Country’s Song Hunter: Keith Urban Won’t Wait for Hits
Keith Urban doesn’t sit and wait — it's not in his genes. When it’s time to record a new album, he’s as much songwriter as he is song chaser, a fact that’s obvious when you scroll through the songwriting credits on Ripcord, his ninth studio album.
It’s not who you see, though — it’s who you don’t see. Maybe it’s foolish or naive, but it's easy to believe that the process for most artists is to sit back, sift through hundreds of songs that wind up in their inbox and select the best 11. An artist like Urban should and does get the best of the best, and he does indeed do plenty of sifting. There isn’t a songwriter in town that wouldn’t want a song on one of his albums.
While Music City studs like Shane McAnally, Hillary Lindsey and Ross Copperman are represented, others stand out, offering the songs that truly define Ripcord (May 6). Jeff Bhasker, J Hart, Niles Rogers and K-Kov are among the unusual names. You can’t be blamed for asking, “What’s a K-Kov?”
It turns out K-Kov (Nitzan Kaikov) is an Israeli songwriter and producer, and he’s sort of brilliant.
When asked who this album’s Sam Hunt may be (Hunt broke lose by writing “Cop Car” on Fuse), Urban doesn’t hesitate. “James Abrahard (J Hart) is a crazy talented kid," he shares. "He’s super young, he lives down in Atlanta, Ga. But he’s an R&B guy much more in the writing world. But as a singer, he’s just crazy gifted.”
Pitbull has one more songwriting credit on Ripcord than any of the Peach Pickers. Urban describes Greg Wells (co-writer of “Wasted Time”) as a sort of Swiss Army Knife in the studio because he can play just about anything. Anything but country, it seemed (his website is filled with pop names) — until Urban heard about him.
“I just wanted to work with Jeff,” Urban says of Bhasker, who co-wrote “Gone Tomorrow (Here Today)” and is best known for producing Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson's "Uptown Funk." “My dad was a drummer his whole life so rhythm is such a hugely important part of what attracts me to creative musicians. That sounds like such an obvious thing but there’s some producers I think, like Jeff, who are so rooted in an incredibly strong rhythmic sensibility.”
“Gone Tomorrow” is more rhythmic than anything on country radio and has been accurately been described as EDM-influenced. This is how Urban chose to pay homage to his father, Robert Urban, although Urban also admits Dad’s Don Williams collection turns up in other places on Ripcord.
Urban loves collaborating with writers who can also produce, play every instrument in the room and sing a little, too. All of the above listed men are producers, as are Dann Huff and Nathan Chapman (co-writer of “Break on Me”).
An album with such varied personalities is inevitably going to produce diversity, and in a single word that describes — and perhaps undersells — Ripcord. K-Kov’s song “Habit of You” features a head-turning Middle Eastern callout after each chorus. Nile Rodgers’ “Sun Don’t Let Me Down” is west coast influenced hip-hop with a shake of Pitbull’s distinctively Cuban seasoning. “The Fighter” leans disco, a genre that Urban and co-writer busbee have no known experience in, but … whatever.
The most pure country song is probably “Boy Gets a Truck” but Urban even spun that song on its head. “There’s a guy called Joe Fisher I work with and he sent me 'Boy Gets a Truck,' but he said to me, ‘Before you read the title and think you know what the song is, just play the song,’” Urban says, later admitting that Aaron Sherz (Maddie & Tae) and Ash Bowers’ demo was very different from the clickity-clack-beat, rising arrangement he laid down for the album.
“I took the song to Dann Huff and said, 'This is such a good lyric … I think we can take the song atmosphere wise and energy wise to a whole other anthemic place in the studio.'”
The most influential member of Urban's team may indeed be a "what?!" He tells the Boot that Shazam had a heavy influence on Ripcord.
"I’m the guy standing on the table in a restaurant, trying to hold my phone up to the speaker," the superstar admits. "'I don’t care, I’m going to tag this song.' That I think has had a massive influence on coming into making records to me, because it’s given me so many more colors to paint with, and liberated a lot of the creative process for me."
Working with new writers and producers was absolutely the goal with Ripcord, much like it seemed to be with Fuse. At age 48, Urban may be quietly leading the charge to stretch country music further than anyone has before. Artists like Hunt and Florida Georgia Line are more demonstrative in their attempts, and they don't have a two-decade-long catalog of hits to rely on when someone questions their country cred. It's Urban who's throwing open the gates to allow anyone with a fresh idea and talent to write a country song, and he's not concerned about if his fans will follow along.
"I couldn’t think in those terms," he tells The Boot. "I just have to make music, and just create. Make music that is very fluid and reactionary to how I’m feeling and what I’m motivated by at any given time. This record probably more than any other record was very much that, where I certainly wasn’t second-guessing anything, and I was much more willing to just try any idea that came to my head, as crazy as it might be. You can always pull back, but I just wanted to go where the idea and the muse, where the energies wanted to go. If they wanted to go in a certain direction, I was going to go there."