There’s been an obvious trend in country music lately — the growing influence of electronic dance music (EDM) and all the synthesizers and thumping beats that come with it. Much of it has felt hokey, honestly, but that was before Keith Urban got involved. Keith’s new album Ripcord is out today (May 6), and never before has electronic-inspired country sounded so good in both settings.
Like an experimental chef, Keith tells Nash Country Daily he took what he was hearing and combined his favorite parts into a radical new dish, aimed squarely at the moment of “now.” “There’s new music being made all the time that’s fascinating to me,” Keith explains. “It’s sort of like being a chef I guess, you’re always looking for ingredients that could go together but haven’t been put together yet.”
At nearly 50 years old (and still looking 35), Keith has already built a reputation as one of country music’s most adventurous artists, but fans have never tasted anything like Ripcord. Over 13 songs, the lines between country, dance, hip hop, electronica and more evaporate, leaving behind only the essence Keith’s melody-driven creativity – and his hard won wisdom.
Sitting in front of a giant mixing board in the dark, luxurious embrace of Nashville’s Blackbird Studios – one of the album’s many test kitchens – Chef Keith says anything and everything was fair game.
“I’m always moving on to the next thing, but it’s not from dissatisfaction,” he says. “Just intrigue and curiosity of where my music can go and what I can do. … Most people don’t dress like they did 10 or 20 years ago, or have the same hair style or look the same.”
Fans have already caught a glimpse of the “new” Keith with the progressive, boundary pushing singles “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16,” “Break on Me” and “Wasted Time,” but the rest of the album is filled with even more surprises – challenging rhythms, synthesized hooks, thumping basslines and sounds that owe more to disco, pop and hip hop than honky tonk. For some country fans the result might be an acquired taste, but Keith admits his restless spirit just seems to get stronger as the years pass.
“I can do a lot on the instruments I play, which only makes me wanna explore more and try more things,” he says. “I’ve always loved being in the studio, but I seem to love it more and more because it’s the kitchen. . . . Coming in I might have an idea of exactly what I want to do and start building, and then the muse wanders off somewhere else, and I guess I’ve just become more and more willing to follow that.”
Non-country collaborators like Pitbull, Nile Rodgers, Jeff Bhasker, K-Kov and busbee (who have collectively worked with artists like Bruno Mars, Daft Punk, P!nk and more) were the norm, not the exception, but Keith’s country undertones do gradually become apparent.
“The Fighter,” for instance — his first-ever duet with a fellow country superstar Carrie Underwood — is built on spacey guitars, sweeping waves of synth and a futuristic Top 40 feel, but its theme is all country — a question and answer story about a girl making sure her commitment to a new love isn’t a mistake.
“It’s just real,” Keith says. “Some of the lines in the song I’ve said and heard before.” He wrote the tune with crossover specialist busbee, and knew it needed a commanding female voice. Carrie was perfect for the job, but fans have never heard the Oklahoma sweetheart in such a club-friendly setting. In short, her diva side is starting to show, and it’s Keith’s fearless “cooking” that’s bringing it out.
“We toured together a long time back, and watching her sing I feel like I know a lot about her voice and her style and how she does what she does, where her tone is and what she’s capable of doing,” he explains. “I love hearing her in that context, too. She hasn’t even begun to explore what her talent can do yet, in my opinion.”
Then there’s the track with feel-good rapper Pitbull, “Sun Don’t Let Me Down.” It was initially co-written with disco legend Nile Rodgers and busbee, but it was never meant to include a rap component. Keith says it was totally finished when the muse demanded one more ingredient.
“Everybody was happy and we were working on other songs, and I heard Pitbull come on the radio one day and was like ‘Man, I’ve always loved that guy’s voice,’” Keith explains with a bemused shrug. “It’s just super cool, this Cuban thing. His rhythm is really unlike anyone else and it’s right on the money, and lyrically knowing what this song was about, I was like ‘This is a bullseye song for him.’”
A playful tune full of crunchy guitars and lyrics about needing a few more hours of moonlight, Pitbull loved the song and ended up adding a drinks-in-the-air verse of his own. But again, Keith says he just went where his inspiration took him. “It wasn’t about having a rapper on the song,” he stresses. “It was about hearing Pitbull’s voice and going ‘He would be great.’”
For more traditional country fare, “Blue Ain’t Your Color” is a minimalistic track inspired by Don Williams, while “Break on Me” is dramatic and emotional, awash with sacrificial love, and “Boy Gets a Truck” hauls a lifetime worth of family memories. But Ripcord’s true message is bigger than arguments about genre. It’s about a lesson learned the hard way – how to live in the moment, and be truly happy.
Too many people spend too much time planning and making those plans happen, Keith says, instead of appreciating life as it comes up. That’s the idea behind his current single – the frisky, nostalgic “Wasted Time” – and a truth that became crystal clear to the star after his father’s passing in December 2015. He’s been thinking a lot about his dad in the months since, and says there’s no use in agonizing over the past — or the future, for that matter. It’s a theme that shows up early and often on Ripcord, even in the first track, a hard-rock-meets-‘80s-pop anthem of epic proportions.
“There’s nothing else like ‘Gone Tomorrow (Here Today),’ which is more of a … I actually don’t know what it is,” he says with a grin. “It was uncategorizable when we wrote it and recorded it, and I wanted it to be the first song on the record for a couple of reasons. I felt like it was planting a new flag for the songs to come, and I also liked what the song was about thematically — being in the moment, which is something that’s always mattered to me, even in songs like ‘Days Go By.’”
Ripcord might seem like a stretch at first, but consider the artist who created it. Like a prize-winning chef with access to every ingredient under the sun (and the ability to make new ones of his own), going back to where’s he’s already been would have felt like a betrayal of his most cherished belief – so instead he pushes onward.
“It’s not really young or old or anything, it’s just now,” he says. “Now’s the place to be.”