Chasing the Light: An Interview with Mat Kearney

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.

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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.

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