Singer-songwriter Mat Kearney offers a glimpse into his new record City of Black & White, finding perseverance amidst life’s trials, meeting people in the middle of their journeys, and how his background as an English major influenced his music career.
So I caught your first show back at the Palladium last month.
Oh, I’m sorry, man. That show was rough. It was one of our rougher shows I’ve ever played, but it’s cool.
I thought you did great still.
Cool. Thanks, man. It got better, I promise. It got a lot better [laughs].
Are you back in the full swing of things now?
I am. We’re gearing up for the full headlining tour that’s coming up here in a week. Yeah, I’m pretty excited.
I saw your new album debuted at No. 13 on the charts a few weeks ago. That must have been pretty sweet. How did that feel?
It’s pretty amazing, yeah. I was pretty excited. When I released my first record, I didn’t know if anybody was going to come out and buy it, and no one did. No one knew who I was. I sold like a couple thousand my first week last time around. So this time, you’re gearing up and you’re like, “I hope people still care. I think people care about what I do.” I think it went double what we expected, and that feels really great. It’s like, wow. That means a lot to me.
Also, if you kind of think about it, this is your first fully new album in like five years because the last one had a lot of stuff that was on Bullet as well. That must be cool to have, too.
Yeah, it really is. I don’t plan on keeping people waiting as long next time.
I’ve heard you talk in interviews about how one of the main themes on this record is the sense of community. What do you mean by that?
I think Nothing Left to Lose was like this journey leaving. It was me and my friends leaving everything behind in our truck, heading off into the sunset, seeing what music had for us. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was leaving.
I think this new record is birthed out of me landing. It’s the next chapter. I’ve landed in Nashville. It’s some songs written about sticking around, so there’s rubbing shoulders with people. There’s heartbreak. There’s romance. There’s things that only happen when you stay in a place and you try and stick it out with people. There’s this sense of enduring perseverance with people.
You wrote the title track, “City of Black & White,” while you were overseas. How did that take shape and then end up becoming the title of the record?
Me and a buddy wanted to go where our cell phones didn’t work. I ended up in Istanbul, Turkey. I don’t know. We just started writing this song and it was overlooking the Bosporus River, which splits Europe and Asia in half. It just seemed like this dividing place in my career. I was gearing up for this next record, and it seemed like a fitting moment to start this new process. Being far away and longing to be with people you love, even in a distant place, really showed me something about what I valued and what I wanted this new record to be about.
What was the recording process like for this one? It seemed like you used more electric guitar and maybe collaborated a little bit more than you have in the past.
Yeah, I invited some friends in. I opened up the creative process more than I normally have, like in my writing and stuff. I learned a lot about it through that. There were moments where I felt like it really worked, and moments where I needed to go write my own songs.
I feel like there’s more tempo to the songs. It’s a little more intense. The last record was real midtempo and was more vocal percussive driven. This one is a little more tempo, and I think the grooves take up a bigger place in the record. It leaves room for my voice to be a little smoother, and there’s more of the singing thing going on.
Yeah, I noticed how you pretty much dropped all of the spoken word stuff.
Yeah. For this record I wrote like 30 songs, and we were trying. I don’t know. It got to where I had 35 songs, and it was like, “Do I put the songs that I love the most, or do I put the ones that I feel like I’m supposed to put on there?” So I ended up going with the songs that I wanted to play the most every night, and none of them had the spoken word thing on them. It wasn’t even a deliberate move. It just kind of happened that way.
One of the other main themes I saw on the record is the ability to have hope in life’s trials. How do you come up with those lyrics?
I think that’s a real strong aspect of my record, is what you’re talking about. There is this sense of perseverance in the middle of trials. Some of that is just having some moments in life, getting older and having things that are challenging happen. I also think my faith is a big part of how I was influenced. There’s a sense of enduring hope in the middle of crappy situations in life. I think that’s a big part of this record.
One of my favorite songs is “Closer to Love,” which happens to be your first single. You’ve said that song came from the line, “We’re all one phone call from our knees.” How did you come up with that line?
Me and my guitarist, Tyler, were talking and he said something along those lines. I was like, that’s amazing. I started thinking about that idea, and it turned into this song. I started thinking of people in these situations in my own life where that had happened. The song got berthed out of this desire to want to reach out to someone who’s gotten that call.
Outside of that one, what song on the record has the most meaning for you personally?
You know, it just depends. Songs change. You never know what songs are going to connect with you on different nights. When you’re feeling different moods, different songs connect. Lately, I’ve really been enjoying “All I Have.” I think it’s good at starting the whole journey with that line, “Here we go at it three years later.” It seems like a fitting line to start this whole new process off with, getting out and sharing it with people.
I remember reading an interview you did around the time your first album, Bullet, came out where you said something along the lines of how evangelism was one of your goals with music. How has that idea evolved and taken shape over the years to where you are now?
