America’s finally realized what Australia’s known a long time…Keith urban (yes he spells it with all lower case) belongs at the top of the charts. “But For The Grace Of God” became his first number one here this year; he received his first Academy of Country Music nomination and Grammy nomination, guested on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno for the first time, and hosted VH1-Country.
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America’s finally realized what Australia’s known a long time…Keith urban (yes he spells it with all lower case) belongs at the top of the charts. “But For The Grace Of God” became his first number one here this year; he received his first Academy of Country Music nomination and Grammy nomination, guested on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno for the first time, and hosted VH1-Country. As the Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin (who co-wrote the chart-topper with Keith and Charlotte Caffrey) says, “I am thrilled for Keith’s success but frankly I am surprised it took even this long! He is a singer and guitar player of remarkable caliber.”
Urban usually tries to tone down that guitar artistry on records, but just can’t suppress it in live appearances. In recent performances in Nashville, Urban’s exuberantly intricate guitar picking astounded usually jaded Music Row crowds of musicians, journalists and radio personnel. An enthusiastic Pam Tillis exclaimed during WRCS at Country Radio Seminar, “He’s got the whole band in that guitar!”
Besides his other talents, urban is an exceptionally fine songwriter, writing nine out of the 12 cuts on his latest, self-titled album. Though he began playing guitar at six, he was 21 when he seriously started writing songs. “I wanted to play music that I could relate to and feel strongly about,” he says. “You can’t feel stronger than writing your own material. I’m writing a lot, trying to figure out what I want to say and documenting what’s going on in my life, which is what the best records are all about.”
The writer for the Top Ten Music Group, Inc. (BMI) believes “But For the Grace of God” succeeded because “People need to stop and reevaluate where they are in life, being thankful for the little things. It struck a chord with people. I was flying back from the Grammy’s yesterday, and the thing on my mind was what DO I feel strongly about. That’ll spearhead the songs on the next record. I feel strongly about people knowing who they are and rediscovering their independence, even in a relationship. Once you know who you are, where you’re going, how you’re gonna get there and what you need to get there, you start to know why people are around you. There’s no need for animosity once you know why you need them in your life. People are quick to put the blame on someone else, like ‘This person stopped me from doing that.’ Life’s way too short to put the blame on other people for your not being able to live your life the way you want.”
Urban enjoys co-writing with “a very tight group of people. I’ve had luck with all of them. There are too many in my group to mention and too few to leave somebody out.” (When we talked, he was writing at Steve Wariner’s house and he discussed writing five songs over the past three months with Rodney Crowel.) He adds, “I lean more toward writing with somebody. I like having a sounding board. There are a lot of interesting angles to any situation. Sometimes you need to put the idea out there so you can hear it. I love co-writers!”
Writing with partners worked magically when Urban’s “girlfriend was leaving to go to another country. There was nothing on my mind but what was going on in my life. What a moving day, and I had to write. It was inevitable the story would come out. I wrote it with Skip Ewing and Matt Rollings. Skip said, ‘What are you thinking about?’ I told him and bawled my eyes out. Skip was furiously writing down everything I was saying. Matt was playing piano, and it was an amazing three-way writing. I had the burden of living the story; Skip had the craftsmanship with the lyrics and Matt had a great hand in the melody, so it was a great partnership.” The song ended up as “I Thought You Knew,” the final song on Keith’s latest album.
With whom would urban most like to co-write? He decides on Paul McCartney, though he idolizes Jimmy Webb. “Jimmy’s the only guy I ever wanted a picture with. I was on Prime Time Country when he and Glen Campbell were being interviewed, so I got a photo with them…definitely a keeper!”
The possibilities behind titles intrigues urban. “I like a title that can be read a lot of different ways. I was in Tower records today buying Paul Simon’s new album. I like his music because you get caught up in the rhythm, then, when you find out the words you go, ‘Oh, this is great!’ I’m not necessarily a big fan of riveting poetry at the expense of the melody and beat. I think you can reel people in with a great groove, then they find out there’s a story. There was a song playing at Tower and I found myself singing my own words, like I always do – forget what he’s singing! I started singing, ‘I guess you should go.’I thought, ‘That’s a great title.’ My original idea was it could be a father singing to his young girl who’s moving out or a kid who has his first crush on a girl and they go to the skating rink and are talking to each other when her dad comes to pick her up and the kid says, ‘Well, I guess you should go.’ But Steve and I are writing it today as a triangle story. This guy throws out his girl. She goes to the arms of another guy who loves her but figures out that she really loves the first guy. You can’t question love, so he says, ‘I think you should go,’ though it’s the last thing he wants.”
Urban says he’s “started to write things down if I like the sound of them. I don’t know if I have a book of titles, but I have a page! I’ve had success at writing sessions, bringing in a title or melody or playing a guitar riff or even nothing. More often than not, though, I’ve had success coming in with something.”
His advice to novice songwriters? “Subscribe to American Songwriter! How are you gonna know, otherwise? Go to writers’ nights. Look in the paper and see if there’s a writer playing and go listen to him. Listen to the lyrics. The Bluebird here in Nashville is great because you get to listen to the stories behind the lyrics. You’ll even hear amended lyrics. From there, you have to be an honest critic with your songs. Do they shape up to what you’re trying to do? Then it boils down to what you want to say and what you most believe in. What’s the singer really gonna connect with?”
Keith admits, “I think there’s sort of a beatnik, bohemian thing that lives in every songwriter, that doesn’t want to acknowledge the commercial aspects, but we’re quick to get bummed if our songs don’t chart and we don’t sell records. So where does the bohemian go then?! We’re a walking contradiction. I live in a small loft at the corner of Art and Commerce if you want to visit!”