In a little over a decade, Mat Kearney went from an underground, hip-hop inspired singer/songwriter from Eugene, Oregon to one of Nashville’s premiere, boundary-blurring performers. Along the way, he’s racked up a stable of singles (including the gold sellers “Nothing Left To Lose,” “Closer To Love” and “Ships In The Night”), soundtrack placements on dozens of major shows like Grey’s Anatomy, 30 Rock, Scrubs, Friday Night Lights, NCIS and So You Think You Can Dance, while touring the world’s most prominent places beside Train, Sheryl Crow, John Mayer, Keane, Owl City and now as a headliner.
But just because the artfully wound wordsmith scored success beyond his wildest dreams and stands on a firm faith foundation doesn’t make him immune to life’s growing pains and bruises, especially as he seeks to reclaim a childlike simplicity across Just Kids (Inpop Records), his first long player in nearly four years. For the record, Kearney’s a child of the late ’70’s who’s never afraid to name check his late ’80’s/early ’90’s affinity for Paul Simon’s African-influenced Graceland album, Bel Biv DeVoe bumpin’ on the radio, a Volkswagen-driving mom who sang along to Amy Grant and wanting to flash the reflective tongues of his Air Jordan’s with every innocent step.
“A lot of the themes that come up [throughout the record] happened in that song, which is me remembering where I come from, my story of growing up in Oregon and that period of my life, which I seemed to write a lot about on this record,” muses the now 36-year-old. “I think some of it had to do with my parents moving to Nashville, where I live now. I think when your parents move, there’s like this kind of mourning like you’re losing your home town. On my mother’s side, I’m like a sixth generation Oregonian. My family came over on covered wagons on the Oregon Trail. I think you look back at what has defined you and the different things that have helped make you who you are.”
Though it’s not as recent of a life development as his folks’ cross country move, Kearney got married in 2010 prior to his last record release Young Love, which basically traced the several stages of falling in love with his eventual wife. And now that the couple’s been married for half a decade, they’ve expanded upon that initial honeymoon phase with a conscious approach towards collectively digging into their pasts in the hopes of sharpening one another in the present.
“How are we trying to grow as human beings, in the way we treat each other and loving each other better? What’s the junk from my past that I’m trying to work through? What’s the junk you’re working through?” he wonders, tying it back into this overarching season of retracing his steps. “[If Young Love was] the romantic butterflies in your stomach falling in love record, [Just Kids] is the reality of challenging things in your marriage and wanting to become a better person and someone pointing out the stuff in you. All of a sudden, you live with this mirror that really reflects the issues of your life that your roommate wouldn’t bug you about, you know? So there’s definitely that kind of ‘okay, this is something bigger than me and I need help.’”
In the quest for the constant refinement, Kearney keyed into the idea of spiritual surrender at home, which naturally played into his latest songwriting (particularly noticeable during “Air I Breathe” and “Let It Rain”). “I think when you get to the end of yourself, it can be challenging, but that’s the place where you come to that moment of surrender,” he continues. “I can’t answer my own problems and I can’t save myself. I think a lot of those songs are written almost like a prayer. Me or the characters in the songs have reached the end of their control and their own ability and their own strength.”
One specific instance that’s shifted behind the scenes is Kearney’s ability to balance creative and personal identities, thanks primarily to some caring advice from the love of his life. “I have this music, this art that I love and it’s why I feel like God put me on this earth, but [sometimes we] tend to take the things that we love and our greatest strengths and it can kind of become too important,” he humbly admits. “And I feel like she really came into my life and challenged what music is to me and made it a much healthier thing. If I showed up tomorrow and was like ‘hey, I want to be a soccer coach at a high school’ she’d be like ‘okay, that’s cool. If that’s what you’re supposed to do.’ So I think there’s like a real healthy place of knowing Mat Kearney the performer, business man, musician, and me as a person, a husband, a friend, a member of our community, child of God. There’s something about her that helps separate all of those things for me.”
Communication has also been a major player in their budding relationship, which even made it’s way to the record as a completely unexpected surprise throughout the fittingly titled “The Conversation.” After a heated argument (that Kearney now finds so trivial he can’t even remember its root), he stormed off towards a songwriting session with the hope of translating those frustrations into lyrics, only to have his wife walk in a little while later and turn the tune completely upside down.
