Keith Urban: The Billboard Cover Story
May 3 presented a very strange mix of events in the life of Keith Urban.
Capitol released his cheery single, "I'm In," to country radio stations. He planned to start recording a new album. And then the Cumberland River and a network of creeks began to overflow their banks.
It was, as Nashville residents have become fond of saying, a thousand-year flood, one that crippled portions of the city and swamped a few significant locations: the Grand Ole Opry House, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, Kenny Chesney's home and the SoundCheck music storage facility downtown. Scads of instruments were destroyed at SoundCheck, including models owned by Brad Paisley, Vince Gill, Peter Frampton and Urban, who lost more than 50 expensive guitars. That obviously set back his plans to record.
For one day.
The female portion of Urban's audience is practically guaranteed to hone in on "Get Closer" because of its thematic center, which more or less required Urban to address his connection to his wife, actress Nicole Kidman, to whom he's been married since June 25, 2006. Oddly enough, the song that most reflects that relationship is "Without You," which Huff calls "the most autobiographical thing that he's never written."
Penned by Dave Pahanish and Joe West -- co-writers who authored Toby Keith's "American Ride" and Jimmy Wayne's "Do You Believe Me Now" -- "Without You" explores an internal change in priorities for a musician previously consumed by his job. It doesn't necessarily give away a lot of detail, but it invites scrutiny or fantasy on the part of the listener. And Urban, 43, sounds more comfortable knitting his personal life with his public persona than he previously has in his career.
"What you're looking at is the difference between an evolving young adult and a content adult," says his manager, Borman Entertainment founder Gary Borman. "He's constantly evolving and changing, but he's arrived at a place where his life is balanced and it's giving him what he needs. Therefore he is comfortable speaking about it. When you're not clear on who or what you are and you're in search [of that], it's really hard to talk about."
Part of that is a direct result of Urban coming to grips with addiction. He famously cut short his promotional campaign for album "Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing" in October 2006 for a stint in rehab. His growing comfort with intimate subject matter is a sign that he continues to take the lessons from that therapy seriously.
"Most of my creation has leaned more toward the light and the solution more than the problem," he says. "My life hasn't reflected that a lot of the time, and maybe that's why the music's been there to help me. More often than not, the songs that I've written, if I look back at them, I see them as exactly what I needed to hear. If I would just listen to my own damn advice, it would be great."
His exploration of intimacy on "Get Closer" is a continuation of some ideas he established on 2009's "Defying Gravity," a release that earned an album of the year nomination from the Country Music Assn. (CMA). Musically, "Get Closer" is grounded in some older-era ideas. He wrote two of the songs on a guitar that was previously owned by the late Waylon Jennings. (In the context of the album's bonding theme, it's only appropriate that Urban's wife bought it for him at an auction as a gift.) He also used an '80s-style drum machine to keep a rhythm going while he wrote, and some of the tracks mash up the mechanized rhythm with the ping of a banjo.
On first listen, "Get Closer" sounds like a fairly typical Urban album. But on repeated exposure, it seems more fluid, more seamless, more relaxed. In that regard, it reflects the stability that now appears to be a major part of Urban's life.
"He's never played like this before, and it can't be measured in chops or anything like that, but it's in subtleties that he's never had," says Huff, who's also highly regarded as a session guitarist. "It even goes beyond trying to be economical. It's just a clearer path from his heart to his hands."
The path to completion, however, was no clearer than in previous outings. Finishing the album was a hazardous process for Urban, who's notably meticulous about his work. He worked right up to the deadline, leaving Capitol and Borman Entertainment to market a project they couldn't hear in its entirety.
"There's several cases of first singles from projects Keith has done where we would press them up into a CD -- deliver them digitally, whatever -- then they go right on the radio," Capitol president/CEO Mike Dungan says. "Then on day one or day two, I'll get a call from Keith in the car. He's not frantic, but it's more like, 'Hey, coach, I was listening to my single on WSIX this morning and God, I just really don't like the way it's manifested itself through that compression, and I want to take it back. I'm going to go in today; I know exactly what to do.' So we have to remanufacture, send it back out there, and then radio looks at us and kind of shrugs its shoulders saying, 'I can't tell the difference.' "
That kind of perfectionism could fray some nerves on the label side if Capitol wasn't already familiar with the routine. Urban typically works until the last minute with every album and was still playing with mixes on "Get Closer" during the weekend prior to the Monday deadline the label gave him to turn the album in.
"It's like school," Huff says. "If your test is on Monday, you're going to study Sunday night."
Way before that deadline, Capitol needed a single, and Urban brought in a couple of songs to consider. "Put You in a Song" was selected. Urban took back the other, "You Gonna Fly," and did a major overhaul. The version that made it on "Get Closer" uses the same vocal he originally presented to Dungan, but the rest of the track was rerecorded.
