Interview: Keith Urban Opens Up on New Album, ‘The Speed of Now Part 1′
As the joke goes, the world won't end tomorrow, because it's already tomorrow in Australia. It's flawed logic, of course, but it's still comforting, on an evening six months or so into the novel coronavirus pandemic, to see Keith Urban pop up on the video chat screen from Down Under.
"I'll give you the lotto numbers," he jokes.
It's relatively early in the day Australia time, but the country superstar is thoughtful and energetic — especially for someone who's got a busy couple of weeks of album promotion and preparation for his 2020 ACM Awards hosting duties ahead of him — as we chat about his 11th studio album, The Speed of Now Part 1, out Friday (Sept. 18).
"I'm just ... really looking forward to everybody getting to hear the album top to bottom, 'cause there's no one song that really sums up the record," Urban explains. "There's a reason why there's the songs, as many of those as there is, on this record; there's a reason for all those, and I'm looking forward to people getting to go on that journey."
At 16 tracks long, Urban's new record is lengthy, and his voice and guitar work are perhaps its only sonically unifying themes. The ace musician has become notorious for experimenting in his music, continuously pushing the country music boundaries, generally with success. For every lovelorn, banjo-flecked song ("Change Your Mind") and each upbeat, classically Urban number ("Superman"), there's a genre-bending special guest (Breland on "Out the Cage") or bona fide pop star (Pink on "One Too Many") singing with him elsewhere.
As is become customary, Urban's collaborators, both the featured guests and the songwriters behind the scenes, span the spectrum: Well-known country tunesmiths Brent Cobb and Jaren Johnston make appearances, but so does a British musician and producer named Eg White. Their lyrics cover love and loss, the struggle to live a good life and the importance of speaking your mind.
Urban has gotten used to working with his co-conspirators from different locales, but this project was the first time he had to do so because of a global pandemic and an unfamiliar virus. The Speed of Now Part 1 wasn't finished when COVID-19 put the United States largely into lockdown in the spring, and, in fact, the album morphed and grew a little bit during that time — after Urban learned how to be creative under a new set of circumstances, that is.
When the pandemic was first declared and the United States went into quarantine, you were pretty forthcoming about how it took you a second to get adjusted to the COVID mindset and how you could be creative during this time. From the outside, you looked pretty busy — you had your drive-in show, you were releasing new songs, you announced this album — but it sounds like that wasn't really what was happening?
It was eventually, but there was a transition period from when everything started shutting down to the drive-in concert. That period in between was a bit of a creative paralysis time to me because I was just thrown. I mean, I was touring, we were playing shows in Vegas, we were playing festivals, I was zipping around different studios working on my album, I was writing with people — I was busy, I was doing stuff, you know — and suddenly it was just, stop, stop where you are, stay at home, don't leave, and I'm like, "What? Huh?"
And, yeah, it was really — I didn't transition right away. Definitely not. It sort of almost felt like I had a bit of a creative intervention from my team on it: "You're gonna finish this album sometime?" ... So, yeah, it took a minute to start to accept the new environment and new limitations that we had to work within.
But it seems like you really flourished once you got adjusted to it.
I did, yeah. I know it sounds so sort of simple, but I had a pivotal conversation on the phone with a friend of mine, who's much wiser and older and experienced than I am in life. And I talked to him about 10 minutes about everything that was going on, and he said, "You know, we've been on the phone about 10 minutes, Keith ... You haven't said one thing that you can do."
And I said, "What do you mean?"
He goes, "Everything you've talked about is what you can't do ... I get it. But can you tell me anything that you can do, just one thing?"
I'm like, "Uh ... well, I have the studio here at the house. I could call an engineer to come over and probably, with a mask and social distancing, I could do some work in my studio."
He went, "When are you going to do that?"
"When I get off the phone to you?"
"Great. What else?"
And it was like, he moved me over to everything, just slowly. I know that sounds so Hallmark, cheesy, sort of like Therapy 101, but a lot of times it's the right advice at just the right time, and he was right: I was focused on everything I couldn't do — and there was insurmountable stuff I couldn't do; it was legit — but I had to focus on things I could do, and when I did that, that's when everything turned, and I just tried to stay focused on what I could do.
Looking at this album's credits, there's just a smidge fewer songs that you wrote on this one versus past albums. What happened to bring in so many outside cuts?
There was a lot of songs that I had to leave off this record, which probably most likely we'll find a way to Part 2. For me, I've never really — it doesn't really matter who wrote a song, whether it's me or someone else, or a collaboration, or a solo write, or a song that's been sitting around for a long time. In the case of "Better Than I Am," we wrote that song a few years ago, and I was just waiting for the right album to put it on. So, it's just a feeling of the right song at the right time, and trying to shape and create a record that feels like the one I hear in my head.
I want to hear about working with Breland. You two seem like kindred spirits.
Yeah, you hit the nail on the head; it's kindred spirits, was what it was.
I knew about him last year when he put out "My Truck," and then I read an interview online with him a few months back, and I was fascinated by the interview. It was a really good interview, and I felt that — I went, "This is somebody after my own heart. This is someone that doesn't see labels and boundaries and limitations and boxes and stuff, he just creates," and that's right; that speaks to me in a big way.
