Keith Urban released his eighth studio album, Ripcord, on Friday (May 6). In a wide-ranging interview, the Australian country singer talked about his first automobile, working with multiple producers on the disc, the end of American Idol, celebrating 10 years of marriage with Nicole Kidman and why an Orson Welles cinema classic ranks as one of his favorites.
Billboard: I understand that Nicole came up with the Ripcord album title.
It’s actually the name of a play that is opening in New York. She brought up the name and I was intrigued. I thought it really suited the songs. I hadn’t found an album title that had really seemed to fit the energy of the record, particularly. The energy that I felt when I heard the name ‘Ripcord’ just really seemed to fit. I also liked the metaphor of the ripcord being that thing that you reach for to save your life when you are hurdling to earth at a great speed. It just seemed to really fit the record for me.
Is it true that naming your albums is sometimes difficult for you?
I wouldn’t say that necessarily, but I’ve never named an album after a song because I like to find a title that seems to name a whole body of work.
June marks 10 years of marriage between you and Nicole. Your thoughts on the anniversary?
It feels amazing. It’s a milestone in any marriage, so I feel extremely grateful. I’m glad we get to celebrate it together.
Something that sets Ripcord apart is the fact that you’ve already released your third single from it — before the album is released!
That certainly never happened to me. It wasn’t any grand plan of mine, either. It was simply a case of songs being ready before the album was ready. First, “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” took off much quicker than we thought and then “Break On Me” came out and it did the same kind of thing. We had just written and recorded “Wasted Time” and everyone was loving the song. We were close to finishing the record, so I said “Let’s go with a third single and we’ll put the album out.” It’s definitely a strange occurrence, but I’m very happy about it.”
Ripcord has — yourself included — 10 different producers represented. A lot of people have commented on that fact, even though your last disc, 2013’s Fuse, actually also had 10 producers listed. What is the trick in keeping your music so cohesive?
I take a really strong role in the studio. I always have with my albums. I just felt that I was at the point where I wanted to reach out to some different collaborators in the studio — people I really love — and get some more colors on the record. I think that any sports person will talk about working with different coaches and how one will bring something different out of an athlete. I feel that way in the studio with different co-producers. I like exploring where my music and my artistry can go and to really expand it. I’ve found that the best way to do that is to collaborate.
One of the themes on the album that comes across is the idea of living in the moment and not taking anything for granted. Your new single “Wasted Time,” is a great example of this — in the sense that the time isn’t really wasted.
The gist of the song was looking back on and realizing that we were living all that wasted time. I wrote that with Greg Wells and James Abrahart and they are from different parts of the country — Greg’s from Canada and James is from Atlanta, Georgia, and of course I’m from Australia. When the three of us were talking about growing up in our little towns, we were really struck that it was more the same than it was different — even in different parts of the world. We were all trying to find a buddy that has got a car on Friday night, piling into it with nowhere to go — just hanging around town, drinking, smoking and hanging around the river. We all were experiencing the same kind of things. So, we thought we would capture that in song form.
Carrie Underwood adds her vocals on “The Fighter,” which I understand was recorded at the last minute.
That was the absolute last song we did for the record. We didn’t have Carrie’s part and she was on her Storyteller Tour. As it turned out, she had a day off in St. Louis — the same day I was doing the “Wasted Time” video. busbee — who I wrote and produced the song with — flew to St. Louis, found a studio, got Carrie in there. She was singing her part and I was Face Timing them from the video shoot — just so I could be a part of it. It was strange to be on the other side of the country, but due to the miracles of modern technology we got it done. I think she killed the song. I was so happy with how it turned out.
Then there’s the energetic “Sun Don’t Let Me Down,” which features Pitbull… and a banjo?
[Laughs] You don’t expect to hear that combination on the same track. That’s very much true. I wrote that one with busbee and Nile Rodgers. I had really wanted to work with Nile for a long time. We met last year and spent about five hours in the studio just jamming nonstop. A lot of ideas and riffs came from that session. This is one of those songs. The song itself was finished and one day I heard Pitbull singing and I was just struck by how much I thought his voice would fit this particular song. It was really specific to him. Someone had asked me if it had been my goal to have a rap on the song. I said “No, I wanted Pitbull on it.” If he wasn’t interested in the track, there wouldn’t have been anybody on it. I was just really taken with his style and his sound. When he did his verse and sent it to me, I was just floored with where he took the song to. I was so happy with the end result.
One song that many will identify with on Ripcord is “Boy Gets A Truck.” Though you didn’t write it, a truck was actually your first vehicle, correct?
It was something like a Mazda E-1600. It actually was kind of a furniture removal kind of truck with a rollaway door on the back. I needed a truck because I was in a band and we had no way to get our gear around. I was 16 and you couldn’t drive in Australia until you were 17. But I was making enough money to spend the $1,300 to buy this truck. My brother, who is a few years older than me, had to actually drive the truck. It was the weirdest thing — owning this truck, but sitting in the passenger seat every night being driven to a gig.
Describe your feelings on the final American Idol season.
It was very bittersweet. It was really a dream gig for me in so many ways and I was lucky enough to get to do four seasons of it. Getting a chance to be in people’s living rooms a couple of times a week and to spend time getting to know people in that setting — that was a huge part of what I loved about doing that show. As an artist, people get to know you for your music and your videos, but there’s a different relationship that you get to create with an audience spending time in their living room every week. I was really grateful for that. I also loved the camaraderie. I think the show did a great job in putting the right people together. Getting to work with Harry [Connick, Jr.], Jen[nifer Lopez] and Ryan [Seacrest] was such a breeze. In a lot of ways, it was like summer camp. That’s also a big part of what I’ll miss, as well.
You begin your upcoming Ripcord Tour next month. While your audience is watching you, what do you see during those two hours?
You see everything from the stage that is going on. One of the great things about playing for years and years in the clubs for five nights a week and four to five hours a night, is that you learn so much about working any kind of audience and any situation. For me, it’s always the same thing, whether I’m in a tiny club or a big arena — I want to make a connection and engage everybody. I want to create that sense of oneness to where there’s not a me or them — it’s just us. The energy we get from people at our concerts is through the roof. I think, to a large degree, it actually formed a lot of the new record. I think it’s a very energy-fueled record and I think I had the live show in mind when I was making it. That’s why I can’t wait to get this album on the road.
One of your favorite movies is Citizen Kane. What is it about that film that you identify with?
It was so groundbreaking in a lot of the things that Orson Welles was creating in the moment such as camera angles and editing techniques. From a creative standpoint, it’s an extraordinary piece of bold originality. As a story, it’s a timeless and metaphoric story of how the circle comes back around. It brings to mind “Wasted Time,” if you will. The thing you look back on at the very end of it is “Rosebud.” It’s the sled. It’s the simple thing that as a kid, you look back on that really mattered the most when it was all said and done.