“PATHETIC or prophetic?”
Keith Urban is discussing why he called his new album The Speed Of Now.
It’s a title that comments on the increasingly fast pace of life — something brought into sharp relief by lockdown.
“I wouldn’t have minded everybody to slow down — but in some other way. Anything but this pandemic,” he says.
“The title actually came to me last year when I did a couple of the C2C (Country To Country) shows. I was travelling around and started to notice people everywhere were moving faster. The album title is a dark, comedic dig at the absurdity of that.”
Urban is chatting via video call from his home in Australia where he and superstar actress wife Nicole Kidman and their two daughters Sunday, 11, and Faith, nine, have been based for the past few weeks following lockdown at their home in Nashville.
The New Zealand-born, Australian-raised singer says: “We were in Nashville the whole time. We stayed there until just recently when we were able to come down to Australia for Nic to shoot a film here. Nashville has been a great town for us, a great place for us to nest and raise a family. It’s very family-centric.
“And the girls are not unaccustomed to home schooling and remote learning. We travel around when Nic is shooting a film and we relocate to somewhere sometimes for a month or two. The girls do remote learning. So it wasn’t a big change for them but not seeing friends has probably been the hardest thing.”
His most recent three albums, Fuse, Ripcord and Graffiti U, have given him mainstream recognition and The Speed Of Now Part 1 is set to propel him to even greater success.
This year was meant to see Urban tour the UK for the first time in 12 years with shows originally booked for September.
But obviously Covid-19 scuppered those plans and his UK fans have had to make do with heavy rotation of his new tracks on radio playlists.
“I wish I was touring but I’ll take being on UK radio in place of that, for sure,” he says.
Urban believes his success in the UK is based on a number of factors and he’s pleased so many things are slotting into place.
He adds: “I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. Having the right album and having the right people hear it.
“More and more people are discovering my music through the digital streaming platforms and seeing us live on YouTube. It’s helped break down a lot of perceptions of what I am and what I do.”
The last time he was in the UK in 2019, he did three shows in one night — including managing to fit in an appearance on Strictly Come Dancing.
He says: “Yes, I squeezed that in — it was so funny. I realised that the UK is somewhere I’ve always wanted to tour on a more regular basis. In the UK, Australia and Canada, people grow up with equal parts English and American music. So we just click.
“I grew up with David Essex and artists like Rod Stewart who were all making great English pop music, and my upbringing was a fusion of that with all the American music. That English stuff is deep in my DNA.”
This might be Urban’s eleventh album but he approaches new collections as if he was starting off all over again.
He says: “I find, no matter how many I’ve done, I always go in there with a beginner’s mind.
“Joseph Campbell (American professor of literature and folklore) would say it’s making the path through the forest where there isn’t a path.
“I’m always interested in the next thing. My job is to create something and then move on. Even when I’m in studios where platinum records and Grammys are on show, I just forget what has happened before and start with a blank slate. It’s always like the first record to me.”
And for many of the album’s tracks, the theme is that one of the paths to salvation is through strong women — which have been a feature of Urban’s life.
He says: “I was raised by a strong woman and I’ve been around a lot of strong women in my life. I like strong women. I’ve married a really strong one and like any parents, we are trying to raise two strong, young girls, too.”
Album song Polaroid is about meeting someone special at a party and escaping his old life.
Urban kicked drink and drugs just months after marrying Big Little Lies actress Kidman, having met at G’Day LA, a Hollywood event promoting Australia, in 2005.
He says: “I’ve got to sing from experience. Polaroid is talking about who would have thought back then that we would have ended up here. It’s taken on a new meaning now.
“Change Your Mind (a song about self-sabotaging) is also one of the songs that speaks of my experiences. There are lines like, ‘Emotionally stranded/left you abandoned/ took you for granted/If we could only fix the little issues before they got too big’.
“I know exactly who this guy is and how he feels.”
The Speed Of Now is an album of big-name collaborations — with one of the biggest being pop superstar Pink on One Too Many.
He says: “She’s one of the greats. There are really good singers then there are great singers. And everyone would agree Pink is in the latter category. She’s a singer’s singer. The real deal.
“I always wanted to do something with her. When this song One Too Many came along, I heard her voice in my head. I didn’t know her so through some mutual friends I sent it to her with my fingers crossed — and she loved it.
