On Aug. 3, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame announced that Keith Urban was among its class of 2023 inductees. The news arrived live from Columbia Studio A, just a block and a half from where the country music superstar stayed when he first landed in the Music City from Australia in 1989, hoping to make a name for himself.
“It’s truly surreal,” Keith Urban told the Associated Press.
He said that if someone told him, then, that he would one day be inducted in the hall, “I just wouldn’t have believed it.”
Urban spoke to AP shortly after the announcement to talk about the craft of songwriting, his forthcoming studio album out in 2024 — the longest break he has taken between albums since the start of his career, heading back to Las Vegas for an extended residency and beyond.
Answers are edited for clarity and brevity.
In your speech at the Hall announcement, you mentioned first coming to Nashville in 1989 — does this award allow you to reflect on those early days?
I still drive down 16th and into Music Row and it’s like time evaporates. And I’m right back, driving down the exact same avenue to go to a songwriting session.
I was writing five days a week at MCA publishing over there, and on one hand, it was an excruciatingly tough time for me because it wasn’t really how I wrote songs: sitting in a room with a complete stranger, a couple of legal pads, and acoustic guitars in a windowless room. That’s kind of how it was done back then.
It was such a training ground for me, I guess, because I was kind of forced into an environment that wasn’t natural to me. But I learnt so much from it about songwriting. As tough as it was, it’s probably where I learnt the most about songwriting.
And this is an award about songwriting — particularly noteworthy, given the collaborative nature of writing rooms in Nashville and country music.
To be recognised as a writer is extraordinary, because I’ve always loved songwriting. When I started really writing poetry in school, and I started writing songs just out of a desire to not be stuck, always singing somebody else’s song, playing in cover bands, and realising “This is going nowhere for me. I want to write my own songs.”
Ed Sheeran was asked, “How do you write a good song?” And he said, “Start with the bad ones.” And I think that’s like the truest comment about songwriting. You got to get the really lame, mediocre ones out of the way so you can get to the stronger, better ones. Gosh, I wrote not that long ago with Tyler Hubbard on a song called “Dancing in the Country”, and that session was great. I’m constantly learning about songwriting from my collaborations.
What can we expect from your next album?
I’ve got another single coming out in the next couple of months; we’re trying to choose one of these particular three right now. Most of the album, I’d say, is finished. I think I’ve got one basically one more song to record from the ground up and then a whole bunch of others that just need to be mixed. I’m in the final stages of landing the plane right now. An album will come out sometime next year.
How would you describe it?
I started working on an album at the beginning of last year. I spent the better part of the year in and out of the studio while I was touring, only to get to probably February of this year and sort of look at it all and feel like it really wasn’t a group of songs that was speaking to me. There was another album in me, I guess. It was a weird feeling. I actually never had that happen with a record, where I bailed on two thirds of it. I probably kept about three out of those 12 or so songs.
It was the worst feeling of like, “Okay, it’s back to the drawing board. I got to get in there and start writing some songs.” And so really from February all the way through to now, the whole record just took a whole different direction when I had time to write. It was the missing heart of the body of songs that I’d recorded. And everything started to pop, you know, and all three of the next single contenders we’ve got right now, I’m a writer on all three of them.
Does fatherhood appear as a theme on the new album?
I’ve never written about that; it doesn’t speak to me from a writing standpoint quite that way, I think, it’s in my spirit. I love songs about hope, wild longing, working through things, and just sheer, mindless fun. At this stage there is one song that will probably finish the album, it’s called ‘Break the Chain’, and that’s probably the most personal song, out of everything.
You’re headed back to Vegas for a residency in November. What about that performance format speaks to you?
There’s a little bit more intimacy that brings a different connection, I think, between me and the audience. There’s also the production that you can build, that doesn’t have to physically be able to get in and out of trucks every night, so it liberates potential for what we can design. That’s one big plus for me.
And then there’s the challenge every night. You’ve got a lot of fans there, but you’ve also got a lot of just curious people, people that come to Vegas and they’re like, “Okay, who’s on what’s on? What show should we go to?” It’s the job of getting these people to be a part of this moment. It takes me right back to the club days when you walk out on stage, and no one knew who you were. No one could care less that you’re the band playing in the corner, and you’ve just got to grab everybody’s attention. Vegas is a little bit like that for me. It’s exciting.