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Keith Urban says new 'American Idol' judging panel is 'harmonious'

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TORONTO - The tense last season of "American Idol" focused largely on the antics of a dysfunctional judging panel, with rapper Nicki Minaj and diva Mariah Carey sniping at each other while serene Australian-raised country star Keith Urban figuratively ducked for cover.

Well, Urban might have a more peaceful time with the new season — premiering Wednesday on CTV — since Carey and Minaj have been ousted in favour of Harry Connick Jr., the returning Jennifer Lopez and mainstay Randy Jackson.

But the 46-year-old insists the tabloid squabbling barely affected him even during the first season.

"I really enjoyed the season I did," he said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "I got along fine with Mariah and Nicki and Randy and Ryan.

"It didn't really faze me either way," he added of the reported conflict between Carey and Minaj. "It's a little bit like playing in different bands. There's a passionate artistry at work and you get a bunch of different artists together and it's going to create a different kind of band. And I've been in so many. I felt like Randy and I were in a band with two female lead singers. I left that band and joined this band."

And what sort of group has the new judging team formed?

"The new band is very harmonious," he replied, laughing. "When I sat down with Harry and Jen, I could just feel it straight away. It's so easy. These two guys are so easy to talk to. We had a good rhythm and flow. Who would talk, who wouldn't talk, who would interject — it just sort of felt really fluid and as soon as we got through the first show, it was just really great.

"It's a miracle," he added.

In a happy coincidence for Urban, the new season launch of "American Idol" coincides perfectly with a Canadian tour he's kicking off Wednesday in Vancouver, with stops in Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, London, Ont., and Toronto. ("People always say why do you come up here in the winter?" Urban laughs. "It is what it is.")

He's touring in support of "Fuse," which topped charts in Canada and the U.S. upon its September release. The record found Urban imbuing his country-pop with a wider range of influences, from R&B to arena rock.

He said the musical restlessness owes largely to his jet-setting lifestyle.

"My feeling has always been that if we have songs that feel like me, that feel very much like me, then my sonic palette can go in a lot of directions," he said. "It just sort of was a natural thing in the last couple years since I made (2010's) 'Get Closer,' in the years after that, I was doing an enormous amount of travel.

"My wife (actress Nicole Kidman) was shooting a couple different films in Europe, so I was in France for a while, and then I was in Scotland, and then we were down in London. I'd just started shooting 'American Idol,' so I was spending a lot of time in Los Angeles. We had done in 'The Voice' in Australia, the very first season of it, so I was down in Sydney for a while.

"I was in all these different places, and listening to the radio in all of these different cities and countries, I'd constantly be using my Shazam app to capture songs that were really interesting to me. So my whole musical palette started to expand exponentially — rhythmically, sonically, just in every conceivable way. And it was only natural when I went into the studio that all that stuff would somehow find its way into the record. That's why 'Fuse' sounds the way it does."

Immediately after closing the Canadian tour in Toronto on Jan. 24, Urban will be whisked to Los Angeles to perform at the Grammys on Jan. 26 (the four-time winner is nominated again this year), and he'll follow by collaborating with John Mayer as part of the Grammys' Beatles tribute concert the next day.

Urban says the duo will perform "Don't Let Me Down" from 1969's "Let it Be." But Urban admits that he's a rare artist for whom the Beatles didn't make a major impact.

"It's so weird, because they actually weren't an influence in the sense that my mom and dad didn't have any Beatles records," he said. "It's like, why the hell didn't they have any Beatles records? Every home in the world had Beatles records except ours. My dad's records were all American country. It was Don Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Ronnie Milsap, Jim Reeves, Glen Campbell. It's just crazy. That's all the stuff I grew up on.

"My awareness of the Beatles was just all through radio, the songs that were on the radio, that's what I knew of the Beatles until I was much older."

Urban thinks that speaking a different musical language helped him when he eventually got to Nashville, where so many of the songwriters he says were raised on the Beatles.

In approaching the country-music capital from a slightly skewed angle, he says he feels a kinship with the many Canadian pros ensconced there.

"I ended up being one of the odd guys in Nashville that didn't utilize them as an influence musically," he said. "I think that's what I always loved about Canada. I think Australians and Canadians — first of all, we've all got the Queen on our money. And I think we all have just as much European influence musically as we do American influence. So there's a real good mix of the two."

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