"It's all from a conversation my wife and I had early on in our relationship, that when things get tough, I need to hold her tighter and just try to take care of her," says Urban. "The song is about wanting to heal somebody, wanting to take care of somebody, wanting to protect somebody. It’s really like a vow in so many ways."
"The Fighter" came to fruition when Urban was playing the supportive role in his marriage, spending time in London while actress Nicole Kidman starred in the West End production of Photograph 51 during the fall of 2015. Urban had already worked with songwriter-producers Nile Rodgers (Chic, David Bowie) and busbee (Maren Morris, Lady Antebellum) on “Sun Don’t Let Me Down," and he asked busbee to hop over to London to write at Kensaltown Studios during a three-day stretch.
On day one, they started on “Your Body,” which ultimately made the Ripcord track list after its completion. But that title was set aside on day two when Urban found inspiration during his commute. He heard Charlie Puth’s duet with Meghan Trainor, “Marvin Gaye,” and the male/female combination intrigued him.
"I thought Id love to write a duet that is more of the girl asking something and the guy answering," says Urban. "I like that back and forward, a little bit like 'Baby, It's Cold Outside' or 'Paradise by the Dashboard Light' -- really more of a conversation."
The chorus to "The Fighter" poured out during his Uber ride to the studio, and Urban hummed it the entire trip, anxious to work on it before he forgot it. Busbee was already there when Urban arrived at Kensaltown, and he started building a track as Urban played the chords, with busbee singing the female part in falsetto as a placeholder. When the chorus was done, they used the same chord structure to form a more subdued set of verses.
"When you have a chorus that feels so immediate like that, the point of the verses is to really stay out of the way of that," says busbee.
But transitioning back to the chorus was tricky.
"The chord progression puts you in a bit of a corner where you can't get out of it," says Urban. "It's just a cycle that goes over and over and over, and you can’t really deviate much from it."
Urban solved that on the pre-chorus in a way that’s quirky for country. The musical support drops out of the track, leaving Urban’s voice alone atop the programmed drums, akin to a transitional section in a dance record.
“I couldn’t think what the chords were,” recalls Urban. “I said, ‘If we can’t think what the chords are, then there probably aren’t any. Let’s just leave it blank.’ ”
“Who does that?” asks busbee rhetorically. “Keith Urban does. But it feels so natural, you wouldn’t even notice typically.”
A little pre-planning helped fashion the intro. Busbee coordinated with Urban’s guitar tech to bring a ganjo over on the plane. He ran it through a series of effects and some heavy reverb, and Urban churned out a glittery cascade of notes. They tried to replace it later, but nothing topped it.
“I didn’t even realize that it was a guitar making that sound at first,” Underwood notes. “I thought it was some kind of synth thing happening, but it certainly sounds cool.”
“The Fighter” did not have a bridge when Urban and busbee left London, but they put one together over a couple of writing sessions later in Los Angeles. The melody came first, and it was tailored specifically to Underwood’s range.
“I remember grabbing a couple songs of hers off iTunes and listening to them quickly and looking for a song that was in the same key we were in to see if this was going to be something that really fit her vocal register,” Urban says.
The words to that section were hammered out on yet another day.
Capturing her vocal went down to the wire. The album was to be mastered on March 25, 2016, to make the May 6 street date, and “The Fighter” was the only unfinished track. Underwood had a day off in St. Louis on March 23, so busbee and engineer Dave Clauss flew in to meet her at SmithLee Productions, a studio that works more often with corporate clients than on commercial recordings. Its design features a nondescript exterior and a brick-faced control room. “It was functional, had a cool vibe and everything worked,” says busbee. “What more could you ask for?”
Busbee was a bit sheepish about his falsetto parts on the demo, though they were a great guide for Underwood.
“They kept apologizing for that, but I actually thought he sounded pretty good,” notes Underwood. “It was just enough for me to get a sense of things but not too much that I couldn’t make the part my own.”
Underwood and busbee talked for more than a half-hour before she went into the vocal booth, and she knocked it out in just a few takes. In fact, she recorded more run-throughs than she needed.
“When I have a great song like this one, I feel like I could sing it a thousand times and never get tired of it,” she says. “Even when we knew we had it, I made sure to do a few more just because I wanted to sing it again.”
Urban called in during the session from California, where he was shooting the “Wasted Time” video, to hear how things were going. “Even across FaceTime,” he says, “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, she sounds amazing on this song.’ ”
Urban and Underwood finally sang it together live for the first time on Dec. 3, 2016, at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand. Capitol released it to radio via PlayMPE on Feb. 6, and the singers performed it again during the Grammy Awards on Feb. 12, spurring a sales and streaming bump that elevated “The Fighter” to No. 5 on Hot Country Songs. It’s currently at No. 13 on that chart and No. 19 on Country Airplay, looking every bit like a no-brainer hit.
In the end, that pledge of protection that Kidman and Urban made to each other years ago is now bubbling on the radio and resonating in others’ lives.
“She’s female and tender, and I want that tenderness to not have to get hardened to the world,” says Urban. “That’s my job as her husband, to put myself around her so she can remain that way. And that’s really the chorus of ‘The Fighter.’ ”
This article first appeared in the Country Update newsletter. Sign up for it here.