In his most recent No. 1 country smash, Keith Urban sings about his love for the ideal woman and how he wants to "Put You in a Song." It's easy to idealize Urban, too, between his masterful rock guitar-god chops, pop songwriting skills, amiable personality, and the fact that he cleans up real good. But the best we can do to capture all that is put him in an interview. And put him on the Our Country soundstage, where he and his band recorded live versions of several tracks from his latest album, Get Closer.
While Keith was taking a break from performing "Put You in a Song," "Without You," and "You're Gonna Fly" for our cameras, we had him stick around on that stool to answer some queries about the personal motivations behind the new material, how the Nashville floods affected him, and his Mark Knopfler obsession.
OUR COUNTRY: "Put You in a Song" is a great radio song about... writing a great radio song. [Urban laughs.] Of course it's more than that: It's about a girl. But it's in the tradition of first singles you've had off your albums before, like "Days Go By." Do you feel like you need a high-energy song for a leadoff track or first single?
URBAN: Not necessarily. Really for me, it starts with writing songs, and I just gravitate toward those kinds of songs like "Days Go By" or "Better Life" or "Put You in a Song." Those kinds of songs just come in certain environments for me, if there's a good energy. And I like the imagery in those songs. Particularly with "Put You in a Song"—I like songs about the unattainable girl. There's something sort of metaphorical about reaching for something that may be out of reach, and the fact that it is out of reach being the very thing that's fueling the drive towards it.
OUR COUNTRY: People who don't look at the credits may assume you wrote "Without You," because the lyrics seem so specific to your life. Of course, you didn't write that one. You aren't directly and specifically autobiographical in your lyrics very often, so it would be hard to imagine you writing a song where you talk about having a little girl. Did the fact that you didn't write "Without You" make it easier to sing something so clearly personal?
URBAN: Yeah, it definitely did. You're right: I think sometimes as a writer, the things that are so literal to me, I might find too literal. I gravitate toward some sort of metaphorical representation of that in a song. It's strange that it took me hearing this song for it to be so literal. I mean, it talks about "Along came a baby girl," and the fast cars and guitars, and all these things I guarantee I would never have written about because they would just seem too uncomfortably literal for me. Yet somehow, hearing it written by somebody else, it affected me differently. I was able to remove myself from being too critical of the song and just listen it, and it was a beautiful song. And of course, it fit my life perfectly.
OUR COUNTRY: "You're Gonna Fly" seems like a likely candidate to be a single.
URBAN: Yeah, we were actually contemplating that one being the first single, and then everybody heard "Put You in a Song" and collectively said we should go with that first. But I think "Fly" will come soon. I didn't write it, butand the story. I like that guy in the song. If I'm listening to a song, whoever the storyteller is in the song, I want to be able to feel for that guy, even if he's in an aching, desperate place. And I love the groove of the song.
OUR COUNTRY: With the title of the album being Get Closer, was that just a good-sounding, random title, or did it really mean something for you right now?
URBAN: Well, it wasn't random. It came at the end of the whole process. I was trying to find a phrase that really fit all these songs. It wasn't like there was a theme I set out to write for the album. But when the songs come to life in the studio, and certain songs fall away and a record starts to come together... It did seem like the subject of getting closer in a relationship was present in a lot of these songs. Particularly a song called "Right On Back to You," where the guy has had some sort of argument with his girlfriend and he's driven off—as I often did—and pulling to the side of the road and having that revelation moment of: Why am I doing this? Why do I always run? Is it because I don't love this person? And in the case of this song, the guy says, "No, it's actually because I love this person so much, and I'm terrified of loving someone and letting someone love me as much as I can feel happening here. And so I need to defy my instincts to run, and go back and get even closer—the very thing I don't want to do." If I can in that moment actually get closer, my experience with my wife has been that we move to a new place. When I defy my instinct and go in, then we get somewhere I would never have gone. So Get Closer really seemed perfect for the record.
OUR COUNTRY: You have a guitar and a mystery woman on the back cover of the new album. Since you play so much banjo on your records, I keep hoping you'll put one of those instead of a guitar on one of your covers and sex up the banjo a little more.
URBAN: [Laughs] Right, "sex up the banjo." I think it's a pretty sexy instrument anyway.
OUR COUNTRY: You're a guitar hero, but you seem reluctant to fill up your recordings with very long solos. Your fans understand by now that if they want those, they should come to the live show. But you do have an extended guitar solo at the end of one of the new songs, "Georgia Woods."
