Mat Kearney’s musical road has led him from Oregon to Los Angeles to
Nashville – from indie recording and tiny bars to hit singles and
Not too bad for a guy who has only released two CDs.
Of course, it always helps when your first single becomes a runaway
hit. “Nothing Left to Lose” – the title track of his major-label debut,
saturated the airwaves in 2006, opening eyes to this quirky young
singer. That hit was followed by success with the follow-up singles
“Undeniable” and “Breathe In, Breathe Out” – which gained significant
airplay after being used on the series Grey’s Anatomy.
Three years later, Kearney has skirted the sophomore jinx with his
follow-up platter, City of Black & White. Kearney has widened
his musical palette – slightly downplaying the folk and hip-hop vibe in
the debut and adding a clean, uncluttered rock and roll base. The
soulful first single “Closer to Love” has preceded the album up the
charts, and there are several potential follow-ups like “Fire and Rain,”
“All I Have” and “Never Be Ready.”
A couple of weeks before the release of City of Black & White,
Kearney was nice enough to sit down with us and discuss his new album
and his career.
How did you first get
started in music?
It was kind of late in the game, actually. I really didn’t start
writing songs until I was in college. My roommate had a guitar and I
would steal it and go sit out on the front porch and start writing
songs. I was so tired of covering everyone else’s music; I just had to
start writing my own. But I didn’t grow up in a musical family or
anything. It was kind of a late discovery for me.
Your first CD,
released independently. How was it different from the later albums you
did on Aware/Columbia?
Well, different in the fact that no one cares and no one’s listening.
In many ways I consider Nothing Left to Lose the first record,
because a lot of the songs we recorded for Bullet ended up being
on Nothing Left to Lose. It was kind of like the completion of
an independent project when Aware came along and gave us a
little more money and a little more time. I recorded a few more
songs and then released it under Nothing Left to Lose.
A couple of years ago
the single “Nothing Left to Lose” became a big hit. How surreal was it when you
started popping up on radio and TV and everything?
I mean, it’s still surreal, I guess. (chuckles) I mean, I
played David Letterman and there’s a moment where he holds up your CD
and says your name – “This is Mat Kearney” – and I think it’s kind of
one of the more surreal moments in my life. I grew up watching him. I
was such a fan. It’s still surreal when you hear your song on the radio
or something. You’re kind of like: wow, that’s really me.
Letterman, your music has gotten a lot of exposure on TV shows. Grey’s
Anatomy alone has used I believe four of your songs, as
well as shows
like Dirty Sexy Money, Kyle XY and others. It used to be that
you had to rely on radio to get your music out there. Do you think TV,
ads, the internet, etc. make it easier for a musician to connect with an
Yeah. And I think you have to these days, because radio isn’t what it
used to be. It’s still the most important as far as sheer numbers,
maybe, but the American public aren’t being told what to listen to now.
There are a lot of different avenues that people are discovering
music. They are finding it for their own. So I’ve found all those
avenues – it’s funny to find out how people heard about you. There’s
always different ways people will tell you. Especially when you’re on
their show – it’s a big deal to them. That means something more to them
than when you are on someone else’s show.
You have been sort of
working towards the follow-up for a couple years. What’s it like now
that the album is coming out? Do you feel pressure for the new CD to do
as well as the last one?
Yeah, there is always the sophomore thing. It’s a real pressure –
because in many ways I consider this my sophomore record. But I don’t
know, I think that creatively I am just excited for the future. Because
Nothing Left to Lose was this independent project I did for
nothing. It was twelve of the first fifteen songs I ever wrote. There
is a commercial [consideration] – you know, you want people to like what you do. I
don’t care who you are, you do. But then there is the creative side,
where I’m just driven and excited about the future. I want to keep
exploring and seeing what’s out there.
One thing I really
like about the album is you guys aren’t afraid to experiment with
styles. “Fire and Rain” has an alt rock feel, “Closer to Love” is sort
of soulful, “New York to California” is a piano ballad, while “On & On”
is an acoustic ballad, “Here We Go” has almost a 80s U2/Big Country feel
to it and “Annie” has an old-fashioned folk-rock feel? Are you looking
to experiment with styles on your albums?
Yeah, there are these different sides of where you’re wanting to
connect. On this record, particularly, I wanted to push it more into
the tempo and “Fire and Rain” and some of these driving [tunes] – I
really wanted to explore that side of the record and that side of
music. Especially, you play 250 shows a year for a couple of years and
you realize there is that moment in the show where you want to push it
farther. You feel like everyone is willing to go there, but you don’t
have the songs to do it. I tried to write a few of those songs.
(pause) It’s like a movie to me. I like making you laugh, making
you cry, making you (chuckles) feel pain and hope and all that.
I enjoy doing that with different styles. That’s more like my life.
It’s not one thing.
On the last album,
the songs “All I Need” and “Renaissance” were based on the stories of
people you have known. What are some of the songs on
City of Black and White that were based on true stories?
Yeah. All of them in some ways. “New York to California” was a song
that was very literal to me. “Fire and Rain” is pretty literal. I
explain this kind of prodigal son kind of story – returning of a friend
where there is a desire to be at peace with someone you are not. All of
them have connection to something in my life or someone’s life.