I don’t remember that interview, but I think that what I believe and who I am and my faith is a massive part of my record. So I think that’s there for people to deal with if they want or not, but my music is also pretty inclusive. There’s this goal to meet people in the middle of their journey that they’re on. I don’t think I’ve changed in that process. I think I’ve gotten broader in my writing, in the sense that I’m writing about everything in the world and my experiences as it pertains to understanding God and the world, and understanding my place in the world and struggling through hard times.
Sometimes the older you get, the more you realize you don’t know, but then it also affirms what you do know, if that makes sense. I feel like that young idealism becomes maybe a more mature perseverance that’s based in long-term thinking and thinking that life changes. Thinking that it’s going to sustain you for a while, but I don’t know. That’s not really answering your question.
I think deeply rooted in my songs is a sense of hope and the sense that people aren’t that far from God. They’re not that far from something else in trying times. I think that’s a massive role in this record. I would love for people to take that from my record.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that some of the reviews of the CD have been mentioning that you’re a romantic at heart. Do you kind of see that as well?
I mean, I guess on one level, yeah. It’s also funny. You’re this youthful guy. Your head’s down, and you’re so committed to your goal that you forget you have these desires to be with people, connect with people and be with someone that you love. So, it’s funny. This record is definitely me finally dealing with that side of my life. It’s like William Wallace coming off the battlefield and thinking, “I’m in love with this girl [laughs].” There’s a lot of that happening on this record.
How do you like living in Nashville these days, and how does it compare with being from Oregon?
I love it. It’s like a community that I just kind of landed in and I haven’t been able to move. I’m always a West Coast kid at heart, and I love the West Coast, but I don’t know. I just love it. Somehow I’ve landed in this community of songwriters, and a place that values humility and doesn’t put up with a lot of crap. I love being there.
How did you first start out writing songs, learning guitar and all that?
I was an English major in college and that’s really how I started. I would steal my roommate’s guitar when he wasn’t using it, and it was like this glove that fit. It was my love for music connecting with my love for writing. I went for it.
Had you written poetry as an English major and that helped start things?
Yeah, that’s where I got it. In high school, I really got into poetry. High school was really like my jumping off point. I wasn’t a very good student, but I had this teacher who sat me down once. I thought I was getting in trouble, and she put this paper in front of me. It was a poem I had written. She’s like, “This is really, really good.”
I actually have it still, and it isn’t bad. She’s like, “This is really good. You need to do this. You have a gift. You need to use this.” I was like, “Really?” That really started my thinking of, like, wow. Maybe I should keep writing. So, I did. I kept writing, went to college and became an English major. When I picked up a guitar, all of a sudden it made sense.
Have you written short stories or anything like that as well?
A little bit, yeah. Prose and short stories and poetry. I’m working on a screenplay, but I don’t know if it’s going to get done [laughs].
Oh, wow. What’s it about?
It’s about a used car salesman’s son who’s kind of finding his own place in the world.
Is it like a drama?
I don’t know. We’re figuring out how much drama it is and how much comedy it is because it’s kind of in between those.
So speaking of movies, your music has been featured in a lot of TV shows and commercials, and all that good stuff. What’s that like to see something you’ve created used in those different forms of media?
It’s different, man. You write this song and you put your heart into it, and then someone interprets it. It’s like, “Hey, I think this should accompany this scene.” Sometimes you’re like, “Eh, I don’t know.” And sometimes you’re like, “Yeah, this is awesome.”
I think it’s like how most people experience music. You put on your record, and it fills up people’s lives in different ways and different experiences. There are some funny scenes, though. You write this song, and then you turn on the TV and there’s like a doctor pulling a log out of someone’s stomach to your song. You know what I mean? You’re like, “I never saw that happening.”
When you were making this record, and going through that whole process, was there anything in particular you learned about yourself that you didn’t know beforehand?
I learned I could make a sophomore album, you know? It’s not easy. I get the challenges of it, and it was different. Every record, you learn so much, man. I’m excited to record another record because I feel like I was so excited about the process. It was a lot of fun. I explored different things. I learned that I love groove, and there’s more of a groove element to this record. I really love that. I feel like it fits my music pretty well.
What are your views and thoughts about your first two records looking back now?
I think they are what they are. For the time and place, I think they make sense to me. It’s all about timing, and about where you are and the place. I try not to look back. People will say, “What about this? What about that?” You’re like, “Well, that was that time and that place.”
I feel like there’s different times and places for all these expressions of music. For me, in my experience and where I’m at in life, what I’m learning and what I’m not, they all find their way into an album.
Looking ahead to the future, what do you think the road has in store for you coming up?
Hopefully, people connect with what I was doing. I’m excited just to get out and share the record with people and play it in front of people. I feel like if anyone likes the record at all, it comes to life even more on the road. I’ve found that more with this record than the last one. There’s been some really cool shows happening.
Have people been responding well to the new songs?
Yeah, they really have. I was on tour with Keane, and we were playing some new songs before even the record was out. Just to see people respond to them that didn’t even know them was like, “OK. This stuff’s OK.”
Originally appeared on Mammoth Press