'A Reason For The Rhythm': Keith Urban Stays On The Beat : The Record On his ninth album, Ripcord, the pop-country superstar delves deeper into programmed beats, but in an interview, Urban says rhythm has always been the anchor of his musical sensibility.
NPR logo 'A Reason For The Rhythm': Keith Urban Stays On The Beat

'A Reason For The Rhythm': Keith Urban Stays On The Beat

Keith Urban's ninth album, Ripcord, out on May 6, continues to integrate programmed drum tracks into Urban's signature pop-country. Russ Harrington /Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Russ Harrington /Courtesy of the artist

Keith Urban's ninth album, Ripcord, out on May 6, continues to integrate programmed drum tracks into Urban's signature pop-country.

Russ Harrington /Courtesy of the artist

What's kept Keith Urban in the spotlight over the past decade and a half is his ability to deliver charismatic, perpetually youthful-sounding country-pop blockbusters, many of them laced with hot guitar solos, though his celebrity marriage (to Nicole Kidman) and primetime TV gig (as a judge on American Idol) certainly haven't hurt his media profile either. But it wasn't until I danced to his music that I fully appreciated the rhythmic propulsion that sets his take on modern country apart. And by "dance," I don't mean spontaneously swaying to the beat in the midst of a concert crowd; I'm talking about learning precision clogging routines choreographed to some of his early hits. (Clogging, for the uninitiated, is an evolving, percussive form of folk dance.) As we shuffled and scuffed to "Somebody Like You," "Better Life" and "I Told You So," I couldn't help but admire the cunning way he subdivided beats and goosed his grooves with syncopation.

Keith Urban, Ripcord Courtesy of Capitol Nashville hide caption

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Courtesy of Capitol Nashville

The narrative around both Urban's new album, Ripcord, and its predecessor, Fuse, is one of radical stylistic departure, of a seasoned music-maker expanding his stable of collaborators to include big-name writer-producers who typically work in R&B and pop, of a guitar-slinging performer pushing into territory he's never traversed before — territory well beyond the borderlines of Nashville.

But while hyper, synth-powered dance club fodder may be a more recent addition to his repertoire, the continuity in his output is also worth noting.

In the early aughts, long before a new generation of country acts began taking cues from beat-driven pop production, Urban was already pairing drum machine loops with hurtling figures he executed on a ganjo, a guitar with the bright, metallic qualities of a banjo. In a very real way, his preoccupation with rhythm helped lay the groundwork for what he's up to now, jamming his way to song ideas with Nile Rodgers, the architect of so many stylish, seminal funk and dance records, and even contributing ganjo licks to a choppy R&B track by Jason Derulo.

It was news to Urban, though, that he's done right by the clogging community. When we sat down in a state-of-the-art control room in Blackbird Studios on the south side of Nashville, I cued up footage of three dancers performing to a song of his on a stage in a small town square. "How did you know about these guys clogging?" he wanted to know, so I sheepishly informed him that I was a member of the trio. "That's you?" he asked, sounding caught off guard. "I'm watching the feet and feeling the whole thing."

Since Urban happened to have a couple of instruments on hand, he swiveled in his chair, grabbed his ganjo off of its stand and engaged in some demonstration of his own. He launched into "Wasted Time" from Ripcord, first playing it what he'd consider the square way. "And I just can't let it go/No, I just can't let it go": He sang and strummed the chords right on beat, giving a technically correct, if stiff, performance. Then he began inserting upstrokes between the beats, in a manner vaguely reminiscent of bouncy ska-style guitar, and nudged his vocal phrasing into a more anticipatory pattern.

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"It's the same tempo, but the energy it has and the fact that it leans forward is way more appealing to me," he explained. "Hear the difference?"

Nowadays, Urban's rhythmic bent seem effortless; we spent the rest of our time together talking about how he has cultivated his particular sensibility and what it took to maximize its sonic impact.

Jewly Hight: You're the son of a drummer. Some years ago you wrote a song called "Song for Dad."

Keith Urban: I did.

In it, you described traits you'd picked up from him, one of which was a sense of rhythm. In hindsight, how do you feel like he shaped the way that you feel music?

I think [his being a drummer] influenced all the rhythm stuff. I didn't realize how much of an influence that was, being around it. My brother probably doesn't have any of that same memory, because he's not a musician. So it's hard to know whether I remember all that because I am a musician or whether that was helping drive everything.

I remember he had an 8-track player in his car, and it had phenomenal low end, because, you know, it's analog. So when you're listening to Waylon [Jennings] or Don Williams or somebody like that, the low end always had that so strong thing . I've come to the realization it's a Texas thing.