URBAN: I've always done that, though. We did it on Golden Road with "Somebody Like You," and then I've done it since with "Stupid Boy," where it's really like part 2 of these songs. I think it comes from probably a mix of the Southern rock bands like Skynyrd that did long, wailing guitar outros and then Mark Knopfler's records with Dire Straits. When I first got Making Movies and that song "Tunnel of Love," and then the live version of "Sultans of Swing," they had had these fantastic outros. It's trying to serve the song. If I feel like it's coming to the end of the song and there's a want and need for the emotion to continue in a new way, if it's a revelation at the end of the song lyrically, then perhaps the guitar needs to take us down a road of revelation and triumph. In "Layla," you get that sense that something happens at the end of that song, and then the guitars take off in a way that seems to say "It's okay—it's gonna be all right." There's this beautiful feeling of hope at the end of that song.
OUR COUNTRY: When the floods in Nashville last fall overtook the place where you had your guitars stored, were you enough of a gearhead or guitar fetishist that you were devastated and crying "What am I going to do?," or did you think, "Hey, it's just possessions, just gear"?
URBAN: It was a bit of both. I was trying to take the attitude of not clinging to earthly things. But it was devastating for me, because those aren't just things. Some of those guitars I've had for 20-plus years and had written a lot of songs on them and they'd been through so many things with me. There was this other feeling that I had, almost like I had neglected them somehow—like I had failed at my job of taking care of these things that can't take care of themselves. It felt like they were all trusting me to take care of them, and I had turned my back for one second and they drowned. There was this dreadful responsibility feeling that, good God, some of these guitars had been on the earth for 50 years and fared fantastically, and on my watch they drowned. It was an awful feeling. But the good news is, a lot of them were able to get dragged out and stripped apart, and if the necks were straight and the electronics were okay, we could rebuild them. A lot of them have gotten rebuilt since. They don't look so good. [Laughs] But they sound and play good.
OUR COUNTRY: Will we see you on stage with guitars that look like they've been dragged through the mill?
URBAN: You can see water damage on some of them. Yeah, a few of them have that funny discoloration. But it's also amazing how well they fared, being underwater for four to five days in cases full of water. Some of them came out looking just as good as ever.
OUR COUNTRY: You participated in the relief efforts. Were you surprised at all by how Nashville came together after the flood?
URBAN: It's typical of Nashville. I mean, Tennessee is the volunteer state. And Nashville is a real community. That's one of the great things about country music. As long as I've lived there, which is 18 years, yeah, there's always this competitiveness amongst everybody, but it almost feels like a family competitiveness. Like I'm competing against my brothers and sisters, on the charts and all this other nonsense. Deep down, I sort of feel like we're on our own team—it's us, carrying a message and a style of music everywhere. So it was really beautiful to see that [coming together] happen.
OUR COUNTRY: And is Nashville your primary geographical identity now, even though you come from another country and spend so much time in places like L.A.?
URBAN: Yeah, definitely. I love Nashville.
OUR COUNTRY: Is it because the music industry is based there, or is there something about the land that speaks to you?
URBAN: It started because that's where the music was for me. All the records were recorded in Nashville, so when I was a kid, I wanted to live in Nashville. But the great thing about it was, once I got there, one of the first trips I made was in 1989, and I remember walking around Music Row and thinking, "This is fantastic." I expected this huge place and this sort of massive metropolis of buildings, and it was really just a couple of streets, 16th and 17th Avenues, and a bunch of old homes that constituted the publishing places and old studios. I just loved it and didn't want to leave, the moment I got there. It had a very rural thing about it. Coming from Brisbane and Australia, Queensland is a very rural state. And the cities of rural states have a particular vibe about them. They always feel like a town that thinks it's a city. That's what Nashville felt like to me: a town that just thinks it's a city. I really felt comfortable with that. My experience was, I went to Nashville for the music and I stayed for the town. We can really live in Nashville. It's very real and authentic and a very family place. I'm very, very comfortable with things being simple.
OUR COUNTRY: You seem to have an easygoing relationship with your fame in Tennessee. We hear about sightings of you and you wife in public, and you don't seem enormously protected. And you have so many songs about driving, i get the feeling that some of that comes from having a real life. At least we get the sense that you are not a guy who is in a limo all the time.
URBAN: I also just like to drive! So I'd rather be in the front than the back.