Mat Kearney became a virtual overnight sensation three years ago with “Nothing Left to Lose,” the title track from his Aware/Columbia Records debut, proved so sticky that VH1 played the video for 45 consecutive weeks. Tours with Sheryl Crow, John Mayer and the Fray followed for the Nashville-based singer/songwriter.
His second album, “City of Black & White,” comes out May 19. Written all over the world, including on a ferry on the Bosphorus River, the disc speaks to finding your place in the world, no matter where you may roam. Fittingly, Kearney spoke to Hitfix from his Nashville home the day before he left to tour with Keane.
Q: One of the emotional centers of the album is “Closer to Love,” which has the great line: “We’re all one phone call from our knees.” What inspired that?
A: I have to give credit where credit is due. I think my guitarist said something along those lines talking about his kids and his family. The song is about the extent of the fragileness of life in many way, maybe not life, but situations. We all walk around like we have everything in control but it doesn’t take much for us to realize we’re not that in control, in a good way, I guess, if you really embrace it. [It’s also about] the desire to connect or to show [friends and family] some sort of love or support when they’re in the middle of something.
Q: “Nothing Left to Lose” kept on going and going. What do you do when it comes on the radio now?
A: I don’t listen to the radio all that much, so any time I listen and my song comes on the radio, it’s still like, “Wait a second. Is this really happening?” And then it’s like, “Did I put a CD in my car?” To be totally vulnerable and honest, I always have to wait until the end of the song and I’m always interested in what they say afterward. If they say, ‘That’s Mat Kearney,’ then you’re like, ‘Wow, that really is the radio.” That’s the point that makes it real. One time I was listening to a radio station in Nashville and U2 came on and my song and then Patty Griffin and then David Gray and I was like, “This is just too much.” Some people I idolize and then my song is being played–you pinch yourself a little bit.
Q: As you got ready to make “City of Black and White,” where you thinking how do I top “Nothing Left to Lose?” It seems pretty amped up compared to the last album.
A: It’s less and more at the same time. It’s funny, as you get better at what you do, you can use less to accomplish more. It’s that kind of Zen approach where when you can’t take away anything else that you finally reach its potential. I don’t really know what I’m talking about with the Zen thing… [“City of Black & White”] is very intentional– every guitar part, every song. “Nothing Left to Lose,” to be honest, started with me and a buddy taking out a loan, basically, and recording on our own with not knowing anything about what we were doing. Twelve of the first 15 songs I’d ever written were on the record. So in many ways, I don’t necessarily have this pressure with “City of Black & White,” I have this excitement that I can explore.
Q: That’s great that you didn’t feel the usual pressure that comes after a successful debut.
A: There are definitely moments when you feel that pressure and the process [of recording] is way different [from the first album]. The sophomore thing is a funny thing to talk about because it’s just funny, you write this record by yourself and no one cares and [now] there are people [who] care and they’re invested in what I do and I don’t want to leave them hanging, I want to give them something like “Wow, thanks for the wait.”
Q: But it sounds like, despite what you said, you never let yourself succumb to the pressure or have a moment where you wanted to just go back to what it used to be like.
A: There might have been a moment…the weird part is everything is different. We booked a big studio and there’s that side where you’re like, “What the heck? Why did I even do this?” It’s like a big wedding. I haven’t been married, but you look around and go, “Why did we give into this? Why didn’t we elope?”
Q: You recorded part of it in Nashville. Jack White, Martina McBride and Nicole Kidman were nearby. Did you go visit them?
A: No, you don’t really, but there’s a lot of common areas, so you see people walking around, but Jack White didn’t come by and sing backup on my song.
Q: You’re toured with John Mayer and Sheryl Crow, among others. What’s the best advice they’ve given you?
A: I think the best advice you get is watching them. I was sitting with Gillian Welch’s manager and I was asking him a million questions…He was like, “You are the most sponge-like person I’ve ever seen in my life…. I bet you drove your parents crazy.” I was like, “Well, actually, yeah.” My mom would be like, “Quit asking me questions”… She had this thing where she bought me ice cream so I’d shut up… I think you learn everybody has their little tricks and the things they use, so I’m always studying.
Q: What’s your biggest trick?
A: I’m still figuring it out… My trick is in my songwriting. When I’m writing a song, I’m picturing it taking place in this big place. I don’t know that means, it doesn’t mean an arena. On my first record, I wanted it to have this corporate feel to them, to have this together feel, so I’m writing these moments and thinking, “I bet this would be an amazing sing-a-long,” but I’ve never had one in my life. So I’d play these shows and no one would ever have heard my music and then finally my record came out and you get to that point in the song and the crowd would take off and start singing that song to you. I would be like, “Wait a second, this works. We’re having this moment together.”
Q: There’s a video of your performing “Atlantic City” on Bruce Springsteen’s website. How did that come about?
A: I don’t know honestly. I got to him late. He’s on Columbia, I remember one day early when I signed, they have this big locker with every Sony record that they’ve ever made. Part of them coaxing to sign you is they give you a bag and say take whatever you want… I was like free music? Forget the women and the drugs, I want the music. I just left with bags full and Springsteen, was just one of them, every record that he had. I just started to really dive into what he did. My [label] product manager gave me the “Nebraska” record, which Springsteen recorded in his basement with a 4-track tape deck. “Atlantic City” was on there, so I’ve always been a fan of that song.
Q: And now it’s on the official Springsteen website.
A: I got the shivers one day. I was looking at the website and I saw me playing the song and I thought, “I bet Bruce has seen me play this song.” …He’s Bruce, he’s probably riding his motorcycle around the hills, never even looked at a computer, but there is a chance that he’s watched me cover his song and I’m like, “that’s kind of cool.”
Q: You were in Turkey on vacation and inspiration hit for the title track. So there’s really no turning it off for you, is there? Your antennae always has to be up because at any point there could be something that triggers a song.
A: Yep. My mom said she understood me when she started to realize I had 12 antennas going at all times. I’ve often said this: songwriting is like a long-distance relationship and when your girlfriend comes to town, you have to drop everything to be with her, it doesn’t matter what’s going on. It’s like that.