The Black Sheep Interviews: Mat Kearney
- Article by Brendan Bonham
- November 10, 2011
The Black Sheep: How do you describe yourself as a musician?
Mat Kearney: Not very well. I tend to say I’m a songwriter but when I think “What kind of music?” it’s somewhere between melodic storytelling and beats. I haven’t quite figured out how I fit into the whole thing, I can’t tell if that’s what makes me annoying or endearing, but I’m trying to figure that out myself.
TBS: If you were to describe yourself in 5 words to a stranger, what words would you use?
MK: Storyteller, epic, melodic, beat-driven, songwriter.
TBS: You talk about where do and do not fit in, and you’ve said that your influences range from Bob Dylan to A Tribe Called Quest. When you write music, do you purposely try to incorporate those contrasting sounds or is it just natural?
MK: It’s a natural evolution, it’s reconciling where you’ve come from and what you’re in to currently. [When I was young] I was a little skater kid that listened to a lot of hip-hop music and ran around getting arrested for doing graffiti on things, and then I went to college and become a literature major and prided myself on my ability to write. At the core I still love rhythmic story telling but I also fall in love with different kinds of music every day.
TBS: Who are some musicians today that you really enjoy?
MK: I really love Drake’s last record, if we’re talking about hip-hop. I still think Tom Waits is the greatest living. I really like Adele’s record, I know it’s a huge record. I really enjoy the new Noah and the Whale, too.
TBS: How do you go through the songwriting process when it’s just you and your guitar? Do you ever hesitate because there isn’t really someone to check you, or do you like not having to run your ideas past someone else?
MK: I think I have a cool thing going because when it comes to sitting down and writing a song by myself there’s a magic in that that happens and I do that. There’s songs like “Learning to Love Again” and “Rochester” on my record that are just me and a guitar in my living room. But a lot of songs that I write, the music is a collaboration. A lot of the record we would sit down and create beats and grooves and changes, almost like a hip-hop record. Then I would take it away and try to write the most gut-wrenching story over the grooves. Maybe we would add guitar later so I had something to do on stage, but there is a lot of collaborations going on.
TBS: Do you go into writing a new album with an idea in mind? How much thought goes into an album?
MK: It’s much more organic, how the songs come out. Singer/songwriters get boring most of the time, so I knew that I wanted to have moments where you would put this record on in your car and it would make your head bob. But I also knew that I wanted to have these stories that had to follow, these gut-wrenching narratives of people. I want one of those people to be myself and those people around me, and I guess that’s all I knew when I set out to make this record. Me falling in love and getting married and that part of my life, there are a long of songs about that butterfly-in-your-stomach thing, because I was going through that.
TBS: How do you strike that balance between experimenting with music and knowing that fans and others above you have expectations of you?
MK: I don’t know how to do that, I struggle with that. On this record I didn’t make a licensing record, which I’ve been known to do. I wrote about a lot of specifics and I know that doesn’t always work well when you’re trying to license it, but I just felt like I needed to do that for my own sake and for a story that I wanted to tell. You don’t want to totally change the rules on your fans every record, but I think my voice and my writing approach and the stories I choose to write about, people can relate to that stylistically and also emotionally.
TBS: How is the touring lifestyle different for someone who plays on stage alone?
MK: We’re a 5-piece band and it’s pretty rock-heavy; I more model myself after Bruce Springsteen then Bob Dylan. I’ve had guys that have played with me for six years and they are some of my best friends and they play on my records. It’s an interesting existence because at the end of the day you have the final say, but there’s a lot of times where it’s very democratic process, much like a band. I don’t think I get the full benefit of the camaraderie that comes with being in a band; there’s some days where this is a job for some people, and with all the traveling it gets lonely. I try to level the playing field so they feel respected as band members on stage. It’s a weird distance. I think the way I’ve gotten around it is just hiring really good friends.
TBS: If you had the opportunity to collaborate with someone living or dead, who would you choose?
MK: Bruce Springsteen or Jay-Z. It’d be exciting.
TBS: If tomorrows aliens come to planet Earth and they chose you to fight for the survival of the world with any one thing, what topic do you take them on in?
MK: I would put them in a navigational challenge – I am like Magellan in my head, man. Meet me anywhere, and I know exactly what direction we are in. I know where I am at all moments, it’s kind of spooky to people. I know the quickest route to everywhere we’re going, always.
TBS: What goes on your perfect sandwich?
MK: It would be pepper turkey, Muenster cheese, lettuce, red onions, balsamic vinegar. Classic. It works every time.