Billboard: Keith Urban Has ‘Everything’ Going For Him
As the season finale of “American Idol” aired May 16 on Fox, it represented both an ending and a beginning for Keith Urban.
In addition to closing his first (and maybe his only) season as a judge on the show, he also gave his first public performance of “Little Bit of Everything,” the lead single from an album that’s still in production. Urban purposely shook up his routines for this album, enlisting songwriters and producers he’d never worked with before in an effort to expand his creative footprint. “We can’t keep remaking the same record,” he told the Tennessean last August.
The stylistic blend of his “Idol” performances that night were, it appears, a sign of what’s to come. Urban performed “Where the Blacktop Ends”—his ultra-country Steve Wariner-penned hit from 2001—with contestant Kree Harrison while “Idol” judge Randy Jackson played bass and Blink-182’s Travis Barker sat in on drums. Urban used his own band for “Everything,” though astute viewers might have noticed that his longtime bassist, Jerry Flowers, was simulating the track by playing a synth bass.
Urban’s co-producer Nathan Chapman (Taylor Swift, the Band Perry) was impressed that they employed that kind of detail in the performance, particularly because that rolling bass sound is one of the unique sonic features
on the single, released to radio via Play MPE on May 13. The bass provides a fat, ’80s-pop vibe—a new wrinkle to Urban’s sound that’s appropriate in 2013, when many country fans play games on their high-tech computers in their spare time.
“For years I’ve worked with drum machines and banjos as my main writing tools,” Urban says. “I’ve always had a deep, deep fascination with the fusion of robotocism and human elements. That’s always been in my songwriting. It’s just never been that present in my records, and it was something I wanted to explore more since we made this album.”
Not that the bass sound was planned. When Urban and Chapman got to- gether to record the song on April 30 at Martina McBride’s Blackbird Studios, they called a couple of Nashville bass players, neither of which was available.
“One was out of town and one was booked,” Chapman remembers. “So I said, ‘Well, let me throw a scratch bass on there, a synth bass.’ And he said, ‘If you throw a scratch bass on there, it’s gonna be cool and it’s gonna stick.’ And then it ended up sticking.”
Urban and Chapman likely didn’t know it at the time, but they were carry- ing out the original intent when the songwriters created “Everything” about a year ago. One of them was Miami-based pop/hip-hop artist Kevin Rudolf. His 2008 single “Let It Rock” (No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100), featuring Lil Wayne, has been used as an NBA theme.
Rudolf understands that it might seem unusual for him to try his hand at country. “I am kind of an oxymoron,” he allows.
Sony/ATV Nashville VP of creative Tom Luteran set a writing appointment with Dallas Davidson (“Just a Kiss,” “Boys ’Round Here”) and another with Brad and Brett Warren (“Highway Don’t Care,” “Red Solo Cup”), who met Rudolf at one of Blackbird’s small studios. The Warren Brothers particularly found common ground with Rudolf since they all played guitar and had rather wide-ranging tastes.
“I said, ‘Hey, I like a little bit of everything,’” Brad Warren notes, setting the tone for a song that was a study in contrast with the Warrens strumming guitars while Rudolf carved out a light beat on his laptop.
“That was part of the experience to me,” Brad says. “We wrote around the cool stuff that he was doing.”
Brett Warren spit out the opening lines—“I wish I could take a cab down to the creek/And hang a disco ball from an old oak tree”—creating a unique mash-up of images that hints at the embrace of simplicity beneath it all.
“It’s just saying, ‘I don’t need to be in the party scene,’” Rudolf explains. “It’s a great metaphor. It’s about making the party wherever you want it to be.”
They blended alcohol, Cuban cigars, middle-class aspirations and an easy-going relationship with a slow-boiling groove. Rudolf built it into a rather elaborate demo with an island-influenced feel once he returned to Miami. The Warrens loved it but weren’t sure it was right for the artists they usually work with, such as Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney. “Everything” ultimately lingered without a lot of action.
That changed when Urban started working with mixer Serban Ghenea (Carrie Underwood, Katy Perry). Ghenea was also mixing Rudolf ’s next single, “Here’s to Us,” and Rudolf mentioned that “Little Bit of Everything” might be a good fit for Urban. Ghenea concurred and sent the demo to Capitol & Virgin Label Group president Dan McCarroll in Los Angeles. McCarroll in turn sent it to Urban, who was immediately sold. “That song just had a great flow and a little bit of quirkiness in the lyrics, which I really loved,” Urban says. “And songs have a tendency in the chorus to be big, huge. I liked that the whole chorus just simmered.”
Urban had recorded a couple of tracks at Chapman’s home studio, but they booked Blackbird this time, allowing Chapman’s pregnant wife and 2-year-old toddler some peace. Urban repitched “Everything” several keys higher than the demo, and the two worked steadily on April 30 building tracks: Urban play- ing guitar and ganjo, Chapman programming the track and adding ukulele arpeggios that they in turn chopped up to create a signature lick.
“I played the ukulele thing,” Chapman says, “and Keith was like, ‘Can you mess it up a little bit?’”
Chapman rigged it so that Urban could record his final vocals in the studio control room, using a mic that captured his performance without picking up the sound from the speakers.
“I don’t know how he’s done all his other records,” Chapman adds, “but I think he likes the vibe and the energy of staying in the control room with people sitting there right next to him instead of going off into a little closet.”
They shipped it off to Ghenea, who called Urban one night in the middle of mixing to ask about a missing piece: Rudolf’s demo had a guitar line in the chorus that Urban left out. Was that intentional?
“I went back and listened to the demo and went, ‘Wow,’” Urban notes. “It’s just a recurring, arpeggio riff that’s very, very subliminal. Unless you’re a musician, you wouldn’t really hear it, but you feel it in the chorus.”
Neither Urban nor Chapman was able to fit a recording session into their schedule, so Rudolf sent the guitar track. It was repitched, and he suddenly became the third musician on the song.
In short order, “Little Bit of Everything” bumped another song to become the new album’s lead release, debuting this week at No. 30 on Country Airplay. Quite the beginning for the disco ball on the old oak tree. And maybe a sign of what’s on Urban’s horizon.