With hit single “Closer To Love” climbing the charts from latest album release, City of Black & White and a headlining tour on the way, Mat Kearney will be spending the next few months on the road. Not that being on tour is anything new to him. Having played with the likes of John Mayer, Sheryl Crow, The Fray, and most recently Keane, Kearney has been perfecting his stage show and acquiring many fans along the way.
When recently interviewing Kearney, I learned of some intriguing tales, which he suggested to describe as “the thrill of songwriting.” Surprisingly enough, Kearney doesn’t own a piano but instead, finds ways to utilize one when late night writing sessions deem it necessary. “I found that institutions had the best pianos sitting around and would find ways to get into them. I don’t think the University of Oregon figured it out. I had to use a credit card and scale a wall. There was a balcony involved.”
Kearney, your secret is out. Although, I don’t think the University of Oregon would mind too much as long as they receive some writing credit. City of Black & White is sure to follow in the footsteps of previous hit album, Nothing Left to Lose. Read on to learn more about Kearney’s writing process, struggles of being an opening act and the album, which he describes as having a visceral quality, something he hopes “hits you in the chest like a fist.”
You can read the full transcript of my interview below, as well as listen to the audio. To hear Mat talk about the new album, his writing process and stories behind his songs, click here. For his view on writing about personal relationships, being an opening act and advice to aspiring musicians, click here
You’ve been on tour non-stop the past few years. Do you feel that experience helped out with writing the new album?
Yeah. I got to take last year off, so I got a little break. Nothing Left to Lose was an album that I wrote just in my bedroom and you don’t know who is listening or who cares. This record is 500 shows later so there’s definitely the live thing that helps inform what you’re doing. You just get better playing live. You find what kind of players you want around you. You end up writing songs that are a little more tense and you picture how they’re going to interact with people. The live thing just totally influences how you make the record.
You collaborated with Nashville artists on City of Black & White. How was collaborating different from writing a record by yourself in your bedroom?
I think some people have a lot of success and they want to do it all themselves. For me, I just wanted to do the opposite thing. I think the history of Nashville, the songwriting community, and all of the people that are my heroes – Johnny Cash, Elvis, and Bob Dylan even came through town – they invited all their friends. It wasn’t that I got the industry; I just really got my friends involved in the record. Some solo artists that probably nobody’s ever heard of that I just really respect, we sit on the front porch and drink coffee together or people that I know really well, I just invited them. We’d be sitting around the living room and someone would be writing a song and we’d join in and then I’d actually record those songs. A lot of it I still wrote, but I just opened it up to a little broader group of people.
Do you have a typical writing process?
No. It’s always different. You never know what’s going to happen. Sometimes there are songs, sometimes it’s a movie, sometimes it’s your friends, sometimes it’s a book, sometimes you’re laying in the bed in the middle of the night and you hear this idea going through your head and so you have to get up and write it down. It’s very different. Sometimes I’m breaking into schools and writing on a piano because I really wanted to write on a piano. It’s very varied. It’s elusive the writing process.
Do you have a certain track that sticks out most for you?
I think “City of Black and White,” the album title, is a good one. I was writing it with a friend and we were far away. We were in the city of Istanbul of all places. We wanted to get away and I wanted to go where my cell phone didn’t work. We were sitting overlooking the river in this really hectic city and we were just messing with this idea, this black and white idea of these colors exploding into this black and white world. It just seemed like a good song to anchor the record on.
Did you feel pressure recording the album since your last album was so successful?
Yes and no. I wasn’t that nervous because I had all these other bands like The Fray and John Mayer and people who had these massive successes to compare myself to. I was like, “Well, I’m not dealing what they’re dealing with” so that’s nice. Nothing Left to Lose was literally 12 of the first songs I had ever written. I was so excited to keep creating. Even now, I’m really looking forward to recording again at some point because I haven’t been doing it my whole life and I’m so excited about it. From that process, it was really fun.
So, I tried not to think too much about it and just keep my head down and write songs that I really loved and believed in. I think that somehow got me through any pressure I would feel. But, it definitely is different knowing there are people that care and are waiting for something. Its different then you and your buddy making a record in your living room. As much as you try to pretend you don’t know that, you still know that and you care about what they think and whether they want to buy it or not. At the end of the day, music is about self expression but it’s also a communal thing for me. I write songs to be shared with other people and for other people and I have other people in mind when I write them.
Writing, at times, is very much like a diary entry. Do you ever hold back because you don’t want to share too much?
You find your ways to say what you need to say. But no, I think there are those things where if you feel like you’re supposed to talk about them and they’re really freaky a little bit, I think those are the things you really need to talk about if they’re scary.
ore the people that are close to you that freak you out. Like
the people that know you’re writing about them. Something like, my asshole brother, you know? Even though my brother isn’t an asshole, but if he was those kind of moments when you’re like, “Well, Johnny’s gonna hear this and he’s not going to like this.” Mrs. Bower in the third grade, she was terrible. That kind of thing. Just joking.
Did they find out that you broke into your college?
It wasn’t my college. I made a habit of that. I never owned a piano, so all the songs I write on the piano, I never owned one and I always wanted to write them at odd hours of the night. So, I found ways to find pianos. I found that institutions had the best pianos sitting around and I [would] find ways to get into them. But, I don’t think the University of Oregon figured it out. I had to use a credit card and scale a wall. Not really scale a wall, there was a balcony involved. Maybe add it to the thrill of the songwriting.
Tell me about “Lifeline.” I love that song, the lyrics behind it.
