Unzipped: Keith Urban Lets It All Hang Out on Going "Commando," Flipping Over on Stage and Heckling Hecklers.
By: Stephen L. Betts
Keith Urban has finally established himself as country music's golden boy. The New Zealand-born, Australian-raised former member of the short-lived country-rock band The Ranch released his second solo album, Golden Road, logging multiple weeks at the top spot on the singles chart with "Somebody Like You." But for the fashion-conscious singer whose latest album includes songs such as "You Look Good in My Shirt" and "Jeans On," there's an obvious path he has yet to travel. That could change. One of Golden Road's most talked-about tracks is a remake of the 1976 pop hit, "Jeans On." The song was originally written by British jingle composer-turned-pop star David Dundas for use in a jeans commercial, and Keith, 35, admits that though he initially was drawn to the bouncy rhythm of the song, he's also considered sewing up an endorsement deal with his own version of the tune. First, however, he's got to find a brand he can depend on. ...
At one of your shows this summer you had an embarrassing experience on stage with a pair of jeans?
It happened with a pair of designer jeans that I had worn to the ACM's. I borrowed them and I was going to send them back. I thought, "I'll just wear them once." They were really expensive jeans, but I guess the seam wasn't as strong through there as it should have been. I didn't do any wild David Lee Roth kind of kicks or anything. I was just sort of bending down, and I felt this rip right up the back. I'm commando [nothing underneath]; and that's not a good thing. It happened in the second song of the set, and we had to play for an hour. It was an outdoor thing. I had to finish up this instrumental bit without turning around to the crowd and then figure out a way to get off stage. I had to sort of crab walk off stage. Of course, there are people everywhere. Luckily, I had a towel to stick around my butt. It was pretty embarrassing to show back up on stage in a different pair of jeans.
What's the most expensive item of clothing you've ever bought?
I bought this leather shirt and pants to wear to the Grammy's the first time I went in 2000. It was about $5,000, which to me is a lot of money, considering I wore it once.
What's the scariest thing that's ever happened to you on stage?
I snapped a heel off my boot one night on stage and flipped over. I was in Bakersfield at Buck Owen's Crystal Palace, and unfortunately the whole thing goes out on video for Buck, so I'm sure that's hilarious. I spun on the heel of my boot and it snapped off. When I put my foot down, there was no heel. This huge heel went skidding across the stage, and I flipped over, went flat on my back and kept playing. I realized afterwards that the guy managing the club thought I was hammered.
What's the strangest place you've every played?
We were sponsored by an Australian airline. They said, "We'll pay for your airfare out to Australia. All you have to do is a few shows for us in Australia. My manager at the time didn't think to ask where, he just said, "Yeah, that's great!" So we get there, and the first gig we have to do is at this really tiny airport in this small town - the kind of airport where you walk off the plane, across the tarmac outside and there's one carousel and you're done. The baggage carousel was the typical conveyor-belt kind of thing with this raised-carpet in between. That's where they had us set up, on this little piece of carpet in between two circular things. They just had two microphones set up there. There was no room for a drummer, so I got up there with Jerry, the bass player from the Ranch. We're jamming away and this crowd starts forming, and we were thinking, "This is great. They're loving us!" And then, EHNNNNN, all the luggage starts coming out, everybody got their bags and left, and there's no one. Very depressing. So we were looking forward to the next flight.
Any memorable experiences with hecklers?
There've been plenty of shows were I've been heckled and told to f--- off. That's Australia for you! Actually, I did get heckled just the other night. I was introducing "Song for Dad." It was an arena crowd, 15,000 people, a multi-lineup show. I don't use ear monitors; I use wedges on the stage. I'm sitting there, and the band's taking a break. I'm trying to gauge the crowd, because it's hard to bring them down and talk about something. So I'm making it as brief and concise as I can, saying, "I live a long way from my parents, so I wrote this song for my dad...." Right as I'm getting to the next bit, this guy yells, "GET ON WITH IT! MOVE ON! BORING!" So, I said, "I don't come to your work and yell at you when you're serving fries." Unfortunately, what I didn't take into account is those kind of comebacks, that I clasically have, really work great in clubs where people hear the guy. All they heard was me. Anyway, you just trudge on. It kind of killed the vibe, though.
Is there one specific product that you absolutely have to have when you're on the road?
Nag Champa incense. We use about a least a dozen sticks on stage, and I always carry it in my luggage and fire it up in my hotel room. It's just a very soothing fragrance. It's very popular too. (Keith's right about that: According to Stevie Nick's official website, www.nicksfix.com, it's also one of her favorites.)
You write a fair share of songs on your albums, but in addition, you're always looking for outside material. What qualities are there in songs that lead you to cut certain things and not others?
There were some songs that I turned down because I thought there were so trite. I thought they would probably be radio smashes, but you'd hate them within six months to a year. And I didn't want to be the poor sap that's going to sing them the rest of my career. Your career may be pretty short if you do too many of those songs. The other side too is that you can get something so deep and introspective that it just confuses everybody; songs that preach really irk me.
Any songs you turned down that went on to be big hits for other artists?
