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Balance Requires Correction: Keith Urban Speaks

A year after putting his career on hold to confront personal demons, the superstar gauges his hits, his goals and the state of modern country

By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music

Dec. 1, 2007

In October 2006, Keith Urban said to me that "each year you have a different understanding of gratitude, of humility, of love -- and I feel all of that differently the older I get." The next day, he checked himself into the Betty Ford Center for substance-abuse treatment. This was just four months after Urban's headline-grabbing wedding to Nicole Kidman, and a mere two weeks before the release of his fourth U.S. album, which bore the telling title "Love, Pain, & the Whole Crazy Thing."

"The trajectory we were on was one thing, but I had to get my personal life on that same kind of trajectory. I had to really look at why that moment happened and try to get myself as fit as my career was ..."

Since the 1999 release of his self-titled U.S. debut album, the New Zealand-born, Australian-raised Urban's career had exploded, making him one of the biggest stars in country music. His three albums had sold a combined 8 million-plus copies, and he had reeled off seven No. 1 country singles in five years.

Urban was a rare Nashville triple threat -- a strong songwriter, electrifying performer and hotshot guitar player (he worked as a session player when he first moved to Music City) -- who was now also a paparazzi-stalked celebrity. But his stint in rehab derailed the plans for the "Love, Pain ..." album; though it has sold almost 2 million copies, it didn't catapult him to the global A-List status many predicted.

Now Keith Urban, who recently turned 40, is back in business with the "Greatest Hits: 18 Kids" collection. The disc gathers all of his irresistibly well-crafted singles -- go ahead, just try to get 2004's "Days Go By" out of your head -- along with two new cuts (a bonus DVD includes a dozen videos as well). On the telephone before a show in Buffalo, N.Y., he looked back at the highs, the lows and the changes chronicled in this compilation.

It's a few days after the County Music Association awards, where Urban took home no trophies but was nominated in all the major categories, including Entertainer of the Year, an honor he won in 2005. The ceremony was just a quick break from his road work: The current tour continues through the end of the year, and a co-headlining jaunt with Carrie Underwood will follow, starting in late January. (He insists, though, that he is never away from his Oscar-winning wife for more than two weeks.)

"Whenever I have to fill out one of those immigration cards, which I've had to do a lot this year, there's that line where you have to list your occupation," Urban says. "I love entertaining, I've done it on stage since I was 6 years old, but I also love making records and writing songs. So now I always write 'music artist' -- I think that's just kind of it."

MSN Music: Is a greatest hits record a time for reflection? As you assembled this collection, did it actually cause you to go back and think about your career?

Keith Urban: That's exactly what it's done. It's been eight years since the first solo album, and it's so surprising to see time going by so quickly -- and to see that we actually had accumulated enough material for a greatest hits album. I make a reference in the liner notes to this being like a photo album -- I remember where I was living when we did each of these songs, where I was in my life. You might cringe at photos from eight years ago, but I know that these are accurate, that this really was where I was in 1999.

We're still doing all these songs live, but they've all grown and evolved. They all still fit with what we do today. But I hadn't heard the original versions in years, so it also let me see how far they've come.

Is there any song on here that has really changed for you, in its meaning or its sound, since you recorded it?

"Where the Blacktop Ends" is from the first album, and it's certainly the oldest song in our set list. We're just so much more guitar-oriented as a band now, and it sounds so much more muscular now than it did then.

Is assembling a collection like this anything like putting together a set list for a show?

It's a bit different. You want to try to find some type of consistency with the sound of the different records, as opposed to playing everything live with the same band. So you try to figure out how to do it, chronologically or whatever. But sequencing a record is a funny thing now, anyway. People aren't buying whole albums, or they're listening on shuffle. So I think in the end, people will just put them in the order they want anyway.

Is there any one song on here that stands out as a turning point, a moment when your music really went from one place to somewhere very different?

"Somebody Like You" was a big cornerstone song for me. It was the first single from "Golden Road" and the first song I wrote with [frequent collaborator] John Shanks. I had wanted to find a way to take all the sounds -- banjo, even some loops -- and harness them in a very commercial, hooky song, and that was really the one that did that.

I had already had a No. 1 with "But for the Grace of God," and that was definitely a turning point, too. But when "Somebody Like You" was No. 1 for eight weeks, suddenly there were more people at the shows, we were playing bigger gigs, we had more buses out on the road. So it was a turning point not just musically, but professionally.

