Mat Kearney Explains "Mat Kearney For Dummies"

Categories: Interviews
Mat Kearney is a crossover human. He's had one foot in pop music (see 2006 pop hit "Nothing Left To Lose"), and another in hip-hop. His most recent album, Young Love, sees him incorporating more of a hip-hop/spoken word element than ever before. And so far, it's been his biggest critical hit.

Kearney's also got one foot on the fringe of the Christian music world and one foot in the mainstream. It's a difficult balancing act, one that often sees artists retreat back to the safety of the insular Christian music industry (I'm talking to you, Jars of Clay). Kearney, however, says he's always operated in both worlds and doesn't care who likes his music. After all, there is nothing overtly "Christian" about his songs. It's just good pop, and he's delving deeper into narrative songwriting with each album.

Tonight, Kearney plays at the Majestic Theatre. Check out our interview with him in advance.

You've been on the road pretty steadily since the middle Aughts.
Yeah. People are like, "How long's this tour?," and I'm like, "Since 2005."

Your new album, Young Love, has been your most successful, critically. How does that feel?
I read about two reviews early on when my first record came out and it just freaked me out, good and bad, so I've never really kept up with that side of it. This has been well-received. It's interesting how timing works. I think people are kind of willing to accept what I do right now in an interesting way. The kind of like spoken word, songwriter, real beat-driven thing really connects with people. I think everyone's really into hip-hop and pop music and beats right now. When my first record came out, it was in the middle of the real Muse, Keane, British thing, and that beat-driven thing wasn't really that cool at the moment.

Well, you were doing that stuff at the shows, but the album was more rock.
I think we interpreted it through a band a little bit more on the first one, but this one is more bombastic. We kind of drew a line in the sand and said, "Let's go for it; be obvious about our influences and what we're trying to do." And it really came together in some really beautiful ways that I was really proud of.

Your first record sold massively.
Yeah, I think we're almost to a gold record right now.

Your second album's sales dropped off quite a bit. What do you think happened?
For one, I think you're only the new guy once. The sophomore thing is tough, especially when a song like "Nothing Left To Lose" was a big hit on the radio. There isn't really a format for a song like that anymore. I was competing a lot with Lady Gaga, which I didn't on the first record, in airplay and sales. I think the nature of the business has changed. I thought my second record was good but it didn't have that smash hit we did on the first one, that somehow found its way onto tons of formats of radio stations.

Did that affect the way you went about making Young Love?
Sure, it's always in your mind on one level. You want to sell a lot of records because it's validation of what you're doing, but it's just a different time and place. Everything was moving very slow on Young Love. Everything was very clear to me on what we were doing and how we were doing it. A lot of that stuff has to do with timing, whether or not you do well as an artist. We had a few amazing breaks on Nothing Left To Lose. That's the difference between 200,000 and 500,000. With this record, I remember sitting down and saying, "Let's go for it and see what happens." "Ships in the Night" is a song I'm really proud of. If I've occupied any of my own space in the music world, "Ships in the Night" would be a good "Mat Kearney for Dummies."

It took me this album to realize what a place storytelling had in my records. I've always been a storyteller, but this is the first record that I'm like, "That's what I do." That's the part, out of all the different styles that I do that people connect to is the narrative and honesty and intimacy in my lyrics. That's something I'm continuing to get better at.

You've got of solid fanbase of fringe Christians. A decade ago, being a Christian artist would have been a mainstream career killer, but you're finding success on both sides of the fence. What's changed?
I don't know. From my experience, I've been honest about who I am and what I believe and the motivation behind my music. But I've played it in arenas that are for all people. I've pretty much stuck to that model my whole career. I grew up in Oregon and I'd be playing some open mic nights with a whole host of different characters. My life, my music, and the expression of who I am had to exist within that world and that dialogue. I've also tried to make really good music that, no matter where anyone's coming from, they can connect with it. You wanna make music that people wanna listen to regardless of where they're coming from.

Did you ever think at any point to shun one side or the other?
To do that for me would've been denying part of who I am. People get all strategic about that stuff. I definitely stayed away from more niche conversations, you know? People not being able to pin me down was kind of important.

That's risky if you're getting played on the Christian music station, but it seems like it's working for you.
I'm still figuring out that whole game and how it works. People don't have time to care where and when they're hearing about you, or do tons of research on finding out everything about you. People go with their gut and they say, "Oh, I like that," and they're in. Or they don't like that and they're not in. I just went through the doors that opened.
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