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Keith Urban Finding Calm, Clarity In His Life And Music

Of the Oakland Press

Posted: Friday, June 5, 2009

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“Clarity” is Keith Urban’s mantra these days.

It certainly reflects the more settled life the New Zealand-born, Australianraised country star is enjoying these days. There’s a happy marriage (to actress Nicole Kidman since 2006) and fatherhood (daughter Sunday Rose, born in July 2008), as well as a successful recovery from substance abuse following a 2006 rehab stint at the Betty Ford Center in California.

That clarity, Urban says, is also displayed throughout “Defying Gravity,” the fifth studio release in a country music career that’s included four platinum-or-better albums, 10 No. 1 singles and three dozen awards from around the world. The new album also debuted at No. 1 on both the Billboard 200 and the Top Country Albums charts.

“I felt a lot of clarity in making this record,” Urban, 41, says by telephone from his home in Nashville. “There was a particular clarity that I had with who I am and what I wanted to say and what kind of music I like making.

“And on this record, too, I didn’t do a lot of second-guessing. I think I might have done a lot of second-guessing in the past, and with this record I operated much more from instinct, getting into the studio and making songs ... I just kept everything very spontaneous, and I think it’s a much stronger record because of that approach.”

It’s also clear that Urban was in a better place in life and state of mind for “Defying Gravity” — whose first single, “Sweet Thing,” made a quick sprint to the top of the country charts. Where 2006’s double-platinum “Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing” was something of a post-rehab statement, and also his first musical word since marrying Kidman, the new set references his current state of contentment, openly and unabashedly reveling in happiness and romance.

“It’s a very ‘up’ record,” Urban agrees, “a big, joyous, free-spirited record. Obviously, I write a lot about love, and this record is a lot of about not just being in love but having the courage to love.

“It’s difficult as you get older, because you’ve been in love, you’ve had your heart broken and your tendency is to want to hold back. But you’ve got to absolutely, completely be in it. Even if you have some trepidation about it, you’ve just got to put everything into it. It’s that letting go and closing your eyes and believing that you’re going to fly and float — just let it go and float.”

“Defying Gravity” comes after Urban summed up his solo career, to that point, with the 2007 compilation “Greatest Hits: 18 Kids,” a collection of favorites such as “Days Go By,” Raining on Sunday,” Somebody Like You” and “Stupid Boy.” That stocktaking, he says, brought some “subconscious” perspective that impacted on the direction he took “Defying Gravity.”

“I wanted to figure out what it is that I do and try and keep the focus clear and in the center,” Urban explains. “On (‘Love, Pain’) I think I was thinking about trying to achieve a whole bunch of things and maybe spread myself out a little thin without a central, clear focus — not to discredit that record, because I learned a lot from making it.

“But it just seems there’s a lot more cohesiveness with this album.”

Urban says he was also “into a phase where I was just writing a lot of music ... and I was just anxious to get in the studio and try to capture it all” with Dann Huff, who also produced Urban’s three previous albums. That didn’t go smoothly at first; he went into the studio to do “some preliminary recording” during the middle of 2008, but only a version of Radney Foster’s “I’m In” wound up on “Defying Gravity.”

Subsequent sessions were more fruitful, however. Urban acknowledges that Kidman is the direct source of several songs on “Defying Gravity.” “My Heart is Open,” for instance, is something she said to him early in their relationship. “Thank You” is a clear homage to their relationship, while on “Why’s It Feel So Long” he recounts feeling a need to speak with Kidman shortly after dropping her off at the airport one day.

He’s well aware that fans are likely to read something about his marriage into any of the many songs he writes about love, but Urban is confident he’s doing it in a manner that has meaning beyond just his situation.

“For me, writing a lot about anything personal is a difficult balance,” he explains. “On one hand, we’re both very private people, yet on the other hand I write songs that are going to be about my life, my home life, my family.

“I guess I write about all that in a way that I’m comfortable. It doesn’t get too detailed or explicit to the point where I feel like my privacy is being invaded. But I’m able to create art from my heart and that’s inspired very directly by my life.”

You won’t, however, find him writing songs directly about his daughter, although Urban says Sunday Rose has been an unexpected “blessing.”

“I wasn’t even sure if I was going to end up having kids in this life, and I was OK with that,” he says. “I had just gotten to that point where I thought, ‘Oh well, maybe it’s just not my lot to have children. That’s cool.’ I’ve got two stepchildren who I love (Kidman’s adopted son and daughter with ex-husband Tom Cruise) — and lo and behold we end up getting our little angel.”

An angel, Urban acknowledges, with “a rocking wardrobe” — most of which comes from other people, some the couple knows and many from fans who would throw items on stage at Urban’s shows. He’s particularly proud of one garment that bears the legend “I crawl the line” but says that “we’ve given a lot of clothes (to) Goodwill and the Red Cross, too.”

More gifts will likely be proferred from the crowds who see Urban on his “Escape Together” world tour this year. Though he doesn’t take it for granted, “Defying Gravity” will assuredly continue his streak of success; his popularity is such that even after an “off” year he was nominated for three ACM awards, including the prestigious Entertainer of the Year.

That devotion, he says, is a greater gift than any material item those fans can give to him or his family.

“I think ultimately (that) people buying your records is probably the strongest, ’cause that means the music’s affecting them, and they’re connecting with it somehow,” says Urban. “Seeing people connect to the music is the absolute hands-down biggest reward.

“My attitude for every record I’ve ever done has been exactly the same — write and find the best songs you can, assemble a team you feel comfortable with in the studio and record the songs the best you possibly can.

“It’s as simple and difficult as that. But that’s all I can do. The rest of it is just faith, timing and synchronicity.”

Keith Urban and Taylor Swift perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (June 6) at the Palace, Lapeer Road at I-75, Auburn Hills. Tickets are $83, $53 and $20. Call (248) 377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.

Web Site: www.palacenet.com

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