So I got ahold of his phone number through some somebody — just cold-called him — and we talked for, like, 45 minutes, that day, just effortless on the phone, about music and growing up. He was raised by two gospel-singing parents, and we just hit it off, and I said, "Gosh, anytime you're in Nashville, Breland, it'd be great to get in the studio and see what happens if we write something."
And this is on a Wednesday afternoon, and he goes, "I'll be there Friday morning." And, sure enough, 9:30AM Friday morning, he had driven from Atlanta — I don't know what time he left, 5AM or something — but he was on my doorstep. And we set about writing a song, and then we wrote another one, and we wrote "Soul Food" and we wrote "Out the Cage," and we just clicked. It was fantastic.
Those collaborations at this time really stand out to me, because he's been outspoken about Black Lives Matter and the protests that have been going on. It's encouraging to see you embracing him and welcoming him into this genre.
Well, and vice versa, in the sense of bringing a liberated energy and creativity into what I do. Again, that kindred spirit dynamic that we have together helps us both; it really helps us both.
I know when we wrote "Out the Cage," that's a great example of a song that, I know why I'm writing it, I know the perspective I'm coming at it from in my life experience and the things I'm passionate about. [But also,] I know why he's writing it, and that's a different life experience, a different passion, it's a different thrust, and yet, it's all connected: It's all based in this feeling of confinement, whether it's oppression or confinement through all kinds of ways, really.
When we were writing the song, I said, "I really, really want this to be a song that speaks to liberation of all sorts," even if that's somebody in a dead-end job, somebody that's stuck in a relationship that's going nowhere and they can't get out, someone who's sort of imprisoned in their own mind. You know, that line, "In my mind's eye lies the key that'll open the door / You can't break me, there's a new day coming," is just trying to take back that power inside all of us, to keep pushing outwards and breaking out of any confinement.
Did what you and Breland were doing, or even other conversations you were having, inspire "Say Something" at all, even though you didn't write it together?
"Say Something" got started by a couple of the other writers who did the track, and then Lindy Robbins, who had already started a lyrical direction for that song, and it was called "Say Something," and she had sketched out most of that first verse, and I knew what her inspiration was, where that was coming from, but when I thought about my own life and the way I was raised ...
I was raised in a house with a dad that was always like, "Shhh. Don't rock the boat. Don't talk about anything; say [it] in your music." And there's a lot of truth in that. It's a little bit like what Gandhi said — you know, when they said to Gandhi, "What's your message?" he goes, "My life is my message." And I've always admired that approach, but there are times when we should be speaking up and saying something.
And my own connection to that moved toward my family I was raised in and times I wished I'd spoken up in that environment, 'cause we didn't talk about anything. "When I get close, I close up / Intimacy's so hard for me and I get stuck" — that's how I was raised. And there was so many times we should have said something. We didn't talk about stuff; we just didn't talk about it. We should have said something in the home, so I wanted to make sure that got covered in that song as well.
Moving forward, how do you use what you've learned about expressing your emotions and what you say in that song to say something and resist the urge to fold in and not express yourself?
By just living my truths. That's the last line of that [verse]: "I wanna live my truths wide open." And not be afraid to do that, to live my truth. That's really it.
My dad didn't really live his truth to the fullest extent that I know he wished he could have — a product of his own raising. And I didn't want to be like that. You know, that's what it says: "I don't wanna be like my father was / Scared to rock the boat, never speaking up." And I'm learning a lot about that in my family now ... a lot more about talking about things, connecting. Yeah, imagine that. [Laughs]
Being stuck at home in the same spot will do that.
[Laughs] Yes, it will. Well, it'll make it a lot easier if you can express things and not walk around on eggshells.
There's one more song on the album after it, but "Better Than I Am" is an amazing ending; it just wrecks you. Where did all of that emotion come from?
It's a big question. [Chuckles] Now we're on the couch, okay.
Firstly, I wanted to work with Eg White ... He wrote "Chasing Pavements" with Adele, and it's still one of my favorite Adele songs of all time; it's just so unusual and beautiful and exquisite and original. And so, his name always stayed with me, and I ended up in London a few years ago, and I had the opportunity to write with him, and so we met in his tiny little studio, and we just started talking about soul records that we love: Bill Withers and a whole bunch of things.
And he was like, "Well, so tell me a bit about, you know, your life. What's going on?" and I don't know why I started getting so confessional with him, but he just brings it out in you.
And I said, "You know, sometimes I'm not sure if I'm running to something or running from something. It's a bit of a blur. I feel like I'm sort of swimming to keep from drowning."
And he went, 'Well, there's the opening lines."
We wrote that down, and then we just started going from there, just speaking about my journey and my past, which was behind me but still not as far as I wished it was, and trying to — just trying to be better than I am.
When I was in rehab, one of my counselors was saying to me, "Look, we're trying to walk in the light as best we can." And he goes, "I don't know that we can do that, but just try and lean. If you're walking on an angle, just try and walk on an angle leaning into the light." It always stayed with me, so there's a line in there: "I will stand in the light, at least as best I can." And it was just being honest that I'm a work in progress.
Knowing that you can't do what you would normally do — tour — on this album right now, where do you go from here?
I have no idea. I'm hoping and praying that we figure out a way to tour in some form. And it's funny, because everyone talks about next year, but next year is a long time within itself. Is it January? Is it December? But I think I think that there's so much — there's so many ways we can figure things out. I mean, if we can send a Tesla into outer space, we can figure it out.