“The next thing I knew I’m hearing her voice on the track. I just wish we could have recorded it in the same studio. Maybe we will get to perform it together in the future.”
Another legend on the album is Nile Rodgers who appears on Out The Cage, and Urban was delighted to work with an artist who has been a friend of his for a number of years.
“He’s an icon and it’s so wonderful when icons are also really nice people,” he says.
“He’s like the Forrest Gump of music. He was there at every moment. I met him in 2015. Mostly I wanted to jam with him. I wanted to sit with him in a studio with him playing his funk guitar and me playing my banjo.
“We played for hours into the night just jamming and he was like a lost brother. We just hit it off and we’ve stayed very good friends over the years.”
Sticking to his country roots, Urban also sings with Eric Church on album finale We Were, a nostalgic ballad Urban loves so much it appears twice as two different versions.
He says: “I love that song. I’ve known Eric a long time and it’s the second collaboration we’ve done together. We are kindred spirits.
“I’d already recorded my version when I called him and asked if we could do a version together and so he came in on one of his rare days off.”
Despite the pressures of lockdown, Urban has made the most of the new way of working, including cloning himself digitally to perform a cover of Steve Winwood’s Higher Love on the Lady Gaga-curated One World: Together At Home show in April in aid of frontline healthcare workers.
He says: “I was honoured to be a part of it — it’s a terrific cause. Gaga did an amazing job pulling so many people together.
“I talked to Ben Dalgleish, my creative design guy, and I told him I wanted to do something different with that song. And he said, ‘What about three of you playing it all at once?’.
“So we had to figure out how to do that. It took us two days and it was insane.
Urban’s album is full of catchy pop country, electronic and folk tracks including Superman, Say Something and Soul Food.
He says: “I am a sucker for an earworm, a pumping singalong song.
“I grew up playing all the clubs in Australia, and it’s just the floor-on-the-floor pub, rock’n’roll foundation that is really what these songs are.
“They’re super easy to sing along with, super easy to just fist pump to and it’s part of my raising. I quit school at 15 and was playing five nights a week from that age in the pubs.”
It was Urban’s late dad Bob who introduced him to country music as a child, playing him records by Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, and encouraging him to pick up the guitar at a young age.
He says: “Dad was passionate about music and America and would have given anything to live in America. So it rubbed off on me. I’d come home from school and watch American shows such as Mork & Mindy and Happy Days. When I moved to Nashville it was like home because of the influence I’d had from Dad.
“It was and is still a magical place to me. My dad took me to see Johnny Cash when I was five. It was a wild scene.
“My dad bought my brother and I our first little Western shirts with little bolo ties. We looked the part.
“That concert was a rude awakening to a five-year-old. It was loud, it was rowdy and people were smashed. I knew it was the life I wanted to live.”
Growing up in Australia, Urban says it’s important that his daughters also have a connection with the country.
“My mum lives here, my brother lives here and Nic’s mum and sister also live here and all the cousins, nephews and nieces are in Australia. There’s strong family ties and it’s where Nic and I were raised. We have deep youth roots in Australia.”
Urban says he’s looking forward to another album — The Speed Of Now Part 2, though he doesn’t know when that will be ready — and to performing again as soon as it’s safe.
He recently played to around 200 frontline healthcare workers in Tennessee.
He says: “We did a drive-in gig and it turned out great. I thought it was going to be people stuffed in cars with the windows shut but it was actually more of a tailgate party kind of concert. There were people on the roof and on the bonnet, and everywhere outside their cars. It was really fun.”
Next Wednesday, Urban will present the Academy of Country Music Awards in Nashville, which he is excited about.
“It’s going to be virtual without an audience but I’ll be live. I can’t wait as I’m ready to be back in the moment.
“I’m just staying open and flowing with it all. That’s the best we can do right now.”
- The Speed Of Now Part 1 is out on Friday, September 18.
Keith Urban: The Speed Of Now – ★★★★
- Out The Cage (ft Nile Rodgers)
- One Too Many (ft Pink)
- Live With
- Change Your Mind
- Say Something
- Soul Food
- Ain’t It Like A Woman
- With You
- God Whispered Your Name
- Better Than I Am
- We Were
- We Were (ft Eric Church)
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