AN NRT EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW
Mat Kearney: Rhymes and Reasons
The singer-songwriter talks about how he's forever dedicated to telling true stories.
 


Sometimes, you have to look back to move forward. 

While making his fifth full-length album, Just Kids, Mat Kearney dove into songs from his past for inspiration, including a bunch of "old skool" hip-hop and Paul Simon's career-defining record, Graceland. The juxtaposition of such drastically different sounds may seem random to some, but to those who have followed Kearney's career since Bullet came out in 2004, it makes complete sense.

Kearney has always toed the line between rhyme and reason, nuance and narrative, drawing from creative influences as well as his family, history and hometown. Being on the road for weeks at a time will give one the kind of clarity to wax pensive, and Kearney draws from a deep well of personal stories and ponderings with Just Kids--penned and recorded from the back of his tour bus while traveling the world. 

On the verge of Just Kids' release, Kearney talked with NRT about the new record, his very personal songwriting muses, and what it was like being an emerging artist with the likes of friends Shawn McDonald and Paul Wright.


As a fellow, Oregonian, I always perk up when I hear you mention our home state. You put your heritage--where you come from--in a lot of your songs. You're a seventh generation Oregonian, something like that?

Sixth generation.

You even wrote that awesome song that should become our state anthem, "Coming Home." How important is where you come from to you and why does that captivate a lot of your expression?

You can tell I'm pretty proud of being from Oregon. I seem to write about it a lot. I was taking a mental survey of how many songs I actually mention Oregon and if any artist has gotten Oregon gotten played on the radio as much as I have. It's in "Hey Mama." It's in "Nothing Left to Lose."
I think that it's a huge part of who I am and how I see the world. I think also, my parents moved. My parents picked up and moved to Nashville, where I live now, and I think there's a mourning process of my hometown being taken away from me because my parents are moving to where I am. A lot of this record is written almost as a love letter to that season in my life.
 

Even your song, "Shasta," is about the street you grew up on, right?

That is true, yes. That song was actually written specifically for my parents. I was trying to remember when I moved here [to Nashville] and that feeling of heading to a place that you don't know--thinking about what it's going to mean, but you feel like you're supposed to do it. That was a song that just kind of fell out of the sky.

It's that feeling that you can't really replicate any other time, the first time of I don't know if or when I'm ever coming back. Almost like when you go off to school and whatnot.

Right. 

When you made this record, you said you kind of were dusting off old '90s record and were inspired by those. What were you listening to?

I listened to a ton of Paul Simon records. Paul Simon and a lot of hip-hop records. A lot of Graceland, and a lot of modern hip-hop music too, I guess. 

Old school hip-hop and Paul Simon. That pretty much sums up the diversity of what you try to do. 

With this new record, you were able to produce about half of it on your own. How did that open you up creatively?


It's just a brave new world where you don't need a big studio very much. I made records with the big, expensive studios, and for some reason I just enjoy making records in like a friend's guest bedroom or a home studio. It seems more intimate, less pressure. 

It started when I was opening for a band, and I just brought a little laptop and some speakers and a few microphones and just started messing around backstage every day before the show, and all of a sudden I brought all that stuff home and I played it for friends. I would play then the stuff I'd done with big producers and little producers and stuff by myself and everyone was like we like THIS stuff. It was always the stuff I'd done by myself.

I was like, OK, I should keep doing this. I just kept working on it until those songs were done and I played them for people... and they were always people's favorite songs. 


You've said Just Kids is inspired by the importance of approaching life and relationship with this childlike faith. Talk about the importance of that concept to you as you see it right now.

I think we're all trying to unlearn some stuff. Some of the ingredients that went into making us who we are aren't so good, and I think Just Kids is this kind of idea of... if I would have met you before these things happened in my life, things that kind of scarred me or taught me how not to trust or not how to love. That's it; I'm trying to get to that place. It's really about healing too, I guess.
 

In listening through Just Kids, it felt like a kind of sequel to Young Love. I know you're trying new things musically and whatnot, but you're still talking about processing through relationships and not having all the answers and things like that. Maybe that's just a thread that's just woven throughout your whole career, but to me it felt like a logical progression in terms of the narrative between those two. Would you say that?

Totally, and I would say that was intentional. I just kind of wanted to make Just Kids like more mature, not as may butterflies in the stomach, but still real and in love in a more profound way. 

