With more details on Keith Urban’s upcoming album, Graffiti U, being revealed any day now, it made sense for Urban to hit pause for a moment and take a look back over his life and career during Friday’s South by Southwest panel in Austin, Texas, hosted by Grammy Museum executive director Scott Goldman.
Later that night he performed hits from his last two albums, (but no mention of new material), at the legendary Stubb’s Bar-B-Q and amphitheater in a showcase sponsored by Bumble, who felt that his 2017 hit, “Female,” was a perfect anthem for the “female first” dating, friendship and networking app. During the 90-minute set, Urban managed to delight fans by suddenly leaving the stage to transport himself to the back of the venue where he then gave away his own guitar — signed, no less, to an unsuspecting member of the audience.
Earlier in the day, Urban talked about formative experiences growing up in Australia and influences — besides his late drummer dad — which included seeing Johnny Cash at age 5 with his father, who bought them little Western shirts and bolos to wear. He remembered the roar of the crowd as Cash walked on stage and he first realized the “power when he played guitar and sang, was just an extraordinary thing… and this was the thing I was meant to do.”
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Urban described his most unusual venue and performance when he was starting out. A manager who made a “shoddy deal with some airline for free tickets” had them playing at the tiny Tamworth airport in Australia with one baggage carousel, which they were instructed to play on. Eventually, a few people showed up to the delight of the band — until the baggage carousel started beeping and the bags started to pop out. Urban, now 50, took it in stride and went for a few rides around the carousel as he continued to play his guitar.
In 1992 Urban first came to Nashville where he said for “purely financial reasons, I became a lead singer.” He explained he couldn’t afford to bring over his five-piece band from Australia, so it turned into a three-piece band with Urban as lead vocals. He says he was excited to land in Nashville and live there because “all the albums I was exposed to growing up were all recorded in Nashville… and I wanted to explore and get out of my comfort zone.”
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When discussing the process of creating music, Urban says that when he creates something, “I can only hear it for what it isn’t. I don’t hear it for what it is… in my head, it’s fully formed, so once it’s out I’m listening to anything that doesn’t match what’s in.” It takes time for him to truly appreciate his own music. “First time you hear it for what it is, is about 10 years later,” Urban joked.
He also revealed that his wife of 11 years, actress Nicole Kidman, has taught him a lot about his own craft and taking risks. “Nic inspired me to try anything, to do anything… because that’s how she approaches her own work,” he explained.
Urban’s life has not been without its struggles, and he touched on his years of alcohol abuse prior to getting sober 12 years ago. The discussion was triggered by Goldman suggesting that Urban’s interaction with his audience is much different now than it used to be, to which Urban responded, “Well yeah — it’s because I’m sober now.” He said he needed to get sober because “I’m just alcoholically wired. I wasn’t at my full potential and I was living a very small life. My life was getting smaller and smaller and that is how I kept it manageable. I was lucky I had a very loving wife. , has freed me up creatively.”
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He also said being married to Kidman, 50, has made his love songs more authentic.
“Back before I met Nic and got married, I sucked at relationships and couldn’t give myself to the relationship. I’d write from a place in romance songs that I wanted to be at, but wasn’t at that place,” he explained during the panel discussion. “And I realized I was writing from all these places of the kind of person I wished I could be. I wasn’t that person, but I wanted to be. It was only a song but my real life was a disaster. The only thing that’s changed in my life is I’ve more so become the person I was trying to be.”
Urban also admitted it’s a struggle to balance it all: work, wife, kids and stay present. He does screw up, but the difference is that now he can admit the mistake. Urban may know his schedule way in advance, but Kidman doesn’t and occasionally a film will suddenly come up and the family — including daughters Sunday Rose and Faith Margaret —all have to fly to New York. “I try to have things set,” Urban said. “But I have to be malleable!” And when it comes to his private life, Urban said his and Kidman’s mantra is, “Nothing to hide and everything to protect.”
With Graffiti U just about in the can — “You never finish, you just give up. The hard part is realizing that I finished the album ages ago and that I’ve actually started the next one but nobody has told me,” Urban joked to PEOPLE ahead of his Bumble performance. “I have to delineate when the end of that one is, otherwise I will just go on and on!” — the country superstar will hit the road with Kelsea Ballerini for a summer tour.
“There were a mix of people that were interested, available, but musical compatibility was one thing,” Urban told PEOPLE about choosing Ballerini as his opening act. “I knew the kind of record I was making wasn’t pure country down the line, and Kelsea’s records . They’re a fusion of things and I felt that she would be compatible.”
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And Urban has big plans for the tour, set to kick off June 15 in St. Louis. “I’m always looking for new ways to connect with the audience, new things to put in the set list and in the show — not just songs, but moments that we haven’t done before,” he explained, adding that he hopes to include an interlude honoring his late father.
“My father was a drummer when I was growing up and I played the drums as well. I’ve been wanting to make mention of that and a moment in the show where I talk about my dad,” Urban revealed to PEOPLE. “He passed away a couple years ago, but I’ve realized just how much of a huge influence he’s been on me— in my life and music, and I’ve never talked about that. So now feels like the right time.”