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Country Star Keith Urban Kicked the Habit to Grab Success

Wednesday, 04 May 2005 12:00 AM

When he arrived back in Nashville back in the early 90s, his rocking style was not exactly welcome. But he clung on even as his Nashville dream turned into a nightmare in a haze of alcohol and cocaine.

Urban's new album Be Here is about living in the moment and enjoying what you have. Urban learned the hard way.

At the age of 37, he has finally made it into the country big time and now threatens to cross over to a mass audience thanks to his melodic, Bryan Adams style rock. "Without sounding too corny, I never thought of it as chasing a dream as much as destiny," he decides in a voice so relaxed it is hard to imagine him doing too much chasing, "If you're chasing a dream, you can just wear out after a while.

"But if you're pursuing a destiny you can just go with the flow."

Urban is slumped in an armchair in the Berkeley Hotel in London, a strong cup of coffee warding off some jet lag.

With his straightened blond hair, fashionable printed t-shirt and faded jeans, he looks like a younger man and feels like one too. He used to think he would never make it to thirty. Now, 7 years on from the landmark, he says he still feels in a precarious position.

An Australian, born in New Zealand, young Keith grew up in Brisbane until he was ten when his father moved the family to an outback farm. Keith took to life in Caboolture, which echoed his musical tastes, pouring over his father's Don Williams, Glen Campbell and Charley Pride records.

"It was just meant to be," he nods, "Since I was 7 years old, I looked at the back of my Dad's records and saw they were all recorded in Nashville, so that's where I wanted to go.

"My earliest music memory was seeing Johnny Cash in concert when I was 7. It was in this old 5000 seater, wooden hall. I remember the spotlight coming over the top of our heads to the stage, the whole electricity of that place was amazing. There was this one guy playing acoustic guitar in the spotlight and five thousand people were dead quiet. "It had quite an impact on me."

Seven-year-olds want to be everything from pop stars to astronauts to train drivers, ambitions change weekly and most leave behind their childhood fancies with their short trousers But Urban has dedicated his life, not just to music, but to making music in Nashville.

"I imagined this magical place with big cars, all this interesting stuff that we didn't have. It's a typical small town situation, you want something bigger and better. "My parents moved from New Zealand to Australia for a better life. I moved to Nashville for a better career."

Urban began playing in pubs and clubs when he was 12 and left school as soon as was legally possible at 15. He played in a touring family band, a country group that also played Clash tunes. "I learnt more there in the first year than I did in three years of high school," he attests, "about people and life, how to take care of myself."

In 1990, Urban had a Number 1 country album in Australia but his heart was already in Nashville. He even renounced his record contract with EMI Australia and started taking trips to Nashville, a week or two at time, returning to Oz when his visa ran out and earning enough from solo gigs to return to Music City.

"It's sad when you have that intense focus, you sacrifice everything," says Urban, flicking his hair out of his face uncomfortably. "I didn't want any ties to Australia, I wanted to commit and go with no coming back, so that I had to make it work."

In 1992, Urban moved to Nashville permanently and began a long, painful cycle of disappointment. A long-haired Aussie with a band that rocked too hard for an industry going through a roots revival was not exactly what the powers-that-be were searching for.

Urban is a guitar hero, an axe-man when he wants to be. He was not Alan Jackson. Garth Brooks changed attitudes with his Kiss-goes-country style shows, but any light was invisible at the end of a very long tunnel for Urban.

"Ignorance is bliss," he shrugs, "And I had no idea what I was doing, it was totally suicidal. But I had a real deep-seated belief in what I had to offer, it's more than an ego thinking ‘I'm great.'

"I knew I could contribute but people would offer me all sorts and behind my back they just found my quest laughable.t was awful, I'd be crying driving down to the studio some days, just crying, thinking ‘I hate this, I don't want to sit in this room with some guy I've never met before and try and write a song. That's really awkward."

In 1997, he and his band The Ranch released an album which, he giggles, "sold about 6 copies!"

Already five years since moving to the U.S., he would have to be made of granite to remain unaffected. Urban confesses that he succumbed to addictions to alcohol and cocaine: "It was the frustration, not being able to get in my car and drive home to center myself. I was in this surreal world full of nobody I trusted and getting hit on the head constantly. You're thinking ‘this is the best I can do and it's not working, what more can I do?'

"It was a cheap escape - well it wasn't cheap - but it was just a pathetic escape mechanism. I couldn't leave so I left by being somewhere else in my head."

He adds: "It wasn't the greatest career move, it distracted me from music. But when your entire life is centred on this one goal, are you really going let the drugs take it away from you?"

To get "re-focussed," Urban left the band. "I knew I could make it, but the band couldn't," he says. "The demos I was doing sounded a lot more like country radio than anything the band were doing."

Urban held himself accountable and relaxed, took himself less seriously and became Mr. Positive. The turnaround in his fortunes naturally followed.

Signed to Capitol he released Keith Urban in 1999, Golden Road in 2002 and now Be Here, all in his own rocking country style. The Nashville pendulum swung to his music and now country radio is crying out for him.

He has four Number 1s and eight Top 5 hits to his name and he is coveting the mainstream chart.

"I get nervous sometimes now because I'm not as driven as I used to be," he admits, "when success finally came, I was thinking, ‘I'm almost over this.'

"It just happens that when things started going my way I lost some of my drive. Success is easier."


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When he arrived back in Nashville back in the early 90s, his rocking style was not exactly welcome. But he clung on even as his Nashville dream turned into a nightmare in a haze of alcohol and cocaine. Urban's new album Be Here is about living in the moment and enjoying...
Wednesday, 04 May 2005 12:00 AM
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