CMT Insider Interview: Keith Urban

He Talks About the Work Behind His New Album

Editor’s note: See Katie Cook’s exclusive interview with Keith Urban when the new episode of CMT Insider Special Edition premieres Saturday (Nov. 11) at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

Keith Urban’s new album, Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing, remains one of country music’s most anxiously-awaited releases of the year. The project — his third project with co-producer Dann Huff and engineer Justin Niebank — was released Tuesday (Nov. 7) just hours after Urban was named the CMA’s male vocalist of the year for the third consecutive time.

Urban’s plan to promote the album this week with a series of media appearances was sidetracked after he voluntarily checked himself into an alcohol abuse treatment center on Oct. 19. Several days earlier, CMT Insider host Katie Cook spoke to Urban during the last interview he provided prior to seeking help in battling his substance abuse problem.

Here are some excerpts from the conversation.

Cook: How long did it actually take you to make the record from start to finish?

Urban: Probably about six months … as far as recording, being in the studio. This record was really enjoyable to make in the sense that I wasn’t touring. We did a few shows here and there, but mostly I was … just focused on making the record.

Is it hard to let go of the record when it’s finished? I mean, no more tweaking.

It’s hard to not want to come in and hang out with Dan Huff and Justin Niebank and all the guys in the band. … This is the third record that we’ve all made together, and you get a real sort of family sense of everybody. … You kind of miss that.

What about the title, how did you come up with that?

It’s a slight twist on an old movie title. … It came to my attention, this title, and it was hard to name this record. It’s a very diverse album, and so far, I’ve done a good job of not naming [my albums] after a song. Nothing against that, but it’s something I’ve always wanted to try and avoid, and it seemed to fit the gamut of the songs.

The first single, “Once in a Lifetime,” debuted in a huge way. This is such a sweet song, you must have been in a very romantic place when you wrote it.

Still am. … I don’t set out to write any specific song. I don’t sit down and go, “I want to write this” or “I want to say this in a song.” We just sat down to write — John Shanks and I did — on a Monday. He had this great melody, and I just started writing lyrics — and that was what came out. So I guess that’s what was weighing on me that day.

I think my favorite song is “I Told You So.” I think part of what I love about it is this almost Celtic, Old World feel. Where did that influence come from?

I don’t know. I guess the history of country music is definitely steeped in Irish folk music, and that kind of thing seems to creep up in my music every now and then. “Somebody Like You” had a bit of it in it, too.

Another one I love is “Tu Compañía.” This is so sweet, You’ve captured all those wonderful little things that make a relationship so special. Where did the Spanish thing come from? She’s speaking Spanish in the middle of the song, right?

Yeah. Just my wacky brain. I just had this idea to have somebody speaking Spanish. I’m not sure what she’s even saying, actually. At the end, I’m sure what she’s saying, but we just kind of gave this girl Vanessa [Millon], who was Kenny Chesney’s girlfriend, a microphone and said, “Just speak Vanessa.”

There’s no mistaking Ronnie Dunn’s voice on “Raise the Barn.” You guys seem to be big fans of each other.

I can only speak for myself. I love his voice, and I’ve always been a big fan of Ronnie’s. I think I just always very selfishly have wanted to hear him with the band that I record with. And it wasn’t so much thinking that our voices are gonna be great together or anything like that, but we’ve got this kind of camaraderie that it’s all about music. He’s the real deal.

I can already see all the songs on album lending themselves to just great live performances. Do you think about that when you’re writing and picking songs?

If it was, it was subconscious. I think as we were ending the tour last year and found ourselves playing in these arenas, I thought, “Boy, it would be great to have songs that are so sort of geared towards this kind of environment.” But I don’t know how you write that kind of song. But probably deep down, it was underlying in the songs I either found or wrote.

One of the songs you didn’t write, “Stupid Boy,” caught your ear right away.

Sarah Buxton wrote “Stupid Boy” with Deanna Bryant and Dave Berg. I heard it on my bus, and I just sat down and thought, “God, I wish I had a song like this.” I thought it was an amazing song. I took it home and played it, and my wife said, “Well, why don’t you just do that song?” And I thought, “I can’t do this one. This is on Sarah’s record. Long story short, Sarah agreed to let me do it. Thank you, Sara. I absolutely love the song.

It’s cool to hear you say, “I took it home and played it for my wife.”

Yeah, well, she’s got a good sense of music.

Does she hear the tracks as you’re making them?

Yeah. Almost all these songs were written at the house, so she was there during the making of almost all of it.

I understand you recorded “Got It Right This Time” in one take.

It’s a song I wrote at the house in a very sort of quiet moment. I had this kind of old electric piano and a drum machine. It seemed to work best like that, and I thought it’d be nice to have a song on the record that’s not layered with all kinds of overdubs.

How long did it take you to write it? Did it come to you pretty effortlessly?

Yeah, very stream of consciousness, and I didn’t really do much tweaking on it. I left it like it was. I think sometimes on this record, too, I’ve found myself not wanting to spend too long analyzing and critiquing things.

You’ve always been a very private person. With the new music, I kind of feel that I’m seeing more of you come through lyrically. Do you feel like you’re showing more of yourself?

I’m probably just getting a little more comfortable with myself. Not totally, of course, but it’s a bit of a challenge, I think, when you’re writing songs not to be revealing too much. … You don’t want people to know everything about you, but you’ve also got to write from your heart, so the music will ultimately be a bit of a diary of where you’re at. So the hard part is in elaborating any further because the songs kind of say as much as I’d like them to say.

Have you had that experience of writing a song and then holding it back and going, “That’s too personal. I don’t know if I can put that out there”?

No, not yet. But you never know.