Keith Urban Seeks a “Raw Diamond” on American Idol

He Discusses Role as a Judge With a Country Music Background

From the judge’s table, Keith Urban is looking for someone special on American Idol — even if that aspiring artist needs a little bit of polishing.

On location in Los Angeles, Urban told CMT Hot 20 Countdown he’ll be focusing on the long-term potential of this season’s finalists.

Asked about seeing talent develop in real time, Urban replied, “That’s part of what Idol is really good at. Watching that happen across the season is one of the things I’ve always loved about Idol. You watch this ‘raw diamond’ talent start to really figure it all out. Confidence is one of the greatest things for an artist’s evolution.”

CMT: What are you looking for in an American Idol finalist?

Urban: It’s an indefinable thing. I think for me, it’s somebody who really speaks to me. And I can feel all of the humanity, really, and the vulnerability, the strength, the confidence, the conflict, the anger, all of it. For me, a great artist always knows how to convey that.

And you’ve been in their shoes when you were younger.

Yeah, I did several different shows. One when I was 9 and a few more when I was 11 or 12. So I was really young when I did it. … In some ways, it’s harder when you’re that young. On the other side of it, you’re so giddy that you’re doing it, I don’t know how much the criticism really hits you. That’s probably yanked by the parents who are saying that the judges are idiots anyway. (laughs)

But you know the heart-wrenching thing that these contestants are going through when they come into the room with you.

Oh, God, yeah. They see it as, “If I fail at this, that’s the end of it.” Of course, it’s not. But I know very well when I was in that [spot], it is everything. And you do feel like that’s the end of it if you don’t get to go to Hollywood or something.

I know you’re looking for talent, but do you feel like you’re casting for a TV show, as well?

There’s a certain amount of that, but that naturally happens with an artist. With as many artists as we see, you’re naturally going to get some characters who happen to make great TV.

In the 11 years of American Idol, you’re the first judge to come from country music. Do you think you’re looking for something different because of that?

I don’t know if I’m looking for something different, but I think we all hear and are moved by different things. Sometimes we are completely 180 [degrees] from each other. I know Nicki [Minaj] will see something in somebody that I just don’t see — at all — and vice versa. And sometimes, if that person goes through and we see them a second or third time, one of us will say, “Oh, I get it! I see it now. I didn’t see it before.” That diversity is wonderful.

I’ve read that there are a lot of American Idol voters from the South. As a judge, do you ever think about statistics like that?

Well, I do a little bit because that’s part of what we do. We’re trying to sell records, as well. Any artist would like to have record sales and get people to come to the gig. There are some artists that I see come through and the other three judges may say, “I don’t really like them,” and I’ll say, “There are people out there that will love this guy or this girl. I just really feel sure about that.”

I think on one hand, we’re judges, which is a term I don’t really like. But on the other side, we’re part A&R [artists and repertoire] for the record company, and we’re part producers as well. So I feel better in those roles. I feel better as an A&R-type guy, who sees something in the artist and goes, “Bad song choice. We can fix that, and we’ll find great songs.” And from a producer’s standpoint, “You’ve got a few techniques that are actually getting in the way of your better talent, so let’s try and get rid of those.” I much prefer those kind of roles.

We’ve all seen some interaction with this year’s judges, and you’ve been called the voice of sanity on the panel.

That doesn’t say much for us, does it? (laughs) We’re doomed!