published Friday, January 20th, 2012

Q&A with folk/hip-hop singer/songwriter Mat Kearney

Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Nashville-based folk/hip-hop singer/songwriter Mat Kearney about how his latest album, “Young Love,” was a departure for him, creating a balanced set list and what his stomach loves about being on the road.

CP: You're about to start the second leg of your tour in support of “Young Love.” How has your relationship to the material on the album changed since you hit the road back in September?

MK: I can play them now. There's that much. [Laughs.] I'm really proud of them in ways you don't know when you're in the studio. They've come alive on stage in a really beautiful way that's been fun and has added a dynamic to the live show that really surprised me.

CP: What kind of dynamic?

MK: There's a fun element and beat-driven element to these songs and some real rocking elements. It's a lot of fun. There are certain moments that are just different, like “Hey Mama” and “She's Got the Honey” and “Ships in the Night.” Those are very different than anything I've done before; they're really like party songs. I've never gone to that extreme that way, and it suits me. It's funny how it suits what we do. It also creates an even more special moment for the ballads and the more heavy songs. It makes for an amazing night when you have all those textures to pull from.

CP: More dynamic range.

MK: Yeah. It could be really scary. Someone could say, “If I do something fun and up-tempo, how do I do my ballad?” But the funny thing is that it makes both of them more unique and more special. They compliment each other really well, almost like a drama. The really serious moments and the laughing moments become more special to each other because they're not happening throughout the movie.

CP: What made you decide to go in that direction with this material?

MK: I don't know. I think it's just where I was at in my head. Falling in love and getting married helps with the “The world is going to be OK” mindset. It's easy to look back at your past and make sense of the shape you are today. That's the other side of “Young Love,” looking back at this person you were.

CP: Are there any shows you're especially looking forward to during the next eight weeks?

MK: Yeah, man. You never know. There are the obvious ones like we did The House of Blues show in Chicago on the last tour, which was 2,400 people There's my hometown of Eugene, Ore., which should be cool. San Francisco is always a special place for us.

But what's interesting and the other thing that's blowing my mind on this tour is that there's excitement across the board. There have been cities that historically have been tough for us, and it's been this really special experience for me and the fans. It's surprised me. I can't predict where I'm going to enjoy playing. Maybe I just enjoy more of the shows, too.

CP: Why do you think that is? Is that because of the music you're playing now? Feeling more comfortable on stage?

MK: It's a lot of things. It's my third record, so I have more arrows in my primer. On top of that, the record is translating in a really beautiful way. A lot of new people have discovered me through this record, so there's fresh excitement around what we're doing. I'm very comfortable with what we're doing. I've hit a stride where I feel more confident and developed as a performer. I'm probably a good - who knows? - 500 or 600 shows by now, so I should probably be all right. [Laughs.]

CP: Does being an entertainer come naturally to you or is it something you've had to develop over time?

MK: Yeah, totally. There were certain things I always looked at and I developed in. The honest, intimate things is something I've always done, but you can always grow as a performer. I think taking control of a night and saying, “This is what it's going to be, and it's going to be awesome” - that takes time to learn how to do that.

It takes time to learn when it feels right for people to laugh or for people not to talk or when to create a special moment and a dialog in the night. That develops over time, at least for me. It took a while to understand how that works.

It's a dance you're doing on stage, at least the way I love to do it. We're not just getting up there and rocking people's faces off. We're taking people on a journey through different sorts of emotions. That's what makes what we do really special.

CP: How did the first leg of the tour go?

MK: It was unbelievable. We did some of the biggest shows we've ever played in my whole career. We played a bunch of new cities. Part of the reason we're doing two legs is because we're hitting so many towns. I wanted to go places we've never been to and to take chances in cities where we didn't know how we'd do. Almost all of those went really well. It was one of those tours where you think, “Wow. Maybe I am supposed to do this.” [Laughs.]

CP: Did that success in so many places give you the impression that your audience was wider or my diverse than you thought?

MK: I don't know. My job is incredibly nerve-wracking, and I've chosen this thing where you don't know how long it's going to last, how long it's going to keep going. You spend a year working on something, hoping it's going to do something, and maybe you're taking some chances and pushing the envelope on something you think is going to be beautiful, but you're not sure. So you put it out there, and when it connects as well this record did with being No. 1 on iTunes and all that stuff, there's a sense of relief in knowing that, “This still works.”

CP: Do you feel an increased sense of pressure for the next one as a result?

MK: [Laughs.] You think it wouldn't go that way, but yeah, of course there's new pressure for the next record. It's always funny how that works.

CP: Besides the last three months when you were on tour, how was 2011?

MK: I'd say 2011 was some of the most difficult and some of the most satisfying moments of my musical journey.

