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Gretta Ray on The Uplifting, Inclusive Nature of Keith Urban’s Songwriting

Gretta Ray shares a heartfelt essay on the impact that Keith Urban – and his unifying, inspiring songwriting – has had upon her.

Two panel image of Gretta Ray and Keith Urban

EMI/Supplied; Tim Ashton*

2021 has been a big year for both Gretta Ray and Keith Urban. While the former recently celebrated her fifth year as a recording artist and unleashed her debut album, Begin to Look Around, in late August, the latter is celebrating the first anniversary of his 11th album, and gearing up for a number of long-awaited tour dates.

But while both artists may indeed be from different musical generations, they’re not without similarities. They’re both critically-acclaimed musicians with a knack for writing songs that can either unite, touch, or devastate the listener due to their complex lyricism and intricate storytelling. They’re artists who both started young, and by their early 20s, were poised to take over the world.

With Keith Urban currently serving as the cover artist of the recent issue of Rolling Stone Australia, Gretta Ray has penned an essay on the impact that Keith Urban has had upon her, not just in terms of soundtracking her life, but in regards to how his uplifting, inclusive songwriting has been both a comfort and a massive influence within her own writing.

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It’s 2012. I’ve gotten off the number 19 tram to begin my familiar walk to high school through Princes Park. I am lost in my imagination, dreaming big dreams of heading to Nashville after I graduate to follow in the footsteps of Taylor Swift and write songs that the world might hear one day. Big dreams need great soundtracks and, for me, the music often in my ears on those early morning walks was a record that became a close, sonic companion throughout my teenage years: Keith Urban’s The Story So Far. 

We turn to music to heal, to revive us and to allow us to dream. I grew up listening to music in order to escape and live out my future fantasies. Throughout my childhood, I regularly listened to folk and country singer/songwriter records, thanks to my parents’ impeccable taste.

As I began to write my own songs, I started to discover new music for myself. I can’t recall exactly where I was when I first stumbled upon The Story So Far. All I know is that Keith’s music quickly became pivotal in my own journey as a singer/songwriter. The feel-good nature of Urban’s songwriting has come to represent so much of what I love about both country and pop music – and songwriting in general. 

Listening to the album almost 10 years on from its release, I experience the same excitement and satisfaction as I did when I was a 13. I belt out “Days Go By”in my car, or chaotically dance to “Put You In A Song” in my kitchen, as I did in 2012, when I rarely took the record off repeat.

Sure, these songs are close to my heart because of that undeniable nostalgia, but now that I am a more experienced songwriter, I can appreciate, so much more, the techniques involved in the making of a Keith Urban song. My personal connection to the music aside, what is it about these songs that have helped them stick with me in such a profoundly positive way? 

In short, Keith’s songs do exactly what you want them to do. The effect of his formula is powerful – it is why they are so comforting and uplifting. It is why he and his music is so loved and respected by so many. The production builds and fleshes out right when you want it to, vocal ad-libs are sung at the exact moments you’re itching for the song to open up. There’s a perfectly achieved balance of soaring, belted melodies with floating “oohs” sung euphorically, following on from an epically catchy, classic Keith chorus. 

I’ve been learning about how to write pop music for my own artist project over the past few years. For the first time, I’m really tuning into the known structures and patterns of songwriting, and how you can choose to follow a structure closely in order to arrive at your chorus more quickly, or make decisions that allow the song to be more likely to stick after the first listen. Listening to Keith’s records now, I fixate on the way the songs are built and I really appreciate the artistry in the composition.

When Fuse came out in 2013, one of my early favourites was “Gonna B Good”, because of the way it effortlessly checked so many boxes. Keith achieves a blissful middle ground between country and pop. His lyrics are undeniably country, with the verses detailing the narrative to provide the listener with instant imagery: “Red sun and a lazy sky” – right from the opening, the listener is there.

The snappy, pop style pre-chorus invites us to soar into that first chorus right alongside him. The layered lead vocals under the chorus melody are a subtle and gentle nudge to every listener, reminding them that this is an “all together now” moment. The singalong has begun. I am yet to see Keith play live, but I can so easily imagine thousands of people singing these melodies together. This is inclusive song writing at its best.  

Keith Urbans records unapologetically sparkle with a welcoming, celebratory and jubilant glow, as if to say come and indulge in all of your favourite things about music!They communicate a genuine, earthy, accessible connection with the listener.

In these alarmingly divided and stress-filled Covid-timesIve come to value this kind of uplifting, heartening songwriting more than ever. Throughout the many lockdowns weve endured here in Melbourne, Ive found myself disappearing into a YouTube vortex of various artistspast live performances (including Keiths). Watching it back, I am reminded of the power of music and performances like his to connect us.

In her book Braving the Wilderness, Brene Brown describes the act of sharing a music concert with strangers as a way to increase our sense of belonging and connectedness. She says that we need moments that remind us of our common humanity, a foundation that can support us later when we find ourselves in conflict.” 

Keith Urban’s music is universally therapeutic and connecting. Its accessibility means we can experience the collective joy of singing out a familiar melody amidst a large group of people. During a singalong, there is no judgement, no clashing of views and no resentment held towards others. All that matters in that moment is that everyone really loves the music and in that moment, we are connected. 

So, in lockdown number six in Melbourne, in my two hours of permitted exercise, I’m walking through Princes Park again – and I’m listening to The Story So Far. I’m venturing into my imagination, feeling joy and dreaming big once more. 

Gretta Ray’s debut album Begin To Look Around is out now.

Keith Urban’s ‘The Speed of Now’ World Tour – Australian Dates 2021

Wednesday, December 1st, 2021
Newcastle Entertainment Centre, Newcastle, NSW

Friday, December 3rd, 2021
Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney, NSW

Saturday, December 4th, 2021
Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney, NSW

Monday, December 6th, 2021
WIN Entertainment Centre, Wollongong, NSW

Wednesday, December 8th, 2021
Adelaide Entertainment Centre, Adelaide, SA

Friday, December 10th, 2021
Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne, VIC

Saturday, December 11th, 2021
Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne, VIC

Tuesday, December 14th, 2021
RAC Arena, Perth, WA

Friday, December 17th, 2021
Brisbane Entertainment Centre, Brisbane, QLD

Saturday, December 18th, 2021
Brisbane Entertainment Centre, Brisbane, QLD

Sunday, December 19th, 2021
Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre, Gold Coast, QLD

Tickets on sale now