“Fire and Rain” is a
terrific song, but were you a little
worried to write a song
that has the same, very recognizable title as James Taylor’s iconic
Yeah. (laughs) I probably should… I guess that phrase came up
in the writing of the song. I was like, well, I could change it….
(laughs again) So I started asking people and I found that everyone
over thirty was like, “Yeah, I don’t know” and everyone under thirty was
“Why couldn’t you do that?” It’s one of the more bold moves on the
album. I hope people will forgive me for it.
Was the song “Annie”
about anyone in particular? Did you find out what she thought of it?
You know, that song I wrote about this girl that used to work on the
street teams in Indianapolis. She told me this really specific story
about her life. Leaving family and leaving a situation that she had to
for her own health. I wrote it in the back of the van at that time. To
my hotel I wrote this whole song. I came through town again later,
probably six months later and I sat down and played it for her. She
started crying. It was one of those moments where, well if I never
record this song, it served its purpose.
I noticed that in
several of the songs when they turned to love the relationships were in
trouble or dying. As a songwriter, do you find troubled relationships
more interesting than happy ones?
I think there is both represented on the album. There is troubled and
there’s good ones. I think there is a desire to persevere. I feel like
that is an idea that I’m really interested in. Maybe that’s being in
your later… you know I’m not in my early twenties anymore. You start
being serious about relationships. They’re not this teenaged love
thing. You see some of your friends and the stupid things they do and
some of even your friends’ marriages. They start walking away from each
other and you see some of the reasons and you’re like, wow, I would have
wanted to fight for that reason. I don’t know. Some of the songs come
out of the desire to persevere and really want to experience love in a
way that is persevering.
I believe you live in
Nashville, which is well known as a home for country music, but not so
much for other musical styles. What do you think the city adds to your
There is an emerging rock scene. And, I guess pop is a bit of a
stretch, but there’s all these indie rock bands coming out of Nashville,
too, which is really inspiring to me – like Kings of Leon and Jack White
and the Raconteurs. Brandi Carlile just made a record there. So there
is a lot of this really singer/songwritier or really song-friendly music
coming out of there. I think as a city… the song is God in the music
world and that has totally influenced me. In most of the music, fashion
takes a backseat to the substance of the music. So they have these
people that are the song first. That has really influenced me as a
You collaborated in
the writing of the songs on the new album – I believe the last album you
mostly wrote yourself. What was it like working with others?
It was very intentional, too. It was like; you have your successful
album where you want to do your own thing. I can have more control
now. For me, Nothing Left to Lose is the story of this
journeyman – me and a buddy packing our truck and leaving everything
behind and trying our hand at this. This album – City of Black and
White – really came out of me landing in a community and me landing
in a group of people. The history of Nashville is very much of that.
Johnny Cash and these guys could write amazing songs, but they would
invite their friends in and say, “Hey, help me with this. I have this
idea. Can you make it better?” So I explored that. In some ways I
maybe wouldn’t have done it the same next time. In many ways I found
these songs came to life because I invited my friends in. I just wanted
to invite people into the journey with me.
What would people be
surprised to know about you?
Probably a lot of things. I like to ride my bike around town a lot. I
don’t know if that’s surprising, but…. I go days without even getting
in my car. Maybe it’s the teenager in me who doesn’t want to feel like
I’ve grown up.
I remember when I was
in college I had this writing professor who used to say that if you feel
inspiration, you should lie down until it goes away. I always thought
that was a horrible attitude for a writer. Do you feel inspiration
drives your songwriting and your performance?
I’ve always said songwriting is in many ways… it’s interesting; it’s a
two-fold thing. One, you have to put yourself in a posture to create.
It takes discipline to sit down and put yourself [into the mode] “What’s
going to happen today?” So many days, nothing happens. And you just
toil. But I also said songwriting is like a long-distance
relationship. When your girlfriend comes to town, you have to drop
everything to be with her. So in many ways, there are moments when
something happens and I have to get out of bed and sit down at the
piano. Or I have to stop what I’m doing and make a note. I think
that’s just… you’re not sure when certain moments are going to happen.
I feel like they brew in you and then there are moments where you feel
like it’s dumped on you.
How would you like
for people to see your music?
That’s a good question. I like that one. I think there is a communal
aspect to it. There is an inviting quality. I think people need to see
my music as an invitation – to explore my journey, but also maybe some
bigger ideas that I’m struggling with or I’m unsure of. I think there
is a big idea of hope committed to my music. I think it’s somewhere in
there. Maybe that comes from my faith. “Maybe we’re not that gone.”
That’s a line from “Fire and Rain.” I feel like that’s a theme in my
music. I don’t know if I can escape it. Maybe I try, but I just can’t
seem to escape it, most days.
Are there any
misconceptions you’d like to clear up?
I think the absence of the spoken word thing on this record. That was
very [much] my decision. It was intentional. I just had trouble
exploring that world this album. I don’t think it’s gone from my
palette, but I just couldn’t go there for some reason. That was very
much my decision, no one else’s. It wasn’t the label. It wasn’t any
input. It wasn’t any review. I just couldn’t go there. I hope fans of
the last record would go with me on that journey as I’m exploring this