Keith Urban is given the superpower of coexisting with a lot of animation in “Superman,” his new video, which Variety is exclusively premiering. “Superman” is the fourth song Urban is releasing from his upcoming album, “The Speed of Now Part One,” which comes out Sept. 18 — a delayed release date that gave Urban a chance to add some new material in the midst of lockdown.
Urban got on the phone to talk with Variety about the making of the new song and video as well as the forthcoming full-length collection, how he started the drive-in concert craze, why he’s not a fan of an excess of acoustic Instagram videos, and generally getting his creative mojo back in working order after initially feeling “paralyzed” by the lockdowns. Watch the new video (below) and then read his Q&A:
“Superman” seems like a textbook summer song. It’s a looking back on a relationship that’s gone, but with about a hundred times as much sexiness as sadness. Were you thinking “summer single?
I think I always lean into those kinds of songs anyway. Certainly, if I look back at my albums, the songs seem to be a mix of either ballads or just barn-burning summer anthems. Probably because I come from a very coastal area and grew up on the beach, it’s a big part of who I am, and summer is definitely my favorite season. Driving songs, windows down, breaking the speed limit — I love those kinds of things.
People aren’t necessarily feeling like Superman in lockdown right now, though. Do you feel like you’re giving them a little immunity boost, or invulnerability boost?
Well, it’s interesting, because the guy in the song (is recalling) a different time, when it was better. The song opens up with “Lately I’ve been living in a world that’s black and white / Ever since you left all the colors just drained out of my life.” So I think that’s a feeling a lot of people relate to, pretty clearly. And then suddenly remembering this time in life that was way more exciting, dangerous, adventurous, exhilarating — and this particular girl in this time where this guy felt like Superman when he was with her.
How’d it get written? It sounds like you brought together some collaborators from different pop and country worlds, as you’ve been prone to do in the last few years.
I did a writing retreat here in Nashville, and I particularly wanted to put together people I’d written with, but hadn’t written with together. There’s this three-man collective from Los Angeles called Captain Cuts that I wrote a song with on the “Graffiti U” album, and they bring this kind of frat-house, loose, go-at-anything vibe it’s really exciting to be around. And Craig Wiseman, a Nashville writer who I really, really love, comes at things from a different vibe again. I put Captain Cuts, Craig Wiseman and myself in a room, and “Superman” was the result of that first-day collaboration.
The flipbook effect at the beginning of the video is a contemporary thing, but it may give people of a certain age a little bit of A-ha “Take on You” nostalgia, before it goes off in other directions.
[Laughs.] First of all, that, that’s one of my favorite videos of all time, the “Take on Me” video by A-ha. And obviously trying to shoot a video right now is challenging, as any artist can testify. So it’s about trying to come up with a way where we could do something a little different and not just be dependent upon solely green-screen type performance or a solo performance. I was talking with Ben Dalgleish, who’s this really great creative designing artist in my world who put together our whole Vegas show that we did. We were talking about the Aha “Take on Me” video, and he said, “Well, what about a flipbook video?” He hooked me up with a guy called Andymation, who has a really popular channel on YouTube, and we brought him to start work on the concept. I did some filming here in Nashville over at our warehouse. We have a warehouse where we store all our equipment and we have a big green-screen setup there, so we shot all of my performance there.
You did a very elaborate, effects-filled video in covering “Higher Love” for the Global Citizen special a few months ago. You must have a good space there where you can work on your own on things like these during the quarantining.
It’s amazing how we transformed that whole warehouse from a place that I’ve had for quite a few years that was first and foremost a place where we could store all our equipment when we’re off the road, but also a rehearsal facility for when we’re touring and needing to rehearse. Suddenly, nothing that this place was built for is needed right now. [Laughs.] And we said, well, let’s just clear out all this equipment and put that somewhere else, and let’s transform this into basically a TV studio. Because this is what I’m going to need for the next foreseeable future.
Is it easy to do your part and then send it out? When there’s animation involved, it’s not like you’d necessarily be looking over somebody’s shoulder on that during the most collaborative of conditions.
Yeah, that’s right. Obviously a concept like this can be done so remotely. Working with (director) Ben Dalgleish, who goes by the name Human Person, was like working with Max Headroom. He was on the computer screen, just off camera, directing one of my cameramen on what he wanted, even though he’s out in Los Angeles and we’re here in Nashville. I don’t even know where Andymation lives! But the fact that everything was done remotely and then just assembled from where everybody is a testament to the times, I guess.
