Interview: Boundaries Don’t Matter to Keith Urban on ‘Ripcord’
Keith Urban has already proven that he isn’t afraid to take chances. But his latest album, Ripcord, takes the country star to new heights as a singer, writer, producer and artist. From the EDM-influenced “Wasted Time” to the urban-sounding “Sun Don’t Let Me Down,” featuring rapper Pitbull, and the bluesy “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” Urban explores new levels of creativity on the 13-track record … and he trusts that his fans will join him on the journey.
“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,” Urban tells The Boot. “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.”
The recording process for Ripcord took almost a year and a half, with Urban both reaching out to and collaborating with writers and producers such as Jeff Bhasker, Samuel Tyler Johnson, Greg Wells, K-Kov, Nile Rodgers and busbee, among others.
“I wanted to work with a lot of people I had never worked with before. Not exclusively, in the sense where, I wanted to work with familiar people as well but sort of start with a lot of new writers and producers. Sometimes they’re one in the same,” Urban explains. “I love when you can write with the producers and produce with the writers … It was really just seeking out new energies, new ways of writing songs, new ways of being in the studio.”
Urban is joined by his good friend Carrie Underwood on the beat-driven “The Fighter,” which Urban and busbee co-wrote and produced. For Urban, the song is as much about showcasing Underwood’s talents as it is about illustrating his own.
“I love her voice. She’s really, really talented, and she’s just really starting to discover what she can do as a singer, so I was really happy she wanted to sing on this song,” Urban gushes of Underwood. “It’s pretty simple, too … It’s not a traditional duet, where there’s a lot for the girl to sing, but it’s an important role in the song. It was written with that idea of a simple conversation, simplistic conversation, a very simple question-and-answer scenario in the chorus, which really appealed to me.”
On the country-sounding “Boy Gets a Truck” and “Worry ‘Bout Nothin’,” meanwhile, Urban returns to his roots; both songs were co-produced by Urban and his longtime producer Dann Huff. No genre was off-limits on Ripcord, and Urban says that this record is the first on which he fully trusted his instincts, without imposing any restrictions.
“No one knows what I was trying to do except me, so I’m the only one that’s going to be frustrated that all the things aren’t what I was trying to do,” he muses. “This record is the first one in a long, long, long time that I felt really satiated artistically, incredibly, by the end result.”
In some cases, songs on Ripcord were influenced by artists, songs and albums Urban had never heard of: Thanks to the song-recognition smartphone app Shazam, which can identify a song by listening to a snippet of it, that music became the bed for Urban’s new project.
“Maybe I like the sound of the kick drum on the song, or I like the sound of the guitar or the vocal affect or the way they stacked the harmonies — it could be anything, a million things in the whole song itself, in the recording,” Urban shares. “I’m the guy standing on the table in a restaurant, trying to hold my phone up to the speaker; 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.”
"This record is the first one in a long, long, long time that I felt really satiated artistically, incredibly, by the end result … I really haven’t thought in terms of parameters at all with this record, but I feel very sure that I’ve stayed true to myself musically, and that’s really the journey for me."
Urban cast the deciding vote for every factor of Ripcord, placing particular emphasis on not only which of the 25 songs he recorded made the final cut, but in which order they were placed on the album.
“Sequence is always important on a new record, for anybody who still wants to listen to a record from beginning to end,” Urban notes. “The album title helped a little bit, gave me a bit of a sense of which songs would be Ripcord. But then I thought, I’m just going to put it together like a setlist for a gig: ‘Okay, I’m doing a show tonight, I can only do 13 songs. What do I want to start with, what do I want to finish with, what do I want to do in the middle, and how do I thread everything through and say everything I want to say, play everything I want to play, within 13 songs?’ And that’s how I did it.”
Ultimately, it’s this, his ninth studio album (10th if you include his disc with his band the Ranch), that finally offered Urban the freedom to break wide open the creative gates, which have been slowly budging with each of his previous projects.
“I really haven’t thought in terms of parameters at all with this record, but I feel very sure that I’ve stayed true to myself musically, and that’s really the journey for me,” he acknowledges. “I want to go out to the edges of where I can go, before I lose myself and then it just doesn’t sound like me anymore.”
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