During the past three years, Keith Urban has experienced a meteoric career rise. He went from his first theater-headlining tour in 2004 to successfully headlining arenas in 2005, and most industry obsKeith Urban's handsome face is becoming a lot more familiar -- generally a good thing with an album on the horizon. His new "Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing" is due Nov. 7 on Capitol Nashville. Co-produced by Urban and Dann Huff, it's his fourth solo studio album.
During the past three years, Urban has experienced a meteoric career rise. He went from his first theater-headlining tour in 2004 to successfully headlining arenas in 2005, and most industry observers believe he is on the verge of joining the country touring elite with his planned 2007 tour in support of the new album. Meanwhile, the first single, "Once in a Lifetime," just made history by becoming the highest-debuting single in the 62-year history of Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart.
Some attention, however, focuses on his personal life. He wed actress Nicole Kidman in June, suddenly becoming a household name to legions of tabloid readers who may have never heard of him or his country music hits. Then his name landed on countless celebrity news rags just a couple of weeks before his album dropped -- sadly not to discuss his career trajectory or new, blissful marriage, but because he checked himself into rehab for alcohol addiction. Urban canceled his promo tour, including a performance at the Country Music Association Awards on Nov. 6.
Friends close to Urban say his choice is one of strength, that he cares so much about his new wife, new album, fans and 2007 world tour that he wants to be well. It would be much easier to not get sober. Urban has fought drug and alcohol addiction for many years. Though the greatest high for a musician, Urban says, is a live performance that "clicks" -- when the band hits a groove that is transcendent. "It's [the high] that you look for in all the synthetic stuff, but you can't find it. It won't stop you from looking."
Urban, who was already poised for massive crossover success after his last album, is now immeasurably more famous than he was 12 months ago. It has industry insiders wondering just how big this record might blow up.
Flashback to August, and Urban is giving Billboard exclusive, early access into the recording of "Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing." He's excited and nervous. Only a handful of people have heard these new songs -- not even his label has been privy to the entire album. It's muggy in Nashville, and Urban sits in a recording studio dressed in his usual casual garb -- worn jeans, tennis shoes, T-shirt, day-old stubble, hair down.
Kidman is homesick. Urban periodically calls her from the studio to check in, blowing kisses into the phone, saying "I love you." The duo very much live like regular folks in Nashville. Urban says they like to go to movies and he drags her to the record store at least once a week to check out new releases. They also try to travel together as much as possible: "You don't want something cool to happen to you and not have the person you love there to share it with you."
Urban turns his attention back to his new album. "It's country and rock and pop," he says. "It's sort of a hybrid thing. I think learning how to articulate thoughts in the studio, to distill it down to its essence, has helped. It's trimming away the things that don't need to be there. Giving up good to get great."
He plays one of his favorites songs, "Stupid Boy" (originally written and recorded by rising Nashville star Sarah Buxton), which may be the second single. "Nic [Kidman] really wanted me to record this song," Urban says. "I really should give her an A&R credit on this album." "Stupid Boy" is a sharp contrast to "Once in a Lifetime." The latter celebrates his newfound love with Kidman, while "Stupid Boy" is a ballad on how men foolishly break the hearts of the women they love.
"It's yin and yang," Urban says of the juxtaposition. "I have different tastes. Diverse is not necessarily scattered. I can't take too much of the same thing. The iPod shuffle has allowed for diversity in people's tastes. It's not about genre. It's for short attention span people who want to listen to Metallica and Merle Haggard. I love that. I think it has created the acceptance for musical diversity on a single record."
"Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing" is certainly diverse with such rocking tunes as "Faster Car" and "I Told You So," melody-driven tracks "Shine" and "Used To the Pain," and the arena-rock theme "God Made Woman."
Urban may not limit himself to traditional country stylings, but he's quick to dismiss any notion of an orchestrated attempt to "cross over" into anything but his own vision for making music.
"I'm very respectful of the country genre," Urban says. "But I don't make a whole album of country singles, that's not my intention. I just want to make an album of my music. The basis of what I do is definitely country. It's my youth music. I love living in Nashville. I don't have any aspirations to be a pop star or a rock artist. If these songs work on other formats, then that's great, but it's not my priority."
In fact, Urban actually gets upset when other formats try to "de-country" him. "I'm very happy to stay where I am," he says. "I want to make sure country radio is taken care of because that's my first love. I don't gratuitously put a country instrument like banjo and mandolin on a song to get it on radio. It's on there because I like it there. I have more of a problem when I'm asked to take it off for other formats. I think that needs to change."
Back in the studio, Urban listens intently as he plays a rough version of "God Loves Woman." After the last bar, he lets out a sigh of relief and a giddy laugh. "I'm glad that's over," he says. "I never play anyone rough cuts this early on. I'm just very excited about this album."
A clean and sober Urban is expected to revive his promotional tour at the beginning of 2007. In a statement issued when he entered rehab Urban said, "I deeply regret the hurt this has caused Nicole and the ones that love and support me. One can never let one's guard down on recovery and I'm afraid that I have. With the strength and unwavering support I am blessed to have from my wife, family and friends, I am determined and resolved to a positive outcome."