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Interview: Keith Urban on losing guitars, gaining perspective

Keith Urban's new album, "Get Closer," had an inauspicious start.

The guitars he had long used — some for 20 years — and that he counted as a key component of each recording session, as vital as some of his musicians, were all under water.

In May of last year, Nashville was flooded, and Urban's guitars were one of the smaller casualties of the disaster. He thought he wouldn't recover.

"It's a strange feeling having these guitars — you feel like the caretaker, and the flood was completely unexpected," he said. "It really blindsided me. I felt so responsible for these poor things I felt I couldn't rush out and buy new ones because I felt it was disrespectful."

Urban lost about 50 guitars in all. But the singer, a specialist in winsome country ballads, saw the upside in the situation.

"Ultimately, it was great because it freed up the way I made the record," he said.

The album, which is on the verge of selling a million copies, has also transformed the way he performs. When he takes the stage on July 28 at the Verizon Center, Urban said, fans will see a show designed, as the album's name implies, to get him as close to them as he's ever been.

Urban started writing "Get Closer" in the fall of 2009, taking a leisurely approach that lasted about seven months.

"I tend to write better when I'm not touring," he said. "One thing at a time."

He prefers to have partners during the process — he shares credits on all but three songs on "Get Closer" — and on this album he worked with some new faces, including Dave Pahanish, who'd previously written some hit songs for Tim McGraw and Toby Keith.

Two years removed from "Defying Gravity," his last album, which saw him singing about young love, in "Get Closer," he tackles the changes he's been through.

By the time he started writing it, he had been out of rehab for three years, married for just as long to Nicole Kidman and had fathered a daughter with the actress two years before.

"You go through life experiences," he said. "Each record captures a different turning point in my life."

He also wanted to tackle what had been a difficult problem for him in the past: intimacy. The song "Right On Back to You" addresses that head-on.

"In the past, if I had an argument with my partner, my tendency was to not deal with it," he said.

But his wife has been exceptional in steering him in the opposite direction, he said, and the album is a reflection of her influence. "My wife has been extraordinary in teaching me that it's in those moments when it's important to get closer."

The recording of the album, though, had a rocky start. Floods of historic magnitude had wreaked havoc in Nashville, where he has recorded since moving to the United States from Australia in 1992.

He started recording the album by borrowing some guitars and buying others on eBay. As the process went along over five months, his old guitars were fixed and slowly brought back into the mix.

"Some got salvaged, others didn't fare so well," he said. "Some made it to the record, which was pleasing to me."

Urban wanted his tour to reflect the album's intimacy, and so he asked for a stage that would bring him virtually face-to-face with fans. It's a semicircle that "looks like a spaceship" that floats down to the lowest levels of the arena, Urban said.

"I can walk down the stage into the audience from anywhere in the whole perimeter of the stage," he said. "There's no security keeping a wall between me and the fans. The object was remove all the barriers and integrate the experience a lot more."

At the Verizon Center, when Urban gets to the song "Kiss a Girl," some fans should expect to be pulled on stage, Urban said. At recent shows, they've reacted euphorically.

"It's a cross between 'The Price is Right' and karaoke and a singing competition because, usually, we get a few people up there," Urban said.

Urban plans to take even longer with his next album than he did with "Get Closer."

"I feel a whole new thing is gonna happen on the next record," he said. "I don't know what it is just yet, but it's time for something different."

erik.maza@baltsun.com

twitter.com/midnightsunblog

If you go

Keith Urban performs at 7:30 p.m. July 28 at the Verizon Center, 601 F St. N.W. in Washington. Tickets are $25-$65. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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