The Waylon thump.

Yes. I mean, it's also Buddy Holly. It's all of it, you know?

There's a long tradition of country absorbing rhythmic elements from outside sources, like Dolly Parton, Ronnie Milsap and others adopting disco-influenced production in the late '70s and early '80s. Which examples of rhythmically influenced country have made the most sense to you?

I think those Don Williams records were a great example. Not that there were outside influences, so much as they were just a sort of evolution.

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Songs like "Tulsa Time."

Yeah. Don's got this thing. I got to work with him one time a couple years ago in the studio on a track. ... Don was sitting in there — he was in his 70s — and he said, "It needs more of a ... " And he tapped his hands on the console with this almost flipped sense of where the backbeat was. He played the pattern, and he was trying to tell the percussion player, "This is how it should go." And I was sitting there thinking, "That won't work on this track." ... The guy went out and did it, and as soon as he put it in the track, it was like, "Holy s***! There's the sound. There's the Don thing." He has this intrinsic sense. I always think there's some relationship to the Mexican border and how the Spanish influence comes into the music.

But elements coming into country, I mean that's a whole other conversation. It really hasn't been there since day one, but I think since certainly the late '50s, and it coincided perfectly with when rock and roll started to take market share from country. I've read so much about that time in country music. Country songs were suddenly not as hot on the jukeboxes as they were. So the idea to, like, infuse more rock elements into country was started right then in the late '50s, and it's never let up since.

When people talk about what makes a country song stand out, they often focus on the lyric — the story it tells or sentiment it conveys — more than the way that a song feels, the production, performances, arrangement. But those things never seem to take a backseat to lyrics for you. Have there been times when you've felt like your musical priorities differ from many of your country peers?

Oh sure. I struggled early on in writing sessions because I wasn't inspired by a legal pad and an acoustic guitar in a windowless room, which is so much of what Music Row was when I moved here. I just thought, "That's not how I feel about songwriting." I kind of write from the music outwards. The music is trying to tell a story, and I extrapolate a story from the music.

I've since heard a lot of people write that way as well, not necessarily in this town. And it's not to say that I don't have a story to tell, but evidently the way I want to tell that story usually starts with music. There's a reason for the rhythm. There's a reason for the chords. There's a reason for the tempo. All of it is trying to say something. And I've always found if the lyric comes from that, then they go perfectly together, as opposed to writing a piece of poetry and then jamming it into some sort of chord cycle. I've never been a big fan of those kinds of songs necessarily. They have the same kind of chord progression, the same kind of melodic structure with brand new lyrics. I'm more interested in melody — not more interested, but I want the melody to also speak.

The prominent way you featured ganjo and drum machine in your 2002 single "Somebody Like You" was something different for country at the time. What were you going for?

My recollection of all that period was more based in the frustration that the [drum] loops always got buried the background once the record started to take shape. It was like just sort of a given that the loop would inform the drummer, but then it would be shoved to the back of the room, because the drummer's gonna be up front. ...I found myself sometimes frustrated that that couldn't be left alone in the picture. When we went into make records like "Somebody Like You," there'd be a cool little drum loop, but usually it would end up just being this supportive role. So I was hoping we could start to flip those around to make it more dominant and driving.

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And I don't mean getting rid of human beings in favor of machines, but allowing a song to be driven by the thing that gives it the most rhythmic intrigue. If that's the drummer, fantastic. If not, then okay. ... So I think there's been a slow evolution of that happening. Now we get songs like "Blue Ain't Your Color," which Matt Chamberlain programmed the downbeat and backbeat of that, and for me it was far stronger and cooler than when he went out and played [his drum kit]. So we just left it as more of the priority in the mix. It's more machine, which I like. I read [something] The Edge said one time about machine music and roboticism: The more machinery that's in there, when you add human elements, it makes them even more human, because it's apparent there's some shift in movement happening. I love the two working together, I guess is what I'm trying to say.

You've always placed a premium on having a great band, and even released your first U.S. album with the band The Ranch. Some of the tracks on the new album have the fingerprints of only two or three musicians; between you and your co-producer, you programmed or played all the parts. How do you apply your musicianship to what could seem like a more synthetic recording situation?

Say something like "Wasted Time," which there's only Greg Wells and I on; there's no other musicians on that track. Greg did everything other than the bits I added, electric guitar, ganjo. And I want to make sure I drive the musical vision of that, but I also want to remain open to growth, otherwise I'll never change.