"He's just that guy," Dungan says. "It kind of excites me to have somebody that's constantly tinkering."
During the creation of "Get Closer," the tinkering extended to Urban's relationships with retailers and with Capitol. His contract with the label had expired, and Borman negotiated a new deal on his behalf while Urban proceeded in the studio. They turned down larger advances from some other companies to remain with Capitol in what Borman describes as a "nontraditional deal." There aren't any "360" elements in the package, he says, but it does emphasize mutual rewards for mutual success.
"Our objective was to continue to build the partnership that we had with Capitol Records all these years and to make sure that we all profited when we succeeded," Borman says.
While Urban was negotiating, Borman and Target had a conversation about a different matter that led to an agreement to deliver an exclusive deluxe version of the album to the retailer. Dungan had already asked Borman to consider releasing an album with less material to satisfy price-conscious shoppers. They agreed on an eight-song set -- shorter than "Defying Gravity," which had 11 tracks, but longer than Blake Shelton's "Six Pak" releases on Reprise.
"I couldn't figure out a way to make six work" financially, Dungan says.
When Urban draws up the set list for his next tour, he might well be taking the music to places he's never previously played. He has some interest in performing in Japan and China, where he already has a fan base, as he discovered while accompanying Kidman on a trip she made for one of her corporate sponsors.
"I just went out shopping and got more people stopping me to get photographs," Urban recalls. "I was really amazed at it. People were asking, 'When are you coming over to China to play?' "
No decisions have been made about Asia, Borman says, though he'd like to see it become part of the itinerary if Urban can work it into what's sure to be a packed schedule.
"It's interesting if you know any Australians," Borman says. "They think nothing of hopping on a plane for 10-15 hours. And China, being not that far from Australia, is a very appealing place for Keith."
That can be said for the entire globe. Previous Urban tours have included not only the United States and Canada but also his Australian homeland, the United Kingdom and Germany. He's been more aggressive about touring overseas than most of his country peers. As a result, the Academy of Country Music presented him with its Jim Reeves International Award in September for his efforts at taking the genre beyond its usual borders.
"The world has a bit of an out-of-date perception of what country is, and carrying forward where country's at today in 2010 is a great opportunity," Urban says. "It's not a narrow genre. Country's very diverse and [it's] always been [so], and it's important to keep carrying that."
Urban might have become a booster for the genre around the globe, but he's also emerged as something of a leader at home in Nashville, thanks in part to his role in the aftermath of the flood. While the disaster cost him 50-plus guitars and postponed the start date for his "Get Closer" sessions, the ramifications were much greater for many other Music City residents who lost cars, homes and, in some cases, their lives.
Urban stepped up in ways both large and small. He appeared on a couple of telethons -- WSMV-TV's "Flood Relief With Vince Gill & Friends" on May 6 and GAC's "Music City Keep on Playin': A Benefit for Flood Relief" on May 16 -- guested on Marty Stuart's flood-assisting Late Night Jam on June 9 and delivered a version of the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends" at the CMA Music Festival on June 11. That performance, with supporting vocals by Sarah Buxton and the female members of Little Big Town, was backed visually with flood-related TV footage, keeping the event's memory alive when ABC aired the performance during a CMA Fest TV special on Sept. 1.
Urban was also a leading musical contributor the night the Grand Ole Opry House reopened after five months of flood-imposed rehabilitation and was one of numerous artists who auctioned off damaged guitars for NASH2O, an innovative online fund-raiser.
Those forms of outreach came in addition to his two We're All for the Hall concerts with Gill. Those sold-out, multi-artist shows raised nearly $1 million for the Country Music Hall of Fame during the last two years.
The seeds for that kind of relationship with his hometown were sewn when Urban was a 10-year-old living in Australia. His family's house was destroyed by fire, and the family temporarily split up when members of the community took them in during rebuilding, permanently affecting his sense of people and place.
"To lose everything had a big impact on my relationship with materialistic things," Urban says. "On how quickly they can go and how important it is to be able to give back to people that go without. So when those opportunities come, it's a no-brainer to me. I know what it's like to lose things."
His family's post-fire resurrection was aided by country music. A local club put on a benefit and gave away beer to visitors who offered a $2 donation. It set the tone for how Urban would lend a hand following the flood.
"Country music came to the rescue immediately," he says.
It's through country music that Urban continues to build a relationship with his fan base, his community and his own psyche. "Get Closer" has layers of meaning as he explores the importance of coupling, expressed with an artistic ease that Huff characterizes as "the next step of growth."
"Music has often been trying to help me find a way out," Urban says. "And if it helps somebody else, that's a beautiful thing."