Keith Urban came to South by Southwest on Friday (March 16) marveling both how “it’s changed so much” and how far he’s come since he started visiting Austin.
Urban’s first show in Austin was during the late ’90s, playing at the Hang ’em High Saloon. “We also played Stubb’s barbeque, down inside one time when I was with The Ranch, and I think maybe five people were there,” Urban told Billboard. This year, however, he’s headlining a Friday night show at Stubb’s and also sat for a Q&A conducted by Grammy Museum Executive Director Scott Goldman, during which Urban spoke about his life, career and upcoming new album Graffiti U.
“It’s awesome to get to go from all those [smaller] venues to where we get to play tonight,” Urban said after the session, which he also found rewarding. “Yeah, I love these kinds of forums and environments to talk about things that people have questions about,” he said. “Anywhere you can share experience is a great thing.”
Urban also got a new cousin out of the deal, apparently, when a woman from Houston informed Urban that her son-in-law, a New Zealand native ironically playing Stubb’s with his band Western Youth as Urban was speaking, was a third cousin via their great grandmothers. “That’s the longest pitch I’ve ever heard,” Urban quipped. “Why am I singing ‘Billie Jean’ right now?”
Other highlights from Urban’s 70-minute Q&A included…
-Seeing Johnny Cash at the age of five changed his life. “My dad bought my brother and us little Western shirts with bolo ties and off we went to see Johnny Cash. What I remember from that concert was how loud the crowd was. It was a 5,000-seat venue which, when you’re tiny, might as well be a stadium. I remember just the roar of everybody when this guy walked on stage, and that’s never left me — the power of that, when he played the guitar and sang, was just an extraordinary thing, the connection he made with everybody…It was that recognition of this is the thing I’m meant to do.
-He played three shows as a teenager with a heavy metal band called Fractured Mirror. “We played Judas Priest and Saxon and Whitesnake and threw in some AC/DC in there, Scorpions. I didn’t know anything about that music…I had a Fender Telecaster and a cool little Fender Twin Reverb [amplifier]. They’re like, ‘That’s not gonna fly. You need a Marshall stack.’ The singer had one and lent me his and I was in heaven.”
-At the same time, however, Urban had discovered Ricky Skaggs and the “chicken pickin’” style of his guitarist Ray Flacke. “I was obsessed with that. One night when I was palying with Fractured Mirror, one of the three gigs we did, I busted out a solo and started chicken pickin’ through the Marshalls and the band was like, ‘What the…?!’ and they fired me.”
-Urban’s strangest gig was at the Tamworth airport in New South Wales, Australia, where he and his trio were set up by the lone baggage carousel. “I had a manager that did some shoddy deal with some airline for free tickets if we did a gig for them, which sounds like ‘What could possibly go wrong?’ We were like, ‘Who are we playing for?!’…It was absurd. There was nobody there. I said to the airport ‘manager,’ ‘So when do we play?’ He said, ‘Just start playing now.’ ‘It’s 1 p.m. There’s nobody here!’ ‘Ah, they’ll show up?’ We start playing and some people came over and some more people came over and ‘This is getting pretty good’ and we got a decent crowd. Then halfway through one song, [makes baggage arrival signal noise] and the bags start coming out. I just go on the thing and went for a ride, playing the guitar.”
-As an artist, Urban said he still struggles with perfectionist tendencies. “When I create something I can only hear it for what it isn’t. I don’t hear it for what it is…In my head it’s fully formed, so once it’s out I’m listening to anything that doesn’t match what’s in [my head], so I’m spotting all this stuff. But just because that’s different… doesn’t mean it isn’t working.” Urban added that he can appreciate what he did “about 10 years later. If you hear a record you made or a recording you did years and years later, just spontaneously, that’s usually the first ime you get to hear it for what it is. A lot of times you go, ‘Oh, that’s kinda good. I like that…’”
-As on his last two albums, Fuse and Ripcord, Urban worked with multiple producers and co-writers on Graffiti U — including a largely new team of collaborators on the latter, whose release date hasn’t been announced yet. “It’s happened very organically…I think it’s more intuitive what I do. I don’t overthink it. I just sort of flow towards people that I’m interested in as songwriters, musicians, producers, collaborators [in] all sorts of genres. It keeps it fresh and vibrant, I think. It keeps it very present.”
-Urban called himself “a master Shazamer. I Shazam all the time, tag songs always. Something makes you hit that tag button and it’s the spirit, isn’t it?”
-Urban acknowledged that since his marriage to actress Nicole Kidman, his relationship songs have become much more authentic. “Back before I met Nic and got married I sucked at relationships…I would write these songs about love and relationships; I remember writing ‘Somebody Like You’ and I remember playing it for my girlfriend at the time and she just looked at me and said, ‘You’re a fucking hypocrite’ — and I couldn’t argue that. And I realized I was writing from all these place of the kind of person I wished I could be. I wasn’t that person but I wanted to be. It was only a song but my real life was a disaster. The only thing that’s changed in my life is I’ve more so become the person I was trying to be.”
-One SXSW registrant, Jake from Ohio, attending the talk broached protocol by using his question to ask Urban to sign his Ripcord CD. Urban obliged, hugging the man and telling the audience to “talk amongst yourself. I’ll give you a topic: Do penguins have knees?”
-Though Graffiti U’s release is looming (an announcement about a single and more album details is expected next week), Urban — who’s finishing mixing the album now — is not unduly nervous. “It’s whatever I let my head tell me is going on at the end of the day. I have a very good [sobriety] sponsor; He said to me, ‘Keith, do you know how much people think of you?…Rarley.’ It’s a great leveler in all sorts of things ‘cause it’s so true. If I find myself getting nervous and anxiety about the record I go, ‘It’s not rocket science. We’re not curing cancer. We’re justmaking music. It’s all good. Let’s chill out.’ Then I’m fine. It’s that stupid ego that gets anxiety driving. It’s just noise. I’m just trying to put some good in the world, that’s all I’m doing, and people put thumbs up, thumbs down, whatever. You just put good in the world.”
-Urban kicks off his Graffiti U World Tour on June 15 in St. Louis and told Billboard that he’s anxious to play the new material for fans. “I’m still figuring out the set list. That’ll be perfect until it’s changed, like, 18 times and then that one’ll be perfect. At the end of the day the only way to do a setlist is to throw it in front of an audience and realize, ‘Oh, shit, that didn’twork at all. This one really worked. I should’ve done more of that…’”