Lays It Out in Black and White
by Jay S. Jacobs
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 theater shows.
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, Bullet was 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.
Well, mentioning 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 audience?
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 are 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 an 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 song?
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 bolder 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 music?
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/songwriter 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 singer/songwriter.
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?
(laughs) 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 world.
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Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: June 1, 2009.