Keith Urban on the "Strategic Journey" of 'American Idol,' Remembering David vs. David
"Defining who has got what it takes is harder and harder," says the country singer and season 14 judge.
Keith Urban made his Billboard chart debut in August 1999. Since then, he has had 37 titles on the Hot Country Songs chart, with 32 of them reaching the top 10 and 15 going all the way to No. 1. He has also taken four of his albums to the top, including his most recent release, Fuse.
Born in New Zealand and raised in Australia, Urban currently lives in Nashville but spends a considerable amount of time in Los Angeles, thanks to his duties behind the judging desk of American Idol. Before the live shows of season 14 hit the air, Urban sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss a wide range of topics, including how Idol has affected his career, what he thinks of his corporate bosses, and how the contestants react to the advice he and fellow judges Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. dish out.
You had a busy enough schedule before you joined American Idol. How has putting Idol in the mix affected your calendar in terms of recording, touring and promoting your music?
Last year felt like the busiest year I’ve ever had in my life. And yet when I was starting out, working on my first record in Nashville, I felt like I was working 360 days a year. It hasn’t just been the inclusion of Idol. It’s been also the creation of a family, living in different places — my wife of course having a career that can take us to any country at a moment’s notice.
Your Billboard chart career has been very consistent. So I can’t say that Idol gave you a bump, because you really didn’t need a bump. Given that, how has Idol affected you in terms of sales and popularity?
I think the good thing it’s done is that it brought non-country audiences to my records who might otherwise not have heard them or even given them a listen. I know we get a lot of people coming to our shows now because of Idol who have never seen us play before. So it’s an amazing feeling to have people discover me at this point.
As a judge, you change people’s lives in a very profound way. How does that feel, knowing that some people are going to come out of this experience with very successful careers?
I think about how much we benefit from being able to be the ones who find them and give them the shot. It almost flips, and suddenly it’s Idol who is grateful to them. I’ve always loved these kinds of shows. I love Idol specifically because it’s geared to finding that artist or artists through this particular journey that can really have, hopefully, a long-term career.
Did you watch the auditions when Adam filled in for you? Any reaction to his stint as a judge?
I didn’t watch the whole thing. I’ve seen bits and pieces of it. I was extremely grateful that he was able to fill in. And on such short notice.
I know that was a very difficult time for you, with the unexpected passing of Nicole’s father. I’m very sorry for your loss.
Thank you. I appreciate that. It was an extraordinary moment for me to see a corporation like American Idol have heart and allow me to not have to go to New York. And most people would say, “It’s a given. No one would make you do that.” But it’s a corporation, and anybody who works for a corporation would say, “You have to show up to work no matter what.” But when I called them, they immediately said, “Take care of your family. You have to be with Nic. Don’t worry, we will figure something out.” And that speaks volumes to me about the Idol family.
How much Idol did you watch before you joined the show?
I watched it over the years. One of the moments I remember was the David Archuleta and David Cook neck-and-neck race [in season seven]. That night we were at the home of our friends Bob Daly and Carole Bayer Sager. We were watching the finale because Bob and Carole are huge Idol fans. We decided to go out to dinner and DVR the rest of the show. We came back at the end of dinner and we were watching the TIVO and Ryan [Seacrest] said, “the winner is…David” and then it cut out. The show ran long and we missed the last name, so we didn’t know who won!
When a contestant walks into the audition room, do you get an immediate sense that this person is going into the top 10? Or does that not become obvious until later?
Defining who has got what it takes is harder and harder. There was a time when if someone walked in and sang phenomenally, you would think, “Great, that’s it. There’s our winner.” But the journey of Idol is such a strategic journey, because there are so many factors that people respond to. Sometimes a great song choice. Sometimes an emotional situation. Sometimes a change in the way you look. The strangest things can create huge voting, like taking a song and rearranging it and knocking it out of the park.
Are you already thinking ahead to your next album? Have you been writing songs for it?
Lots of songs written but lots of songs to write yet. It’s like building a house and thinking, Do I get the furniture to put in the house first, or should I figure out the rooms? I can cut a song in the studio and listen to it for a few weeks and think the song is really good but that we approached it wrong. So I’ll scrap the whole thing and rethink how to capture the song — sonically, instrumentally, every other way. Other times I’ll think the instrumentation and sounds are all right but I don’t like the song. Let’s scrap that song and put another one in. It goes backward and forward all the time.
How does having been on the other side of the desk as a contestant on a TV talent show affect your role as a judge, knowing that people might succeed even if they don’t win, or make the top 10 or even go to Hollywood?
When we’re giving critiques for certain artists, you can tell they aren’t taking in any of it. They're just wondering if it’s a yes or a no. That’s all they want to hear, and I totally get it. It’s not uncomfortable for me to address that, to say, “Right now it looks like you’re bummed out by the ‘no,’ but it’s important that you hear the rest of it if you want to figure out how to grow.” But I remember those moments. They are crushing. Or euphoric. Or whatever they are. It’s all a bit surreal. They also seem like the most important life-shattering moment ever, and sometime after that it’s just one of the many blips of the road out of your career. Hopefully you come away from it. I always think the most important thing is learning to differentiate between the advice you need and the advice you don’t need, because you don’t need all the advice I might give you. It’s your job to figure out the stuff that resonates as true and the other stuff that is just my opinion.
If they don’t make the top 10, or even get past Hollywood Week, you know they’re going to be okay because of your own experience as a young competitor.
Look, it’s got to be a calling. I get really upset when people refer to it as, “I did the artist thing.” I don’t like that phrase. The “artist thing” to me is like saying, “I did the neuroscientist thing. I did the astronaut thing.” It’s not a thing. It’s either your calling or its not. It’s not working at the checkout at a grocery store. It’s a calling. If it’s anything less than that for you, you’re not going to last. You’re not going to go the distance.
At what age did you know it was your calling?
I never thought of it as anything else. I always say music for me is like walking. I never made a decision to walk. Suddenly, I was just walking. I don’t remember the day I started walking. Playing guitar and singing feels very much like that to me. It’s a natural part of my life. It happened when it happened. And I’ve been doing it ever since. I never thought of it even as a job.