CP: What were the highs and lows?

MK: Creatively, this record blazed its own path, but also, there was a lot of personal turmoil and anguish. Well … turmoil is the wrong word. I just really dug inside and hung it out there to dry. It was like, “These are my stories and the stories of the people around me.” It's always challenging for me to do that. Making a record requires a lot of me, and it's not easy. It's probably one of the harder things I do.

To have it do as well as it's done and playing Leno and being No. 1 on iTunes - I think I appreciate the success of this record a lot, maybe even more than my first record because it kind of just happened like a deer in the headlights. With this one, I've been able to soak it in and really enjoy it.

“Nothing Left to Lose” did really well, and “City of Black & White” did good, but it's like, “I don't know. Maybe we're on a ship that's declining.” Then, this record came out, and it's like, “OK. We're not done. We're moving forward.” The feelings I had about the record were true, that “This matters,” and “I'm moving forward.”

CP: Where did “Rochester” come from? You say these songs are your own and those of people you know, but the song references a story from decades ago. Whose story is that?

MK: That's my father's story. My grandfather ran an illegal gambling ring in Rochester, N.Y. The mob came to town in the '50s and had him arrested because he wouldn't give them a cut of his business.

My father had to live through that in this abusive home. He went off to follow Pink Floyd in Europe. He met my mother, who was a mermaid on a glass bottom boat in Hawaii and then moved to Oregon.

That was one of those songs where I sat down late at night to write it and thought, “I can't believe I've never written this song.” Then, as soon as I started doing it, I thought, “There's no way I can do this song.” Then, at 5 a.m., it was done, and I was in tears. Those are the songs that require a lot of me, and when I get up to play them, they require an immense of amount of my emotional investment to work.

CP: After you play a song like that at a show, is that when you turn to something more upbeat, like “She Got the Honey” or “Hey Mama?”

MK: I don't know how to play that. “Rochester” is a funny one. I did an acoustic tour, and it was like a bomb. Literally, there would be a good half dozen people in tears at the end of it, and that was in a small crowd. It's super powerful … in a redemptive way. I haven't figured out how to play it, yet.

I'll throw it in their certain nights, but it's definitely a song where it's an “I'm not going to throw pearls before swine” kind of deal. If it's not the right circumstances for it to be received, I won't play it. I hate playing that song if people aren't hanging on every word. That's a lot to ask of a crowd every night, and there are certain nights when it just doesn't work because people are having too much fun and talking. I can respect that, so I don't throw it out there.

CP: What do you enjoy most about being on the road?

MK: I enjoy the food the most. [Laughs.] We eat like kings, man. I thank god for music for all the amazing meals I've had. I'm only partly joking about that. It's the food or just the sheer experience. I write the songs, they mean something to me and then I record them and send them out in the world. Then, someone listens to them, and they mean something to them. You collaborate those two, and they become a bigger experience for me and for that other person. We have this shared thing, and that's really special.

CP: “Young Love” charted higher than any of your previous albums. Is that a sign to you that you were successful? If not, what is your litmus test for your material?

MK: That doesn't mean I'm successful; that means I just get to keep doing it. [Laughs.] To me, that's a kind of success since I get to keep making a living doing something I'm passionate about. When it comes to “At what point will I be successful?” I'm very tough on myself, so I don't know if I'll ever be satisfied. I don't know if that's good or bad.

CP: You didn't intend to stay in Nashville indefinitely when you moved there. What made you stay?

MK: No, it was a road trip. A friend of mine, Robert Marvin, who has produced the last three records with me, just said, “Hey, I'm moving.” He had a little studio, and he said, “I love your music. But even more than I love your music, I need a driver. Will you help me drive across the country? When we get to Nashville, we'll set up a studio and record some of your songs.”

By the end of the summer, we'd recorded a few songs, and I'd found this community I loved. I was like, “I'm done.” I called home and called my school and dropped out of school. The rest is history. I'm still on a 12-year road trip, I guess. [Laughs.]

CP: You're seem like you're too young to have been influenced too strongly by Coldplay, but your vocals seem to share a lot in common with Chris Martin's. Who were you listening to growing up?

MK: I love Coldplay, but I think a lot of that has to do with my big nose - we have the same resonance. [Laughs.] I'm a fan of them, but growing up, I was listening to A Tribe Called Quest and a lot of jazz music and a lot of early U2. Later, it became Springsteen.

So I think somewhere between that beat-driven storytelling of Springsteen, A Tribe Called Quest and U2 epic-ness is what I'm drawing from.

Paul Simon was a massive influence. “Graceland” was one of my earliest memories of sharing a record with my father. We would drive around in his truck and listen to it all the time. I wasn't like “birth” young, but I just have such a strong memory of that record.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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