It seemed like "Love, Pain, & the Whole Crazy Thing" was poised to take you to even higher heights -- everything was teed up for that to be the album that would open you up to an even bigger audience. But the circumstances in your life around the release obviously affected the launch and its reception. Is it hard for you to think about how that album ended up coming out?

In light of everything, it's interesting that the record ended up succeeding in such a different way. With an ordinary release, there's the whole radio launch, the normal promotional way of doing things. Instead, we really didn't start touring until six months after the record came out.

But the interesting thing was that by then, everybody knew the album tracks -- they were singing along with tracks on the album that weren't the singles. So instead of having it promoted by all the usual, traditional media, we've really gotten out and done it just by playing live. So I'm very happy with that side of it.

In the end, do you consider it a success or a letdown?

Well, the challenge is to really look back at what I need to be able to do so that I can have a long-term career. The trajectory we were on was one thing, but I had to get my personal life on that same kind of trajectory. I had to really look at why that moment happened and try to get myself as fit as my career was -- because to that point, my career was much more fit than the rest of my life was.

I don't think there were any major disasters that resulted, so I could really just build the foundation to be able to move the music forward. It allowed me to look at what I'm doing, where I'm at in my life. And, meanwhile, the songs are more than holding up live. We're doing about nine songs from the album in the show and they're really strong.

One of the new tracks on the "Greatest Hits" album is "Romeo's Tune," which was a big pop hit for Steve Forbert in 1979. On the last album, you covered "I Can't Stop Loving You," which was first recorded by Leo Sayer. Is there a connection for you between those songs and country music, or do you just happen to like them?

I think the connection is more melodically than genre-ly [laughs], which obviously is not a word. I'm such a fan of radio; I've always been obsessed with listening to the radio since I was really young, and what really grabbed my ear were great melodies -- I always hear that before I hear great lyrics. I'm as guilty as anyone of singing the wrong words to songs for years before figuring them out. A song like "Galveston" -- I sang that for years and had no idea it was such a devastatingly sad lyric. But songs like that were pop hits because of the draw of the melody -- they have almost a spirituality to them.

Was "Romeo's Tune" something you always wanted to record, or did you just think of it for this project?

There's a director named Noah Baumbach, and he just directed this film my wife is in ("Margot at the Wedding"). He has this great, really eclectic taste, and he loves a lot of that '70s pop stuff. He sent me a compilation and "Romeo's Tune" was the first song on that disc. I was listening to it in my car, and I could just immediately hear a banjo on it and hear that it could fit perfectly on one of my records. I thought it would just fit great in country -- it's definitely a quirky lyric, but there's an essence that defines what he's singing within this more artistic imagery.

Are there any songs right now that are connecting with you that strongly?

That new Little Big Town single, "Fine Line" -- I heard that song driving to the studio and I had no idea who it was. I guess Dann Huff, my producer, was listening to the same thing, because when I got there, he told me, and that was a great discovery.

But I sometimes react to the strangest songs. The song I'm really, really loving right now is George Strait's "How 'Bout them Cowgirls." I went on iTunes and bought that album ("It Just Comes Natural"), and flying up here today, I played that song eight times in a row. It pulls me right back into all the reasons I got into country music -- it just sounds like a classic song.

I also see a lot of my wife in that song, so it really speaks to me because of that.

Really? That's a bit of a surprise.

Well, I don't take the lyrics so literally. She's certainly not a cowgirl, but all the traits he's singing about fit her to a T. Really just everything about it -- that essence of strength. It's just beautiful.

We're talking a few days after the CMA awards, so it seems like a good time to take the temperature of country music. How do things seem to you right now, especially in terms of the pop element of the country world?

There seems to always be a fairly similar balance -- and balance does require correction, things can tip too far one way and they need to adjust a bit. But the first country records I heard were my dad's, and he listened to Alabama and Charley Pride and Don Williams and Ronnie Milsap. Those artists were all very contemporary, there wasn't a hat between them. That's what I grew up on, not on Bob Wills and Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb, the very traditional country.

So to me, it's always been a very broad genre. There were always huge, popular songs by Glen Campbell or Kenny Rogers. It encompassed artists and songs that appeal to an enormous amount of people.

The thing I always want has been for people to ask what I play, and when I say country, they would say, "Oh, what kind?," instead of just saying, "I don't like that stuff." This music is too rich and too deep to be cast aside as any one thing.

Re: Masters is a monthly interview column dedicated to exploring a veteran artist's body of work.

Alan Light is the former editor-in-chief of Spin, Vibe and Tracks magazines and a former senior writer at Rolling Stone. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, GQ and Entertainment Weekly. His book "The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys" was published in 2006. Alan is a two-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.

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