Originally published in the November 29, 2010 issue of Country Weekly magazine.
That Keith Urban’s new album, released Nov. 16, is titled Get Closer is not by chance. The eight song collection reflects Keith’s views on relationships in general and the one he has with his wife, Nicole Kidman, in particular. “These songs aren’t all about where I am now certainly, but they all in some ways cover where I’ve been,” he says.
Sitting in a small conference room at his manager’s office in Nashville, Keith is at ease and seemingly happy and satisfied about his life and his career. It’s just a few weeks after his successful We’re All for the Hall concert at Nashville’ Bridgestone Arena and it’s just been announced that the show raised $450,000 for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
It’s clear in talking to Keith that those that attended the sold-out show weren’t the only ones in awe of the stellar line-up. “The great thing about live performances is that sometimes something happens and if you were there you saw it, and if you weren’t, you never will—it’s gone, it wasn’t documented, it’s just gone. I find that really magical,” he says with a smile.
“For me, standing behind Charley Pride playing ‘Kiss An Angel Good Morning’ was surreal, almost existential, because I once owned a record growing up of his,” he continues, his enthusiasm rising. “It was a live album of his; I think it was called just ‘In Person’ and I remember the cover was a silhouette of him in some footlights and some carpet. It was very weird, but I remember it very clearly, so when I hear his voice I associate it with a crowd, with it live, so it was really extraordinary to experience that and to be in the band. It was crazy.”
“Being in the moment” is a recurring theme that Keith refers to multiple times during the interview, whether he’s talking about his career, his marriage or being a father.
The album is perhaps Keith’s most intimate and the title, Get Closer, he says, is “multifaceted, because my instinct has always been to run from the things that are good to me, to run from love. I always used to run from intimacy, and marriage has been a real awakening for me.
“This title came about because in any of these moments—even in something simple as moments that require working through as marriages do, to stay in it, to stay in it and work through as opposed to even going away for a couple of hours to cool off or something like that, my experience has been to actually stay and work through it,” Keith says of his marriage to Nicole. “Not only have we worked through things faster that way, but we’ve gotten closer through the process certainly.
“In the case of my wife and I, four months into our marriage we were really put to the test,” Keith candidly says of his admission into rehab for alcohol dependency in 2006, “and that moment absolutely brought us closer because we chose to go in, as opposed to working it out independently away from one another. We didn’t choose to do that and that’s been a rude awakening for me.”
Not surprisingly then, Keith calls Nicole “a big influence. Like anybody who’s in a successful partnership, whether it’s marriage or even just boyfriend and girlfriend, or just some sort of romantic partnership, the good ones bring out the best in each other and that’s what I believe Nic does for me. She brings out the best in me.”
Meanwhile, being a dad to two-year-old daughter Sunday is “a beautiful experience,” says Keith. “Any father has that indescribable feeling; it’s either like you are in the club and you get it, or you can’t explain.”
Keith and Nicole, with Sunday in tow, are often spotted out and about in Nashville at coffee shops, grocery stores and libraries. Keith says Nashville feels like home. “I’ve been here 18 years, so it’s very much home to me and for the exact reasons [I do], Nic loves it, too,” he says. “There’s a lot of Australian feel to Nashville, certainly for me being from Queensland. Queensland is a rural state, it’s a farming state predominantly, it’s rural folk and even in the city there’s a rural vibe about it, and Nashville has that village vibe about it. Even though it’s a big city, it still has village rural kind of thing about it. I like the pace and I like the people.
“We both love it here and Sunday was born here, so she’s a native Nashvillian, which is great,” Keith continues, noting that he and Nicole would “love to” have more children. “What are the odds for this guy from this little town in Australia— it blows my mind sometimes—just having this love for country music and wanting to be in Nashville and fast forward umpteen years and I’m married and having a daughter that’s born in Nashville? It’s crazy. We have extended family in Australia, so we go back and forth of course, but our central home base is here.”
It doesn’t hurt that when in Nashville Keith and Nicole are generally left alone by the paparazzi that stalk them elsewhere. “We go out enough so the pictures and stuff like that gets done everywhere else and we’re able to lead a pretty decent life here,” says Keith.
Like fellow celebrity couple Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, Keith says he and Nicole try not to be apart for more than two or three days, especially since Sunday usually travels with Nicole. “They are virtually never apart and I’ll go to where they are if Nic is shooting a film,” he says. “I’ll do what I have to do and then I’ll go to where they are.”
Despite their star power and world travels, Keith doesn’t believe he and his wife are any different than other parents. “We’re just both working parents and just like all couples trying to make it work, and I think being in the moment seems to be the best plan because there’s not a basic rule or plan that seems to work because our lives change all the time, so we just do whatever we’ve got to do to keep it together,” he contends.
Keith’s new album includes eight songs, including the Top 20 hit “Put You In A Song.” A deluxe edition, available at Target, includes a total of seven additional songs, including four live tracks recorded on Keith’s Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy World tour: “Everybody,” “You Look Good In My Shirt,” “Better Life” and “Once in a Lifetime.”
Like other artists, Keith is wrestling with what the correct number of tracks is to include on an album these days. “It’s in flux, so everybody is trying to find their way and not force things in front of people and listen to what it is the consumer wants,” he says. “It certainly seems at this point that people are consuming music much faster, but it’s smaller amounts, so I think we’re still trying to find out way through all of it.
“I’m trying to figure out what it is I’m trying to say artistically,” Keith continues. “Is it a body of work, is it a collection of singles, what is it that I’m in the midst of doing, would I like to have more music out regularly? I’d just like it to be first of all, quality and something that I felt I had to do based on the muse versus the calendar. So I try to keep all those things balanced, but at the end of the day we live out of the corner of art and commerce, so we’re just trying to make sure we don’t move too far at one end of the street.”
