Mention Charlotte to Keith Urban, and the singer almost immediately launches into a story about a time before he had four Grammy Awards, before he was married to Nicole Kidman, before he didn’t need to borrow money to buy a car.
“In 2001, I got my first royalty check — which wasn’t insane, but it was good enough — for ‘But for the Grace of God,’ my very first number one song I ever had,” Urban says. “And somebody told me about this 1994 Chevy Impala SS for sale up there, with low miles on it... so I went and got on an American Airlines flight and flew to Charlotte so I could go and see it.
“The car was $23,000, and my royalty check was for 20. I blew the entire amount, and borrowed some to get this car and drive it back to Nashville. At that time in my life, it was probably one of the most awesome, coolest things I’d ever done. So to this day, every time I think of Charlotte, I think of that moment back then.”
On Saturday night, the 50-year-old New-Zealander-turned-Nashville-megastar makes his way back to Charlotte with a whole lot more money in his bank account and his 11th studio album to promote: “Graffiti U,” which represents his biggest departure from country music since he moved to the U.S. from Australia nearly 25 years ago.
Urban spoke with the Observer recently about “Graffiti U,” the evolution of his relationship with his wife, and how to avoid falling off the stage.
Q. What’s going on today?
Ah, just having a bit of a chat right now. (Laughs.) ... Then heading off to the studio this afternoon. It’s for a collaboration that I’m working on with somebody else, and they asked me to do a vocal on this song of theirs, so hopefully that’s gonna pan out.
Q. Do you have as much fun in the studio as compared to being on tour? Because in the live shows, it looks like you’re having a lot of fun.
I have absolutely as much fun in the studio. They’re obviously totally different environments, but the thing that probably makes them more similar than not, for me, is when ... something’s happening and you’re just sort of in the zone and creativity’s flowing. ... When that happens in the studio, it’s just exhilarating, and really I shoot for those same things live. Yes, we have a structured show, to a large degree, but during certain songs where I can just feel the audience is in the zone, that song may go for way longer than we expected. It’s that wave, where you’re like, “OK, here we go, we’re freestyling here, let’s see what happens.” This tour has definitely got a lot of those moments in it.
Q. Speaking of freestyling, one of the things your fans love about your live shows is your guitar solos. What’s it like to just go crazy out there with your guitar, and what’s going on in your head while you’re ripping through those things?
I read something where somebody — maybe Steven Tyler — was talking about the dichotomy of performing on stage in as much as you’ve gotta be completely present and completely lost in the moment, all at the same time. There’s so much truth in that. You know, present because you’re the guy that’s supposed to be leading the whole thing, and you don’t wanna be falling off the stage, so you need to be certainly aware of where you are and what you’re doing. But completely lost in the waves, and man, those are the things that I’m waiting for every night. And you can’t just make it happen. You know, as a writer — it’s the same thing, right? You’ll be writing away and suddenly everything’s flowing, and it’s coming out right, and you’re like, “Damn, this is good! This reads really well.” Then it’s gone. You’re like, “What did I do to get into that zone? I wish I could do that again.” That’s me every night.
Q. What are your other favorite live-show moments?
People bring all these signs. ... It could be anything from someone wanting to sing, someone wanting to play, someone who just wants to get a selfie with you, someone’s got a weird story, someone wants to propose — you never know. But I always get somebody out of the audience early in the show. That bit’s really fun.
Q. What’s the best sign you’ve ever seen?
Oh, the first probably that comes to mind is, umpteen years ago, somebody had a big sign that said, “I pay your bills, and I wanna meet you!” (Laughs.) That’s so true at the end of the day, right?
Q. Did that person make it on stage?
Totally! I just thought that was so incredibly “on,” and so perfectly right. So yeah, I brought ‘em up.
Q. Why is it so important to you to have that connection with your fans? I actually read a review of a show you did in Utah just recently where it said that you stuck around for 15 minutes after the final song to sign stuff for fans. Obviously you don’t have to do any of this stuff.
I mean, I could also say that they don’t have to come out and see us either. I don’t take it for granted that people come out and see us play. Especially now, man — there’s like a billion things for all of us to do. We’re pulled in so many directions. We’ve got so many options. Like, how many tours are coming through anybody’s city in a given summer? And that’s just one of the many options that everybody’s got. So I’ve been fortunate to be doing this a long time, but man, I stand on the stage and look out and see all the people and just think, “Every one of these people out here probably had to jump through all kinds of hoops just to make it to this show tonight.” I appreciate it, so I just want to let them know that whenever I can.
