Mat Kearney wasn’t necessarily looking to get into the music business, but it found him.
Now, more than a decade later, he’s three albums deep; has toured with John Mayer, Sheryl Crow and The Fray; and his music has been heard on shows like 30 Rock, Grey’s Anatomy, The Hills and Friday Night Lights. Throughout his career, he has claimed four top 20 hits on the Adult Top 40 chart.
With hits like “Nothing Left to Lose,” “Hey Mama” and “Ships in the Night,” Mr. Kearney—who appears Thursday at 8 p.m. at the George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium—is part hip-hop, part rock, part folk.
Mr. Kearney talked recently with George Washington Today, giving a behind-the-scenes look at his song-writing process, the themes that inspire his music—and the best part of a life of performing.
Q: What’s your story on how you got into this business?
A: I didn’t really start out on it as a career path, it was just something I loved doing. I was an English major in college and hadn’t really done anything with music growing up. I would steal my roommate’s guitar and put these poems and spoken word stuff to music, and all of a sudden I found this style that’s my own. It just grew from there. Selling CDs out of the back of my car, playing little coffee shops. Probably the big move for me was when a friend of mine said, “Hey I’m moving to Nashville, will you help me drive?” So we packed up his car and drove, and you know, I’m still here. It’s been a long road trip.
Q: So was there a particular moment in Nashville when you decided, I’m not going back?
A: Moving to Nashville had nothing to do with Nashville. My friend had a studio, and he was the only person I knew who could record and write music with me. I was going to follow him wherever he went, because it was just what I loved doing. By the end of the summer, there was some real interest with the few songs we had written, I was like, “Man maybe this is something that I could do.” I called my parents and told them, I’m going to stay a junior in college for a while.
Q: You mentioned that at some point that you realized that this is something you’re good at. But you’ve also said you feel like you’re part of a “middle class” of music. Do you still feel that way?
A: That’s an interesting question, because it has to do with contentment. And it depends on how I get out of bed that day and how I feel about my position in life. I know that I’m incredibly fortunate and blessed and feel so lucky to do what I do. That’s at the core of who I am. But then there’s this competitive, driving perfectionist who really wants to keep creating and have people discover it. There’s a lot of people out there that I haven’t been able to communicate with through my music and would love to. That’s a big part of what I do, sharing what I do with other people.
Q: Talk about your song-writing process. What’s it like?
A: My process is so strange because of how many genres I’m playing with. I’m not just a singer-songwriter guy with a guitar. I was just playing some shows in Hawaii and I was sitting by the ocean on a rock writing a song, and I was like, this is the most cliché singer-songwriter thing in the world. But then I come home and I may be in the studio making a beat, almost like a hip-hop track. Then I pick up a guitar. Or I come up with a lyric before I even write music to it. The studio side is a big instrument in what I do, almost like a hip-hop or electronic artist. So I’ll sit there and make beats sometimes and then all of a sudden I’ll be singing this chorus.
Q: Wasn’t that how “Hey Mama” came about?
A: Yeah, “Hey Mama,” and even “Ships in the Night.” “Nothing Left to Lose” was a really big single in my first record and that was just me singing in my living room with a guitar. And “Hey Mama” was literally me stomping and clapping and chanting. Actually most of that song was created in GarageBand on my computer—claps and guitars and me recording into the microphone on the laptop.
Q: Would you say there are certain themes that create a common thread through all your music?
A: I know that there’s kind of a self discovery and disarming quality to my music. I’ll never just give you the heartbreak. I always turn to this hopeful place. Partly because of how I deal with life, and partly because of how I deal with music. It’s who I am as a person, and my faith, and all of those things that influence why I write. I think there’s always this phoenix-in-the-ashes quality to my music where I won’t just leave you in despair. I’ll try to give you at least a cry for help, or I’ll let you know where I’m crying out for help.
Q: You mentioned faith. Is that a key part of you and your song-writing process?
A: Yeah, very much so. In college I was on a journey finding out what I believed in. And I think a picture of a redeeming God that loves you in spite of all the bad things you’ve done—it just motivates me. That is probably the biggest theme in all of my music—all of this redemption, and being pulled out of something.
Q: What’s the best part in all of this for you?
A: I love entertaining people. People coming to the show, being taken on a journey, like in a movie—they might laugh, cry, dance, smile. To me that is rewarding, and I really enjoy that. It just feels like I was made to do that. There’s fun songs like “Hey Mama” that are meant to turn up loud with your friends in the car. Then there are songs like “Rochester.” It’s heavy. And when someone hears those songs and it resonates with them and they say, “That makes me view life differently or makes me deal with something that I’ve gone through or gives me a sense of hope”—there’s nothing greater in the world of my professional career.
Q: What’s unique about performing on a college campus? Do you like it?
A: I really, really love it. You’re being invited into someone’s community, you’re allowed into someone’s world. I just find it very endearing. Some of the most special shows are at colleges. People are excited to be out and doing something together.
Q: How about your next album—do you have a target for its release?
A: Hopefully this year. I feel like I’m pregnant with a baby, but it’s too early to know what sex it is. I’m not quite sure what it is, what it looks like, what its name is, but it’s in there and I’m pretty excited about it.
Q: And finally, what advice do you have for aspiring musicians on campus?
A: Find the songs that only you can write, that come from your experience. And then write the stuff that rips your own heart out the most and put it out there in a vulnerable way to the world. That’s kind of been my approach.
Tickets to Mr. Kearney’s Lisner appearance—$25 for GW students and alumni and $35 for the general public—are available here.