Music

Chasing the Light: An Interview with Mat Kearney

His father ran a gambling ring outside the back of a cigar shop. His songs have been featured on just about every major TV show on the air right now. From what Mat Kearney tells PopMatters, however, it sounds like he's just getting started.

Whether you know him by name or not, Mat Kearney's soulful voice has been one of the most recognizable on the airwaves as of late. He's found success by having his songs featured in some of the most popular shows on primetime television over the last five years--Grey's Anatomy, One Tree Hill, and The Vampire Diaries to name a few. His 2007 debut album Nothing Left to Lose unearthed melancholy pop and spoken word stylings came at just the right time when airwaves were congested with folk-a-likes such as Daniel Powter, Teddy Geiger, Jason Mraz, and Howie Day. Soon after, Kearney used song licensing--the music industry's best adversary or best ally (depending on how you look at it)--to gain traction, and his fan base bloomed which resulted in touring with the likes of John Mayer, Sheryl Crow, Train, amongst others.

What set Kearney apart then and what sets him apart now isn't just his acute sense of beat and stylistic prose (though that doesn't hurt), but more so it's the musician's will for self-reflection. Frankly put, he's not afraid to reveal himself to an audience and take the artistic journey with them. It's what's kept Kearney churning out an evolution of unique sounds with each album he releases, from the bare bones of Nothing Left to Lose, to his Kerouac-y road stories on City of Black & White, to his new chapter with Young Love. For the first time we hear Kearney's structure his sound in the form of one big poppy love letter, for it's a concept album that he wrote while falling in love with his wife. Its upbeat tones and fluid structure of storytelling is reminiscent of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, and on first listen there's no mistaking the evolution of his sound, especially on the bubble gummiest of them all, his latest single, "Hey Mama". While the songs are peppered with simple up-tempo beats, there's enough lyrical substance and bold narrative with songs like "Rochester" and "Ships In the Night" that the listener won't confuse Kearney's authentic artistic integrity for someone else's style.

PopMatters caught up with Kearney following the announcement of his North American Tour (which kicks off January 2012) to discuss his process behind his new album Young Love and all the influences that tied together his first radio-friendly concept album.

* * *

You profess to be a bookworm. Does that help the process with writing songs? I heard you're a huge fan of Cormac McCarthy and his stuff is usually very dark, and mostly focuses on a singular character going on a journey.

Hopefully reading and being around great literature inspires me to write songs, but I'm not sure about that. I do know great books help shape who I am and how I look at life. I love Cormac. His writing is gritty and immediate yet touches on timeless ideas. A truly great pop song can do that.

There was a lot of spoken word on your debut album, and as a fan of folk and pop, that really jumped out as very different and set your sound apart to me. Do you have any favorite slam artists, and do you see yourself doing spoken word again?

You should check out my friend Anis Mojgani; he's as good as it gets when it comes to poetry slams. I watched him silence Jim Carrey in the back of a restaurant with one of his poems. I'm really influenced by '90s hip hop. A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul were my heroes growing up.

You're living in Nashville now, and from listening to Nothing Left to Lose, and then listening to Young Love, they seem like polar opposites. Over time, did your location change your sound for this record? Was it a conscious decision?

I've written and recorded all my records in Nashville. In many ways Young Love is the least Nashville-sounding record I have made. As a songwriter it continues to challenge me. I feel like this city is always asking me, "Is that song good enough?"

When you're developing a song, do you hear the melody first or do you just work off of the lyrics? Is there a certain formula that you have?

I don't have a set way. Sometimes it's some chords on the guitar, sometimes it's a lyric, and sometimes it's a drum groove you dance around the room to with a pen and a pad of paper.

One thing that has always fascinated me, particularly about the music that I love, is when it's promoted heavily through television. Yours has been a staple on Grey's Anatomy now for years. How do you feel television advertising your music influences the audience you pick up along the way?

I'm sure it has. A lot of people found out about my first record Nothing Left to Lose through the placements I had on TV. Lately I haven't been on TV much. When I made Young Love I knew I had a lot of songs that would never get placed on TV--they were too specific lyrically, but creatively I had to do it

On your new album Young Love, it really seems like a tight, cohesive concept album. Do you usually concentrate on what you're trying to say as a whole as far as telling a story?

Thank you, that was the goal. This time around I was more focused on the record as a whole. Young Love is about falling in love and dealing with your past so you can move forward. I wanted it to be a clear record.

As a listener it's easy to hear that your music is very personal. Is there a specific track on this album that's most personal?

Maybe "Rochester". I wrote it about my father's life. My grandfather ran an illegal gambling ring in the back room of a cigar shop. My father lived through that, joined the army, followed Pink Floyd through Europe, and eventually married my mother who was a mermaid on a glass bottom boat in Hawaii. It's all true and in the song.

This album sounds very groovy, soulful, and nostalgic. Are there any artists that you were listening to while creating it? And what do you listen to on the road?

I listened to a lot of Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, and Kanye [West]. On the road it's everything from James Blake to Kid Cudi.

I've always been a huge fan of your emotional ballads that are really simplistic and stripped like "Rochester". Has that always been a prominent sound that you've gone for with each album?

Some days I love making you bob your head to beats in a car. Others I sit down in my living room with a guitar and try to rip your heart out while healing myself. The ballads are a special part of my identity as a writer. They come when they want. I have no control over them.

Young Love is a very up-tempo album. Which song do you love jamming out to? Which song from this album has gotten the most reception from the crowds?

Hands down "Ships in the Night". It's the best marriage of beats and story I have ever been a part of.

With the music industry being in flux in regards to how artists get their sounds out to audiences, and Clear Channel basically owning everything and what type of music gets played, have you learned any lessons from the industry?

I feel like I've watched it change before my eyes. It seems like you either have to be extremely pop or extremely not. Ha, I guess I'm in the middle.

Lastly, where do you see your sound going?

No idea. I'm just as open to the journey as a writer as you are as a listener. One day you find an artist that changes everything for you. I'm out there on the hunt for the next song that opens up my chest and pins down something impossible.

Culture

Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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