Up Close With Mat Kearney

Touring in support of his third major-label release, “Young Love.” Mat Kearney talks textures, grooves, beats and themes, revealing an artist that’s maturing almost as rapidly as his fanbase expands.

Born in Eugene, Ore., Kearney didn’t start making music until he was studying literature and playing soccer at California State University – Chico. Eventually moving to Nashville, he released his first collection of songs – Bullet – in 2004.

Kearney is currently touring in support of his latest album, Young Love. During a recent conversation with Pollstar while preparing for a gig in Urbana, Ill., Kearney talked about his craft, describing what it’s like to play brand-new material in front of an audience, and why he doesn’t consider himself to be a “singer/songwriter.”

Photo: Pamela Littky

How is this tour working out for you?

It’s awesome. It’s always nerve-racking to start out with a new record and how people are going to react to it. So far it’s really exceeded my expectations – the amount of people and how they’re responding to the new music, how fun it is and how much it adds to the show – it’s kind of been a dream tour so far.

Were you able to road test some of the new songs before this tour?

I probably should have, but I’m funny about that. I didn’t do it much for this record. I was playing a song called “Rochester” which is like a folk song on the acoustic tour. For the most part, the first show I was playing nine new songs which is kind of nerve-racking. After the first three songs, I sighed with relief. “Oh, wait. I do know these songs. These are really good and people are showing up to hear them.”

You can feel like, sometimes, people are coming to listen to songs that really resonated with them in the past and they’re putting up with your new stuff. But this record feels like a lot of people are gathering, a lot of new fans. Which is super-exciting. It feels like you’re on something that’s happening right now as opposed to some past memory.

What are some of the challenges facing singer/songwriters that your predecessors didn’t have to deal with?

Besides Auto-Tune and four-on-the-floor European dance songs? It’s an interesting time to have a human voice, a human lower-registered songwriting voice. I don’t know. It’s interesting but I’ve never fully identified [myself] as a singer/songwriter. I’m a guy that writes songs with his guitar. But I’ve always been more inspired by Springsteen or the Beck kind of artist than Jackson Browne even though I love him and think he’s a great songwriter.

I never made a record where you just get a band, you perform it, you play your songs and that’s it. We’ve always played with textures, themes and grooves, things that draw from pop and hip-hop music. But I do think it’s an incredibly disposable time for music. The songs that are huge now, I don’t even know if people will be able to name them in a few years. That’s challenging when you’re attempting to do something that will stick around for more than a Top 40 sound cycle.

Do you think that reflects the quality of current music or the audience’s attention span and all the other entertainment options people have now that they didn’t have 20, 30 or 40 years ago?

If I knew that I would write a book and make a million dollars. I don’t know. I do think there’s a problem with all of us in our ability to appreciate quality stuff. I’m reading “Crime and Punishment” right now – Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I’m sitting there thinking that reading it is much more challenging than Twitter.

Maybe we’re caught up in an era, like the ‘80s when they found disco reverb, they just started going crazy with it because it was new. I think the hardest part is the fact is how everything works, with testing. The reality is there is a bunch of songs that are huge on radio and some of those venues, but they don’t sell any records. No one really cares about them. They just test well. They fit into the mold that a radio station … what’s working and what’s not working for their advertisers. I think that’s a really dangerous kind of system because it’s not real.

Do you think music is marketed more like a breakfast cereal than an art form?

Yeah. One of the avenues they test for is familiarity. That’s going to instantly breed conformity and everything is going to start sounding the same and everything is going to chase whatever has been successful before, because it’s going to test well. And anything that’s new and is a little different will instantly get wiped out because it won’t test as familiar with people. Anything worthwhile challenges people in the beginning.

Were you aware of this before you began playing professionally, or did you learn about it along the way?

(laughs) I don’t know, man. I wasn’t aware of anything. I didn’t even know if anybody was hearing my songs, I was just writing from a real honest place. I think Young Love has really been my attempt, a real desire to return to innocence and go back to making records that way, making music I love, what I wanted to make, and let the chips fall where they may.

When we sat down, we said, “Let’s draw a line in the sand on this record.” The funny part was that it reacted better than a lot of stuff I’ve done recently. It’s reacted better than any record I’ve ever had. This record really seems to resonate with people.

Do you consider Young Love to be your best album so far?

I do. It’s different. I really loved Nothing Left To Lose. I thought it was a really brilliant kind of… it’s hard to recreate that innocence of not knowing and you just made a record not knowing if anyone is going to listen.

Young Love has some of my favorite moments of any record I’ve ever done. It’s like picking children, maybe. I really enjoy all of them. There’s a confidence in it I’ve always set out for that I really think we accomplished and I’m incredibly proud of that.

I wanted to tell stories that were within an arm’s reach and I wanted it to be a concise album that you could understand. And I wanted it to make you move your body and bob your head. Something about the really hip hop beats with the storytelling, I think there’s an amazing tension in that. That was sonically what we were going after, and lyrically I wanted to tell the most honest stories I knew.

