Recording last year in New York, Keith Urban pulled out his trusty ganjo — a six-string version of a banjo that's a hybrid with a guitar — and began to pick.
He was at a recording studio collaborating with veteran R&B disco musician, producer and songwriter Nile Rodgers, who had a typical response to Urban's playing of the instrument.
"When I pull it out of the case — and I know Nile had that reaction — people are always like, 'Really? You're going to pull out a six-string banjo?" Urban says and laughs, recalling the moment.
The country singer-songwriter was at a mixing board at the Hollywood recording studio where he was putting finishing touches on his eighth studio album, "Ripcord," which will be released on May 6.
Another musician might feel chastened by such reactions, but not Urban. He's a self-deprecating and engagingly straightforward musician who talks openly about his life, the ups and the downs, often mixing words and music together, grabbing one of the instruments he keeps within arm's reach to illustrate various points.
Substituting a Southern drawl for his native New Zealand-Australian accent, Urban described the attitude he often encounters when he reaches outside the boundaries of country to work with other writers, instrumentalists and producers: "'You're so stereotypical: You come from Nashville and you got your banjo with you!' But I find it can go so many places and — I don't know — I guess it's a huge part of who I am and my sound, really."
Besides, he's discovered over time that the proof is in the picking.
"Any session I've ever walked into, whether it's with Nile, or whoever," he said, "the minute I start playing, people go, 'Oh, right!'"
During a recent interview, he often picked up the ganjo or an acoustic guitar to pluck out a riff or a lead to underscore the way songs evolved from the first bursts of inspiration to finished versions that listeners will encounter on "Ripcord." Urban will appear at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles on May 10 to talk about the new album, ahead of a tour that begins in June.
The track he and Rodgers wound up writing together, "Sun Don't Let Me Down," not only also features Rodgers serving up some of his characteristically dance floor-ready bass guitar work but also includes a midsong rap by singer Pitbull — not the first name many would think of for a guest spot on one of Urban's albums.
But it exemplifies the way Urban has continued to draw in new listeners as he's held onto much of the fan base he started attracting in the U.S. almost two decades ago, first as a member of the nouveau-country band the Ranch and then with the stateside release of his 2000 debut solo album, "Keith Urban."
As was the case with his 2013 boundary-bending "Fuse" album, "Ripcord" also finds Urban working with a broad range of musical partners. These include some he's worked with previously — singer Carrie Underwood and producers Nathan Chapman and Dann Huff — as well as new collaborators such as Rodgers, Pitbull and pop songwriters Jeff Bhasker, busbee and Greg Wells.
The result is a stylistically expansive album that incorporates looped rhythm tracks, electronic dance music-friendly synth parts on some songs and a couple of hip-hop-influenced barrages of lyrics, yet doesn't stray utterly afield of Urban's well-honed hunk-next-door, dream-date persona. He's still the fun-loving, occasionally risk-taking guy who's eminently sensitive to all the things a woman wants to hear.
His passion for experimentation has helped keep Urban not just in the game, but, at 48, still at the top of the charts. He just scored his 20th No. 1 country single with "Break on Me," the second single from "Ripcord." "Fuse" also saw him at the pinnacle of Billboard's country album chart three years ago, his fourth No. 1 country album, even though his overall sales have dipped along with most other recording artists in the age of streaming. "Fuse" has sold just under 500,000 copies since its release, according to Nielsen Music, compared with his biggest seller, 2004's "Be Here," which sits at 3.7 million.
With "Ripcord," however, in conjunction with the broadly expanded exposure he's gotten with his four seasons on "American Idol," he appears well poised to tap into an even broader audience.
"He's almost like a mad scientist, he's trying so many things," Universal Music Group Nashville President Cindy Mabe said with a laugh. "He's not looking at genres any more. He wants to know, 'Does that sound work? Is it authentic or not? He's always pushing boundaries of what he hears, and of what he wants to say as a musician. For an artist who is on his eighth album, that just almost doesn't happen."
Take the album's opening track, "Gone Tomorrow (Here Today)." It starts with a ganjo lick rooted in the country-rock firmament Urban has long plowed, but soon progresses into percolating pop-country-dance music until it reaches a midsong breakdown with a verse as close to a rap as Urban has come, in which he laments lost friends and loved ones.
While working on the track, that section remained "this big hole."
"At first I thought it was cool as it was," he recalled. "Then I thought it needed a rapid-fire verse of some sort. I was flying home one night from L.A. to Nashville. My dad had just passed away. I was in the plane, thinking about the brevity of time, which is really what the song's about — being in the moment.
