Keith Urban: ‘I definitely married up’
Country-music superstar Keith Urban would like to apologise in advance for the jolt fans will receive when they play his new album.
The song that kicks it all off, aptly called 'Out The Cage', has an intense energy, frenetic beats, guitar licks from funk king Nile Rodgers and, yes, some banjo to keep things on brand. Even he admits it seems better suited for mosh pits than musters.
"I think I may get some speeding tickets because of that song," Urban tells Stellar with a laugh. "It makes me either want to break the speed limit or punch something."
Can you blame him? Urban wrote its lyrics - about being trapped, missing friends, the sky and freedom - back in June, when he had been in hard lockdown with his family in Nashville for three months and counting.
"We'd been in lockdown since March," he recalls.
"I was ready to get out and do things, I poured it into that song. I still have a little PTSD about lockdown. We're in Byron Bay now and all I can think about is Nashville not that long ago. I'm like a little caged animal timidly walking around going, 'I don't know about this freedom, this feels a little fishy …' and then Melbourne's lockdown and curfew happened. People are saying, 'Thank God it's down there'. There is no 'down there' - it's everywhere. It's all of us."
Urban's work ethic is the stuff of legend. He has long juggled his calendar of consistent touring and recording with actor wife Nicole Kidman's equally demanding career, all while they raised two daughters.
So when the pandemic instantly forced him to axe shows in his Las Vegas residency and pause recording of his latest album, Urban was forced to completely stop going for the first time in his professional life. It was a struggle for him to process.
"I got creatively paralysed," Urban admits.
"I didn't do well with it. I just wanted to get in my trackies, sit on the couch and watch TV with Nic and the kids, and do nothing. I did that for a while. The family got super-tight during that period.
"It's probably not an exaggeration to say my management were going, 'Are you gonna finish your record?' I'd say, 'Nope. Not until this sh*t blows over' and I'd list all the things I couldn't do."
Focusing on the negative became an uncharacteristic trait. It wasn't until a friend he describes as "older - and much wiser" cracked it at the musician after listening to Urban moan down the line for 10 full minutes about everything he'd lost.
"My friend just said, 'How about you list some things you can do?'" he recalls.
So he hung up and called an engineer who could safely help finish his album at his home studio.
"I pivoted from everything I couldn't do to everything I could. That was my turning point. I know that sounds so cheesy, like a 10c therapy session, but it changed everything for me. I started work on the album the next day and never looked back."
If it has been a rough year, 2020 also marks the 30th anniversary of Urban signing his first record deal, with EMI Australia. Country music was always in his blood.
He was five when he went to his first gig with his family in Brisbane - it was a Johnny Cash show.
In 1983, when he was 16, he made his TV debut on Bert Newton's New Faces. At the time his modest goal was to be a "radio announcer"; he sang Air Supply's 'All Out Of Love'.
In comments left on the much-watched YouTube video of that early appearance, fans are impressed by the fact he has the same haircut now, at age 52, even if the gap between his front teeth has disappeared.
"I had a long way to go, that's all I can say," Urban says.
"I come from a very working-class family that apparently didn't have a big budget for the dental side of things."
After singing on INXS's 1991 hit 'Shining Star' ("I got roped into standing next to Michael Hutchence doing backing vocals; that guy was so incredibly talented"), Urban relocated to Nashville in 1992. He hustled hard for years, before finally breaking through on the US country charts in 1999.
His latest album, The Speed Of Now Part 1, continues Urban's experiments in testing what purist country fans will tolerate, a process which began with 2013's Fuse, which was partly inspired by his time living in Sydney filming The Voice and listening to the local radio stations.
While the album features plenty of trucks-'n-girls tales for the faithful (Urban has squirrelled quality leftovers for a second volume in the future), there are also some revealing moments. 'Say Something' started as social commentary on not remaining silent about what's happening around you, but iso-reflection saw Urban take it in a more personal direction.
"I grew up with a dad who was the opposite of that: shut up, don't rock the boat, don't say anything. There are elements to that approach which I agree with. I've always tried to say it in my music, but I also thought there's a time to speak up that is more intimate.
"There are things I wish I'd said to my dad before he passed away, or I wished I'd said sorry to a friend before they drifted out of my life."
