In the following phone interview Mat Kearney discusses the directions he took on his new record, Young Love, amidst trying to get back to a youthful innocence.
So did you get your bus fixed? I know you were having problems with it earlier this week.
Yes, our bus broke down. We got a new bus, so we are back in action. We were stuck on the side of the road in southern Oregon, but we have found our way through planes, trains and automobiles.
Last year you were working on an acoustic EP. Did that end up morphing into what Young Love became?
We actually released the acoustic EP. We did a 10-inch vinyl that we only sold on the acoustic tour, so it kind of was a really exclusive thing. I used one of the songs on the album, but I think it was more for me than it was for everybody. I’m really proud of it. I think we’re going to rerelease it. I think we’re going to partner with Best Buy and release it, but as of now it exists on vinyl and that was it.
How many songs were on there?
Was “Rochester” one of them?
It was, yes. When I wrote “Rochester,” I knew it had to be on the full-length release.
I think this album might surprise some people, especially the first half where it’s so beat and production driven. What made you want to go in that direction for this record?
This is kind of a combination between my first record and City of Black & White. In some ways you want to do the opposite thing of what you were doing before, and for some reason that’s what I wanted to do. I had just done this acoustic record, so I wanted to do this beat-driven, in your face, almost hip-hop influenced singer-songwriter record. It’s a lot of where I was at on my first record, to be honest with you, so I guess it was a blending of Nothing Left to Lose territory and City of Black & White.
Since so much of this record is beat and production driven, did that affect what your writing process was like? How much were your tinkering with as you were recording it?
It was different. Some records you get a guitar and you write a whole record, and this definitely wasn’t that record. Almost like a hip-hop record, we would literally make beats and approach it with a groove and an idea first. I would sit with a pad and write these real rhythmic verses.
So the beats came first and then you built the songs around those?
I don’t know how many of these new songs you’ve been able to play live so far, but the ones you have played how have they translated live?
I don’t know. When you make a record, you try not to worry about how you’re going to do it live. You basically just approach it like I want to make the best songs that I can and then we’ll figure out how to do it. We’re using beats and programming and different ways when it comes to the shows. Sometimes you reinterpret things and play it more like a live band would. Sometimes you can’t pull off what you did on the record and sometimes it gets better. It’s always different.
You’ve been talking about how this album is about getting back to a more youthful innocence. Can you talk about that and what this album is about in general?
City of Black & White was pretty serious. This record there’s a part of maybe falling in love. I met the woman of my dreams. I was kind of making the decision to look at life in the way that maybe I did when I was younger, before you’ve experienced some pain and some suffering. It’s a rewarding choice but it takes work to get back to that place. This record I was making a conscious effort to write from a younger, innocent place that looked at life like there was hope out there.
I definitely think there’s some of the happiest songs you’ve written so far on this record.
Yeah, there’s some playful moments. I thought it was really cool. We have some really playful, simple, clever songs, and then there’s some freaking gut-wrenching, rip your heart out songs. I’m really interested in letting songs be what they want to be. Let a song like “Rochester” be what it needed to be and let a song like “Hey Mama,” which should be fun and light-hearted, let it be what it needs to be.
I came across an interesting quote you said while you were still making this record. You said, “When I started writing this record, I made a decision to stop writing songs and start telling stories.” I was curious more about what you meant by that and how you arrived at that point.
I’m a musician. It’s my job to write songs, so sometimes you can sit down and go, “I have to write a song today,” but when I got into music it wasn’t that. I was writing about my friends, my loved ones and the things that I knew that were right there. With this record, I went back and tried to approach it that way. I’m just going to write songs about what I know. I’m not going to try and write a song that everybody will like and maybe they’ll play on the radio. I’m just going to tell my story and my journey, the pain I’ve been through and the love I’ve experienced. I wanted to keep everything within arm’s reach.
How would you compare that approach with what you did on your first two records?
I feel like this record’s a lot like my first record. You try not to over think the writing. Some of it was stylistically, like with the beats and stuff like that. Somewhere between that approach, where we would program this beat and I would sit down with a guitar and be dancing around the room coming up with ideas. All of a sudden I’d be like laughing at the top of my lungs or in tears on the bed with a pen and a pad dealing with these areas of my life in a song. That’s how I approached it and I’m really happy with how it turned out.
You’ve mentioned the song “Rochester” a couple times, which is about your family history. How did that song come about?
It’s probably the most literal song. My grandfather had an illegal gambling ring in Rochester, New York. He had a fake cigar shop and he had a bunch of gambling going on in the back. My father had to live through that and it was really painful. He left home as quickly as he could and he met my mother, who was a mermaid on a glass bottom boat in Hawaii. So it’s their journey of both coming from painful situations and finding each other and then starting our family.
I feel like a lot of my friends related to that. They’ve been through that or their parents were hard on them. They’ve been in crappy situations and fallen in love with someone else. They’ve wanted to heal and get better from the families they were in. I was writing it for my friends who had rough home lives to be an encouragement to them, like, “Hey, my parents went through this and I turned out all right. You can do this, regardless of where you’ve come from.”
Another song I wanted to ask about is “Ships in the Night,” which is the song that really jumped out at me the first couple times I heard the record. What are the origins for that song?
I wrote that about those people that are closest to you but you still feel so far away from sometimes. It’s my cry to want to connect with someone that’s close to you but emotionally very far away. I’m writing out of my own experience with that.
Matt I still remember back in 2005, you played in Wenatchee at Walla Walla Point Park. Barely anyone stood to watch even though there were lots at the park (music un-appreciators). I am so FRICKIN FRICKIN FRICKIN glad you get recognition nowadays. and tons of it
Awesome. Excited to hear about the return of some hip-hop elements. Even though City has grown on me, Nothing is still my favorite of his by far. Also cool to read about his trying to return to the roots of a budding songwriter vs. an established career musician. Great interview.
So excited for Young Love. I'm probably one of the biggest Kearney fans on this site, and both Nothing Left to Lose and City of Black and White are probably all time top 20 records for me, so my anticipation for this one is very high. Also, glad to hear he's going back to the hip hop stuff on this record.
Color me excited. I was interning at Universal Republic when he was making the switch from Columbia. From my desk I could hear him playing this new song on an acoustic for Monty Lipman in his office and it sounded awesome. Really basic and genuine.