IN ITS 40-YEAR HISTORY, no country artist had ever played the Festival de Quebec. It seems somehow fitting that, in July, Keith Urban became the first to break that barrier, playing hits like “Raise ’Em Up,” “Long Hot Summer,” “You Gonna Fly” and “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” to an enthusiastic audience of 70,000. A truly global artist, the New Zealand-born, Aussie-bred superstar travels the world evangelizing for country music in word and deed and he was thrilled that fans responded so enthusiastically.
“We’ve played a lot of festivals in our life, including Live 8 in Philadelphia, but that Quebec audience was indescribable with the energy they were giving us and how connected they were,” says Keith, on the phone from another Canadian tour stop shortly after his historic performance, where organizers declared that, thanks to Keith, more country will come to the festival in the future. “I walked offstage and I said to the band, ‘I don’t know how many shows I’ve done in my whole life, but that may be the best gig I’ve ever done.’ It was just one of those magic nights. It just might be my favorite gig of all time.”
While Keith clearly has his hands full out on the road conjuring the live magic as he continues to promote his hit 2013 album Fuse, he’s already ruminating about his next album. Will it be influenced by recent collaborations, including his appearance on the Jason DeRulo single “Broke” with Stevie Wonder and his noodling in the studio with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame producer and artist Nile Rodgers (David Bowie, Madonna) of Chic? Even he doesn’t know yet, but he’s excited about the prospect of making and releasing new music.
Keith, who returns to judge the final season of American Idol in early 2016, was so excited that he released “John Cougar” as a single, even though there is no title or release date for the album yet. The slinky slice of country funk, penned by Shane McAnally, Ross Copperman and Josh Osborne, was just too good not to release says Keith. “If we’ve come to the end of an album cycle and there isn’t any new music but there is, there’s a song, I don’t see why you can’t put a song out.” He figured correctly since the tune became the fastest seller of his nearly 15-year career. But Keith says fans shouldn’t necessarily look too closely at “John Cougar” as a bellwether of what is to come musically, especially since he is determined never to repeat himself.
“Everybody’s got their own feeling on those sorts of things but I think historically, and particularly with Fuse, it would be hard to pinpoint what that record was just by any one song,” says Keith of the stylistically diverse outing that moved from tender piano ballads to stomping rockers to pop-flecked anthems. “So, I don’t know that my specific fan base ever thinks that one song would be indicative of an entire album. At the very least, hopefully the energy is always indicative. I think the sounds, the rhythms, the tempos, the subject matter, all these elements may all be very different from one another, but I think the spirit and energy of ‘John Cougar’ is very much what the next record will be. But subject matter-wise I think it’s going to run the gamut of a whole lot of things just like Fuse did.”
Those subjects come to him all the time, day and night. “I jot lyrics down a lot, just jabs of lines and poetry and things,” says Keith. “I have lots of songs that need to be finished out. It’s like I have suburbs and suburbs that have these homes that are being built but they’re not finished and I’ve got to get people to help me finish them so people can move in and live in them,” he says with a laugh. “I need a bigger construction crew.”
Who exactly will be on that crew has yet to be determined, but longtime co-producer Dann Huff—who has been behind the boards for all or part of the recording of Keith’s last six albums and on “John Cougar”—agrees that the album could take just about any shape and believes Keith’s longevity is proof he is the real deal.
“I think more than anybody I’ve worked with, I’ve learned the most from him,” says Dann, who has worked with everyone from Faith Hill to Thomas Rhett. He believes Keith’s staying power comes from “his insistence for himself to grow and explore, but also knowing full well that it’s not just exploration, he’s got to make hits, and that ain’t easy when you’ve been doing it for over a decade.” One element both men credit as contributing to Keith’s body of work is the power of collaboration, something that they share, and that Keith has also explored with other artists and songwriters.
“A lot of times in our collaborating I feel like it’s more to expose where his head is,” says “John Cougar” co-writer Shane McAnally, who also co-wrote the dreamy “Come Back to Me” on Fuse. “I don’t think it’s always with the linear intention of writing a song for the record, it is to write and explore and also to send us back into the world knowing where he’s at.”
Keith helps figure out where it’s at both in the solitude of writing and playing guitar and in brainstorming with different people. “I really have no system and it’s a blessing and a curse,” says Keith of his scattershot approach. “Everybody’s got a different language and some songs I think require that kind of craftsmanship, to carve out the lyrics and shape them right. Other times I feel like a song just wants to speak, it doesn’t have to be cleverly rhymed. If I’m collaborating with someone I will specifically seek out those kinds of writers who don’t feel like they have to write to a particular form or structure. I like rule-breakers a lot. That’s why I’ve always been such a fan of Taylor [Swift]’s work as a lyricist.”
That penchant for rule-breaking is part of the reason Keith so thoroughly enjoyed his time with Nile Rodgers, although it’s unclear if the music they worked on will make the finished product.
“He’s one of the greatest rhythm guitarists of all time,” rhapsodizes Keith of the man who has put his stamp on everything from disco to hard rock. “His particular style is legendary, he’s an icon just for the way he pockets that right wrist and the way he dances with strings with his left hand as he’s chording. It’s extraordinary to sit in the studio with him and just jam, which we did for, oh my god, hours and hours and hours. We got a little groove going and we just played. The first night we worked together we didn’t write anything, we just played. It was like two kids in a sandbox who had just been given brand-new Tonka trucks and we just like played for hours and hours grinning at each other. I can’t speak for Nile, but from my standpoint it was so effortless and almost like finding a long lost brother. So, I do hope something we’ve done will not only make the record but I hope that several things we’ve done will make the record.”
Nile is one name on a long list of artists with whom Keith would like to work, but no matter who he shares the studio or the stage with—from Eric Church to Miranda Lambert—he knows his sound will always intrinsically be his own. “It’s funny, because I’m so strongly involved in the production of my records and always co-produce, if not actually produce certain tracks myself, I think that’s what helps glue it all together,” says Keith. “My fingerprints are going to be on it no matter what it is.”
One place his fingerprints can be felt is on the current wave of country artists who are incorporating an EDM and R&B feel to their songs through the use of synths and loops, something Keith has been doing for years.
“I think that was inevitable,” he says. “We’re at a time in country music’s history where the influences are more immediate. Artists aren’t pulling from their youth from 10 years before, they’re pulling from now and in a much quicker fashion than they did before. That’s why it’s an interesting time. The thing everybody has to be very careful of is not doing a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, send in the clones, basically. It’s so important to keep staying true to ourselves as artists but also reaching for the next thing.”
And whether it’s breaking ground for country around the globe or working with diverse artists, reaching for the next thing is what you can expect Keith to do.