Was your upcoming album already done when the lockdowns started happening?
It was mostly done. Basically I was just finishing mixes, but then suddenly found that I’ve got a bit of extra unexpected time to keep writing. And I actually ended up writing several new songs, which pushed out some existing songs I had. I think it made the record a little more cohesive. In hindsight, I mean, the truth is, I was quite artistically paralyzed for the first part of lockdown. I unapologetically state that because I had been in the midst of not only playing gigs in Vegas and doing a bit of touring, but going down to studios here in Nashville and recording and having cameras and musicians floating around, and I’m engaged with people everywhere, and all of a sudden that stops. And I’m like, what the hell? There’s no touring. There’s no going to other studios. There’s no collaborating with people. And I didn’t know what to do, honestly. You know, I wasn’t very excited to sit in front of my laptop with an acoustic guitar and keep playing a bunch of songs. That just didn’t interest me. After you do it once, you’re like, “Okay. There’s 4 million people doing this on YouTube every day. What are we doing here?” And I just didn’t want to do anything for a good few weeks. And I slowly came down into my studio and recorded a couple of vocals with some some guitar overdubs, and slowly got back on the horse. And once I did, it was almost like a whole new drive to create came out of that. But it definitely didn’t start out that way.
A lot of people in your position took some time figuring out how to get their mojo back.
Sometimes you hear a piece of advice that sounds so stupid-simple. You’re like, well, duh, but it hits you at a certain time. In my case, a really good friend of mine who I lean on for all kinds of advice in life, I was talking to him on the phone when I was going through that period. And I said, “I just feel stuck, honestly. I jfeel a bit paralyzed.” And he said, “Well, that’s because you’re only focused on everything you can’t do. You literally have listed everything on this call that you can’t do that. I haven’t heard one thing you can do.” And I said, “Well, I can go down to my studio and do some vocals.” He goes, “When are you going to do that?” “Well, I can do that tomorrow.” And he goes, “Great. What else can you do?” “Well, I could write with some people over Zoom.” “Okay. When are you going to do that?” And all of a sudden, my whole focus went towards only: What can I do? And I stopped talking about the things I can’t do. And that simple piece of advice just changed everything. It really did; it was was extraordinary.
You were at the vanguard of the whole drive-in concert thing, doing the very first one of those out at the Stardust outside of Nashville, albeit as a private surprise and for a good cause, or good group of people.
Yeah, just trying to stay active. The idea of the drive-in thing came around the beginning of April. [Doing it at a drive-in] was a bit of a no-brainer because you didn’t have to try and figure it out in a parking lot. The drive-in’s already designed to have the cars assembled all pointing at the same direction. And then you’ve got this big-ass screen behind you, prebuilt, just like any concert you go to with this mammoth video wall behind you. So it was just a simple case of, let’s build a stage in front of it and let’s start playing. The complicated part of it was insurance and all kinds of headaches that we started to run into in trying to put it together, in April/May when things were starting to get difficult for everyone and everything everywhere. We kept hitting these brick walls of how to put this show on. Eventually we decided the best way would be to make it a charitable show where we don’t charge anybody, and we just gave away all the tickets to healthcare workers. And I guess I approached it two ways. One was just like, well, let’s see if this idea works – a proof of concept kind of thing — but also let’s just give back to these guys and girls who are working so hard right now and see what happens from all of this. So I had a really good night and was really glad that we were able to pull it off. That was me emerging out of my little paralyzed cocoon, too.
The album won’t be out till September, and we’ll talk more about that later, but is there anything you’d want people to know about it now?
I guess the title of the album has been the most asked question I’ve gotten, and that’s one of those crazy art-imitating-life, life-imitating-art moments The title “The Speed of Now” came to me last year for multitudes of reasons, mostly just because I felt like everything was just careening almost out of control. Everywhere I went, it seemed like people were going faster, everything was moving faster, life was going faster. So it was a bit of a commentary about the absurdity of where I felt like we were at. And God, fast forward to March and April of this year, where everything just ground to a halt. I was shell-shocked. And I’d said to a couple of friends of mine, “I’m going to have to come up with a different album title.” And they said, why? I said, “Well, this made sense last year.” They said, “Yeah, but the speed of now is very different to what it was last year.” So I think people will have a different relationship with that title, which took on a whole new meaning. And the songs within the record … Certainly there’s a huge amount of hope in the record. My albums have always leaned into the light as much as I can, because it’s how I try and live my life. So I think this record has a lot of buoyancy and a lot of hope in it.