Though we know Keith Urban as a country music superstar, he’s never been afraid to branch out. Since he launched his career at the start of the ’90s, he’s collaborated with everyone from disco icon Nile Rodgers to DJ/producer Dzeko, while last year he recorded ‘Love Songs Ain’t For Us’, a tender duet with the Australian indie-pop queen Amy Shark, and ‘That’s When’, a poignant break-up bop with Taylor Swift.
Clearly, the New Zealand-born Australian musician isn’t one for looking back. “In Nashville, somebody said, ‘Oh, he’s looking for songs that sound like [Urban’s 2002 album] ‘Golden Road’,” he tells NME. “I have no idea where it came from, this directive. But then I started getting sent all these songs where it’s like: first of all, why would I record something that sounds like I’d done it a long time ago? And then secondly, it was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, is that how you hear me?'”
Urban may be a four-time Grammy winner who plays huge venues in the US, but he’s always remained down-to-earth. Shortly before the cameras start rolling on our interview, NME remarks that we need to slather on SPF 50 before spending a day in a sweltering festival field, prompting Urban to reply matter-of-factly: “Oh, you look like you have a similar skin tone to my wife.” His wife, of course, is Oscar-winning actress Nicole Kidman.
Urban joined us for the latest edition of NME’s In Conversation series during the recent UK leg of his mammoth 80-date ‘The Speed of Now World Tour’ to discuss everything from the greatness of Taylor Swift to the future of country music. Here’s what we learned.
His recent single ‘Nightfalls’ was written as a post-pandemic festival anthem
Urban made ‘Nightfalls’, which was written with producer Greg Kurstin (Adele, Paul McCartney) and singer-songwriter Mozella (Miley Cyrus, Madonna), as a way to recreate the incredible feeling of live music during the COVID-19-enforced shutdown.
“I thought, ‘Come 2021 summertime, we’ll be back out on the road getting at it’. But we weren’t,” he recalls. “Greg had this cool little groove going on with sort of a yacht-rock vibe, and I’m an unabashed yacht-rock fan. And the lyrical idea was really just born of that desire to be back in those outdoor music settings like a festival: [I’m talking about] those late summer evenings when the sun’s coming down and everybody’s in the zone. For me, it’s not just about being on stage, because I love going to concerts [as a punter] as well.”
No two Keith Urban gigs are the same
Urban toured the UK in April and May, playing relatively small theatre venues – at least compared to the US, where he typically packs out arenas and stadiums. He says he tailors each show not just to the size of the venue, but also to how he’s feeling on any given day: “I’ve always loved having somewhat of a structured show with these spots throughout that are completely freestyle, just so that you can be in the moment. I’ll go off-script quite a bit in any show.”
At this point in his career, Urban is such a seasoned performer that even the pandemic didn’t leave him feeling rusty. “I think we counted 542 days or something in between the last show [before the pandemic] and the first one [back],” he says. “But after like two songs, it just felt like: ‘So, anyway…’ It felt like we had just played the week before. It’s crazy.”
He was out Christmas shopping when his latest Taylor Swift collaboration began to take shape
Urban duetted with Swift on ‘That’s When’, a track from the latter’s 2021 re-recorded album ‘Fearless (Taylor’s Version)’. According to Urban, she actually texted him a couple of song options while he was sitting in a shopping mall food court. “So I just sat there with my little AirPods on listening to these unreleased Taylor Swift songs,” he recalls, laughing at how surreal it felt. “I loved them both, and so I went into the studio and got to play on those songs.”
Urban and Swift go way back: before she became a global superstar, she opened for Urban on his 2009 world tour. “She’s insanely talented,” he says of Swift now, calling her an artist who’s constantly involved in a “deep, deep mining of new talents”.
“I love that she’s just bold,” he adds. “I don’t even know if she’s fearless. But I think she’s willing to fall in the attempts of finding something new. And that to me is a true artist.”
He’s a massive Sleaford Mods fan
Yes, really! Urban says he discovered the East Midlands duo “a few years ago” and quickly became “obsessed” with their uncompromising musical style. “They’re just so raw, pure and unique in the way that Andrew Fearn makes his tracks and the way they gel their thing together,” Urban says. “It’s unlike anyone.”
Also on heavy rotation in chez Urban right now: Jack Harlow, Grammy-winning bluegrass musician Billy Strings and the hotly-tipped country singer Morgan Wade. Clearly, he’s a man of taste.
Urban believes country music stays relevant because of a constant tension between tradition and innovation
Interestingly, Urban characterises country as a genre that “breathes”: in the sense that it expands to incorporate other genres, then contracts again as a kind of course correction. “It has a very tight package of acceptance: this is what we do, this is what we are,” he explains. “Then [new] artists come along and bring in these other fusions of pop and other styles. Then it goes out and out and gets wider and wider, and then everybody freaks out and goes, ‘We’ve lost our way,’ so it shrinks back down again.”
Urban believes country music has been breathing in and out like this since the ’50s. “I think that’s why it stays such a vital genre: because it’s willing to push out, then come back in so it doesn’t lose its way,” he says. “But the going outwards is really the key to its survival.”
You can find out more information about Keith Urban’s ‘The Speed of Now World Tour’ here.