Interview with Mat Kearney

Singer/Songwriter Talks Musical Heroes, Genre Blending

Mat Kearney

Courtesy Photo

Mat Kearney

“On this record, I was trying to incorporate a lot of the ’90s music that I was influenced by — some new jack swing, R&B stuff and hip-hop samples,” explained singer/songwriter Mat Kearney regarding the creation of his latest album, Crazytalk. “Face to Face,” the second track on the album, is a delightful example of swirling genres — acoustic guitar mingles with synth beats, percussion, and Kearney’s warm vocals to produce a song that is sonically lovely and infectiously toe-tapping.

Kearney became a household name in 2007 when his song “Nothing Left to Lose,” from his sophomore album of the same name, was certified gold. Since then his music has been featured in TV shows (30 Rock, Grey’s Anatomy, NCIS, The Vampire Diaries, to name a few), he has shared the stage with established artists such as John Mayer, Train, and Sheryl Crow, and he recorded four albums including Crazytalk. I recently spoke over the phone with Kearney, who lives in Nashville with his wife and daughter.

What made this album different from previous ones? I'm a pretty avid music listener. … I'm always influenced by new stuff, and drawing from the past, music from when I was growing up. Every time I make a record, the goal is to break the mold that you built on the record before. …Usually if I did one thing on one record, I tend to somewhat be the other extreme on the next one. It could maybe be jarring for fans, but I like that you don't know exactly what you're going to get every time I make a record.

But it still feels like your record; there's a through thread that's still Mat Kearney

My hero was Paul Simon growing up. He would make a record, and he would be like, "This record, I'm making it with this South African Band," that would be Graceland. It would still feel like him, but it would be wildly different from his next record, which was Rhythm of the Saints, [in which he utilized] a Peruvian background. I love that concept of having concepts for the songs on each record, and then adding your songwriting and things that are very me that blend it together.

What is the concept for this album?

I was listening to a lot of organic electronic music — some of these indie electronic artists that use a lot of real instruments. I thought, “What I if I blended this world together with my own? How could I mesh together classic Nashville songwriting and organic indie electronic music?” I still haven't gotten good at describing the concept.

That sounds difficult to blend, but I think you pulled it off.

It could be terrible, right? … I wanted something that felt really good, almost a vacation record. You put it on by the beach and it just carries you through sonically. I also wanted deeper songwriting that you would maybe get out of the Nashville tradition…I was trying to see if those two worlds could talk to each other and live together. … It became the foundation for the record.

It is a very fun record musically, yet the lyrics are often reflective. I like that juxtaposition. I read that a lot has changed for you in the last few years with having a child and losing someone close to you. How did those events influence Crazytalk?

We lost my wife's dad, and we found out that we were pregnant the next day. It started this journey of, "You know what? I'm going to go for it. What's the crazy dream that I'm wanting to do?" For me it was putting out a record independently, and collaborating with some artists that I was a fan of, and playing some great rooms that I've never played before. That was the crazy talk part of the record. … Having a kid really, maybe allowed me to step into a voice of a little more maturity. Songs like "Better Than I Used to Be" they're not just about young love but it's more about the other side of young love. Maybe embracing a voice of almost like a mentor, which is something I haven't done much. "Here's something I've learned, and maybe here's a little bit of my world to you." I think as a parent, you have to embrace that voice, because you have to speak into your kid's life and have things to say. Maybe that comes through in my writing.

I imagine it's a lot of reflection.

You're just sleep deprived, so I think your filter goes down and you just do whatever you want.

It seems like this crazy dream of yours has worked out. The record's great. It's getting positive reviews. How are you feeling about it?

Making another record wasn't a crazy dream for me, but the way we did it. I think putting it out independently was a big deal for me…. It's a lot more work. You have these dreams to do something, and then you realize how much more work it is, than you imagine. But it was so rewarding, so fulfilling. It felt like I, in some ways, was taking the reigns back in my career and not having to walk in this VP of radio's office and get approval and pick a single. We just didn't do that. We just did what we wanted, and it was very rewarding.

What prompted your move away from your record label? Did your contract run out?

Yeah. It was time to renegotiate my record deal. I was like, "What if we just don't sign?" Now, with Spotify and all these streaming services, the importance of a label is diminishing every day. They can be a bank to help loan you money to make a record, but I wasn't in that position; I can make a record on my own. I have my own studio. Let's just go directly to Spotify and Apple Music and get it out to the world. The benefit, also financially, is greater. You own your own record, and you get to pocket the revenue you make off of streaming — most times, labels collect 80 percent….I would say that my experience was never the evil label that tells you what songs to record and what not to. It's just more the red tape of creating this body of work. It takes way longer, it's way more expensive. There are all these opinions, which whether you listen to it or not, [float] around. It used to be radio was so important that you needed a label. But now radio, it's still relevant, but it's become way less relevant. That's the only benefit to being on a major label anymore, whether if you can get radio play or not.

How important do you think touring is?

Touring is where you galvanize your fans. I think people can have experience in music. But if they come to your show and they see it and you connect, that's when you can maybe win someone over for a lifetime. …When I saw Springsteen the first time, I was like, "Okay. I'm your dude." Seeing him live really changed it for me, what he is.

How long is your tour? With a kid, are you doing it shorter stints? Or are you just taking everybody on the road with you?

This one's only five weeks, which isn't very long. … We've done some that were four months long, back in the day. On the spring tour, we tried to bring the whole family out, and we had our own bus. As soon as the bus would start at night, our daughter decided that she didn't like sleeping, because we're moving. She's like, "This is fun. This is a party. Why would we sleep?" So after about a week of no one sleeping, my wife's like, "Honey, I've got to go home. I can't do this." …Now they're coming to meet me on the road at a bunch of different points.

Have you ever been to Solvang?

I've driven through Solvang, but I've never played there.…It looks like a really magical place. I can't wait to spend some time there.

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Mat Kearney plays Wednesday, October 10, at Solvang Festival Theater, 420 2nd Street, Solvang. The event is a fundraiser for the theater. Call (805) 686-1789 or see solvangfestivaltheater.org.