Keith Urban

Talks about his first guitar, Nashville and new album

Thought by some to be a uniquely American art form, country music has a broad appeal which has led to worldwide popularity. After finding success outside the United States, New Zealand-born and Australia-raised Keith Urban moved to Nashville, Tenn. in 1992. After slugging it out for five years, which included multiple trips back to Australia as required by his visa, his hard work paid off with a record deal and two charting singles for his group, The Ranch. On his own since 1993, Urban has now sold more than 15 million albums and won four Grammys. His seventh album, Fuse, has gone to number one in three countries and features the singer’s 15th number-one hit, “Little Bit of Everything.”

Taking a different approach with Fuse, Urban pushed the boundaries with his choice of producers, co-writers and guest artists. “The idea of going in with one band and doing a record top to bottom didn’t interest me at all on this articular album.” He was also open to bringing his songs to life in different ways, as he explains, “In the case of this record, some of the songs that I’d written, like ‘A Heart Like Mine,’ that I wrote with Butch Walker, was something that I just started working on one day at the piano.” Urban didn’t feel confined to stay within a strict traditional country sound. “It’s all very relative to the time. Certainly, even what Mutt Lange did with Shania at the time was quite radical and now it seems quite tame.” Determined to make Fuse as good as he knew it could be, Urban took advantage of the wide range of people involved in the album. “I think I had a lot of faith in whatever it is that I do, my signature thing. I thought that was probably going to be fairly strong in it, in any of these cases, and create the continuity I needed, but by working with lots of different people it would also give me a lot of variation on a record where we’re in the no-attention-span generation right now, where the differences, stylistically, would actually be appealing, I think.”

Keith Urban’s career as a performer started early, as he explains. “My dad bought me a ukulele when I was 4 and he said I could strum it in time with the songs on the radio … [He said,] ‘Kid’s got rhythm. Maybe when he gets older we can get him a teacher to learn some chords.’ So when I turned 6, they did. Got me a teacher and bought me a little three-quarter size nylon-string acoustic guitar.” While that fi rst guitar is now long gone, Urban recalls the feeling he had as he started out. “I do remember my fingers hurt like hell. I remember that vividly. But I also remember my brother, who’s two years older, took up guitar at the same time I did. He had a steel-string guitar and he gave it away within weeks and I kept going. I really put it down to the nylon strings that saved me.”

While playing an instrument is one of his earliest memories, Urban doesn’t remember when he decided to become a professional musician. “It’s funny. I’ve never, to this day, made a decision to do it for a living. It’s kind of like someone saying, ‘When did you decide to start walking?’ I don’t know. I just figured out I could walk one day and I never really questioned it. That’s literally how it feels to me. I’ve been so lucky to have always been able to make my living from it. I only ever had one day job, really, and it was a telemarketing thing. It was just awful. I gave that away very, very quickly. Just sort of went, ‘I don’t need the extra money. I’m just going to gig at night.’”

Although he had a natural talent for guitar, Urban had the makings of a singer and songwriter early on. “At the beginning, I sang and played at the same time. Even when I was 6, I was singing and playing, learning songs, and then I would compete in talent quests. My dad never had any instrumental records, so I didn’t have any interest. I could listen to one guitar instrumental and then I’d be like, ‘Okay, I need to hear singing now.’ I knew that just playing guitar wasn’t going to appeal to me.”

Urban’s early gigs didn’t always find him at center stage. “I took jobs—one job in particular where I was musical director, which is such a ridiculous term for me, because I can’t read music to save myself—with this guy who was a cabaret singer. I think I was about 16. He toured around Australia using the house bands in all the different clubs, but he couldn’t play anything, so he needed a guitar player to go with him. So I’d parse out all the charts to the band without any clue what the hell the charts are all about. I learned all the songs by memory. My job really was to count the band in, play the guitar solos, sing harmony vocals, and then play the playoff music and back-announce him. You know, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, how about it for …’ and basically be like an announcer.” His current fans would probably have found him unrecognizable, as he explains. “I had to wear, like, a tuxedo with a bow tie and all—ridiculous. Playing my Fender Stratocaster through a little JC-50 amplifier—I did that for about a year. That’s the closest I ever got to just being a guitar player, and it was okay, but I certainly wasn’t really cut out for it.”

With musical director and other odd jobs behind him, Keith Urban went on to make a name for himself in his home country, but felt the United States was where he needed to be. “What I noticed from artists I loved—they went to America and just sort of bombed and then went back home again. Without knowing these artists, I would hear stories about why they didn’t make it and the thing that kept popping up was people would say, ‘Well, they just weren’t willing to go and put in the time.’ You can’t just go and sort of moonlight in America and think you’re going to make it. You’ve got to go put in roots and if you can’t stay there, then you’ve got to go back again and again and again. Whether it be INXS or AC/DC, any of these bands that made it, they only made it because they just kept putting in the time.”

Deciding Nashville would be the place for him, Urban made the move. “It’s not like I was starving in Australia, but what I realized is no matter how successful I become in Australia, it’s not going to translate to America. I’ve got to tart at the bottom again … so why am I spending so much time trying to have this massive career in Australia, only to know it’s not going to matter anything when I get to America? If I’ve got to start from scratch, let’s go. And that’s why I abandoned my climb up the Australian ladder.” It was just as difficult as he had imagined, as he explains. “When I got to Nashville, I could only stay for six weeks at a time because of my visa. It’s almost like you’re in the line at the checkout and there’s a lot of people in front of you and you’re slowly moving up the line and you’re getting up there and you’re meeting people … and then I had to leave to go back to Australia. The very first trip back to America I thought I could get back in line where I was and suddenly it’s like, ‘no, no, no—all the way to the back of the line again. People have moved in since you went and got those eggs.’ I ran to the egg aisle and came back and six more people were in line.”

Urban is a staunch supporter of music education and has been involved with charities such as Grammy in the Schools and Mr. Holland’s Opus Fund. Also helping where he can to showcase a few musicians in the early stages of their careers, Urban has participated on American Idol and The Voice Australia. “I like that opportunity, wherever that is. It doesn’t even have to be TV. I’m always happy to help wherever I can. But at the same time, I also think people have got to find their own way and there’s no rules. There really isn’t. Whatever worked for me 10 years ago, a lot of that doesn’t work today. A lot of things that artists struggle with are o en the things that set them apart from other people. So it’s a very delicate thing to sort of mentor people. I think you have to be very careful in doing it.”

Enjoying the success he’s continuously worked so hard to achieve, Keith Urban is hitting the road with his “Light the Fuse” tour in support of the album. It promises to have something for new fans as well as those who have seen previous tours, as he explains. “I do try and approach them all differently because people have seen us before. But also I’m an artist so I’m in a different place, always. The things that are of interest to me and appeal to me from a creative standpoint are constantly changing, so I think the tour reflects that.” One thing is for certain: Keith Urban will put all he’s got into each show. As he says, “Music is absolutely my life. I don’t know where I’d be without it.”

Written by Troy Richardson / Photography by Ryan Hunter

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