Matt Kearney

Nashville's troubadour

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By Gary Graff  

Mat Kearney was born in Eugene, Oregon. But when he visited Nashville during a summer break from college, Kearney wrote four songs there and called home to say he was staying. Once relocated, he quickly went from aspiring songwriter to artist in his own right, selling 40,000 copies of his independently released debut album Bullet, which landed Kearney a major label deal for his richly infectious follow up, Nothing Left to Lose -- which, of course, means that these days, this singer-songwriter has everything to gain.

Q: Was making music a longtime career ambition?

Mat Kearney: I never really intended to pursue music as a profession. Honestly, I wanted to go into some sort of writing, whether it was screenplays or whatever. There was a desire to teach, too -- maybe high school English. In my spare time I would write songs, and I loved that so much I couldn't see myself doing anything else. That turned into hooking up with a producer who was into my stuff, too, and wanted to produce it.

Q: What kind of culture shock was there in moving to Nashville from Oregon?

Kearney: Oh, a lot. (laughs) They fry everything there! That's always a challenge, finding the food that you're used to out West. But there's culture shock in a good way, too. I would show up at all these little songwriter sessions, and you'd be humbled every time you would go to some free show. Mindy Smith was playing and she wasn't signed yet. NIckel Creek, too. I would turn up to these clubs and hear these amazing people writing songs. It was very invigorating and inspiring.

Q: Was it intimidating, too?

Kearney: Oh, sure. You would play a song and then Duncan Sheik would play the same songwriter's night. It wasn't necessarily the genre of music I was into, but the standard of songwriting was so high it really challenged me. I felt like I probably grew the most in those settings.

Q: Your first album, Bullet, was embraced by the Christian audience. Where does the spiritual grounding in your music come from?

Kearney: My parents came from kind of rough lives. They met in Hawaii. They were kind of hippies and shaped by the Jesus movement that was happening in the '70s -- not necessarily the Bible Belt tradition, but it had some concepts of that. The home I was raised in was one where you understood that life is hard but it's still beautiful and there's still redemption and grace. That was my experience and, in a lot of ways, the story of my life. So it naturally forms itself in my music.

Q: And the strong hip-hop influence in some of your songs?

Kearney: That comes from me being in high school and being absolutely obsessed with A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, the Roots, people I felt were using this form to communicate some really cool stuff. But I haven't bought a hip-hop record in years, and in no way do I associate myself with the hip-hop scene. I'm a singer-songwriter who uses spoken word as an accent.

Q: You've moved from more of a solo performer on Bullet to working with a band on Nothing Left to Lose.  What was that transition like?

Kearney: I'd been playing a lot more with a band, so I wanted to capture some of the stuff that would happen organically when you put some guys in a room together and jam. I felt like we were exploring more of the organic side of what we were doing. Plus, as a performer I feel like I'm growing. I still am learning you can lean on a band. I usually write where I have to carry every moment with the words and the lyrics and the melody. I'm learning I don't have to do that all the time. There's a guitar player who can play something, or any of the other guys. It's a real revelation.

Gary Graff writes extensively about music. His work has appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard.