Q&A with Mat Kearney
By John Brandon
May 11, 2009
Mat Kearney is an artist who has broken a lot of boundaries. The singer/songwriter is equally at home on Christian radio as on VH1 or providing the soundtrack for shows like Scrubs and Friday Night Lights. With the release of his new album, City of Black & White, RELEVANT talked to Kearney about his songwriting process.
A lot of the songs were written on the road, touring for your last album. I like the breaking into the music room story – what were the circumstances behind some of the other songs?
I wrote the title track to City of Black & White overlooking the Bosporus River in Istanbul, Turkey and some others in similarly unique places like the song you mentioned "Straight Away," which I wrote in this giant music hall on the University of Oregon's campus. I had to use a credit card and jump from the balcony to get into the room. Breaking into places to write on a piano is actually common for me. I didn't own one until a year or two ago.
These are transitional songs, like you are running away from something and trying to catch something at the same time. What’s going on? What is the major theme here?
My last record was more about stepping out into the world and disappearing into the sunset. It was about me and a buddy jumping in a truck and driving across the country to see what was out there for us. City of Black & White is maybe the next chapter. It’s more about the pains and joys of landing in a community, or desiring to land. It is also about relationships, the kind of relationships you can only have when you dig roots and stick around. So there is brotherhood, love, heartbreak, disillusionment, those kind of things. If there is transition then it's transition from an outstretched highway to friends and community.
You sing the line, “We are trying to feel alive” (on "Lifeline") in a way that makes it seem impossible. Why is that?
The line is "I’m fighting to live and feel alive, but I can't feel a thing without you by my side." The song is written to someone who has lost a hold of everything they held dear. I maybe made it seem difficult, but I don't think I made it impossible because it's not.
On "Closer to Love," you sing about longing for something else, crying out from a long distance. God can seem distant and near at the same time. How can we deal with that dichotomy?
I’m still trying to figure that one out. Isn't that something we all feel? "Closer To Love" is about dealing with the difficulties of a tough world, or maybe about the tough world we see out friends living in, or maybe it's something about the growing we are all a part of—longing for something whole and perfect—like we are just passing though this place.
What’s the story behind the song "Annie"?
I wrote that on in the back seat of a van headed away from a dirty show in Indianapolis. I had met this girl named Annie who told me a story about how she had to either leave her hometown or get swallowed by it. Leaving is hard when you are misunderstood, especially by your family.
Not many artists get played on Christian hit radio and VH1. How did you manage that miracle?
I never thought either would happen, so I’m not sure how to answer that. I feel very thankful and grateful for what I get to do. I don't watch VH1 or listen to the radio much, but I do read Wendell Berry. He has a lot of things figured out.
How do you deal with the pressure of writing another major hit on your second album? Because, I can imagine the label saying don’t worry but at the same time you know that is what they want.
I think we all want a song that connects with a lot of people. I do more than anyone else. It is pressure, but that’s where you leave it behind, and say "well if this is what I’m supposed to do, then it will work out." That said, a "hit" is such an elusive thing. You can't buy them, you can’t make them happen, you can't sweat for them. They seem to make their own way to you and to the world. If I figure it out I'll let you know.
As a songwriter do you get snippets of songs first, or do you write the whole thing in one sitting?
“City of Black & White” was a song that seemed to exist before I wrote it. I was messing around with some minor chords with a friend and the song landed in our laps. I had been reading this Turkish author named Orhan Pamuck, and he was talking about a black and white city. I started messing around with that idea. The writing process is so elusive. Some songs fall down like a thunderstorm, others take time to find out what they really want to say. I love to write, but it's also the hardest at times, and can make me feel very small. Maybe it's like a marriage in that way ... not that I know.