Makin' Tracks: The Past Is Present In Keith Urban's 'We Were'

Russ Harrington
Keith Urban

When Keith Urban stepped on the Ryman Auditorium stage at a Valentine’s Day lunch event, he brought along a guitar and his cell phone to introduce a song.

He had just recorded his single “We Were” two months prior, and this audience of influential Country Radio Seminar attendees was about to witness its public debut.

“That was probably apparent,” deadpans Urban, recalling a couple of hurdles with the performance. He used his cell to broadcast the studio tracks he had worked on with producer Dann Huff (Brett Young, Kane Brown), but mistakenly set the device on airplane mode, which meant the recording died 24 seconds into the song. Urban started again from the top, and in his second pass, he forgot the words in the middle of the first chorus.

But befitting the reigning entertainer of the year for both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music, Urban handled the flubs effortlessly, lightening the mood with a little self-directed humor and a touch of insight into how he handles onstage glitches. (The performance can be viewed in its entirety here.)

Urban, of course, picked up again and finished, and his ease with the situation perfectly reflected the message in “We Were,” which finds an adult man comfortable with the present state of his life.

But the song includes a reflective element, a golden memory of a relationship that breathed and died in a more innocent age.

“I found it a very, very visual lyric,” says Urban, remembering his first listen to the demo. “I could see the song, I could almost make out who these people were, and certainly when I heard the line, ‘Never thought we’d fade like the stamp on the back of her hand,’ I was just like, ‘I know that feeling, and I can see that place.’ The song really resonated with me so strongly.”

Songwriter Jeff Hyde (“Some of It,” “I Can’t Love You Back”) latched on to his own nostalgia when he conceived the original pieces of “We Were” in October 2017. A member of Eric Church’s touring band, Hyde was prepping for his regular Thursday writing appointment with Ryan Tyndell (“Springsteen,” “Could It Be”) when he put together a tender, syncopated guitar riff and paired it with the “We Were” title and a concept that came straight out of his own past.

“There’s a scene in, of all places, the original Karate Kid movie when Daniel is meeting Ali’s parents, and he nervously kicks a brick loose from their sidewalk,” says Hyde. “Ali’s dad said to her mom, ‘I thought you were going to have that fixed,’ and she says, ‘I am, I was, I will.’ My brothers and I watched that movie a hundred times when we were kids.”

Hyde went into the appointment with Tyndell thinking the song was about putting a dagger in the past, proclaiming, “I’m not who I was when we were.”

Tyndell suggested a softer approach, remembering the relationship fondly, and they restructured the hook into a thoughtful puzzle that incorporates 14 words of four letters or less: “I am who I am/I just miss who I was /When we were.”

The song used the phrase “we were” as a lead to descriptors from their relationship. The writers employed fake IDs and some calendar math to establish the kids as 19-year-olds, and they added the phrase “line-steppers” — taken from a Rick James skit on Comedy Central’s 2004 series Chappelle’s Show — to demonstrate their edgy behaviors. They finished verse one and part of the chorus, with Tyndell icing the new attitude in a reflective line: “At least there’s a little bit of sweet in the bitter.” But they purposely set it aside unfinished.

“We didn’t want to get too far ahead on it,” says Tyndell, “just because we knew we wanted to bring it to Eric.”

They brought three partially written pieces to that second writing session within a couple days, but “We Were” raised its hand. Church came up with the “faded stamp” club reference and picked out a Def Leppard classic, “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” to put the old romance and the hell-raising attitude in a specific era. (Church covered “Sugar” during a May 25 stadium concert in Nashville.)

“He’s just an intelligent guy,” says Tyndell of Church. “If Eric wasn’t the big superstar artist that he was, he would still be one of the best writers in Nashville. That’s just how good he is. He is such a good lyricist and has such a wide scope of talents.”

Hyde and Church met up one last time to tighten the song and to work on its ending.

“The tag line was really stumping us,” says Hyde. “We wanted to find one more different way to use ‘we were’ and just couldn’t find it. Finally, Eric said, ‘Friends say oh well, let that ship sail/You’ve got to let go of her,’ and I said, ‘Just wasn’t meant to be/But somewhere down deep I still believe/We were.’ And we looked at each other and said ‘Finally.’ ”

“We Were” didn’t fit Church’s Desperate Man album, so Tyndell and engineer Jordan Rigby built a demo at the suggestion of Little Louder Music owner Arturo Buenahora Jr. Kobalt senior creative director Laura Alexander passed it along to creative executive Missy Gallimore, who was collecting songs for Urban. Since Urban had already recorded a song titled “We Were Us” with Miranda Lambert, the writers were skeptical about their odds.

Urban bit, though, and recorded the basic tracks at Sound Stage in December 2018 with bassist Jimmy Lee Sloas, keyboard player Dave Cohen and drummer Jerry Roe. Urban played the signature riff on both guitar and ganjo, and the sounds were blended to create a hybrid. They recorded in two separate keys, then picked the one most suited to Urban, who had to lay down two separate vocals since the “We Were” hook overlapped with the follow-up lines in the chorus. His first “We Were” remained in place, but Urban kept returning to Huff’s home studio to tinker with the rest of his performance.

“It’s just slowly coming back to the painting and adding a few little brush strokes here or there,” says Urban, “and then stepping away from it, living with it for a while and getting it to a point where it just feels really effortless. For me, sometimes it takes a long time for it to sound effortless.”

“I love that quality about Keith — the fact that he is determined to speak those words and sing it the closest to what honors the writer’s intention,” says Huff. “He is almost indefatigable in the pursuit, and that’s an exciting place to be with Keith.”

Cohen contributed a keyboard pad with a tremolo effect at the open that introduced a whole series of tones.

“It’s a little lazy, so it drags against the beat,” notes Huff. “There are nine or 10 different synth pads on this thing, so it’s kind of a symphony of synths.”

“We Were” earned high marks with Urban’s team, and it emerged as his next album’s lead single, released by Capitol to country radio on May 14.

“First singles are always strange,” says Urban, “because I’ve never found one to be indicative of the whole album. I certainly wouldn’t have said ‘John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16’ was indicative of Ripcord — certainly ‘Female’ wasn’t indicative of Graffiti U — but you need a first song.”

“We Were” is currently at No. 26 on Country Airplay and at No. 28 on Hot Country Songs as it starts a chart run and sets a tone for an album that’s still a work in progress. It also fits with Urban’s commitment to living in the moment. Everyone brings their past with them, but they still exist in the present, and “We Were” embraces that idea.

“Someone can hear that song and think, ‘Oh yeah, I look back with a warm feeling about that time, but I’m very grateful for where I am now,’ ” says Urban. “I am who I am, and I’m at peace with that.”