Keith Urban has a big weekend ahead of him as we move into April. Before attending the Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas April 2 — where he leads the pack of nominations with seven — the country superstar is kicking things off with a performance at the NCAA March Madness Music Festival in Phoenix tonight (March 31) ahead of the Final Four games Saturday.
Although Urban isn’t really a basketball fan himself (“It’s a bit foreign to me,” the Australia native admits), he’s excited to be part of something he’s never been involved with before — especially since he knows many of his fans are “mad NCAA fans.” And amongst a star-studded weekend lineup including the The Chainsmokers, Blink-182, Aerosmith, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and more, Urban says he was honored to be asked.
Frankly, though, Urban shouldn’t necessarily be surprised that the NCAA March Madness Music Festival wanted him to serve as the country headliner. He is a nominee for the ACM entertainer of the year, after all.
Ahead of the excitement that’s to come, Billboard chatted with Urban about the eventful weekend (which is also a big one for his wife, Nicole Kidman — see below), how his most recent album Ripcord was “the record he set out to make,” and whether he thinks it’s finally his time to take home that entertainer of the year title.
It has to be fun as a veteran artist to still be able to take part in things for the first time, like the March Madness Music Festival.
I think with every album I feel that way. Particularly with Ripcord it felt like a new season, really. The success of the songs “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” “Wasted Time” and now “The Fighter” with Carrie Underwood feels like the beginning of another chapter.
When you’re already a 10-time ACM winner, what is your mindset like as you attend the ceremony now?
For me, it’s about the work, and did I make the record I set out to make? And with Ripcord I absolutely made the record I set out to make. Past that, it’s out of my hands whether people respond to it, if it gets nominated for things, if it has any success at radio, streaming, all the rest of it. So to a large degree, something like the ACM nominations are overwhelming, because I’ve never been the artist that’s going to an awards show with the most nominations — that’s never happened to me in my life.
And I’ve known artists who’ve been that person and they walk away with nothing! So I’m mentally prepared for that as well, because the thing that I feel good about is that I made the record I wanted to make. The rest of that is just gravy.
So since you made the record you’d set out to make, would you say you did anything different when creating Ripcord that resulted in this kind of success?
Not at all. For me it’s always about capturing spirit, energy, and the songs that I absolutely love with every record. This one just happened to hit on a lot of cylinders that connected with a lot of people. It’s a beautiful feeling. Artistically, I feel satiated that it’s what I set out to do. If it hadn’t of worked at all, I still would’ve been grateful for having made the record I set out to make. So when it actually works as well, it’s an extraordinary feeling.
Since you are so happy with how Ripcord turned out, is there one ACM you’re nominated for this year that you’re most wanting to win?
Ripcord as an album, to have that nomination, that’s an amazing feeling. The two things I love doing are making albums and touring. Everything outside of my family, those are the two great loves in my life professionally — making records and touring. So the album of the year category and entertainer of the year category are just phenomenal.
You’ve been nominated for entertainer of the year six times before without a win — do you think this is your year?
Oh, who knows! Awards are nerve-wracking experiences because, on one hand, you’re trying to compartmentalize the whole reality of it. It’s fraught with trying to keep everything in perspective as a human being. It’s a huge honor and when you win, it’s the most phenomenal feeling in the world, and it sucks to lose [Laughs]. But then, after a period of time, everything recalibrates again, and the things that you’re left with – whether you win, lose, whatever it is — the music doesn’t change. I keep finding a lot of validity and satiation in the actual work itself.
I’m motivated by trying to harness things that I hear in my head when I get into the studio. And then the next phase is then trying to conceptualize and put into action the kind of show we want to do when we tour. Those are the things that really, really drive me. Awards and nominations are either there or they’re not there, but the drive for me comes from capturing that thing in the studio.
Who do you think your biggest competition is in any of the categories you’re nominated for?
I wouldn’t have a clue, honestly. I’m not wired to think that way. Everybody’s duking it out with everybody, and at the end of the day, everyone in those categories deserves to be in there — and lots of artists who aren’t in those categories as well. It’s just nice to be in the club.
Well, and country music feels like the most friendly genre of the bunch.
