together.
You just traded addictions.
Yeah, and I didn’t realize that until when she would go away, I would find myself feeling very alone, very lost, and vulnerable to my old ways… She had taken a trip to Kosovo. It was during that trip that that whole part of my world came back in and swamped me. And I remember just feeling so terrified. We had just gotten married and this entity in my life is coming just to crush and kill everything that I’ve got. Everything that’s good. And I was making the record during that whole period, trying desperately to keep that entity out of my life. And I was struggling with my voice, I was just struggling with everything. I was putting on a good front and when I see that picture [on the album cover], I just go, “Whoa.” I can see it in my eyes.
The album came out a few weeks after you went into rehab. Were you thinking, “I‘m not going to be able to do anything at all to promote this record?”
I didn’t give a shit about anything except turning a corner in my life and doing whatever it took for that. I was very, very blessed to have Nic call an intervention on me. I had a tight group of friends around me for the intervention. And off I went.
You went to rehab that night. It sounds like you were ready.
I was very ready. I remember having been in rehab a few weeks, and the CMAs happened while I was in there. I forgot they were on. That’s how much I had gotten into this recovery. I had gone to bed and I remember our night tech coming in and him saying, “You just won something. Male vocalist? CMAs or something?” And I was like, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah, off to bed,” and he shut the door. And I said to my roommate, “Hey, I just won Male Vocalist of the Year,” and he’s like, “That’s awesome.” I just lay there in the dark going, “How weird is this?”
What‘s the longest you and Nicole go without seeing each other?
The most is five days, but we Skype and we talk on the phone several times a day, and we stay very, very connected. And I am on dad duty right now, so I played a corporate show in Phoenix last night, and flew back and got in about 1:00 AM this morning and then I got up at 6:30 with the kids and made breakfast. Plenty of dads and moms are doing that.
While we‘re sitting here, she‘s in Cannes for the premiere of Grace of Monaco, a movie which has had a bit of a rocky time. What‘s it like not being with her for such a big moment?
It’s very, very hard. It’s excruciatingly hard not to be there right now.
It seems to be your and Nicole‘s turn to be in the tabloid divorce rumor mill. How do you deal with that?
The people who really know us are most aghast by the whole thing and going, “How do you not want to defend that?” I’m like,”It’s pointless.” Our life will be our way of defending it.
You seem very happy together.
I have a wife who is just from another planet. She is so celestial. I say that I was born into her. That is the best way I can describe how I feel about her and us.
What does that mean?
It means that I felt like I was just sitting dormant, and she came along and I came to life. I was born into her, so who I am now was waiting the whole time.
How does Nicole influence you as an artist?
There’s a fearlessness about Nic. It’s funny, it’s not a fearlessness, it’s a willingness to face it anyway. That’s a different thing. The characters she explores, she’s really interested in and it’s interesting because they’ve certainly, of late, been fascinating, strong, often misunderstood type characters. I love that she wants to bring them to life and present a new way to look at them. The reason I could never act is I’m terrified of looking stupid or failing in some way and it’s something I’m really trying to work through. She doesn’t have that sense of having to please people as much as just be a true artist. I love that about her. She doesn’t mind failing at stuff to get to the place where it works. I don’t even know if she can do anything and feel silly or awkward. She’s not wired that way. So I think she’s helped me shed some of my limitations. That’s very liberating creatively.
Will you and Nicole ever duet on one of your records?
It’s not really her thing. She’s not comfortable doing it.
There’s a video on YouTube of you two at a tribute for actor Simon Baker singing a parody to Men at Work’s “Land Down Under.” She’s so loose and carefree. It shows a different side of her.
That’s the side I wish more people could see. That is the Nic that I know so well. Slightly goofy, very girly, and just really fun.
Does your family sing at home a lot?
I was this morning because I have a little Mr. Microphone… it’s basically a microphone with a speaker and a little stand. And Sunny sang “Let It Go” and then asked me to sing it. So I sang a bit of it, and then Sunny got on some bongos and Fifi got out her little pink guitar and then I just started making up a song about being under the stairs — that’s where we were. [Laughs] It was really fun.
You and Brad Paisley duetted on “Start a Band” in 2008. In a guitar shootout, who wins between you two?
We’re totally different players. There’s people who don’t like the way I play who love the way Brad plays because he’s much more proficient, more technical. I don’t have that kind of precision. I have a different, loose thing. So we appeal to different people. The thing is I can’t play what Brad plays. And Brad can’t play what I play. And that’s that.
More recently, you were onstage with the Rolling Stones. What was it like sharing a mic with Mick Jagger?
His ferocity, it’s indescribable. When you’re that close to him, his energy is like, you can feel it, it’s literally like this hot, radiating planet… It so defies age, logic, reason, everything. He’s just one of the greatest frontmen of all time. He’s a freak of nature.
Your 2009 album, Defying Gravity, was your first Number One on the Billboard 200. How did getting sober change your songwriting?
I loved writing this record, especially things like “Kiss a Girl,” “Sweet Thing,” “Til Summer Comes Around.” I felt full of clarity and gratitude and energy and buoyancy. I can still walk around in my shit-filled diaper and not want to have it changed, just want to complain about it. But much less so than ever before. I wish I was more enlightened, but I’m not. I’m trying…
But the character defects and flawed nature come back, and I have to deal with them. Some days I just want to sit on my couch and do nothing for days and days if I could. Just this last week, I just didn’t want to do anything. We were trying to put a tour together and it just got to the point where I just said, “You all go to hell, I’m not doing anything.” And so I’m now in a bit of a panic state where enormous amounts of answers have to be given.