"I thought about all the people I know that have died: my father-in-law, my father, a really good friend of mine who committed suicide a couple of years ago — he used to be my personal assistant — lots of people. Once it hit home in my family, it's a strange feeling, it's like, where did they go? Where do people go?
"All this stuff spat out," he said, then reciting the onslaught of words and thoughts that now fills that former hole:
I want to feel, I want to touch the light
I look around for the friends that have gone
And I'm reminded that it's all just a fantasy
But we get to choose what we want to believe
And I want to believe that there's something more
Another level to the dream right through the door
But right now it's surreal and it's fading fast
Better live, 'cuz you're never going to get it back
"It came out," he said, "in one fell swoop."
For "The Fighter," his duet with Underwood, which has all the signs of a hit single and/or music video, he worked with busbee, the professional nom de plume of California musician Mike Busbee, a jazz trombonist turned songwriter who scored hits for Timbaland and Katy Perry ("If We Ever Meet Again"), Kelly Clarkson ("Dark Side") and Pink ("Try").
It's rare these days for a duet to go beyond merely blending two famous voices. "The Fighter," however, is built on a genuine dialogue, in which a woman expresses her questions about romantic involvement and the man responds with what he plans to bring to the relationship.
"I was thinking about 'Paradise by the Dashboard Light,' Meat Loaf's song — that was probably the initial thought," Urban said in discussing the song's genesis. "The conversation between the two, I always loved that. And I guess even to some degree 'Baby, It's Cold Outside,' and I hadn't heard one of those songs in a long, long time."
He had only to look to his own relationship with his wife of nearly 10 years, actress Nicole Kidman, for the substance on which to base it.
"It sort of just struck me that when Nic and I met, I wanted her to know that I was going to take care of her," he said. "And I thought, 'Gosh, wouldn't it be great if there were a song where the girl expresses her concerns, and the guy answers with what he's going to do for her?'… And it would be so simple: She'd say 'What if I fall?' And he says, 'I won't let you fall.' And she says, 'What if I cry?' and he says, 'I'll never make you cry.' 'And if I get scared?' 'I'll hold you tighter. And when they try to get you, I'll be the fighter.' And boom, the thing just came out so fast."
Urban and Kidman, along with their daughters Sunday Rose (7) and Faith Margaret (5), live primarily in Nashville, but often spend chunks of time in Los Angeles, where Urban has been a judge since 2012 on "American Idol," in Australia, where both still have family, and other far-flung cities when Kidman's film career comes calling.
The jet-setting conceivably could become exhausting, but Urban was full of energy even though he said that Friday morning. "They just got back from Australia and I just picked them up at the airport at 6:30 in the morning. We were all down there for Easter. I came back a couple of days early for 'Idol,' and I was playing in Indiana on Wednesday night. I flew back Wednesday morning, then flew to Indiana and played, then came back to L.A. and did 'Idol' last night."
In fact, as he stepped out of the control room he'd been working in, he walked straight into Big Machine Records founder Scott Borchetta, who guides "Idol" winners on their first recording projects, and producer-songwriter Julian Raymond, both of whom were at work next door preparing tracks for the show's recent season finale.
Despite the flurry of activity, he's rarely more than a few sentences away from talking about "being in the moment," a key precept of the 12-step recovery program he's followed since his drug and alcohol consumption threatened to derail his career in the early 2000s.
"Genetically, my dad's an alcoholic, I am — my brother's not, my mother's not, Nic's not," he said. "For some of us, you're just wired like that." After a well-publicized relapse in 2006, just a few months after he and Kidman married, he embraced his ongoing recovery program with a stronger commitment, often working its tenets into song, sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly.
"Gone Tomorrow (Here Today)," which he wrote with Bhasker and a third co-writer, Samuel Taylor Johnson, set the tone for the rest of the album, he said.
"That was a fusion of a specific kind of rhythm track with my ganjo sitting on top," said Urban. "It has a chord progression that's very different than what I'd done before. The whole thing felt like it was coming from a very different place.
"The [instrumental] track just sat around for a while, then while I was figuring out how to write the song, lyrically, I knew it was about being in the moment. I started singing the phrase, 'Here today, gone tomorrow,' and then we started playing around with it. And between the three of us, nobody could decide which way it should be. After living with it for a while, I just kept singing, 'Gone tomorrow, here today,' and I realized that was the perfect flip of the expression — flipping the script in a more positive way.
"It's saying, yeah, it is all gone tomorrow," Urban said. "But we're here today — right now."
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