Q. So what’s the deal with this new record?
It’s funny, because I didn’t even think of it in terms of experimental. I think of it in terms of really pure expression, like, with the idea of going in the studio and just creating. No boundaries, no limitations, no parameters of any sort. Get a groove going ... just create, from the ground up. And if I love the way it sounds and feels, then I’m good with it. I didn’t filter anything, I didn’t question a lot of things. It’s really where the name came from. “Graffiti U” really came from that feeling of the studio being totally a blank canvas and just throwing paint everywhere and just letting it be very me. I’ve become very genre-fluid, and this record reflects that.
Q. But do you still consider yourself a country artist?
I consider myself a music artist. My background is obviously playing a lot of country music, because of growing up in the country music clubs in Australia. But I also spent years playing in Top 40 bands, cover bands, like a lot of us do before we get to start writing original music. I think all of that background of playing genre-less music in a cover band is starting to creep into what I do, but probably more than anything, I just think it’s reflective of all the music that’s out there right now. I listen to everything. All kinds of music speaks to me. And I’m a mad Shazm-er. I’m Shazam-ing stuff all the time. (Editor’s note: Shazam is a music recognition app.) I was literally just at a restaurant yesterday, and I heard this really cool track and I Shazam-ed it. So I make this eclectic playlist, and when I go in the studio, I take that in with me and filter a lot of that stuff into the record-making.
Q. What was the song you discovered at the restaurant?
Let me have a look on Shazam here, hold on a sec.
Q. And have there been other great discoveries recently through Shazam?
Oh, yeah. Let’s see, the last three things I Shazam-ed were ... one’s called “Good Morning” by Max Frost. The next one was “Burning” by The War on Drugs. And then the one before that was “Ain’t Got It Like That” by Earl St. Clair. ... The War on Drugs, I sensed it was them, because I could tell the sound, but I didn’t know the song. Those other artists, Earl St. Clair and Max Frost? Never heard of ‘em. But those songs spoke to me.
Q. This current world tour is another huge one. Fifty-nine dates, you’ve already been going a month and a half ... and you’ve also got a wife and two girls (Sunday Rose, 10, and Faith Margaret, 7) that you want to spend time with. I know you’ve been through this before, but how challenging has it been — especially now that the kids are getting older — to balance work with family on tours like this?
Well, the operative word is balance, and as I read ages ago, “Balance is never achieved, it’s just maintained.” That’s so true. And I’m a guy. I’m not used to maintaining anything. (Laughs). Maintenance is not a natural thing to me, and so the wheels fall off sometimes ... everything goes out of whack. It goes out of balance. The difference between my life now versus before I met Nic is that we both fix it when it goes out of balance. Because it does. It still goes out of balance. Even with the best-laid plans, circumstances and all that stuff intervene and suddenly you’re way out of balance. The only difference is we just fix it quicker now than we used to do. We recognize it and fix it and get on with it. But to answer your question specifically: I take the family on the road with me sometimes. We just did a run — Salt Lake City, Denver and Albuquerque — where I had the girls on the bus with me the whole three nights.
Q. Do the girls like that?
Oh, God, they love it. They could care less about Daddy playing, but they love the bunks, and they love the bus.
Q. They don’t care that you’re a big star?
It’s funny, you know, I heard Springsteen talking about that with his kids and he was saying it’s a weird thing. ... Someone asked Bruce, “What do your kids think when the audience is like, ‘Bruuuuuuuce! Bruuuuuuuce!’” And he goes, “I think the kids would probably prefer that they were booing me.” (Laughs.) The kids don’t want all these other people having their dad’s attention. So it’s a weird mixed feeling, I think, with that whole thing. You’ll have to ask our kids about that when they become adults.
Q. Whose job do they think is cooler — yours or your wife’s?
I think it’s actually more about who’s got the better catering! You know, Dad has catering and Mom has craft services, so we duke it out over who’s got the better food.
Q. What’s their least favorite part about being on the road?
We have a couple of cats, so I think they miss their cats. Cats are not so good on the tour bus.
With Kelsea Ballerini.
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: PNC Music Pavilion, 707 Pavilion Blvd.
Tickets: $29 and up.
Details: 800-745-3000; www.livenation.com.