Get Closer came out in 2010, a year after Defying Gravity. It’s also mainly songs about love. Is that where your head was?
Songs about getting closer. The title comes from doing the opposite thing, which I was still in the midst of doing in sobriety. My instinct, when there’s confrontation or combativeness or anything like that, is to go, “Screw you,” and go the other way. Or if I’m scared, to run. And doing the opposite action would be instead of driving off, I’m actually going to get closer. I’m going to do the exact opposite thing and see what happens. And when I started doing that in our marriage, I saw it really start to change. I was learning a lot being in a relationship. I’d never really been in one. I’d taken hostages, which is really what I’d done to a lot of poor people. I felt really bad about that.
After this album, you had to take a break to have vocal surgery in 2012. Were you worried that your voice would be permanent damaged?
For some reason, no. I thought I was in really good hands. I had Nic with me — she was such a rock. That helped hugely. She came all the way up to Boston, where I had the surgery, and she was with me the whole way. The doctors were like, “The one thing you can’t do is you can’t get a cold because you can’t cough. You can’t cough, sneeze, laugh, cry for several weeks.” It’s terrifying. And lo and behold, Nic got a cold. We’re like,”Oh my God.” So she went and slept on the couch of this hotel, and the couch was just dreadful and there’s noisy traffic, and she didn’t sleep a wink. And I’m writing down, “I’ll sleep on the couch.” And she’s like, “You can’t.” God bless her. It was crazy.
It was also around this time that you were a coach on The Voice in Australia. Why did you say yes?
That was something that my manager and my wife encouraged me to do. I immediately said no. I just had my vocal surgery. She said, “You need a down time and it might be a way for people to get to know you, because no one knows you in Australia.” To the populace outside of the country genre, I was just Nic’s husband.
So we did it and the show was a huge success; I enjoyed the process and I enjoyed the fact that I got to have a conversation with people in their living rooms. They get to know me. From that, I found the record sales went up, people came to see us in concert, and people came to meet and greets and they already knew me. It was the most awesome feeling because I didn’t have to explain who I was.
Has American Idol had the same effect since you started last year?
Yeah. Lots of new people coming to the shows, too. I meet people who talk about Idol and how much they like it, so there is that instant sense of familiarity when they come to the meet-and-greet area. They feel like they know me.
You‘re in their living room two times a week each season.
It’s a great feeling, because all I want to do is get to know everybody at a gig. All I want to do is come out and play and make a connection so we can all feel connected. [Idol] already does that, they see me in so many different facets, they see the real me.
American Idol lets people see that you’re a little goofy. You pulled a Sippy Cup out from under the judges’ desk the other day.
That was a bit of absurdity because I started this thing with some radio guys and guys at my record company: They give me a word every week that I have to slip into my critiques. They text me the word on a Wednesday and I have to figure out how to get that said that night. We’ve done it now, easily, for maybe half the live shows. And they’ll text things like “wasabi,” “fanny pack,” “shish kebab”…
You’ve also showed your sensitive side on camera, most recently at the Grammys. You were tearing up at the same and opposite-sex wedding ceremony during Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Same Love” performance. What was going through your head?
I see these people coming down the aisle and there are all these multiple couples and I go, “Oh, that’s cool,” because the song’s “Same Love.” Queen Latifah starts acting like she’s really marrying people and then I suddenly went, “Wait a minute, this is California, this is really happening.” I get chills now. When you [attend] a wedding between two people who love each other, and you see that and you feel that, if you don’t cry, then you may want to check your pulse. I mean, really, it’s love. That was one of the most extraordinary things I’d ever seen on TV.
Did you get any backlash to your reaction?
I didn’t hear about it. I’m sure there’s plenty of it. I mean, God knows the naysayers of the world have a very big platform now to make a lot of noise. I could care less. If you don’t support love, then I think there’s a problem.
On Fuse, your most recent album, you and Dann Huff split ways for the most part and you worked with a lot of different producers. Why?
[Dann and I] have one or two songs on this record, but I wanted to expand and see what else there might be. But it really is probably borne of the vocal cord surgery that liberated a lot of the limitations in me. And the growing sobriety and all those elements in my life, our marriage, our family.
Are you happy with this record?
Thrilled. I felt like I had this record in my head for a long time. I wanted to get it out. I never would have thought it took as many people as it did to bring it all to life. My intention was to work with a checklist of people, find who I really clicked with, and make the album. But I found that I clicked with a lot of them and liked the diversity that we’d created. I wanted to know who I was musically, what do I do? Who am I? And the best way to do it was to work with tons of people and whatever the through line was has to be me.
When do you feel the most like yourself?
I think most of the time. Much more than ever before. I had to work, really work through… the only place I felt really comfortable was onstage because I’d really grown up there. I joined a theater group when I was seven, and when I was onstage I felt safe. I didn’t know who I was when I was offstage. And I think when I moved to Nashville, that also was part of hitting the skids. Because I had long periods of not playing. Never had I stopped for months and months and months and months and not set foot on a stage. And that did really bizarre things to my psyche, my personality, my self-esteem, my identity. I suddenly thought, “I don’t know who I am if I don’t play guitar and sing.” I had no idea. And then all the drugs and stuff, it was, “Ah, good. Let’s do that.” Part of rehab for me was working through all that. “Who am I offstage?” I gotta know who that guy is and get comfortable with him.
Now it sounds like it’s a matter of playing because you love to, not because you don’t know how to live offstage.
That’s right. It’s filling a purpose instead of a hole.