Grammy-winning country singer/songwriter Keith Urban is the “American Idol” judge who’s been getting the best reviews of the show’s revamped judging panel in Season 12. While Randy Jackson is often teased by viewers and critics for being using the same old tired phrases in his contestant feedback, Mariah Carey has been described as “bland,” and Nicki Minaj is getting widely bashed by disgruntled “American Idol” fans who don’t think she’s qualified to be a judge on the show, Urban has emerged relatively unscathed in what is undoubtedly “American Idol’s” most controversial season ever. This is the first season of the show with Urban, Carey and Minaj as “American Idol” judges. Jackson is the only “American Idol” judge who has been with the show since the beginning.
Jackson seems intent on being the toughest judge on the show, a title previously held by Simon Cowell, who quit “American Idol” in 2010 to start the U.S. version of “The X Factor.” And the feuding between Carey and Minaj has already made big headlines. But through it all, Urban continues to stay out of the messy bickering and mean-spirited insults by giving constructive criticism to the contestants without being cruel and by working well with his fellow judges. In a recent telephone conference call with journalists, Urban talked about “American Idol’s” new “sudden death” eliminations (in which 40 contestants are reduced to 20 contestants in two weeks) and why he thinks being an “American Idol” judge is a lot like being in a band.
Now that “American Idol” is in Las Vegas, is it harder to be unbiased and not be emotionally invested in the singers? How do you see it?
I don’t feel it’s any harder. Certainly, the audience’s reaction to our critiquing or opinions makes for a different kind of energy in the room, but for me I’m just trying to stay in the moment and just really give my gut reaction, the way a performance hit me. I’m just trying to stay on track with that, and give them the best advice I can possible give them, and hopefully they get to go through to the next round.
And when you think about how you find confidence as a singer, what’s it’s like to watch the singers find their confidence?
It’s tremendous. I never forget the environment they’re working in too. That’s an extraordinary thing, particularly when you’re young, 18 or whatever, and you’re standing there in front of us, in front of all about 1,700 people that were in the theater and countless millions watching at home, and there you are, right in front of it, but you’ve got limited time to do your thing. So I have tremendous amount empathy for the environment that they’re working in as well and I do take that into account.
You and Nicki Minaj clearly admire each other. Did you two know each other at all before “American Idol,” and was there like a bonding moment where you realized that you were going to really get along?
I’d never met Nicki before the show. We flew up to New York the night before the very first day of shooting and we all went to dinner, Ryan, and Nicki and Mariah and myself, Randy. We all went out and that’s the first time I got to meet certainly Mariah and Nicki. I’d met Ryan and Randy before.
But the very next day when we got into shooting what I really liked about Nicki was just her straight shooting direct-ism. For me, growing up in Australia I like being around people that are just absolutely raw and straight and tell it like it is. So I just kind of clicked with Nicki right from the get go.
There hasn’t been a female winner of “American Idol” since Jordin Sparks won in 2007. It definitely seems like there’s been an emphasis on the female contestants this year. Do you think that this could be the year that a female will win? And why do you think that so far the girls have shown so much more strength and versatility than the boys?
I think you’re right. All I can say is at least from what we just saw last night, it’s absolutely a girl’s year to win, in my opinion. That’s not to say the guys aren’t strong because they really are. It’s really more a testament to how strong the girls are this year.
I want to see the emergence of great artistry, male, female, it doesn’t really matter, but definitely the girls are stronger. I don’t know why that is. It’s just one of those things. We saw probably over 270 people all up to get it down to where we are today. And the girls were just incredibly strong this year.
Do you think that Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj have had any effect on that — that having them on the panel and having them have such strong opinions has made a difference as well in that score?
I certainly think having somebody like particularly Mariah — inarguably one of the world’s great vocalists period. This is a global vocal powerhouse and any girl, I think, would love the opportunity to sing for Mariah and get feedback from her and get direction from her. I think that’s been a real plus for the show to have somebody like her on the panel.
Angela Miller did an original song. Is it totally up to the contestants to do an original song, and do you think an original song gives them more of an advantage when they’re performing for you?
It’s a good question. First of all, I think obviously the original songs area allowed if you’ve got something that you feel confident with. Certainly in Angela’s case she rightly had the confidence in a song like that. I thought it was superb. Her performance was superb.
I think it really helped her, not just because it showed that she can write, because that’s not a prerequisite in my opinion, there are certainly an amount of great artists from Frank Sinatra on down who never wrote songs, but I think to see her confidence singing a song that she wrote was very helpful for her. For me, I like getting to see another side of who they are. Obviously, if they write a song, it speaks a lot about who they are as a person as well as an artist.
You’re really out there when you like somebody; you tell the contestants about how you will really fight for them. Were you like that when you were a judge on “The Voice” in Australia?
I’m just like that in life. It’s hard. It’s the four of us up there and, if needed, we also had Jimmy Iovine to be tiebreaker. So there’s any amount of people weighing in.
