(Editor’s Note: In the first of Keith Urban’s two-part conversation with CMT.com, he discusses his new album, Be Here. Wednesday, he talks about performing live and his first roadwork as a headliner during CMT on Tour: Keith Urban Be Here ’04.)
Keith Urban seems to be an easygoing guy, but his voice slides into a noticeable bristle when he tells the story of a fellow artist who made a bad career move by blindly following the desires of record company executives.
At the insistence of label executives and against his better judgment, the artist recorded a song he shouldn’t have recorded. The singer was talented and the song was undeniably great, but it just wasn’t a good match.
After the single flopped, Urban recalls becoming angry when the other artist told him, “I didn’t even want to record it.”
“And I asked, ‘Then, why did you record it?’” Urban tells CMT.com “And he said, ‘Well, they … .’ And I’m thinking, ‘Did someone hold a gun to your head, dude?’
“Man, that stuff drives me really insane. Anybody who cuts something they don’t want to cut should absolutely be incarcerated. No one holds a gun to your head and says, ‘You must cut that song.’ Stand up for yourself. All you have to say is no.”
Urban is the first to express appreciation that no one at his label, Capitol Nashville, has ever applied any serious pressure when it comes to his song selection and overall artistic direction. On the other hand, it’s probably hard to question things when you look at the Australian-born singer-songwriter’s track record.
Tuesday’s (Sept. 21) release of his third solo album, Be Here, comes at an opportune time, considering the project’s first single, “Days Go By,” is spending its third week at No. 1 on the country chart. Clearly, Urban has come a long way since the release of his solo debut single in 1999 after the breakup of the country power trio, the Ranch. The single, “It’s a Love Thing,” peaked at No. 18 on the chart. The next one, “Your Everything,” hit No. 4. In 2000, he landed his first No. 1 single with “But for the Grace of God.”
Asked how much was riding on the first solo single, Urban says, “I didn’t feel like there was any risk involved in it. I don’t mean that in any egotistical way at all, but I’d been solo in Australia and had really good success there. And then with putting the band together, that was the first time it sort of seemed like I was hitting my head against the wall constantly. So to step out of that and get back to being just myself seemed very, very fluid to me. So whether it succeeded or not, I was already a happier guy.”
Now five years later, he can claim a platinum album for his self-titled U.S. debut project and a double-platinum plaque for Golden Road. And with No. 1 singles remaining a prime barometer of country success, Urban can claim five of them, including “Somebody Like You,” “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me” and “You’ll Think of Me.”
If there’s a downside to Urban’s success, it’s his diminishing level of privacy as fans want to know everything about his life.
“I don’t feel like I’ve experienced it in any big way, though, like much more successful people,” he says. “But I’m pretty private, anyway. … I guess it’s just something you keep learning more about as you go along. I guess you also just realize the importance of keeping your private life private.”
Success can sometimes even add pressure for artists who feel challenged to push their careers and sales to the proverbial next level, but Urban says this wasn’t the case in recording Be Here.
“I didn’t feel any pressure,” he says. “Considering that this is usually the first question everybody asks, in hindsight, it makes sense that I would have felt that. But I really didn’t. I love playing music, and I went at it the same way I go about every record: You go in the studio and make the best record you can. I think about doing a good job, more than anything else.”
In addition to “Days Go By,” the new album features material he co-wrote with John Shanks, Monty Powell, Darrell Brown and Richard Marx, as well as a song written by Rodney Crowell. As it turned out, Crowell beat Urban to the marketplace with the ballad, “Making Memories of Us,” when he recorded it with the Notorious Cherry Bombs for the band’s recent album.
“They were recording across the hall from us,” Urban says. “I’d already been pitched the song, and I loved it, obviously.” Although Urban was surprised to learn that Crowell recorded the song himself, he understood the songwriter’s reasoning.
“At least Rodney’s honest with me,” Urban says. “He said, ‘A lot of times, artists say they’re gonna cut a song — and they don’t. Or they cut it — and it doesn’t make the final album. Or they say it’s gonna be a single — and it never is.’”
Urban liked the song so much, though, he wanted to include it on Be Here. However, some friends and business associates actually went as far as suggesting that Urban make a special request to Crowell.
“I had people around me saying, ‘Tell Rodney to leave it off his record,’” Urban says. “I said, ‘He wrote the damn song! He can do what he likes with it. The song’s a love letter to his wife that he wrote for Valentine’s Day. I’m not going to tell him he can’t touch that song.’ Good Lord!”
The other cover song is Elton John’s “Country Comfort,” a song he co-wrote with lyricist Bernie Taupin for his 1970 album, Tumbleweed Connection. Urban, who was only 3 years old in 1970, admits he first heard the song on a Juice Newton album.
“My honesty goes too deep sometimes,” Urban laughs. “It’s true, though. There’s an album called Juice that my parents had in 1981. I used to listen to it over and over and over again. I just loved the song.”
Typical of songs John and Taupin wrote during the era, “Country Comfort,” has plenty of musical hooks — and somewhat strange lyrics. “I think the third verse is the strangest one — and it’s the one that got left off my record,” Urban says. “The one about the fat old bullfrog.”
Asked whether he’s considering any similar cover tunes in the future, Urban says, “No, and if there was, I probably wouldn’t say because someone will go out and cut it from under me, anyway. I thought ‘Country Comfort’ would have been cut by now because it’s such a great country song. Killer chorus. Just everything you want in a good old country song. We were going to start doing it live, then I went, ‘No, we’re not going to do that. I’m going to get in and record it. Then we’ll go and do it live.’”
A formidable instrumentalist, Urban continues to explore at least two familiar musical signatures on Be Here. One is his frailing banjo style heard as far back as “Somebody Like You.”
“I love banjo,” Urban says, adding, “I can’t play banjo. I wish I could.”
The other musical signature is the distinctive Celtic-inspired sound previously heard in the instrumental passages of tracks such as “Where the Black Top Ends.”
“I have no idea where that comes from, like the riff of ‘Days Go By,’” Urban says. “It gets totally Celtic.”
Emphasizing that he has never closely studied Irish or Scottish music, Urban is truly at a loss to explain how or why those sounds have seeped into his music.
“I’ve drank a lot of Guinness,” he laughs. “Maybe it’s that.”