The Grammy Museum in Los Angeles plays host to musicians big and small via its excellent slate of programs inside the Clive Davis Theater. Yet when the superstars turn up, you can sense a special buzz throughout the facility.
That’s what happened on May 10, when Keith Urban appeared for “Inside the Songs of Ripcord.” While waiting to enter, I saw a female fan take pictures of the country artist’s road cases. Some people travelled from long distances.
“This is like ‘Inside the Actor’s Studio,” joked Urban, halfway through the sold out event. Indeed, it was quite different than others I’d attended at the museum. The new album arrived in stores the previous Friday and instead of just talking about the songs, Urban actually demonstrated to the audience how the music came to fruition. For diehard enthusiasts, it was a fascinating glimpse into the creative process.
Urban had an electric piano, ganjo (a six-string banjo), bass, acoustic guitar and a specially-made iPad-equipped instrument onstage to use whenever needed to illustrate a point.
At the start of the 1 hour 45-minute program, Urban told moderator Scott Goldman (Vice President of the Grammy Foundation and MusiCares) how he first heard country music. It was through his dad – a drummer and rockabilly fan. The singer/songwriter/guitarist recalled attending a Johnny Cash concert at age 5 in his native Brisbane, Australia and then picking up the guitar at 6.
“I didn’t really have guitar heroes (growing up),” Urban said. “I think that influenced how I make music now. I don’t have to have guitar solos.”
The first of several humorous anecdotes about the past revolved around his early rock band Fractured Mirror, which Urban joined at 15. They often did hard rock and metal covers. “I had just discovered Ricky Skaggs and Albert Lee. One night, we did a Judas Priest song and I did a chicken pickin’ guitar solo. They fired me! My heavy metal days came to an end.”
In 1987, Urban was fascinated by John Cougar Mellencamp’s LP, The Lonesome Jubilee and seeing the accompanying tour was an “epiphany.”
When Goldman asked about arriving in Nashville, Urban talked about the “awful demo tape” he sent to record companies. Although RCA rejected it due to being out of step with late 1990s country radio, the label still suggested the musician hone his craft. “I didn’t want to compromise, but adapt,” said Urban.
Once Urban had a few albums under his belt, he found it was better to work with “producers who are musicians, not golfers.” This led to a running joke throughout the Grammy program whenever the subject of a new producer came up.
With Dan Huff, who helmed 2002’s Golden Road, Urban brought in all the studio personnel, something Huff didn’t expect. “When we did ‘Somebody Like You,’ the musicianship went to a whole new level with him in the room. At that time, he was tight and cohesive, whereas I was loose and tried to capture a vibe.”
Urban really started to experiment with non-traditional country sounds on 2013’s Fuse album.
“I wanted to see where I could go; what other things could I bring in?” Then Goldman asked about taking risks. “I know when it’s gone too far. I wanted to push myself to places where I wasn’t comfortable,” said Urban.
That mindset carried over to Ripcord, a title inspired by a play that his wife Nicole Kidman was acting in while the songs were taking shape (she and Urban’s two young daughters were in attendance at the Grammy Museum).
“I loved the energy of the word,” he admitted. “For me, music has been a ripcord to save my life many times.”
In describing the Middle Eastern dance-leaning album opener “Gone Tomorrow (Here Today),” Urban said he had loved what co-producer Jeff Bhasker did with Bruno Mars and fun. “Those records were rhythmically raw and had a primal coolness. I reached out to all these rhythm cats like him and Nile Rodgers.”
To play the song, Urban grabbed his ganjo and told how he first obtained the unusual instrument at Nashville’s Corner Music while recording an album with The Ranch in 1995. “I swear it had a light shining on it.” By ’99, using it became natural.
“Gone Tomorrow (Here Today)” was written in London’s Hyde Park. Urban explained the melody tends to come first. “I don’t (always) know what I’m going to say. The song is about being in the moment.”
Two hit country singles from Ripcord were released before the album was finished. Then Urban realized he needed to speed up the process. The musician allowed that he works well under deadline pressure.
For “John Cougar John Deere John 3:16,” Urban noted that drummer Matt Chamberlain also worked on Golden Road, then grabbed an acoustic guitar and bass to show how it developed musically. “Matt’s programming was so seductive; I played anything to be compatible with it. It was like musical Tinder. I wanted to match up to Matt.”
A four day stint with respected producer Rick Rubin and some musicians at Shangri-La in LA came when Urban was “looking for artistic liberation.” While it didn’t yield anything that fit on Ripcord, the songs could end up on the next one.
Utilizing an acoustic guitar and a touring musician on pads, Urban played the alluring new ballad “Break on Me.” He said “it hit me as a classic melodic structure. What’s good about this record is it has its own energy flow.”
Since making Fuse, U2’s groundbreaking Achtung Baby has been a reference point in Urban’s creative dance between using machines and being organic. The U2 CD “was a seminal moment for me as a musician.”
The duet with Carrie Underwood on the dance-oriented “The Fighter” came at the last minute, after everything else on Ripcord was finished. “I was filming a video. She had one day off from her tour. (Producer busbee) went to her in a studio and we Facetimed together.”
Urban admitted the lyrics were inspired by his relationship with Kidman – “That need for assurance. I will be there for you.” He also looked back to Christmas perennial “Baby,
It’s Cold Outside” and Meatloaf’s 1977 top 40 pop single “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” as a guide for the male/female vocal interplay. Then Urban’s tour musician triggered Underwood’s vocal to play along with the song.
For the breezy, whistling pop of “Sun Don’t Let Me Down,” Urban said, “all I wanted to do was jam with Nile. We met in New York’s Avatar Studio. He got into a groove and everything was reactionary. There was a breakdown section (in the song that needed something). I heard Pitbull on Sirius XM and thought he should do it.”
During the brief audience Q&A, Urban said of the powerful romantic ballad “That Could Still Be Us” – driven by simple programming, synths and keys – “I was floored the first time I heard the truthful lyric” penned by Jason Duke, Jesse Lee Levin and Jonny Price.
On choosing the slinky “John Cougar John Deere John 3:16” as first single from Ripcord: “It didn’t sound like it came off Fuse…I came out of the clubs. I want everybody up and energized” at my shows.
On 2005 country hit “Tonight I Wanna Cry”: “That was a very truthful song for me. The early 2000s were not a great period for me. I struggled with alcohol addiction. Songs like that came from drinking a lot. It didn’t seem like I was alone in those feelings.”
Finally, Urban moved to the keyboards to demonstrate “Wasted Time,” from Ripcord. He made a Spinal Tap joke about his playing ability and said, “Music should be inspiring to tell a story.” All three co-writers discovered they had similar experiences growing up despite being from different corners of the world.
“I’d wanted to get (Guns N’ Roses title) ‘Sweet Child O’Mine’ in a song for a long time,” Urban said with a laugh. Then he told how the lyric “sippin’ on the Lokos” was inspired by Four Loko, one of the co-writers’ favorite canned malt beverages as a young adult.
For more, visit www.keithurban.net
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