And while some purists might insist that an album needs to have at least 10 tracks to be considered complete, Keith disagrees. “It’s funny because in some ways I’m likening it to the live experience. We go out and do a show somewhere where they say ‘we’d like for you guys to play for an hour,’ so we’ll do a set list based on that hour and try to cover the diversity of what it is that we do and then someone will say, ‘well, we’d like for you to play for two hours’ and then I draw up a set list based on that.
“I don’t feel like anything is compromised,” he continues, “I feel like it’s just working within this want for us to make an artistic statement. So these eight songs, I feel within their own right represent what I do, and the bonus material represents it as well, so nothing feels out of place to me artistically.
Because of the May floods in Nashville, Keith and other artists famously lost guitars and other instruments when storage facility Soundcheck suffered extensive damage. The loss of equipment also impacted the recording of Keith’s new album. Without the guitars he’d played, some for years, he bought new ones, sometimes breaking them in at the studio. “I bought them one by one, but I hadn’t had them very long,” he says. “Sometimes they were arriving at the studio—I’d buy a few eBay things and the delivery guy would be showing up with the package, I’d restring it, plug it in and record, it was great.”
The experience pulled Keith out of a comfort zone. “I’m not saying it’s more liberating or anything, but it’s more spontaneous I think, just grabbing a guitar and trying to communicate with it. I was much more in the moment with that because I’m not familiar with these guitars. Never will a musician be more present than when they are out of their comfort zone.”
The album is a mix of songs Keith wrote or co-wrote and songs he didn’t. But whether he wrote the song or not, Keith feels emotionally attached to them.
“All For You,” which includes the lyrics you changed my life, you changed my ways, I don’t even recognize myself these days, seems like a song that Keith wrote for Nicole, he didn’t write it at all. “It’s just a very romantic song and I wished that I had written it,” he admits. “I guess that’s it, I look for songs that I’d wished I’d written, that I feel something with them. I just love the sentiment and the melody is beautiful and it’s all the things I love within a song, or want to hear in a song.”
He discovered another tune, “Luxury of Knowing,” after listening to an album of singer/songwriter Lori McKenna’s music at the behest of Faith Hill. “The first thing I did was looked at all the songs and one was called ‘Luxury of Knowing’ and I just said, ‘boy, I hope that songs even half as good as the title’,” he recalls “It’s a killer title and I couldn’t wait to hear the song. I played it in the car and I played it again, I must have played it six times back to back, it was such a powerful lyric, written from such an interesting place because it wasn’t straight up accusatory, it wasn’t even specifically angry, it was just this simmering, paranoid uncertainty that was really a unique place to write from and having been in a relationship like that, I really, really related to the song.”
On “Shut Out The Lights” Keith sings of a 4 a.m. fight when no punches are pulled: It’s amazing all the old wounds we still carry around, wait to bring them all up when it all comes down. Born of real life? “It was, but certainly not in this marriage, thank God,” Keith says with a smile.
So what do you give a guy who has a great career, a beautiful wife and daughter and a solid marriage? Keith wouldn’t mind an invitation to join a certain august organization. “I would like to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry. That would be a huge honor,” Keith allows. Beyond that? “I’ve never really made goals,” says Keith. “I tend to do better at just showing up everyday, suiting up and just being prepared for what comes. I have plans, but they tend to go in different directions anyway.
”Longevity would also be good,” Keith says.
“There are so many artists that keep inspiring me for their want to forge new musical ground. I was just watching Elton John and Leon Russell this morning performing and I just thought, ‘how admirable it is that Elton is just still striving to try new things, very much outside the box, getting T Bone [Burnett] to produce the record. Musically [I] just [want] to keep honoring the muse and have an intense appetite for new music and constantly be inspired by new music. To keep forging new musical sounds to things that haven’t quite gone together before.”
So, in the moment? “That’s all there is, definitely, and I’ve missed so many of those moments by being elsewhere in my head and don’t want to miss those moments because they go by, they are gone,” he says. “Kids grow up really fast and the whole thing changes before we know it. Probably every day I’m trying to figure out the best I could really be in and appreciate to it’s fullest my life at any given moment, but not so much that I’m standing observing it and not participating in it, that’s the balance always.”
Sidebar: Urban Outfitter
Born in New Zealand, raised in Australia and a Nashville resident for coming up on 20 years, Keith Urban is the perfect person for fellow artists to talk to about touring Australia, which is something a fair number of country stars have done recently or, in the case of Alan Jackson, will do soon.
In the last year, Brooks & Dunn, Tim McGraw, Jack Ingram and Phil Vassar have toured Down Under. Keith, whose own tour hit Australia as recently as late 2009 and who was honored by the Academy of Country Music with its Jim Reeves International Award, has advised Tim and Alan in the last 12 months.
While his tour has yet to occur, Alan has already sold out shows for a March 2011 foray to the other side of the world. “Everybody’s experiences are different, but I would say certainly in the case of Alan, his kind of country music is probably the most popular, probably a little more than say the Brooks & Dunns or the Tim McGraws,” Keith allows. “They both do really well, but Alan—there’s a lot more traditionalists in Australia. I mean, his tour sold out apparently pretty much right away, and he’s never been there, he’s a legend now and I love that he’s going down there.”
Keith, who has toured not only Down Under, but also in Europe, believes American country artists should perform beyond the U.S. borders, much the same way artists did in the 1960s and ‘70s. “You’ve got someone like Jim Reeves whose career was bigger in Europe than it was here and certainly Don Williams is exactly the same, even Garth [Brooks] started to have a massive fan base in Ireland and all through Europe. Historically country artists used to tour more internationally than they do [now], I think the buses are too much now.