"I love songs that make you feel good"
is discussing the music on Defying Gravity
when he grows quiet and thoughtful. "I used to write a lot about the man I wanted to be but wasn't," he reveals. "I was called a hypocrite by my girlfriend at the time. I was shocked, but she was right. I could write about love and sing about it, but I couldn't walk the talk."
What a difference true love makes. When the 42-year-old singer sat down to write the songs for Gravity
in mid-2008, one might say he was becoming the man he longed to be. His marriage to Nicole Kidman
had been tested by a sudden trip to rehab, but the two had emerged stronger. The duo were putting down roots in Nashville, purchasing a farm near rural Leipers Fork. And he was preparing for fatherhood (daughter Sunday Rose was born in July 2008). "There was an expansion of joy and color," Urban says. "I felt the power of love in all its phases." Frequent cowriter John Shanks confirms: "Keith had a sparkle in his eye again."
His previous CD, Love, Pain & the whole crazy thing
, was released three weeks after he checked into the Betty Ford Center for treatment for alcohol addiction. Reflecting on those songs now, Urban admits, "I was trying to please too many people and do too many things." The music hints at his internal struggle, though he refuses to look back and cringe. "That's where I was at the time," he says. "Every record is a snapshot if I do it right."
If there's an image to go along with Gravity
, it would be of Urban in his farmhouse living his dream. Says Gravity
cowriter Darrell Brown: "Nicole made him a believer. Suddenly everything he had written about and hoped for came about. And he's in awe."
Much of Gravity
's chart-topping magic happened in the house's downstairs room. Flooded with natural light and filled with a six-string banjo and several guitars, the room overlooks a rolling field where deer wander by and a vegetable garden where his wife grows tomatoes and zucchini. It's there, for instance, that Urban penned "Why's It Feel So Long," written moments after Kidman left for the airport one morning. "I found myself wanting to call to say hi after about 10 minutes, and I thought, 'I'm sure we're not the only couple that does this.' "
While working on the album, Urban maintained a disciplined morning routine. "My wife and I like to wake up really early-even before Sunday was born-at 5 or 6. I'll have a cup of coffee, work out and then, when the endorphins are going, I like to start writing," Urban says.
Urban writes in pen, not pencil ("I like the permanency")-in a leather-bound notebook given to him by a fan ("I can't type fast enough," he says of his dislike of writing on computers). Scattered around the room are shoebox cassette recorders used to capture inspired moments quickly. "I've seen Keith turn them on with his toes," says pal and cowriter Monty Powell, with whom he wrote "Kiss a Girl" and "Sweet Thing."
While working on the album, Urban enjoyed the company of cowriters new and old, like Powell, whose close relationship with Urban gave the singer the freedom to "dare to suck" in the writing sessions, he says. His mantra on the album: Can a crowd sing this with me at a concert? "A hundred times he asked that," says Powell. "He wanted to feel like the person leading the party."
All of his cowriters speak of Urban's "ungodly focus," as Brown describes it, and joke about his one weakness. "At 1 p.m., Keith hates everything," Powell says. "It's a low blood sugar thing," Urban admits. "You forget to eat. The ideas start to sound terrible." The solution? "We'll hop into his old pickup truck, drive into Leipers Fork for fried pimento-cheese sandwiches," Powell says. "There's a hit song in every fried pimento-cheese sandwich!"
The ballad "If Ever I Could Love" was one of those songs rescued by a well-timed sandwich-and a real heart-to-heart. "We were sitting on a picnic bench talking about the song and about life," says Brown, Urban's cowriter on the tune. "It's like group therapy when I'm with Keith." Urban shared something his wife once said that stuck with him: "Early on when we were dating, she said, 'I'm ready to be brave for us, for you,' and I thought, 'My God, that's what it's about.' " A short time later the two played the finished tune for Kidman, who gamely joined in. "We were all singing and rocking back and forth," Brown says.
Kidman is, of course, Urban's inspiration for his most soul-baring song, "Thank You," written in London with first-time Urban collaborator Rick Nowels. "He improvised a lot of the lyrics on the spot-it was quite emotional," Nowels recalls. "They were very strong images to me," Urban says of the song, which references his darkest moments and how Kidman's love rescued him. Echoing the lyrics' sentiment, he says, "I had days that were so miserable I couldn't wait for night to come to find peace."
Despite the deeply personal nature of the song, Urban had no reservations about sharing it. "It was real," he says. "It didn't divulge the sanctity of us as a couple, but it expressed how I felt about my wife. It's been a profound impact to meet somebody who offered me a life and helped me become the person I wanted to be."
How the newest love of his life, daughter Sunday Rose, might affect the man and his music, however, remains a mystery. "The next couple of months will be all about writing," Urban says. "I don't know how she's going to be a part of that yet." Whether or not she becomes another muse, one thing's for sure, says Brown: "Sunday will know boundless love." And that her dad walks the talk.