It’s friendly as long as you win [Laughs]. I always feel like, we’re a family, right? But anybody that’s got siblings knows that you’re competitive with your sibling — just look at the Williams sisters! Just because you’re family doesn’t make you any less competitive. At the same time, I think my only personal feeling is that I love seeing something win that I feel really deserved to win.
Speaking of family, also on Sunday is a much-anticipated episode of Big Little Lies, which stars your wife. It must be fun to be able to watch the success of her show while your music is also doing so well!
And we love what we do, that’s really it. I think that’s key. She’s just as passionate about storytelling – which is really what she gravitates toward. I think of it as more than just acting because she loves telling stories through characters and I love making music that connects. So in many ways, we’re really driven by the same desires, which is to make a connection with people. [Big Little Lies] is an amazing series, I’m so happy for Nic that it’s gotten the traction and excitement level that’s happened around it. It’s deserving.
So back to Ripcord, which was your ninth studio album — when you have that many albums already, what’s your approach to creating new and fresh material every time you go into the studio?
It usually starts with people I want to collaborate with, specific writers I want to work with. Producers, musicians, really specifically talented people that I’m interested in working with and I just seek them out. On the last record, whether it was Jeff Bhasker or Nile Rodgers or Busbee, all of whom I’d never worked with before. They’re all writers, producers and multi-instrumentalists — that’s my favorite kind of person to work with, because the two of us can usually get in the studio and build something all the way from the ground up.
Other than people you haven’t worked with before, is there something you’re still itching to try sonically or lyrically in your next set of material?
Oh yeah, always. And that’s because I devour new music at a rapid rate. I feel like I have quite a large satellite dish in my head picking up stuff from everywhere. Just extremely diverse and constant incoming all the time. It all gets cataloged in there, and then when you get in the studio and you pick up a guitar, microphone, whatever it is — those fresh influences just come out in all kinds of unusual ways.
I feel like there are specific things that appeal to me. There might be a guitar sound on someone’s record that I really love — it may be a record from umpteen years ago that’s always stayed with me, it may be something I just heard. There may be drum sounds, there may be a vocal melodic thing, an unusual instrument… for me, it’s always felt like, I can’t cook. I suck at cooking, but I think of it like getting in the studio is the kitchen and you bring all of these ingredients. Some are a tried and true ingredient and then there’s a bunch of different ingredients you’ve never tried before. You just start cooking, and then you hit upon this combination that feels unusual, yet right. It tastes right, feels right, sounds right — that’s the kind of experimenting I love doing in the studio. It’s kind of alchemy, really.
Was there a new ingredient that you brought in to Ripcord?
I think the new ingredients were choosing particular people like Nile Rodgers — to be able to play like he does and bring his energy, I feel like that’s very specific. Jeff Bhasker is another one. They bring a certain flavor themselves, so their contribution constitutes something very different for me.
When I come together with somebody, it’s what I do and it’s what they do, and you’re trying to figure out that third thing which is what we do… that can take a while. A lot of times people come together and they just kind of come away from the studio session with this thing that’s not really cohesive, because they just went at it too quick. They didn’t figure out that thing that’s more synergized. Sometimes it’s immediate, sometimes it can take a while, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all — maybe you just aren’t compatible. It’s like speed dating [Laughs].
With or without that entertainer of the year award at the ACMS, what can fans expect from Keith Urban in 2017 and beyond?
We’re gonna put together another tour for next year. This year I’m focused on just being back in the studio, because it can take a good six months to a year to capture everything for the next record. It seems quick sometimes, we just put out the fifth single from Ripcord and I’m already in the studio — but that’s because it may take a year. It’s funny, when you’re in the studio, people think “A new record is coming soon” and it’s like, “Well, that’s probably not likely.” Getting started is key, and I definitely work best when I’m off the road. I’m not really a great multi-tasker, I prefer to focus everything into one thing at a time.
Urban’s set will take place at 8:30 p.m. MST, with Justin Moore, The Head & the Heart and Michael Ray serving as openers earlier in the evening. The event will be televised on DIRECTV Channel 239 at 10 p.m. ET or online at att.net/attblockparty.