Keith Urban gave an interview prior to his headlining set at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival on April 24, 2015. At the Alison Minor Stage. Urban is presently one of the judges on American Idol. This is Keith Urban’s second appearance at Jazz Fest since hurricane Katrina. The interview was conducted by Keith Spera, a writer for a local newspaper.

KS: Let’s get it out of the way. First off. Big controversy this week. Quinton Alexander from Louisiana was voted off of American Idol this week. Did you see that coming?

KU: On one hand. It was a big bonus. He was an extraordinary artist. The other side of it, it’s amazing that he kept staying in as long as he did because in a lot of cases when you are that original, you don’t appeal to a lot of people. It’s a testament to his spirit and him as a person, people kept loving him and voting him through every week. I’m glad he lasted as long as he did.

KS: Quite obviously, to be a judge on the show, it’s a responsibility because you are holding people’s careers in your hands.

KU: Yes and no in the sense that it’s a moment on a journey. And a lot of them have years and years of career ahead of them. Many moments.

KS: You, I imagine, are especially sympathetic to folks on these shows because you spent many moments on these talent shows a young whipper, snapper in Australia. I’m thinking of a particular show. Taking you back to 1983, you were sixteen years old, on a show called New Faces” Do you remember what you performed?

KU: I only know because I’ve seen them on You Tube. I don’t remember doing those shows which is so weird. I did a few of those kind singing shows when I was younger. The first one I did was called “Pot of Gold.” I was nine years old and my mom and dad thought I should go on a show and I went on and sang a country song of some sort. And of course my parents didn’t have VCRs or anything of that sort. So my dad got a little shoebox cassette recorder and put it up next to the speaker of the TV so that they could record me, the audio part anyway. He also thought it would be great to record the judges comments as well. He came at me like a tsunami on the Nye. I had that thing burned into my brain for years. This one guy called Vernon King came at me, part of what he said, and I am quoting him, ‘I definitely encourage you to escape the mediocrity of country western music and get into some real music.’ I’m nine. ‘Otherwise you’ll end up sounding like Dolly Parton and being absolutely useless.’ And he said ‘kindly learn to sing in tune because you are intrinsically a good musician.’ I remember listening to this feedback and asking my mom “What does intrinsically mean? She said it means that basically you are a good musician. I said well, cool. I just discarded the rest of that junk and hung on to that bit.

KS: I’m intrigued by a song you chose. It was “All Out of Love” by Air Supply. Were you just representing fellow Australians? Didn’t you want to do Men at Work or INXS?

KU: I wanted to do that song. I was in my cover band days. I guess that was a song we were doing that song at the time. I did a lot of those shows, The Pot of Gold show and I did another show called Have A Go Show, Stairway to Stars,

KS: Was your dad’s record collections what introduced you to country music?

KU: Yeah, every Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Charlie Pride, Glen Campbell, Waylon, Willie, everybody, lots of good stuff.

KS: As a six year old boy, you went to see Johnny Cash?

KU: At five or six, it was the first concert I ever saw, Johnny Cash. I don’t remember much of it. A Johnny Cash crowd was a particularly rowdy crowd,” he said. “Like New Orleans – crazy, rowdy, way too much blood in their alcohol system. That was the kind of crowd that was there. Awesome energy in the crowd. I remember it being loud and happening, good spirits. It was like New Year’s eve. and then they turned the house lights down and this guy comes out and starts singing.
“I just remember this figure way in the distance, on the stage, spotlight coming across,” Urban said. “Standing there with just his guitar, and the whole place went dead quiet. I just remember thinking, ‘What is going on up there for that to happen? I never remember seeing anything like that on television or anywhere. It was extraordinary.

KS: Did you ever get to tell him this story?

KU: I never met Johnny Cash. It’s such a shame. There’s a couple of people. I wish I had met Waylon or John.

KS: Listening to records, country music as a kid, kids sometimes tend to rebel to their parents music. I know my dad listened to Fats Domino, Little Richard, all those sort of things. At the wisdom of my teenage years, I dismissed all that stuff.

KU: What did you replace it with?

KS: Rush, Motley Crue.

KU: Wait a minute. Fats Domino out the window, replaced with Motley Crue?

KS: I was a teenager. What can I say? Did you ever go through that period where you rejected country music?

