Like the title of his sophomore Capitol Records release, Golden Road, Keith Urban’s career has stayed on a solid, 24-karat path. Since stepping foot on American soil in 1992, the Aussie guitarist, singer and songwriter has climbed his way to the top of the ultra-competitive country music industry. Urban carved his niche with the upbeat, carefree, country/rock sound of chart-topping singles “Somebody Like You” and “Who Wouldn’t Wanna Be Me,” balanced by touching, relationship ballads like “You’ll Think of Me” and “Raining on Sunday.”
Urban’s career was going great-and then it got better. Last year his third solo release, Be Here, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart with first-week sales doubling those of Golden Road. The album’s first single, “Days Go By,” topped the charts and “You’re My Better Half” is following closely behind. In November, Urban reached a pinnacle moment when he was awarded the CMA’s Male Vocalist of the Year, beating out George Strait, Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney and Toby Keith.
American Songwriter recently caught up with CMT’s “Sexiest Man in Country Music” for a phone interview while Urban was on tour in Tucson, Ariz. We asked him to talk about his songwriting ability, his inspirations and to give some writing tips. Here’s what he had to say.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO COUNTRY MUSIC?
My parents’ record collection was all country. So, it really was the music I was exposed to the most at a young age. I started playing guitar when I was six, and consequently all of the songs I learned were Charley Pride, Dolly Parton, Tanya Tucker, Glen Campbell and so on. It was all of those artists I heard first, and it just turned me on to the music right from the start.
TELL ME ABOUT THE FIRST SONG YOU EVER WROTE.
I was nine or 10. I made a song up with my brother called “Good Ole Country Music” (laughs). It was pretty bad.
WHO ARE YOUR SONGWRITING INFLUENCES?
There’s so many. We just watched the movie White Christmas again last night, with Bing Crosby in it, and it just floored me…the kind of songwriting that used to be popular back in that day. Even a song like “White Christmas” or “Blue Skies.” Guys like him and Sammy Cahn, some of the greats-they just had a flow of craft in lyric and melody. It’s another era. And, I think it’s hard to go past Paul McCartney as one of the all-time greats.
DID YOU REALIZE YOU HAD A GIFT IN SONGWRITING? OR, DID IT TAKE OTHERS TO POINT IT OUT TO YOU?
I still don’t feel like I do. It comes in waves. It’s very sporadic; it’s so elusive. I’m not one of those people that writes all the time. I can go for months and months and never write anything. Therefore, I work nicely when I take the time to write. Stuff just seems to come when I get into the path of writing and spend a month or so writing three or four times a week, especially co-writing.
SO YOU’RE ABLE TO CHANNEL YOUR SONGWRITING ENERGY WHEN YOU MAKE THE TIME FOR IT?
It’s usually when I’m inspired by something or an idea sparks. Every now and then we’ll come up with things at sound-check. We did the Billboard awards Wednesday night. I played with Sheryl Crow. When we were sound-checking in the afternoon, this whole melody and chord progression came to me. So I grabbed my phone and sang into it. I think it’s something I could write with Sheryl. I think it was just having her by me that was good inspiration.
WHEN WRITING SONGS, DO YOU WRITE LYRICS OR MELODY FIRST? OR, DOES IT CHANGE FROM SONG TO SONG?
It does change. Every now and then I’ll scribble a bunch of lyrics out with really no melody to accompany them…just a meter. But mostly it’s melody. Guitar riffs and melodies. Those are the things that usually come first. The lyrics usually come at the end of the process.
DO YOU NEED A CERTAIN WRITING ENVIRONMENT? ALONE? QUIET? OR, DO YOU PREFER BEING AROUND OTHERS?
I do a lot of co-writing. I write with John Shanks quite a bit. I’ll go out to his studio in Los Angeles and we’ll work out of there. Another guy, Monty Powell, I wrote with in Nashville a lot. He’s got a little studio under his house, and we’ve had a lot of luck writing down there. So, nowhere in particular for me.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE CO-WRITING PROCESS THAT YOU ENJOY?
Just another creative person to bounce ideas off of. When you start writing with someone consistently like I do with John Shanks, Monty Powell or even Rodney Crowell-guys I’ve written five or six songs with-you just find people that you click with. Your chemistry is really good. You tend to compliment each other.
HOW DO YOU FIND THESE CO-WRITERS? DO YOU HAVE A SELECTION PROCESS?
It’s a lot of trial and error. You can write with someone and have it be quite disastrous I’ve found. But then you do it again and it just works. I’m sure you hear it from other writers. It’s even difficult talking about writing because it’s such an elusive thing. Kind of like trying to describe an angel that you can’t see.