I’m one voice of quite a few and it’s particularly hard if there’s somebody I really like and I vote for them. All it takes is the other three saying, “No,” and they’re done. There’s nothing I can do.
And unfortunately sometimes I might have to be the person who delivers the news to that specific person as well. So that’s particularly hard for me because I get connected with these artists and I see something in them that I wish got a chance to shine a bit more next week. It’s really disheartening to see them have to go.
Whom do you see as the frontrunners so far?
The first part of the question I still think it’s too soon to tell only because it’s just extraordinary what can happen from week to week, positive and negative. I’ve watched people emerge sort of unexpectedly. There were some people singing that a few of us are going, “Gosh, where did that come from? That was an unexpected performance.”
And it can the other way too where someone has a lot of expectation from us and we’re like, “Here they go. We love this one. She’s fantastic,” and then they sing and we’re like, “Mmm, didn’t quite get there tonight.”
So I think it’s far too soon to get any sort of frontrunner ideas. But I will say, certainly the audience reaction to Angela Miller and a couple of other girls was pretty obvious. I think the original song of Angela’s that’s been floating around the Internet, that you can find, has really resonated with a lot of people. So that’s pretty cool to see.
Is there any contestant that you were really disappointed to see go home after Hollywood?
Yes, there were a couple of people. I’m sorry to say that their names are eluding me right now, but there were a couple of people that I thought just needed a little more time, in the right way, because that’s a particularly tough week for people.
I think that environment is particularly tough. Having to learn songs in a nanosecond, dance steps in a nanosecond, being with a group that you didn’t choose to be in, etc. — it’s a really tough process. But at the same time, to see what we saw last night emerge from that, it’s very possible to get through that and still be incredibly strong.
Does Janelle Arthur would always have a special place in your heart because she used a song from The Ranch when she auditioned? Is she a frontrunner for you?
I love the fact that she did that. At the same time I always think it’s an extraordinarily bold thing to sing one of our songs, particularly a Mariah Carey song. Someone will come on and sing a Mariah Carey song in front of Mariah Carey. It’s a huge honor. I think there are a few more of my songs popping up, apparently coming down the track. I’m looking forward to hearing that.
How are you going to approach when you have to be more critical of contestants and make tough eliminations?
I feel like I’ve been able to do that when I need to. I think every person handles critiquing differently. I’m trying to sort of get a feel for what I think the artist is comfortable hearing, what they’re not going to be comfortable hearing. In most of the cases, I’m just trying to think if it’s something I can say. If something that’s just straight soul -rushing and not helpful for them, I just don’t see any worth in it.
I’m trying to give specific direction, if it’s something they can work on. And again, it’s just my opinion. It’s not to say it’s a fact. They can take it. They can leave it. But I try to deliver it in a way in which I’d like people to deliver it to me. Again, it’s really based on the person.
“American Idol” has millions of fans. Are your daughters two of them?
They actually came down to the set yesterday for a little while. Nic [my wife] and I love them being around that kind of environment, watching people sing, watching them perform and being around the music. Being around that and being around the movie sets since they were born. They’re certainly music fans. They haven’t watched the show yet, but I have a feeling they will be this season.
You mentioned that your daughters are definitely music fans. Have either of them started singing a tune? Do you think they have that musical promise that you and Nic both have?
I don’t know. It certainly won’t be through lack of access to it all. We have instruments around the house and I sit at the piano and play with both the girls.
Just this morning, I had the music cranked up during breakfast and they would sort of eat a bit and then start dancing around the floor and then go back and eat a bit more and then dance a bit more. I just thought, “What an awesome way to start the morning, having a little food and dancing.”
What’s the secret to getting on Mariah’s good side?
To getting on her good side, as a singer you mean? Like if someone’s coming out to sing or whatever? Is that what you mean?
Yes, and also as a fellow judge.
I don’t quite know what you mean by getting on her good side. I think Mariah responds to people in her own way. I clicked with her the first time I met her. I’ve always found this immediate connection with signers and musicians in general because I’m so used to playing in bands.
I’ve been in bands where we’ve had guest artists come up and sing. So, for me, when I joined this panel I felt like I just joined a band. I’m on guitar. Randy’s on bass, we’ve got two chick singers, and this is our band. That’s what it feels like to me.
Do you take your work home with you? And if so, does Nicole have any favorites that you two talk about or disagree on?
Sometimes we’ve watched the show, sat down and watched it. Particularly it was funny watching the audition rounds because they had happened so long ago. We would sit down to watch them and Nic would be wanting to know, “Does he go through? Does she go through?”
It was actually good to watch it like that because I’d gotten a bit of time away and getting to see them and hear them like that was great. I wouldn’t say I take my work home with me, but if someone really stands out, Nic is always curious if I’ve seen somebody that stands out.
Could you see “American Idol” taking on mentoring roles? Is that something that you think would be interesting?
I absolutely think it would be interesting. That certainly is something I would enjoy. It’s a mixed blessing in some ways why I like it because I would like it from the standpoint of it not being recorded. That would kind of defeat the whole point of doing a TV show, but I love that mentoring dynamic. It’s why I’m involved in the Grammy Kids Camp and that sort of thing too because there’s just so much that we have to pass on.