“You know, I’m a passionate guy and we both are very passionate people, so we definitely share opinions and sometimes more passionately than other times,” he lets out with a laugh. “Sometimes the way I make sense of life is I write a song about it. You take the moment and you make it redemptive, which is usually what I do with my writing. I kind of take the hard things in life and put it through a filter of redemption. I was like, ‘hey babe, what do you think about this lyric?’ And she was like ‘that’s no good, I wouldn’t say that…’ We actually sat down, she pulled out a pen and paper and we wrote that whole song together, which we’ve never done. She’s never written a song that I know of, but it ended up being a really special moment.”
The longer Kearney engages in a conversation, the more it becomes apparent that even with his laundry list of achievements and subsequent fame (as unintentional of a side effect as it may be), he’s completely down to earth and authentic beyond measure. Perhaps more than any time before, those elements manifest themselves within his current musical expressions (think a nearly indescribable indie rock/dance pop meets acoustic hip-hop palette) which often convey the unvarnished vulnerability of a man simply being himself and seeking community with his audience, regardless where they fall in line with his worldview.
“People always ask ‘what kind of music do you make?’ and I answer ‘I don’t know man,’” he deadpans. “I’m a singer/songwriter with hip-hop influences and I like story telling. Hopefully it’s just really good. I’ve always tried to avoid a label in my music because it allows me to do what I’m called to do. I think that early on I realized that I wasn’t supposed to just play for people that believe what I believe and be an entertainer for youth groups. Growing up in Oregon, my faith existed within a world that thought very differently from me, but it didn’t create teams like ‘you’re not on my team.’ It created an inclusive thing like ‘hey man, what is this? Let’s talk about this?’ I just love writing music and love writing songs. If I like it and it challenges me and ministers to me, then that’s where I start, you know? And then my audience is people that listen to it. I try to treat them with respect, in a way like if you met someone at Starbucks. How would you talk about what you care about and what you believe to them? That’s kind of how I view my music and my conversation.”
Just go to a Kearney concert or score the pleasure of hanging out with him for a day — he’s the type of guy who’d probably invite a stranger off the street — and the folks surrounding him can literally be anyone: kids, college students, young adults or those thirsting for enlightening musical dialogue in general. Of course, the troubadour can’t please everyone all the time, but no one can ever criticize him for being disingenuous, especially considering his benevolent attitude of loving everyone exactly where they are.
“Some people may criticize me. ‘Well, you aren’t saying enough’ or ‘you’re saying too much’ or whatever,” he concedes. “I just feel like it’s a conversation and a relationship I’m building with people as the years and songs go on. I want people to be ready for whatever they get out of my music. It’s kind of like ‘hey, come hang out.’ It’s like I’m throwing a house party and there’s people there that are pastors and counselors and part of my church and family and friends and there’s people there that are drug addicts and divorced and cheating on their wife. They’re all invited to my party because life’s gonna happen and the grace of God is going to find its way to work. That’s basically my view of life.”
Five full-length albums into his career, Mat Kearney is pushing the artistic envelope more than ever while also crafting some serious pop sensibility along the way. Although Just Kids certainly has a contemplative side, there’s some killer acoustic guitar playing, dance-floor friendly grooves and contagious choruses, all of which have the potential to sound massive on stage. It’s no wonder why the record took a little longer than usual, which besides self-production in his home and mobile studios, also features some behind the boards help from pals MDL (Maroon 5, Justin Bieber) and Josh Crosby (a frequent Kearney collaborator).
CCM: What led to the four year break between records?
MK: “It hasn’t been four years has it? Wow, that’s a long time. I think I was staying busy with some of the success of Young Love, which had done really well. It’s always exciting, but then there’s that point of it where you say ‘it’s time to stop on this record. Stop touring and stop playing shows and see what else is happening’…This record I just had to wander a little bit I guess. You get in the process of just putting out records because that’s what you’re supposed to do. The time goes by- two years- okay, you’ve got to put out a new one. With this one, I took on a lot of the production myself. I also want it to be special and I felt like I would know when it was ready. It took a little more time, but in a way, it was worth it.”
CCM: Let’s talk about the transition form opening for so many major artists to playing many of those same venues as a headliner on the Just Kids tour.
MK: “It’s huge, I mean, for me it’s just like a dream come true. There’s a venue in Nashville, the Ryman, which is really famous and I got nervous to go for it. ‘Okay, are we really going for some of these rooms?’ We did and it seems like people are responding really well. It was another notch on the list of ‘wow, if we could play some of these venues it would really be a dream come true.’ For this tour we’ve been able to and I’m really excited about it.”