KU: I never did. I think there a lot of country music clubs in Australia. There still is a lot of amateur country clubs in Australia. People who love country music join these clubs in all these different cities. My parents joined these clubs when I was nine. They had these functions every two weeks at the local hall. If you wanted to sing you could put your name on a list and do a song or two. Kids would sing. Parents would sing. It was a really cool club to be a part of. Once a year all these clubs would come together in a chosen city and they would all compete for three days. So I grew up in this culture. The kids I hung out with were members of these clubs. So it wasn’t an unusual thing for us when I started playing these clubs at eleven or twelve. I’d sing peppered songs, primarily country, but I’d mix it with everything else.

KS: was there ever a time when you wanted to be a rock ‘n roller? Was that ever on you radar at all or this is all you ever wanted to do?

KU: Country always felt like my home. Everything I did seemed to be on top of it. So it was underneath it all. I was in one non-country band when I was about sixteen or seventeen, something like that. It was called Fractured Mirror. Edgy. So, I’m thinking, it probably was that period of mine. I’m doing intra-walk thing. This was a serious heavy metal band like Whitesnake, Judas Priest, full on English heavy metal. I knew nothing about. The guitar player wanted to be the lead singer. ‘I don’t want to play guitar anymore. Here my Marshall Stack. I’ll loan you that. Here’s my amps. You be the guitar player. Plug into there. I’m going to be the singer.’ I thought great. I got the black leather jacket. I got the Marshall Stack. I got my friend’s Stratocaster. I put the pickup in the back. I’m the heavy metal dude now. And right about that time, I discovered Ricky Scaggs. True story. I had an album called “Highways and Heartaches.” I had an album called “Waiting For the Sun To Shine,” And I was so into this record and there was this guy called Ray Flack who was the guitar player on that record and Albert Lee. I was getting into all these ‘chicken pickin’ cats right at the time I’m in this band. So I’m in this band and we were busting out like “Blackout” by the Scorpions and I’m doing my chicken pickin guitar licks with the Marshall Stack. “What the hell is that? What are you doing?” They fired me.

KS: And you are better off for it. Yes!

KU: Fast forward a bunch of years and I’m playing in the clubs and I’m doing a mix of rock, country, what ever is on the charts and in 1988 and John Mellencamp is touring Australia. He’s just put out “Jubilee.” I love that record. It’s got fiddle on it, acoustic guitar, and accordion. It’s got the rootsy lyrics. It’s got a rock thing going on. I went to see him in concert and I swear it was an absolute epiphany. What I learned that night was (that) you don’t have to do any specific thing. Just take all the things you love, fuse it together and do your thing, whatever your thing is. I still get chills thinking about it. I left that concert with such clarity about the things I wanted to put together to make my sound. So, I thank him for that.

KS: Did you ever get to tell him that story?

KU: I did. I told him that story. It was so cool. Because who would have every thought that umpteen years later I would get on the phone with him. He was interviewing for this magazine and I said I gotta tell you this story. I told him the story and he was floored. He said you never know, you are touring the world and in this little town in Australia and you never realize the effect you can have on somebody. For me it was profound.
KS} Did he, then, ask you for a percentage of your royalties?

KU: He did. Yes.

KS: So you get a record deal in Australia. I imagine that Nashville was your goal all along. You get to Nashville in the early nineties. How did it or did it not match up to your expectations?

Ku: I came to Nashville in 1989 with a demo tape that I thought was pretty cool. I look back now and it was terrible. Terrible demo, crap songs, crap recording. I don’t know what I was thinking, but it’s all relative to where you come from. Where I was from, it was pretty good. From Nashville, not so good. God bless the people who listened to it, who supported it, but I was way out of my league. I loved Nashville the second I got there and I didn’t want to leave. I just wanted to stay.

KS: You initially tried your hand in the professional songwriter circle where you guys scheduled sessions and all that. It was tough and my understanding was that didn’t necessarily jive with you, that sort of scheduled songwriting.

KU: No, because I don’t really think of myself as that way. I think of myself as a singing guitarist, entertainer and I can write a little bit. That’s probably the order I put everything in. Nashville is such a writer’s town as you know. Clock work. At 10 a. m. we are going to show up. I’m going to sit in the window’s room with a yellow legal pad and an acoustic guitar. We’re going to write a song with this guy whom I just met. Such a strange thing you know. But from that I learned so much about writing. I learned a lot about how I didn’t want to write as well. The way I didn’t want to create because it was uninspiring which pushed me over to the way I wanted to create. Working with my drum machine, working with my ganjo. Letting it be more liberated.

