Urban legend

Country singer Keith Urban is back with an album of simple odes

Published: March 29, 2009 2:10 pm

Country singer Keith Urban is back with an album of simple odes
Keith Urban may be one of country music’s biggest stars,but he and his band didn’t look like much as they settled in for rehearsal in a homey,log cabin-style studio in Franklin,Tennessee,not far from his home outside of Nashville. It was a miserable,sleeting day in March,and the six guys were sitting around in T-shirts and jeans,laughing about a bird that got loose in the studio and made a mess of the drum kit.
The day’s lunch break offered a glimpse into Urban’s offstage life when his wife,Nicole Kidman,stopped by after attending a class with the couple’s eight-month-old daughter,Sunday Rose. Dressed simply in a sweater,jeans and rain boots,she mixed easily with the band and crew “How about if you handle the rest of the interview?” Urban said to her with a grin.

Urban,41,has a new album,“Defying Gravity”. It mostly tells tales of new love,courtship or yearning for lost romance,but the album’s final song reveals more humbling emotions. The song Thank You is a spare,gospel-inflected offering of gratitude to Kidman. It’s the one place on the album where Urban addresses the troubles of his recent past,which included some time in rehab.

In 2006 it looked as if Keith Urban was going to have his biggest year yet. His last album,“Be Here”,from 2004,had spawned five hit singles. With his shaggy good looks,never hidden under a cowboy hat,and ferocious guitar technique,Urban seemed to have enormous crossover potential. Then,two weeks before his fourth album release in the United States,“Love,Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing”,Urban checked into the Betty Ford Center for substance-abuse treatment.
He now says that the pressure to produce a global blockbuster had become too much for him. “Where I was,it just a big ol’ keg of dynamite.”

Lounging on a studio couch,he said that after his disappointment passed,he could see the benefits of that difficult time. “I needed to be interrupted.” Judging from “Defying Gravity”,the break served him well. The album’s mood is joyous,built on Urban’s signature blend of the modern (drum machines) and the traditional (banjos and fiddles).”I wanted to get back to the core of my earlier music,” he said. “Simple odes to love,loss,longing. I just went with it.”

Make no mistake,the decline of the music industry has finally hit Nashville. Carrie Underwood’s new album has sold 3 million copies,less than half of what her 2005 debut sold. With a new sophistication and a wide variety of influences,though,country stars are now the closest music has to a genuine mainstream. Urban is a riveting entertainer who can pack a stadium,and he is also an accomplished songwriter. He’s a girl’s guy and a musician’s musician. In the country-rock tradition,he’s a classic Sensitive Dude.

Born in New Zealand,Urban grew up in suburban Australia. He started performing at a very young age; he listened to country music but played in rock bands,and he even worked as musical director for a cabaret act while he was still a teenager. He moved to Nashville in 1992.

He formed a band called the Ranch,which cut one album before Urban went solo in 1999. His second US release,2002’s “Golden Road”,sold 3 million copies and kicked off his steady stream of hit singles.
“We often get the comment ‘I’m not that into country music,but that guy Keith Urban is awesome’,” said Mike Dungan,president and chief executive of Capitol Records Nashville.

In conversation Urban is amiable but a bit cautious. He lights up when talking music but speaks more indirectly about his personal life. That sense of privacy carries over into his writing,though he did say that he has wondered why changes in his life,major matters like sobriety and his baby,don’t figure more prominently in his new songs.

“I guess I just didn’t feel compelled to write about those things yet,” he said. “As an artist,sure,I’d like to think there’s some riveting revelation,some deep uncovering of things I’ve come to understand,” he continued,“but it’s hard to do in such a way that it’s not getting trivialised. I just write by what drives me,and what’s driven me the most has been my wife’s love.”

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