Through-gritted-teeth kind of love.

It's like real. It's easy to write the romantic comedy that ends when they just end up together. What's more interesting is the process of those two people making a life together and really loving each other and challenging the things that are dark in each other and celebrating the things that only the other person knows because they spent time with them. That's more interesting to me.

The song "Conversation" was really inspired by an actual disagreement you and your wife had. Does that affect how you guys argue now knowing it could turn into a song?

No. My wife did roll over, I think it was this morning in bed because we released "Billion," and she's like, "It's really all out there, isn't it?" I was like, "It is." We are just out there. It's just in front of everybody. She was laughing.

I think that's one of the refreshing things about you guys for sure is that you put yourselves out there.

I'm a better documentary songwriter than I am a fiction writer. Just better at telling my story than trying to create one. I'm sorry for the friends and family and my wife who has to put up with me putting all our junk in front of the world, but I don't know how else to do it.
 

I love that you guys worked through that particular song, figuring out what she'd actually say in response to you in an argument. Was that the first song you've written together?

Definitely. I was sitting there and I was like, "What about this?" and she's like, "Nah, that's no good." I was like, "Really?" She's like, "No, I don't like that lyric." So I asked, "What would you say?" And what she told me was way better, so I wrote that down. By the end she had the pad of paper and was writing lyrics, and they were better than the ones I was coming up with. It was a fun thing to do together. We'd never done it. She still claims she didn't write it with me, but she's being humble.

Did you give her songwriting credit?

I did. She's actually a writer. We had to fill out the paperwork for her to have a publishing company and everything.

What would you say at this stage of your life and career that you're learning in your faith journey?

It's been a really challenging year of external things, things with family and life and business, things that you can't control and they're just the challenging moments. I think there's kind of like a surrender in the middle of that. Some of the songs you hear like "One Heart" are just kind of a prayer at the bottom of the pit kind of deal.

There's some of that. I think losing some people close to me. You can sense there's a real acknowledgment of the difficult things in life in this record, but then there's this hand of redemption and grace that allows you to understand them. Some of my process in writing songs is doing that, dealing with the difficult things in life.

Your theme seems to be, "I don't have the answer, but I know who does." I think that's a great perspective.

For me, I tend to like the grittier side of those stories. Young Love, I've got a song called "Rochester" about my dad, basically when he moved to Oregon as a kid and got sober and decided the trajectory of his life would change because he kind of met this gracious God. Those kinds of subjects are way more interesting to me than trite, everyday ways you can say that. I just love telling them in those ways. 
 

You and Paul Wright and Shawn McDonald were kind of all hanging around together back in the day at NCC [Eugene's Northwest Christian College], when it was called that. Do you still keep in touch with those guys? You still have a relationship with them?

The second verse in "Los Angeles"--a song on my new record--is written about me and Shawn going on our first tour ever together and it's like literally all the stuff we went through. Paul Wright, we do keep in touch. I hadn't seen Shawn in a while and he came over to my house and I'd literally just written "Los Angeles." I was like, "This is crazy. You've got to hear this." It was fun to reconnect with him over that song.

Paul, whenever I'm in Oregon, we seem to find the time to hang out a little bit. I owe Paul a lot because he introduced me to Robert Marvin, who is one of the guys that helped teach me how to produce and got me started as a producer, even though it was a home studio, and he'd be like, "Come over and let's record."

It's crazy to think that the three of you were kind of in the same place back in the day and you've all taken very different paths, but all really incredible ones. That's kind of a neat time for those who experienced it back then.

Totally. I think I was inspired by all of it. I can only speak for myself, but I was inspired by them and their creativity. It pushed you to go. We can do something. I can't remember who got a record deal first, but I felt encouraged, like we can all do this. It was like a sense of people you had worked with were going somewhere and that was really a boost of faith and encouragement. Maybe this is real. Maybe I can do this.

It's crazy. Many times when you're surrounded by such creative people you think there's not enough room. This guy is really good. There's not enough room for all of us. I think anybody following all of your stories, that flies right in the face of that.

That's right. 

 

Executive Editor Marcus Hathcock pursues worship and words. He has been a newspaper reporter/editor a church communications director and small groups guy. He's also been involved in opera, acappella, a CCM group and now is a songwriter and the worship leader at his church in the Portland, Ore. area. Follow his journey at www.mheternal.com.

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