There are so many questions young artists have, and I think there’s just a lot of learning curves we can help them not have to go through, without keeping them from their own journey. Everyone’s got to make his or her own mistakes too. There’s never getting away from that. I do think there are certain habits and things that young performers do because of their age, because of the adrenaline, because of their inexperience, that you can actually be of help to them, but I would want to do it in a more quiet way.
I don’t like people being too aware of that advice. I think it’s a very dangerous thing when it gets too cerebral. I think it’s just a quiet thing from one artist to another to help them and the audience shouldn’t know anything about that. So I guess to answer your question, that kind of thwarts that fact that it would be recorded, but I do love the idea of mentoring.
If your North American tour were to kick off tomorrow, would you be able to name a few contestants that you might take with you?
No, it’s too soon to tell, but there are certainly a few in there.
Do you think that we might be in for another country singer win, kind of like a Carrie Underwood type? Do you have maybe a pick or two for someone who might fit that role?
There are a few in there for sure. Certainly, Kree [Harrison] is an extraordinarily gifted singer in an unusual way because she’s so effortless in the way she sings. There’s nothing over-the-top, there’s nothing theatrical and large about her as a performer. She has this incredibly authentic voice in the same way that Adele has that incredibly authentic voice and I just believe her when she sings. So she’s definitely a contender.
Have you discussed with the producers or with Mariah or Nicki if you’re going to perform live on “American Idol” at some point, either solo or with any of the other judges?
We’ve been asked that question earlier on in one of the press conferences if we’d be up for singing and I threw my hand up and said, “I’m up for it. Let’s go.” We were met with arousing silence so I figured I’m the only guy. I’m going to keep poking Randy to see if we can put a little band together because I would love to do it. I think it would be fun and think it feels quite natural for us to be able to do that.
What’s your impression of David Willis?
David’s got a good voice. Well, to some degree with everybody, obviously the song choice is very important, but I think David particularly … his tone is really suited to certain songs and I think if he finds those he’s going to do really well.
How are you feeling about the upcoming live episodes?
I think they’re going to be great. Performing is meant to be in front of people so already, having 7,900 people in that theater and a live band I’m like, “Here we go. OK, now we’re doing this. This is what it’s supposed to be like.” I love the live part of it. Randy shares that enthusiasm with me too. It’s what I’ve been looking forward to since we started.
You are kind to the contestants and you’re very honest with them. What do you think would help Zoanette Johnson?
I’ve got a feeling that we’ve done a pretty good job of helping her to this point in the sense of letting America see her extraordinarily unique gifts in full flight. So past, that we’ll see what she’s got in store for us because you never know. She’s like a box of chocolates, right? You never know what you’re going to get.
We know that your wife, Nicole Kidman, can sing. Will we ever see a duet between the two of you?
I think the only one that you can find is on YouTube when we inducted sort of Simon Baker into the Good Day USA Hall of Fame. We put a little song together and we both sang that for him, but past that, no I think nothing professional. We just enjoy singing at home.
When you were on “The Voice” in Australia, obviously, the premise of that show is that it’s all about the voice but we often hear about the whole package. How much are you influenced at all by not only performance and voice and presentation but attitude, appearance and all those things? How much does that whole package play into your decisions about who to send through and who to not?
The reality is if it were only about the voice the chairs would never spin around. There’s a certain point when the rest of it comes into play. It just does. The voice is very important, obviously, because that’s the vehicle that’s being used to carry the art and the expression and all of that, the creativity. But in this day and age, there’s more to it than that.
Now having said that, Adele famously said, “I make music for the ears not the eyes.” There’s a lot to be said for just an extraordinary voice. It can make up for all the rest if it’s not there, as far as the entertainment aspect or the dancing and all that sort of stuff. There really isn’t one rule across the board, but it’s just got to be the right combination I think for each person.
Someone who might have a lesser voice may have an extraordinary charisma and presence and way about him or her that’s just magnetic. As Jimmy Iovine said, “It just really comes down to feel. How does that artist make me feel? Do I feel something from that artist?” I think that’s really spot-on.
Your schedule is crazy busy right now with concerts tours, appearances, being an “Idol” judge, husband and dad. Do you have plans to take it down a notch any time soon or are you in the zone for the time being?
I like the balance of it. It’s a huge honor that I get to do all of it. That includes being a husband and a father. I feel immensely grateful that I get to do all of these things. I think like a lot of the times it looks exponentially more — it just looks more from the outside. I think the way it actually works from day to day is navigated a lot more peacefully than I think it would probably appear on the outside. That’s not every day certainly, but most days it’s balanced pretty well.
I have an extraordinary team around me because it really does take a village. I’m certainly not doing everything on my own. I just have tremendous thanks for all the help I have to make all of this happen. And I have an extraordinary wife in Nic who’s an amazing mother. She just does a beautiful job of helping keep it all in balance.
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