YOU WORKED WITH RICHARD MARX ON “BETTER LIFE.” HOW DID THAT HAPPEN?
We met a couple years ago in Nashville through a mutual friend. We talked about writing but just never seemed to get around to it. Every time we got together we’d either go to dinner or just hang out-we never really wrote. We wrote one song a year or so ago and then he suggested I go out to his house. I did that in January (2004) and we wrote “Better Life,” and it just came from a little drum groove and a banjo line. I write quite a bit with banjos. There’s such a rhythmic, melodic groove to the banjo and it inspires me quite a bit. I have a six-string banjo called a ganjo, and I’ve written a lot of songs on it.
WHAT DO YOU FIND INSPIRATION IN? ARE THERE TOPICS YOU FIND YOURSELF WRITING ABOUT MORE THAN OTHERS?
I write a lot about freedom in all its various forms. And again, it’s not something that I consciously do, but when lyrics start to come and formulate a melody, it tends to have that theme about it. I’ve noticed that a lot when looking back at my songs.
It’s what we ultimately all are looking for in all forms. Freedom from the guilt and remorse that a lot of us carry around. Regret. Freedom from responsibility, and to some degree accountability. Freedom from expectations in life and what people demand and want from you all the time. I think we’re all seeking that desert island somewhere.
I REALLY FELT THAT “FREEDOM” IN YOUR FIRST SINGLE FROM BE HERE-“DAYS GO BY.” BUT, THE LYRICS ARE ABOUT HOW QUICKLY TIME GOES BY, WHICH IS KIND OF SAD. WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THAT?
Yeah, well, we tend to be in such an age right now with so many technological inventions that are meant to help us have more free time and it seems like it has had a complete reverse effect. Blackberrys and Sidekicks, emails, laptops, cell phones, voicemail-it just goes on and on. It seems that these things that are supposed to cut time from our work end up taking up all of our time, because they’re all we devote our time to instead of people and instead of doing things for ourselves. We’re always working towards life starting somewhere down the road instead of right now, instead of today.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO OTHER SONGWRITERS?
I think the minute you start applying a formula, rules or a general idea to writing, someone comes along with a song that defies all of it. I like a lot of songs that are stream of conscious lyrically, not so perfectly rhymed and symmetrical. Most of it’s conversational, because it has a natural speech rhythm about it. I like all kinds of songs so it’s hard to define all that. I’d say just be as real as you can. That’s really it when it comes to songs and songwriting, to a large degree. But then there’s a bunch of songs that are a complete fabricated craft and they sounded amazing. The bottom line is that there are no rules in writing. There’s no bad or good-just music that appeals to certain people.
TELL ME ABOUT THE QUOTE ON THE BACK OF YOUR LINER NOTES IN BE HERE “LIFE IS A BALANCE OF HOLDING ON AND LETTING GO.” WHY DID YOU PUT THAT THERE?
I was looking for a quote to put in the record somewhere that I think summed up how I look at life. Making a record is all about taking a photograph. It’s all about capturing who you are at that time. That philosophy resonates with me currently, and I think it’s a broad meaning because it’s really up to the individual as to what it means to them. What do they hold on to and what do they let go of. Ultimately, it’s all about balance.
YOU THANK GOD OFTEN IN THE LINER NOTES. ARE YOU A SPIRITUAL PERSON? AND HOW DOES YOUR SPIRITUALITY AFFECT YOUR SONGWRITING?
Very spiritual. Not religious, but very spiritual. I don’t know how it inspires my songs, but I just know that it does. I think that spirituality probably inspires it by the view of looking at lyrics. I find that a lot of songs I write I talk about “you” as opposed to “her,” and it can have a spiritual connotation or personal connotation depending on who ‘you’ is. ‘You’ might be God, your girlfriend, mom, dad-it could be nature. It could be anything. I think I subconsciously keep songs a little ambiguous, again to not be too specific, and it lets people gravitate towards them in their own way.
ARE YOU WORKING ON NEW MATERIAL?
I will at some point. Little things come to me and I call my cell phone singing melodies and guitar riffs into my phone. At some point I’ll dump all those onto a cassette. All that stuff just stockpiles over the months and then when you have actual scheduled time to co-write with someone then I’ll usually just bring the tape along. We’ll run through all the ideas, and when something hits us both, we’ll go to work on that.
ANY FINAL THOUGHTS?
I’m just honored to be in the magazine. It’s terrific. I’m really a fan of songwriters and honestly I’ll never view myself as a songwriter in the way that I look at Rodney Crowell, Jimmy Webb, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. I wasn’t born to do it like those guys do it. Consequently, I’m just a real fan of songwriters, so for me it’s a real honor to be in this magazine.