And Urban is brutally honest on 'Better Than I Am', a song that includes lyrics like "Though my past is far behind me it's still not as far as I want …" and "The road I took to get here is one I never wanna take again".
"It's very, very autobiographical," Urban tells Stellar.
"My past is always right behind me, no matter how far away it is. I have not one but three rehabs in my history. Although the last one was in 2006, it's still there - my past is what it is. I just keep moving forward."
That most recent stint, after a relapse, came just a few months after he married Kidman. And if Urban has credited his wife with helping him clean up, he says she has also had a major influence on his musical taste and output.
"Nic's definitely had a big impact on my music in the last five to six years particularly," Urban tells Stellar.
"She had different musical tastes than I did when we met. It really liberated me a lot, introduced me to a lot of music I'd missed. We also find huge common threads in the Aussie music we love, because we grew up at the same time."
Urban praises Kidman's "visceral" approach to turning him on to music regardless of genre or artist - a recent iso playlist he created featured everyone from Daft Punk to Radiohead, Waylon Jennings to Crystal Waters - and says watching Kidman gravitate to projects purely sparked by her curiosity has rubbed off on him.
"I'm more fearless with my artistry," he says, adding, "I definitely married up. Isn't that what we're all supposed to be doing? She's just very willing to try things; that's rubbed off on me."
Their mutual passions and projects have taken them all over the globe over the years, but since the birth of daughter Sunday in 2008, followed by Faith two years later, the pair have remained determined that their work schedules fit around their family's needs.
Last month the family flew home to Australia and set up camp in Byron Bay, where Kidman is now producing and filming an upcoming TV adaptation of Big Little Lies writer Liane Moriarty's novel Nine Perfect Strangers.
"The only struggle is my mum and brother are up in Queensland," Urban says.
"Nic's mum and sister, and her kids and husband, are around. All the kids and cousins have got each other, which is really nice."
Still, Urban admits, he has not been doing a whole lot of homeschooling while Kidman is on set.
"I'm glad I'm not the teacher," he says with relief.
"I left school at 15! Our kids are used to remote learning anyway. We always stay together as a family, so if Nic's shooting a film we just relocate to wherever she is. The kids have had a lot of experience with that. It wasn't a big shock to them."
He praises his wife's efforts at pulling together a starry Australian and international cast that includes Asher Keddie, Melissa McCarthy, Luke Evans, Bobby Cannavale and Samara Weaving.
"It's amazing they've been able to pull this thing off and get it rolling," Urban says.
"Nic and I have that attitude of trying to be like water and just flow. B*tch and moan and complain and then go, 'OK what can I do?' and put ourselves out there and see if we can keep moving forward.
"She's been able to bring this project here and keep people here employed, plus lots of people in the States who are involved in the editing. That wouldn't have happened if she hadn't been able to find a way to keep working. Everybody wants and needs to work.
"Within my industry I really feel for all the crew and vendors - it's a whole world that I see, but most people don't, who are really hurting right now."
Back in May, when that world was trying to navigate how socially distanced concerts might work, Urban became a test case when he played a show at a drive-in cinema in Nashville. He gave tickets to around 200 doctors, nurses and emergency workers from the city's Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
"I didn't know what to expect. Is it going to be a bunch of people in cars doing these muffled cheers? I didn't realise until I got there this is just a tailgate party [an American tradition where people fill their car boots with booze and fire up a barbecue next to their car]. People aren't in their cars, they're sitting on the roof or the bonnet or they're in pick-up trucks. They were having a blast. It turned out to be a really fun night."
He's tentatively got concerts planned for later in the year, but knows a lot of crystal balling is involved.
"Everyone talks about touring resuming next year and I say, 'Next year when? January or December - because it's a long way in between …' Who knows? I think we're getting to a point where we say what we think is going to happen, but it's what we would like to happen," he says.
"It's getting blurry. We're not sure if it's fact or fiction anymore.
"For me, there is no substitute to playing to real people in a real venue in real time, all packed in. I don't know when that will return, but I'm craving that day in a big way."
Keith Urban's new album The Speed Of Now Part 1 is out September 18.
Originally published as Keith Urban: 'I definitely married up'