Where do you draw inspiration from? Is it things going on with your friends? Will a scene from a movie inspire a song?

All those things. I’ve written in all different ways but for this record I made this subtle decision to myself that I no longer write songs and I’m going to start telling the stories that are within an arm’s reach of me. It’s almost like I realized that I’m a better documentary songwriter than a fiction songwriter. When I started viewing my life as open to songs and every one around me, the wealth of material and need for songs jumped out at me. And I started writing songs like “Rochester,” “Learning To Love Again” and “Ships In the Night.” I don’t know how to be more honest.

In “Rochester” I wrote about my grandfather who ran an illegal gambling ring in Rochester, N.Y., out of a fake cigar shop. He was abusive, and my dad watched him get arrested. He ran away to Europe and then met my mom who was a mermaid on a glass-bottom boat. It’s a painful journey for me, let alone for him, but I felt it needed to be written.

Those sound like elements for the next Great American Novel. But then again, you majored in literature while a student at CSU Chico.

I did. I’m an avid reader. I was a terrible student. I think I was high most of the time. I had a 2-point-something average and barely got into college for being a soccer player.

But I could always write. I remember this teacher during my senior year slid this poem across my desk and said, “I don’t know what you do, but you need to do this. You need to write.”

All of a sudden I got the best grades in my life when I realized writing was my thing. Reading actually came later in life, but I knew I could B.S. my through all my classes just by writing, like these gut-wrenching papers on Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe.” I would somehow write about my friends and weave it into my argument about the novel and the teacher would go, “What is this? This is awesome.”

Where did you see your future self at this point? As a novelist, a literary teacher or one who critiques literature? Or were you already thinking about writing songs?

I hadn’t even started writing music. The teacher really interested me in it. I had pipe dreams of being a scriptwriter, but I’ve never been that good at dialogue. That’s what I wanted to do.

But I didn’t have a clue. I would steal my roommate’s guitar and drive to this little racquetball court. I knew only two chords and I wasn’t any good at covering bands so I would write these poetic little stories that were incredibly personal, trying to do the “three chords and the truth” model. All of a sudden people hearing them were saying, “Man, that’s good,” so I kept doing it. All of a sudden it was like this glove fit where the world slowed down and it all made sense. So I just wanted to keep writing songs. That’s when my friend who had heard a few of these recordings, said, “Hey, I’m moving to Nashville. I’m going to start this studio if you help me drive there.

Was that Robert Marvin?

Yeah, that was Robert. He has produced or co-produced all my records with me. He’s a friend. He doesn’t make any other music like mine, outside of mine. It’s an interesting relationship. He’s like a safe place. I’m incredibly involved on all fronts of making a record. Maybe more than some artists, not as much as others. I’ve flown to L.A. and kind of did test runs with big-name producers, but there’s something about us being in his bedroom making this kind of music. That’s really what I wanted to go on this record. He’s been a character in my musical journey. He’s played a huge part.

So we drove to Nashville, set up this studio in a little apartment and started making this weird spoken-word singer/songwriter music. And people in Nashville were like, “What the heck is this?”

Did Bullet come from that?

Yeah, even before that. I dropped out of school, moved to Nashville and actually enrolled in sort of a black campus, TSU. I was the only white person in half my classes. So I started working and writing. I actually had offers but I wasn’t ready. It wasn’t for a few years until I got the courage to say, “OK, let’s do this.” I raised some money and we basically made Bullet on our own, pulling in every favor we could on this record.

What’s more intimidating? Walking out on stage and playing before a thousand people or appearing on David Letterman?

I would say the TV is more [intimidating]. It takes you so out of your element. You’re waiting around all day and standing in this cold studio. When you’re playing a show, you walk out on stage, you build up to it. If your first song doesn’t go so well, you have 15 more coming after it. You get warmed up. With [TV] it’s three minutes and you’re done. They point at you, and here’s one shot. The cameras fly around your head and you have to somehow go into this performance place and in three minutes nail it. It’s something I had to learn how to like and turn off the outside world.

Using Letterman as an example, does Paul Shaffer try to make things as comfortable as possible for musicians?

He was really nice. However, the first time we played [Late Night With] Conan O’Brien, Max Weinberg stood ten feet from me and stared me down, with his arms crossed like, “I’m not impressed.”

The thing is, on my first single, “Nothing Left To Lose, we had this drop-measure in the drums that was not typical for a pop song. So every time we got to that, you would see his knees bend a little bit and he would start grooving. And by the end we had won Max over with our irregular drum groove.

Upcoming shows for Mat Kearney include Oxford, Miss., at The Lyric Oxford Oct. 7; the Harvest Moon Festival in Pine Mountain, Ga., Oct. 8; Nashville’s Cannery Ballroom Oct. 20; Washington D.C., at 9:30 Club Oct. 23 and Baltimore at Rams Head Live! Oct. 24. For more information, visit MatKearney.com.