Keith Urban
Keeping it Simple
By Kate Morgan

When Keith Urban takes the stage in Wildwood later this month, headlining the Barefoot Country Music Festival, fans will see something truly special. It’s guaranteed to be a great show – and Urban’s guaranteed to play at least a few of the hit songs that have made him a household name – but much more importantly, concertgoers will be watching a man at the top of his game, doing the thing he truly loves.

In a career that’s spanned more than 30 years, the singer, songwriter and guitarist has released over a dozen albums, landed 37 singles on the US Hot Country Songs chart, and won 4 Grammy Awards, 12 Academy of Country Music Awards and 12 CMAs. He’s gone platinum over and over. He’s coached reality singing show contestants on national TV. He’s graced magazine covers and red carpets alongside his movie star wife, Nicole Kidman. In other words, Urban is about as famous as it gets. And yet, he’s still most at home in a tiny nightclub, guitar in hand, connecting with an audience over the thing that still, after all these years, matters to him most of all: the music. 

“I’ve never thought of myself as pushing the boundaries of country, though I’ve heard that for most of my career,” he says. “I just try and make music that’s authentic to where I am at any given time. Some of it over the years has fit into all kinds of categories, depending on who’s listening to it. But I don’t put it into categories; I just make it and put it out.”

Musically, Urban’s influences come from all over the place: he’s constantly being inspired, he says, by music in every genre. 

“Right now, I’m obsessed with ‘We Can’t Be Friends’ by Ariana Grande,” he says. “And I know that might be like a curveball to a lot of people.” The pop song, he says, is “audible heroin. There’s just something where you have to have another fix immediately. I like those kinds of songs, where you can read into it whatever you want to read into it. I listened to it and thought she could just as easily be singing it in the mirror to herself. And it resonated with me.”

If it seems odd that a 56-year-old country star has an Ariana Grande song on repeat, well, that’s what makes Urban special. It’s also part of what’s kept him at the top of the charts after all these years. 

“Something might speak to me in a new recording by anybody, whether it’s country or pop or hip hop,” he says. “When I hear something new, there’s a part of me that already knows how I could bring that into what I do. And that’s what keeps what I’m doing – hopefully – fresh, but also true to who I am. I’m not chasing a trend, but I am hearing new things that I know I could put into my work, and it will be very organic. It’s always about taking an honest photograph, which is how I think of an album. I just want to capture who I am right now, truthfully.”

The singer, born in New Zealand and raised in Australia, first found success with American audiences in the 1990s. He’s since released 10 consecutive gold, platinum or multi-platinum albums, and he plans to do it again this year. In the last few months, he’s released three new singles – “Straight Line,” “Messed Up As Me” and “Go Home W U” – from a new album set for a fall release. 

“This album was a strange journey, because I started making another album, and spent over a year on that, only to come to that end and decide I wasn’t happy with it,” Urban says. “But there were 4 songs on it that I really loved.” 

Those tracks became the core of an entirely new album, one Urban feels truly reflects where he is in his life, career and relationship to music. 

“I think I sort of took off the blinders and went, ‘just make music. That’s what you’ve always done,’” he says. “It doesn’t have a theme. It doesn’t have a structure. I decided to forget all that and just make music. And then make more, and then make more. And that was a very liberating process.”

But as much success as Urban’s had in the studio, what really keeps him fulfilled is performing live. Other stars may tour less often – and play only massive arena shows – but Urban says that for him, live performance “is the dog that wags the tail.” He’s gained a reputation as a true showman, whose energy onstage never seems to wane. 

“Live is where I come from,” he says. “It’s the center of what I do musically. I quit school at 15 and was playing in cover bands five nights a week, four hours a night, honing my craft and learning my trade. And that’s still a big part of me: What I live to do is play live.”

And that doesn’t just mean playing to huge audiences (though he’s mastered that too, with residencies in Las Vegas and some of the biggest tours and festivals in country music). Sometimes, Urban says, he makes it a point to play to a much smaller crowd. 

“We just played a little club show down in Dallas, because I wanted to sprinkle in some tiny, you know, sort of jammed-in club shows, to just keep the through-line of how I got here,” he says. “It was a blast. That’s such a great time.”

Those intimate performances, Urban says, only make him better when he hits the bigger stages. 

“There’s nowhere to hide, and I like that,” he says. “I like that the audience is literally right in front of you. There’s no video screens, there’s no fancy lighting. There’s just you, your guitar and your band and your skill. And the audience is looking at you going, ‘This is either going to be BS, or it’s the real thing, and we’re all going to know pretty quick.’ I love that kind of environment because I know it’s real, they know it’s real, and it’s electric.”

That trademark authenticity has also served him well as a mentor, both on television and behind the scenes. He’s judged and coached contestants on “American Idol” and “The Voice,” and offered a helping hand to any number of rising young musicians over the years. Mentorship is deeply important to him, whichever side of the relationship he’s on. 

“I’ve had different [mentors] over the years, and it’s invaluable, in whatever field we work in, to have somebody who’s ahead of you helping,” he says. But Urban is wary of one-size-fits-all advice, whether he’s the one giving it or receiving it. 

“My relationship with advice is that it may not suit me, as a person, it may be something that has worked for them. But that may not be my journey. Mine may be completely different. So I don’t believe in blanket advice, because the second you say, ‘When you’re writing a song, you have to do this or that,’ someone will write a song that doesn’t do any of it and it’ll be a massive hit. There aren’t really any rules. I’m only ever happy to share my experience with somebody. If it resonates and is helpful, great.” 

And even now, with so much success under his belt, Urban says he’s always learning and constantly looking for new teachers. 

“Longevity only presents new challenges and new opportunities,” he says. “I’m a forever student. I would never ever see myself as anything other than a student. With new things, I get to learn from people who are even further along than I am. There’s always going to be someone ahead of me, and someone behind me, so for now I’m just here on the river, floating along.”  


Keith Urban will perform with other country music stars at Barefoot Country Music Fest, June 20-23, on the Beach in Wildwood. For info:

June 2024
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