Since joining the judging panel on "American Idol" last year, Keith Urban's constantly reminded of the one thing that separates the winners from the runners-up: hard work.
"The other day, I was getting a bit worn down by people who were coming in to audition who just weren't good enough," the 45-year-old New Zealand-born country singer, songwriter and guitarist said recently from his home in Nashville.
"They would start the pleading, 'I really want this!' You know," he added with a laugh, "nobody is walking in saying, 'I passively want this.' But it's not a job interview. I'm just telling [contestants] what I think, and it's something that's not going to get worked on in the next hour or the next week. If you want this, you've got to put in the work.
"Now, there are so many shortcuts, and this show itself can be a shortcut, if you've got the talent. The thing I don't have time for is people who aren't willing to work. You may walk into a career, but you still have to work all the time."
It's easy to see that Urban backs his words with his actions. One recent day, he was booked for four separate performances at different venues in Nashville as part of the run-up to the Sept. 10 release of his new album, "Fuse," which just entered Billboard's 200 Albums chart at No. 1.
For the album itself, Urban worked every bit as intently, branching out with a cadre of producers and songwriters he'd never collaborated with before in hopes of bringing new energy to his music. Among them: Dr. Dre and Eminem associate Mike Elizondo, the R&B-pop production team of Stargate and Americana producers Butch Walker and Jay Joyce.
Urban has further expanded the sphere of influence he's created since breaking onto the U.S. country charts in 1999 by turning up on stages recently with the Rolling Stones, John Fogerty and Alicia Keys, among others.
"I'm a guitar player, and I love playing," he said. "I love collaborating with all sorts of people. I not only learn about what they do but I learn about myself and see new things about what I do. That's never more clear than when you work with eight different producers. Whatever the through line in that is, it must be me."
Longtime Urban fans certainly won't have any trouble recognizing his pliant, easygoing voice, his invigorating guitar work or themes of keeping love and romance on track in several of the 13 songs on "Fuse" (16 on the deluxe edition).
He's on safe ground in the album's duets with Miranda Lambert ("We Were Us") and Eric Church ("Raise 'Em Up"). But he also has expanded the musical and sonic palette in serving up the raucous indie-rock energy of "Even the Stars Fall 4 U," which Urban co-produced with Walker and co-wrote with Ross Copperman and David Lee Murphy. Then there's the revealing introspection and raw emotionalism of "Shame," which he co-produced with Stargate, known for its work with acts such as Rihanna, Beyoncé and Ne-Yo.
In some ways, "Fuse" takes Urban to new vistas, as was the case with Taylor Swift on "Red," an album whose blockbuster success to some degree had to loosen the reins on the often strictly regimented sounds emerging from Nashville. But again, Urban believes he's earned the ability to move into new territory because of the work he's put in up to now.
"If I were a new artist, I don't think I could have done this," he said. "My record gets perceived differently because it's not my first. It's my particular journey that got me to this record. I wasn't trying to make a pop record. … The first thing I wanted to do was to capture a sonic energy I hadn't captured on previous records. Because I'm strongly involved in production and co-production, I've gone to producers who I might not normally work with to see if we could fuse things together to draw out something different.
"The thing I'm really, really drawn to is the balance of it all," he said, noting the same issue comes up in balancing his career and personal life with his actress-wife, Nicole Kidman, and their two daughters, Sunday Rose and Faith Margaret Kidman Urban.
"Can I make a record that doesn't sound like anything else out there, or like anything that's on the radio, and is there a way to blend the different components to make it accessible but still pushes people forward?" asked Urban, who launched his Light the Fuse tour Thursday in Cleveland and will set foot in the Hollywood Bowl for the first time when he performs there Sept. 27. "That's what took the most tinkering."
The tinkering can be a time-consuming and often frustrating experience. But in those moments, Urban said his time in the judge's seat on "Idol" also helps keep things in perspective.
"I think the effect 'Idol' has had, more than anything, is just as a reminder of how fortuitous it is for me to be in this position," he said. "If I'm having a day where I'm having some issues with any facet of my career, I remember that anybody walking through that door [to audition] would give anything for one of my problems right now. These are all quality problems I have. I'm pretty grateful anyway and I live in a place of gratitude. It's always good to have that reminder of those people who walk through that door and have everything ahead of them."