When his father died on Dec. 5, 2015, Keith Urban was in the midst of working on what would become Ripcord, an album that’s due May 6.
That kind of event is profoundly emotional, typically inducing questions about the meaning of life, one’s core beliefs and how to prioritize one’s days. For Urban, that pondering was bound to make its way into the threads of Ripcord.
“The impact that it had is just bringing me again back into the moment and the brevity of time,” he says. “That theme is in a few songs on this record — ‘Wasted Time,’ for sure, is sort of reflective. When life is its simplest, it’s really at its best.”
Released to radio on March 29 through Play MPE, “Wasted Time” finds Urban doing what he seems to do best, pushing the boundaries of country music while balancing his appreciation for its foundations. But it avoids the moody, downcast atmosphere that would be expected from someone adjusting to life without his dad.
Instead, the song begins with co-producer Greg Wells (Adele, Katy Perry) playing an EDM-like synthesized keyboard. It’s a full 29 seconds before an electric guitar thread and the choppy sounds of ganjo percussion move the production to more familiar turf. By the time the journey ends, Urban manages to fold those jarring dance tones into his standard wheelhouse with a big singalong chorus, lots of six-string sounds and a cheery, nigh-inspirational message about life in the 21st century.
“I always chuckle when people go, ‘Oh, I’m trying to make a different record,’ ” says Urban. “Anybody can make a different record. But to try and make a different record that still has enough familiarity to keep you listening to it, and it still feels and sounds right — that’s what I’m always trying to balance in the studio.”
Wells played a big role in the “different” part of “Wasted Time” when they started writing the song in late January or early February.
“Keith was actually the one really pushing to have it not sound like what you would think maybe it should sound like,” says Wells. “He’s like, ‘Look, I’ve been making records for 20 years. I will still bring my thing to it, but in terms of what you do, Greg, I really want it to be fresh and kind of not what you would think is possible.’ So I just went for it.”
The process started at Wells’ Rocket Carousel Studio in Culver City, Calif., with pop songwriter James “JHart” Abrahart, who has cuts on current albums by Justin Bieber and Charlie Puth, bringing a third voice to the writing mix. Wells and Urban had met only briefly during the 1990s, when they both were part of a songwriting retreat at a French castle, so there was an introductory period before the work began in earnest.
“We were kicking the can around as it were, and just getting to know each other a little bit, and then at some point I just started hearing this really funky, almost kind of Michael Jackson Off the Wall, very syncopated thing,” recalls Wells.
He developed a six-chord progression on the keyboard, Urban pulled a guitar from the studio wall, and the music began to take shape. The big-picture life stuff that his father’s death triggered came tumbling out in their conversation as the Australian Urban, Canadian Wells and British-born, Atlanta-raised Abrahart found commonalities in their upbringing.
“We were talking about some of the similar things we all did — crazy shit, running around town, drinking too much, smoking too much, hanging out down by a river,” says Urban. “Jay liked the title ‘Wasted Time.’ That’s kind of what all that is, but it’s when you’re really living.”
Once the first verse was mostly finished, they took a break at a nearby Starbucks. When they got back to the music, Urban strapped on the guitar again and instantly found the chorus by changing direction.
“It’s a big, straight-up, three-chord, power-chord chorus in the tradition of The Who,” he says.
Wells recorded it all as they went along. Once the basic blueprint was laid, he focused on building the tracks while Urban and Abrahart concentrated on lyrics in the next room. Urban folded in a rope swing he and his friends played on in Caboolture, Queensland. And they dropped in two references to Guns N’ Roses, name-checking “Sweet Child O’ Mine” in the chorus and inserting a “Guns on the radio” line in the prechorus.
“I remember us discussing whether we should clarify that we’ve got ‘Guns N’ Roses on the radio,’ as opposed to we’ve got ‘Guns on the radio,’ because that might be a different, more of an NRA song,” Urban says with a laugh. “We were like, ‘Well, if someone thinks that, the chorus will clarify that here pretty soon.’ ”
They didn’t finish it that day, but some of Urban’s original vocals would remain on “Wasted Time” all the way to the final product. Urban and Abrahart also worked on background vocals with Abrahart singing a third above the melody and both of them stacking extra vocals way off the mic to create a bigger sound.
“That’s a nice element to blend in,” says Wells. “You don’t really hear it, but if you took it out, you would miss it.”
Late in the track’s development, Urban added ganjo, heightening the country quotient.
“He grooves so hard when he plays that the banjo becomes like a sequencer almost,” says Wells. “It masks a lot of the stuff that’s going on behind it. But when that banjo went on, it not only sounded a billion times better, but it just felt like the song had come home in terms of the listener.”
Urban, meanwhile, flashed back to some of the top 40 clubs he had played in the early part of his career, remembering that even in the midst of the dance grooves, the crowd always responded if the DJ played John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” Urban decided the ganjo was the right choice for the solo section.
“That memory of ‘Thank God I’m a Country Boy’ has always stayed with me, and I thought this would be the hoedown moment right smack dab in the middle of this synth-based song,” says Urban.
Wells had him play for 20 minutes, then took the best pieces for the solo, including an inventive snippet of slide banjo.
The final mix of “Wasted Time” was completed just days before it went to radio, with its bouncy rhythms and upbeat message synced to summer’s playful energy. It already is No. 15 on the Country Airplay tally in its fourth charted week, paying homage discreetly to Urban’s father. Not only has Robert Urban’s death made Urban more philosophical, it also has brought a spotlight to his dad’s influence on his music.
“I’m becoming more and more aware of the rhythmic blood that flows through me because of my father, who was a drummer his whole life, and my grandfather, who played piano his whole life,” says Urban. “My lineage is very rhythm-based, and I remember so much rhythm in our house from my dad tapping on the table to jingling his keys to tapping on the dashboard of the car. He was always in rhythm mode.”
“Wasted Time,” meanwhile, recognizes the ticking of the clock as one of the rhythms of life. Urban views it metaphorically — the song digs up joy from the past, but he doesn’t have to go backward to find happiness in living in the moment.
“Right now I feel my life is the best it has ever been,” he says, “but probably because it feels like it’s back to being in that place of enjoying life again. Which I did when I was a kid.”