He's auditioning 'Idol' hopefuls in between promoting the album and playing tour dates.
Keith Urban likes to write songs starting with a drum machine and his six-string banjo. Hank Williams might not have done it that way, but the juxtaposition works for the Australian-raised country singer, who will release his new album, Fuse, this week.
"Those two things are really fused together, for want of a better way to put it," says Urban, 45. "This was the album where I wanted to take that to the next level — maybe synthesized keyboards, some programmed things, in addition to more organic instruments, not only the six-string banjo, but also the bouzouki, the mandolin, acoustic guitar — and find new ways to fuse all those sounds together."
The first single from Fuse, Little Bit of Everything, topped USA TODAY's country airplay chart last week. Urban's new single is a duet with Miranda Lambert called We Were Us.
Urban says he'd been keeping his ears open for a potential duet with Lambert, who toured with him in 2006. "I love the sound of our voices together, but finding the right song is never easy," he says.
We Were Us, which begins with Lambert singing about memories of high-school football and romance, fit the bill perfectly. "I crossed my fingers and hoped that she loved it."
LISTEN UP: *** (out of four) for 'Fuse'
Fuse, out Tuesday, also includes a duet with Eric Church called Raise 'Em Up, but Urban's collaborations with his producers were just as essential to creating the album he wanted. On Fuse's first eight tracks, Urban teams with eight sets of producers, from Butch Walker and Norwegian team Stargate, who've worked with some of the biggest names in pop music, to Zach Crowell and Ross Copperman, who are just beginning to make their reputations in Nashville.
"I just think everybody has something to bring," Urban says. "You have somebody who has a lot of experience, and that can be real beneficial, then you have somebody who has next to no experience, and that's incredibly beneficial, because it's so strongly original."
Urban's first album in nearly three years is also his first since 2011 surgery to remove a polyp from one vocal cord and a nodule from another. After the surgery, the result of what he says his surgeon called "worn treads," Urban couldn't talk for three weeks. Then he had to re-train the muscles that helped him sing, since he no longer had to strain to hit certain notes.
"To go up there didn't require half the effort it used to, so I would constantly be singing sharp and going well above the note, because my muscles were used to the heavy lifting," he says.
At the same time that he's launching his new album, Urban is also starting auditions for Season 13 of American Idol. He's the only holdover from last year's judging panel, though Randy Jackson will serve as a mentor on the show next season. Urban and fellow judges Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. began hearing singers last week.
"It's only a few days in, but I feel like we have a good groove going," says Urban, who finds himself getting along especially well with Connick, considered one of the best guest mentors the show has ever had.
"We have very similar, slightly warped senses of humor," Urban says. "He can set 'em up and I can knock 'em down, and I can set 'em up and he can knock 'em down really well. I'm loving sparring with him.
"But his musicality is really extraordinary. This show's never had anything that deep before."
On days off from Idol, Urban continues his Light the Fuse tour, which began in July and will end in February in Nashville. That's where he's getting to road-test his new sounds and see where they might take him next.
"I'm more driven by where country could go than anything else," he says. "I make whatever records I make. I don't even think of them in terms of genre. They're just me and my sound. This album was seeing where I could take my sound and, in the process, maybe that's a particular kind of country music in 2014."