I wrote it with some friends, Trent [Dabbs] and Matt [Matthew Perryman Jones]. We were just exploring this idea of losing something and finding the end of yourself. It’s pretty simple in its desperation. It’s one of the more desperate pleas for something. It’s like someone at the end of their rope, looking for some help and some guidance. It’s a desire to fit in or maybe they’ve tried their best and there’s this foiling of all their plans that they’ve created. Sometimes it’s a good place to be, being completely humbled in a sense that your plans are frustrated in a good way.
Of course I have to ask about “Annie” because it’s my name also.
“Annie” was a song I actually wrote about this girl. She used to work for my label and she worked in Indianapolis. She told me her story about her family and having to leave. So I was driving home on the way back from this really smoky, dirty venue called Birdies. We were in the back of the van on the way to the hotel. I think we were listening to some weird ambient music, and I just remember writing the whole song, word for word almost. Just trying to think about that idea of those difficult moments where leaving is really hard, especially when it’s people you love, but you know it’s what you need to do.
Do you feel a song comes out better when it’s based on a real relationship vs. writing from fantasy?
Well, I don’t think that anything is entirely real or anything is entirely fantasy when you write it. It’s like “Schindler’s List.” The movie is incredibly real, but it’s not real on one level. Those dialogues, no one recorded them. That’s a really bad example. But yeah, it’s bits and pieces from real life. Some of it is stories or characters interacting together in your head. Sometimes it’s the movies, sometimes it’s the books, sometimes it’s a friends life, sometimes it’s so painfully specifics of my life that I wouldn’t even want anybody to know that they’re that specifically honest.
When was the moment you realized you want to be a musician for the rest of your life? Do you want to be a musician the rest of your life?
I don’t know. I just feel lucky to be able to do what I’m doing now and keep doing it. I was in high school and I was this kid that didn’t know my place and got terrible grades, but everyone was like, “This kid is creative. He’s smart.” I wrote this poem and I remember the teacher read it and she sat me down. I thought I was going to get in trouble. She told me, “You’re really, really good at this. You need to write.”
So I had that little nugget that I was carrying with me in my heart and I went to college and became a literature major. Just writing and reading and being super moved by stuff. I remember sitting down with a guitar and I started writing songs and I felt like the whole world fit. This thing this teacher told me that I could write, and this world of music I grew up completely moved by, it just came together. And I was like, “Okay, this makes sense and I want to do this.” It wasn’t like I want to do this the rest of my life, it was like, “I want to do this now.” Then I want to do it tomorrow and the next day and every day I would wake up and I still want to do this. This is still something I’m really passionate about. The rest of my life is a scary term anyway.
As an opening artist, do you feel it’s still hard to win over the crowd?
It’s the fun challenge of opening. I feel like it makes you better, opening for people. It’s like, if you’re telling a joke to your mom everything is funny, but if you tell a joke to someone who doesn’t care about you, you learn where you stand and if it’s funny. Opening, I love it, but it’s challenging. The Keane fans have been amazing, but I think we’ve brought our own share of fans out. I think we’ve held our own.
On “Undeniable” you freestyle for a bit at each show and add a line or two about the city you’re in. Do you actually visit the places you mention in the song? Do you research the lines?
No, it’s whatever comes to my mind. There’s definitely no researching those moments. I think we had gone there the night before, hung out, got some food down on Queen Street. I’ve traveled a little bit so I have a little love for each town, a plethora of experiences to draw from. A little stock pile of every city I go to. So no, I don’t research. I do research, yeah, but it’s me getting off the bus and walking around towns and I’ve been doing that for four years.
Earlier tracks you had more of a Hip-Hop spoken word feel, and this record not as much. Are you going to go back to that?
I don’t know. For this record, I met with this producer named Rick Rubin, and we talked about that and I said, “I’m struggling writing this way.” And he said, “Just write all the songs you’re supposed to write and the songs that are supposed to be together will and they’ll make sense.” And that’s what I did. I wrote almost 30 songs for this album and the songs that I felt strongest about were these 12 on City of Black & White. As far as a particular style, I have to keep moving for me and I have to be excited about what I do. I don’t want any part of what I do to become a shtick for someone for what I have to do.
It’s like a joke that’s really funny that everybody wants you to tell every night and you don’t want to tell it, you want to tell a new one. I’m just on a journey. I don’t think I’m done with any certain particular style. For this record, I’m really excited about. I wanted it to be more refined and more to the point and more classic pop record and not as much Jack Kerouac stream of consciousness. It’s a little more heavy, more up-tempo. That’s 500 shows later too, me just wanting to connect with the audience. You play every night and realize, “Man we can turn this up a few notches” and then you start writing that way and it’s cool.
How do you feel the Nashville scene is different than other parts of the country?
It’s a city that’s built around community and it’s a city that’s very much about the collective. Creatively, fashion comes a distant second to the song. The song is God in Nashville music. It’s a city that doesn’t put up with a lot of fluff. It values humility. In the history, you feel like you’re walking around in the shadow of these humble giants. These people that were great, but were hard working people from rough farming families. The Woodie Guthrie’s and the Johnny Cash’s and those kinds of people. It’s just not very
fashion driven. Nothing’s wrong with that. It’s just very substance driven. Production and the fashion side comes second to the heart and the song. It’s very much written driven around the traditional song based music.
What’s your advice to upcoming musicians?
I always go back to my uncle’s statement and it’s maybe why I love Nashville. He said, “If your vibe outweighs your substance, you are destined to be a novelty.” I’ve always sought to get after something that’s foundational in people. That comes through my faith, through my belief in life, through trying to hit something that’s true every time. I think that’s really where you move people, when you touch on something that’s true, that’s not based on fluff or based on a moment or a movement. It’s based on something that’s real that you acknowledge people.