I turned down [Rascal Flatts' latest hit single] "These Days." I actually really like the song, but there's a melodic thing to it that wasn't something that I thought I could do, and do it convincingly. It just didn't seem natural to me to do that. But I'm really glad they cut it, because they sang it really well.
Did you ever do a demo for a song that went on to be a hit for someone else?
I sang the demo to "I Like It, I Love it." I have no idea why they got me to sing it. Of course, this was ages ago. The writers called me up to sing several songs. There were six songs altogether, and Jerry Flowers from the Ranch, got three to sing, and I got three, and "I Like It, I Love It" was one of the three I got.
So, I had to go in and cut this vocal, and they had me sing it (doing his best Tim McGraw imitation) "Spent $48 last night at the county fair." It was so weird, because they could have got someone who naturally sings like that.
I drove to the session with Jerry, and I asked him what his songs were like, and he said, "They're fine. What about yours?" I said, "They're OK, but there's this one song that's the most obnoxious thing. It'll be huge." But people love it.
The Yin and Yang of Keith Urban:
KEITH, THE THINKING MAN:
Favorite Movie: Memento
Favorite Book: Three Magic Words (Uell S. Anderseon, Borden Publishing Co. 1978)
Favorite Recording Artist: Bob Dylan
Soul-Searching Journey: "I flew out to Las Vegas, rented a Jeep, took my guitar and some clothes with me, and allocated two weeks to just drive. I had no destination in mind. I just wanted to get up every day and pull over when I got tired. At the Grand Canyon, I was driving along the rim listening to this Indian mystic CD intending to come back with a big batch of songs. All I ended up doing was buying tons of CDs and listening to music all day. I only wrote one song out there. But I came back and wrote a bunch of songs for my first record."
KEITH, THE NON-THINKING MAN:
Favorite Movie: Dumb and Dumber
Favorite Book: In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson: "It's by an American journalist, who wrote about traveling around Australia. [Songwriter] Jimmy Webb turned me on to it, read me a couple of chapters, and is such an amazing reader that he sold me on it. But when I bought the book, it just wasn't as compelling as when Jimmy read it to me."
Favorite Recording Artist: The Monkees
Favorite Vacation Spot: Calbo San Lucas, Mexico. "It's a stupid coastal resort, and there's a club there, called Cabo Wabo Cantina, which is Sammy Hagar's club. So, there was drinking, we were hung over, and it was the complete opposite of the other trip. A real yin and yang kind of thing."
Supermodel Niki Taylor on her video co-star Keith:
"I'd met Keith through our makeup artist Debra Wingo in Nashville. I'd never done a video before, but Lou [Taylor, Niki's Manager] and I decided that there was so much meaning behind this song that it really inspired me, in light of everything I had to go through this last year."
Of her relationship with Keith, Niki says he is "a very good friend of mine," and adds, "He has amazing talent! When he shared his vision and his heart for this song, I just knew I had to be a part of it."
BEHIND THE SONG
The Inside Story of "Somebody Like You"
New York native turned Los Angeleno John Shanks has produced, written and/or played guitar on records by Stevie Nicks, Michelle Branch, Rod Stewart, Sheryl Crow, Joe Cocker and Melissa Etheridge (with whom he shared a double whammy Grammy nominations) but "Somebody Like You," which he co-wrote with Keith, has given John his first #1 single on the country charts. Here's how it happened:
"Judy Stakee [Vice President of Creative Activities] at my publisher Warner/Chappell is a country fan and thought that Keith was trying to do something a little different; country fresh. She basically set us up," jokes the married father of two sons for whom his publishing company, Dylan Jackson, is named. "That's how it usually is with writers - a blind date, which is always a crapshoot. You get together for the afternoon and see if you can come up with something; whether you can make a connection. Since we're both guitar players, we bonded over gear - guitars, amps, pedals - and just started from scratch with two acoustic guitars. With it becomes more verbal, in my experience, but with this song we got a hook, a chorus, a story line - and it was easier to fill it in because he was willing to go there."
"We both have a pretty strong 'suck barometer' and we had the same idea: to write a great song from a male perspective," says John. "We had songs like Don Henley's 'The Heart of the Matter' in mind. He and I both enjoy Tom Petty and U2's level of writing, and we used those songs that were trying to say something anthemic, uplifting, as references. We started getting into the lyric while demo-ing the track. It's like building a little beehive - while you're programming the drums, you're working on the lyric, bouncing ideas off each other. In a good collaborative process, like I had with Keith, it almost becomes like a ping pong; or like chess. I'll have an idea and he'll counter vice versa. We had enough of the melody to both take the song home that night and work on the lyrics. The next day after a strong cup of coffee, we bashed out a lyric until we thought we had it. The whole process took two days. We'd tweak a line or two during the demo. We wanted it to be from a real guy's point of view, but the vulnerable. Lines like 'You make me want to be a better man' come from the fact that we've both been through a lot personally and we were both trying to overcome negative life experiences and put that into this song. Keith's got great instincts; he sings his ass off. We learned a lot from each other. This is the first time I felt a song I had written turned out better than I could have ever expected. We're very close, good friends now. I believe in him. We trade guitar pedals. He was nice enough to ask me to play the song with him on The Tonight Show - play a little meat-and-potatoes rhythm guitar and squeeze my ass into some leather pants."