This is an expanded version of a story that appears in the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands now or available here. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
Apropos of the title Graffiti U, Keith Urban approached his new album like a blank canvas. As he sketched out its contours, the Grammy- and CMA-award-winning artist recruited a crew of friends old and new — including producers and writers J.R. Rotem, Greg Wells, Nate Ruess (of fun.), and Ed Sheeran — to lend their colors.
“The great thing I find about collaborating is stretching out as a songwriter, particularly with someone I’ve never written with,” says Urban, who recently claimed the Vocal Event of the Year trophy at the ACMs for “The Fighter,” his duet with Carrie Underwood. “It’s unknown, it’s scary, it can be a complete disaster. It’s like being a certain ingredient wandering around and looking at different dishes and hopping in a [new] dish and seeing if I get along with the other ingredients.”
Graffiti U’s menu offers a wide array of flavors. Urban blends tumbling banjo licks with stomping beats (“Never Comin Down”), and pulsating grooves with metallic guitar shredding (“Gemini”). He even dabbles in beachy reggae vibes (“My Wave”). It’s an eclectic mix for the musically omnivorous Aussie (by way of New Zealand), who was raised on country — but not only country.
“I grew up playing in the clubs like many musicians do, being in my share of Top 40 bands playing ‘Free Bird’ and whatever artists were on the radio at the time,” he says. “I’m many things, but there is a big commercial radio side to what I do as well.”
Feeding that mainstream jones, the new record also offers a clutch of pop ballads with winsome melodies that showcase both his upper register and a more emotional side, including “Parallel Line,” which counts Sheeran and Julia Michaels among its co-writers.
“I wish more guys would speak about their own vulnerability when it comes to love,” Urban says of the song. “It’s not something we’re ever comfortable talking about, but we absolutely feel it.”
In addition to Michaels, who co-wrote four songs, Urban also welcomed a bevy of women to the 15-track collection, including artists Kassi Ashton and Lindsay Ell; songwriters Nicolle Galyon, Amy Wadge, Emily Weisband, and MoZella; and his wife, Nicole Kidman, on backing vocals (for hit single “Female”).
The large female contingent was not by design, says Urban: “It doesn’t matter who or what it is. If something speaks to me, I just move closer to it ’cause I’m interested. It’s really that simple.”
Below, the country star breaks down a trio of Graffiti U tracks for EW. Urban will be hitting the road later this summer with opener Kelsea Ballerini. The tour kicks off June 15 in St. Louis.
This soaring single was written by Urban, co-producer J.R. Rotem, Nicolle Galyon, and Julia Michaels — who also performs on the track — with a posthumous assist from Merle Haggard, thanks to the interpolation of a riff from the legend’s hit “Mama Tried.”
“I had that sample in my head for a long, long time,” says Urban. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘I wish I could go back to the ’60s and be able to sit in a room with Haggard and try and write a song.’ Not because I think I’m worthy of that, but just because I would love to learn about songwriting from someone as great as he was.”
Since he didn’t have access to a flux-capacitor-enhanced DeLorean, Urban realized he could take a different route, bringing a piece of the song into the studio to see if it triggered something — which it did: a wistfulness for a tactile sense of home that can’t be replicated by FaceTime or texting. Hearing the lick in the chord progression that Rotem created made Urban think of his time growing up in Australia, playing country music festivals and traveling with his family.
“Haggard does that to me, makes me think of home,” says Urban. “I remember looking at the lyrics thinking, ‘Oh gosh, this song is about when I first came to Nashville and I was miles and miles from my home and I was where I wanted to be and I was very happy.’ But when it got tough, I found myself really wishing I could get in my car and just go home,” adding with a laugh, “quickly.”
Urban is just happy that Haggard will once again have a song on the radio, and hopes the sample will send fans down the rabbit hole to his hero. “A lot of people who don’t know ‘Mama Tried’ can go and discover that song, and hopefully then discover a lot of Haggard,” he says.
This gently surging, and instantly infectious acoustic pop track about aligning hearts was even more of a group effort than Urban realized. The writers include Ed Sheeran and Julia Michaels, and a credit is given to the members of Coldplay and Stargate (writers/producers Tor Hermansen and Mikkel Eriksen) for allowing permission for the use of “elements of” Coldplay’s “Everglow.”
“I know that feeling so well, of just not wanting to be dragged into something that’s gonna break my heart again,” says Urban of the song’s observations of fearfulness when it comes to love.
“My experience is, the more I’ve lived life, the more I’ve found the wonder and awe of it all, the joy of it, the fragility of it,” he says of the open-hearted tenderness of this track and several others that explore what it means to risk truly revealing yourself to another person. “With the expansion of love comes the expansion of fragility. We walk around every day like we’re here forever, and it’s all hanging by a thread. And I think all of those things start to come into my music. And they certainly have on this record.”
As for the Coldplay connection, Urban had no idea. “I knew nothing about that until the song was finished and done, and it was when they were going through all the credits,” he says. It wasn’t the only surprise. “At some point I was writing with Julia Michaels. She goes, ‘Hey, so glad you cut ‘Parallel Line’!’ And I said ‘How do you know about ‘Parallel Line’?’ And she said, ‘Oh, I’m a writer on that song.’” Adds Urban with a laugh, “I’m like, ‘How many people are writers on this song?’”
This jittery, strutting, dance-flavored track was inspired by Urban’s wife, Nicole Kidman, whose zodiac sign gives the song its title. It was penned by Urban, Michaels, Justin Tranter, and Ian Kirkpatrick — and features one of the few solos the accomplished guitarist allows himself, a strafing bit of ’80s throwback.
“The four of us [songwriters] met in the studio and Ian had this cool little groove happening, and I started playing some guitar and he recorded it and then manipulated and cut it up into bits and pieces, then put it back together and created this loop,” recalls Urban of the session. “I never had anyone do that to my playing before, and it just created this atmosphere that we started riffing some melody pieces at the top, and then Julia said, ‘Tell me about Nic,’ and I said, ‘Well she’s a Gemini, but she’s not a contradiction,’” Urban says with a laugh of the sign represented by twins. (He later did some Wikipedia research on Castor and Pollux, which informed the lyrics.)
“They just wrote down ‘She’s not quite a contradiction, she rolls with it,’ and that was the opening line of the song and it just went from there,” says Urban of exploring “all the different colors that she is and the duality of Gemini.”
One lyric in particular has been drawing attention: “She’s a maniac in the bed, but a brainiac in her head.”
“That was Julia Michaels’ line,” says Urban. “She came up with it after me describing my wife. My first thought was, ‘I can’t say she’s a brainiac in her head,’ and Julia said, ‘You kind of just did, just sing it.’ And I sang it in total playfulness, just tongue-in-cheek, and it just worked, so we kept it.” While the lyric has proven polarizing, Urban says with a laugh that when Kidman heard the song, “She loved it.”