KS: When we spoke a couple of weeks ago for the interview that’s in the paper today, we talked a little bit about the balance between inspiration and discipline. It takes both. You have moments of inspiration. It takes discipline to take those moments of inspiration and actually make something out of it.

KU: Yes. There is every now and then a lightning bolt hits and the whole song is done. You nailed it. But other times you need discipline. You know as a writer you need that. You have to sit down and write. You have all these wonderful ideas. You have to build that out.

KS: I know about the lack of discipline. When you look at songs what do you look at initially? What generally grabs you when you are looking at songs to record or working with other people that may have the genesis of an idea? What attracts you to a song initially?

KU: It could be anything. Turn of a phrase, a melody. The way a lyric hits at that melodic moment. Those combinations of things. I heard Bono talking one time about one of the Brian Wilson songs “love and mercy is what you need tonight”(sung) it not the most bold, fresh, original phrase. When you put the same phrase with a different emphasis on the words in the phrase, with Brian singing it, the whole thing becomes magical. Anything can get my attention.

KS: Obviously at this point in time, you are looking at the cream that comes out of Nashville. You are looking at your pick, I imagine, when you are making an album, of songs that comes out of Nashville.

KU: I get to look at a lot of songs, but it’s a town where everyone is looking for a great song particularly for a lot of people who don’t write. There are a lot of artists who don’t write. It’s never ending. Waiting for that song that comes along. For me it was a song called “Cop Car.” I love it. It was such an interesting story about falling in love in the back of a cop car. I had never heard that before and it was such a strong image and I could relate to the song. (laughing from the crowd)

KS: Was there a point in your career that you realized that ‘okay, I’m going to be able to do this forever?’ What was the point when you realized ‘I’m in,’ ‘I’m established’ ?

KU: I don’t know. I always felt like I can play in a club and make some money to pay the rent and pay the utilities. That was early on. I quit school when I was 15 and I was playing in a band five nights a week, four hours a night at 15. So I felt like I’m doing what I’m gonna do. I talked to my mom and dad and (they) said you can leave school when you are 15. I always say this in a way to kids and parents not to support this, but for me in my particular journey, I really wasn’t gaining much from school. I was at a public school and the curriculum was pretty basic. I really wasn’t learning anything by then. I wanted to get out in life, and start really learning and get to learn what I really want to do, that is playing music. I was lucky to have parents who supported that. I think from then at 15. I can cover all my bills by just playing music.

KS: Personal service message to my daughter, stay in school.

KU: Looking out in to the audience, Look out there. There is a sign that says ‘if our teacher gets a kiss, we get a party!”(Laughter) See, why didn’t I go to that school! I would have stayed in school. Where’s your teacher at? I hope it’s a girl. Can you come down? The audience roars and the teacher comes down to Keith. What your name? “Jennifer” Come sit down here. Where are you from Jennifer? “Bogalusa.” This is my kind of school right here. You called in sick?? Well, I see you are keeping a low profile today! Okay, now who are you here with? “The principle!” Awesome! What’s your name? “Brian.” Tell me how old are the kids you teach? “I teach kindergarten.” What kind of party would they have? “Pizza.” Alright. He kisses her. Party on kids!

KS: So, FYI everybody we are going to take a few questions at the end. Please no American Idol auditions. Turning to Keith, There is kind of a percussive nature to your songs. You write on an instrument that a lot of people may not be familiar with, called the ganjo?

KU: Yes, I do. Do you want to hear it? I don’t have the one I normally use, but I have this one. It’s a six-string banjo. I never say I play banjo. I can’t play banjo because it has five-strings and out of respect for banjo players, I say I can’t play a banjo. Keith proceeds to play and sing “Somebody Like You.”

This fun interview continued another twenty-five minutes. There was a question and answer period at the end. Later that day, Keith performed the last set of the day at the Acura Stage.



Especially loved the chickin’ pickin Scorpion story …And the “Cop Car” story…Keith is so funny…One of the many things that I love about him…