I can probably give a better example in "Gone Tomorrow." [Co-producer Jeff Bhasker and I] had very different visions. That would've been a moment where I could've just railroaded the whole thing and gone, "No this is the way it's gonna be." But I had a lot of faith in Jeff. And I thought, "Why am I working with him if I'm not gonna entertain these ideas?" And the end result, for me, is way better than I think I would've done if I had driven the vision 100%. So it's an interesting mix of collaborative ideas.

A lot of contemporary country production has become more beat-driven of late, but I can't think of any other artist in the second decade of his recording career who's adapted so nimbly to that shift. Why is it so natural for you?

Because I think it was inherently there from the beginning and I didn't have to change anything. It was like I just recalibrated the balance of all the elements that are in what I do. So the real drums came down a bit, the programmed drums came up a little bit, the banjo became more up front and more bone-dry, rhythm guitar became more dominant. It was all there. If the genre right now had moved towards fiddles and pedal steel, I wouldn't be having this conversation, because I'd be in trouble, you know? I'd be slapping twin fiddles on my music, and people would be going, "Doesn't feel right."

Even if you view these as small tweaks to your sound, the overall effect can be dramatically different and new. What is your sense of how country fans feel toward stylistic innovation?

I don't know about that. Because I think what he country fan is has never been more blurred in its definition. Ever.

It definitely isn't a monolith group, true.

It's massive how broad the country fan category might be. Although someone who calls themselves a country fan may be more clearly defined, versus someone who is open to hearing something labeled as country; that's a much broader audience potentially. I think a lot of the people who hear music through streaming are much more open to innovation potentially, probably because of the environment they're in, which is so diversified already. I think if you're listening to a radio station, you've got a particular thing that's happening, a particular group of songs that you're hearing over and over again.

It's a complicated question. I always think of that great quote from Henry Ford; when you're an innovator, you have to be very careful in getting people's opinions on things, because, as Henry Ford famously said, "If I'd asked a person what he wanted, he would've said a faster horse." It's such a great metaphor for trying to just lead with instincts. I purely operate from instinct, I think, maybe more now than ever before oddly enough. I second guess everything a lot less than I ever used to.

You followed your rhythmic curiosity into some of the collaborations on the new album, like with Nile Rodgers. You had an idea of how it might work if you two sat down and played together?

Absolutely. Because I play my ganjo along to all sorts of music that I hear all the time — and it fits most everything. If it's funk or rhythmic-based, if it's got a danceability about it, that ganjo works on everything beautifully. Nile for me was such a no-brainer because — I'm trying to find my laptop here so I can play you something real quick — I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt if we could sit in a studio like this, put a drum loop up, and if he starts playing rhythm and I grab that ganjo, it'll happen. I felt so sure that Nile would be like, "Oh! We can do stuff! This is great!" And that's the reaction, thank god, that he had. All you want to do is get a really creative person like him inspired, and then you're off to the races.

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[He sets his laptop on the edge of the mixing console and locates an unreleased country-funk track.] Let's see, what's this right here? This is some of the s*** we were working on. [He picks up his ganjo and plays along.] It all goes together. Now, you could sing anything over the top of that. You can add a rural lyric. You can add a country melody. You can add anything over that. We ended up doing half a dozen things like that piece. "Sun Don't Let Me Down" was just one of the pieces that we fleshed out into a song.

That's one of several songs that have very pronounced R&B, pop or dance leanings. What music was on your radar when you were working up that material?

I think just everything, from all the stuff Bruno Mars was doing to all the stuff Nile was doing, Daft Punk. When I heard "Get Lucky" for the first time, I just grabbed my ganjo and started playing along with it, and I went, "Well, that's a no-brainer. They go together perfectly." ... In a lot of ways, "Good Thing" [from Fuse] made me want to go and work with Nile and people like that. I was like, "Well, let's just go to the source. Let's stop trying to be like something and go right to the person." It's why I worked with [producer] Mike Elizondo on "Good Thing," because I was like, "Why am I working with somebody who can program drums like Mike Elizondo and play bass like him? Why don't I just go work with him?" So I just took the same attitude with Ripcord. I was just fearless in reaching out to people. And I got a few no's from people that I really wanted to work with. That's okay. I just kept going.

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It's not strictly an instrumental thing — your vocal phrasing can be really rhythmically nimble too.

It's anticipatory phrasing that moves everything along. That's kind of instinctually what I lean to as a singer, is everything hitting just before the downbeats every other time.

Do you really work at that?

Insomuch as I think the vocal phrasing comes before the lyric. [He demonstrates what it was like singing the melodic and phrasing ideas for "Wasted Time" before the song had lyrics.] That's really a horn line. I know [it's going to sound] like that, but I have no clue what we're gonna say. ... So those rhythmic things vocally are crucial.

And there endeth the lesson.