Keith Urban’s new album pushes the boundaries even further than RipCord, with new collaborators, and new approaches to music, yet still remarkably familiar. Country Countdown USA’s Lon Helton sat down with Keith for a conversation about the making of Graffiti U:
(LH) You really attack every new record as an exploration, pushing new boundaries than the last one. So we never know what we’ll hear, it’s always an adventure.
KU You’ll always get rhythm, you’ll always get melody, always get singable choruses. That’s pretty consistent, things I’ve always loved.
LH A lot of people use other artists in collaborators. You use artists, writers and producers as creative collaborators.
KU You’re right, I never thought of that. This album is full of that. Nowadays, when you write a song, the co-writer will also be the producer. They’re all multi-instrumentalists, so we can build most of the track ourselves.
LH I assume most of that happened because you did it in your home studio.
KU That’s right, it happened organically because this beautiful 1978 Neve console came up for sale. I bought it, and because of it, this studio was built around it. It’s not a massive space, just one big room, attached to the house, but with big windows. So it’s flooded with natural light, and that informed the spirit of the record.
LH What else did it bring to the process?
KU It made it possible for my wife to sing on Female, because she was in the kitchen at the time. That wouldn’t have happened somewhere else. You’d think I’d say I had no time limit this time. But I’ve always recorded that way anyway, it just cost me a fortune. We may spend five days, and I’m not think about anything other than getting the song right.
LH Did you resist the temptation of going to the studio in the middle of the night?
KU That never happens to me. I work best in the morning. I like to be down there early.
LH Let’s talk about the current single Coming Home, so talk about writing this with Julia Michaels, who also sings on it.
KU Yes this song began with a Merle Haggard sample taken from Mama Tried. I wanted to see if I could write a whole new song using that. We literally took the sample, wrote new chords, and this song came from that.
LH Why that Haggard song?
KU The idea came from we were talking about Nashville in the 60s and all the people who were writing here then. Someone mentioned Haggard, and I said if only we could write with Haggard in the 60s. Then I realized that in a way we can. Just include him in the writing credits. It would be no different then Merle walking in now with that riff.
LH I assume that since you wrote it with Julia Michaels that it made sense to have her sing on it as well?
KU Yes, when we shaped the music, I was in his studio, and hearing the Haggard sample, I wrote the chorus. The music spoke to me. It touched upon how I felt when I came to Nashville. This is where I wanted to me, but I missed home, and I couldn’t just get in my car. It got a bit lonely. So I was struggling with the verses, and I already had written with Julia, so she helped me with the bridge, and that made the difference.
LH I see Julia’s name on several songs on the album.
KU She’s well known in the pop world, she put out an EP that I fell in love with. She sings everything, so I wanted to work with her.
LH Did she enjoy the ACM Awards?
KU She said it’s very different. She said she’s used to being around Justin Bieber, but when Little Big Town, she was star struck. It’s all relative to where you are.
LH I heard the song “Texas Time,” and one of the reviews I read wondered why you let out Houston?
KU: I saw that. I learned an important lesson. Just singing about Texas is not enough. You have to be specific. I thought they’re gonna love it in Texas, but it talks about going from Dallas to Austin. I didn’t write the song. It didn’t occur to me that we have to namecheck Houston.
LH Lindsay Ell appears on the album in a song called Horses.
KU Yeah we’ve played a bit over the years, she’s a great singer songwriter, great guitar player too. I thought it’d be great to have her on the road together so we could shred some guitar. But she appears singing some harmony on Horses. I can’t wait for people to hear it.
LH I want to /ask you about the cover of Graffiti U, looking rather introspective, twisting your ring? Where did that come from?
KU It’s so weird, we did a million photos, but in between shots, you just rub fingers, crack knuckles, and that was one of the shots the photographer snapped, it had nothing to do with the wedding ring. But I was at a meet & greet, and one of the fans said they loved the cover shot, and wanted to know if I was taking the ring off or putting it on. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I’ve looked at it many times, and it never occurred to me that it was my wedding ring. But it’s a photo that spoke to me not because of what’s happening with the fingers, but it’s an artist’s record and the photo fit.
LH So now that the album’s done, you’re taking it on the road with the Graffiti U Tour.
KU I’m ready to hit the road, particularly with this record. It’s a very buoyant record, very energized record, a couple of these songs are written about being at a concert, so it’s taylor made.
LH Are you surprised to say you’re anxious to get on the road?
KU Well yeah, because as I was finishing this record, I didn’t want to leave the studio, particularly towards the end of the record. But now that I’ve cleaved myself out of the studio, I’m ready to hit the road.