Mat Kearney is the kind of golden boy who makes everything seem easy. Scholarship-worthy athlete? Yep. Gifted photographer and writer? Apparently. An accidental record deal after deciding to ride along for a summer road trip to Nashville? Of course. Even his sound is a fusion of fortunes that probably shouldn’t work well together, all about love and loss, the hopeless and the inspiration-drenched, sung in a voice that sounds almost exactly like Coldplay’s Chris Martin. He’s been so touched by an angel that eventually T-shirts will be mass-produced to read, “It’s a Kearney kind of world.”
Not that the 30-year-old contemporary Christian musician doesn’t work his ass off for what he’s got. Between his best-selling 2006 debut Nothing Left to Lose and the new follow-up, City of Black and White, Kearney estimates he played 500 shows in three years, a first-hand education that couldn’t help but impact his songwriting.
“The first album was just a little bedroom project that took off,” Kearney says. “Nothing Left to Lose was young idealism, and it was kinda me stepping out and saying ‘Let’s see what happens.’ City of Black and White is like, I’ve landed in this community, there’s heartbreak, there’s some bad things that happened, but just as many rich things, too.”
Kearney’s debut was an earnest mash-up of influences: country, folk, pop, rock, soul, gospel, and hip-hop, peppered with spoken-word/hip-hop segments throughout.
“I found this whole voice, which lead to me grabbing my roommate’s guitar, and it was just this glove that fit — songwriting,” Kearney says. “I was pretty influenced by poetry and the spoken-word element, and, honestly, it was funny, because the hip-hop could be kind of considered a novelty on one level, but it caused me to stand out from the crowd.”
Particularly the crowd in Nashville. He didn’t expect anything to happen when he tagged along on his buddy’s road trip for the summer, but when people started responding to his sound, he kissed college goodbye and made Nashville his home base. A short time later he got his big break.
“I was playing at this little tiny college show,” Kearney recalls. “This record guy who’d signed John Mayer showed up, and he was like, ‘Hey, I really wanna work with you,’ and I looked at the label and was like, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’ It was funny … when he offered me a deal, all these other big-time labels came along and started throwing money and power at me, but, I don’t know, I just wanted to work with him, and I’ve worked with him ever since.”
Nothing Left to Lose became a huge success and a go-to resource for television series like Grey’s Anatomy and Scrubs, both of which have a reputation for “discovering” cool indie pieces of longing or lyricism to underscore their characters’ highs and lows. Well over 15 television shows have used Kearney’s music over the last three years.
“It’s odd and amazing and different,” Kearney laughs. “There’s moments where you’re like, ‘Really? The song was used for that?’ I’ve been very generous with that. For some reason I don’t think my song being on a show can do any damage to my song, you know? My song’s my song. People use my songs in all kinds of situations, some that I think are cheesy and some that are amazing, but that’s how my songs enter people’s lives.”
Kearney’s songs have certainly brought plenty of big names to his everyday life, and he admits that sometimes he still pinches himself because he can’t believe it’s real.
“Kenny Chesney, of all people, called me to come down and play a song with him and the Wailers,” Kearney laughs. “It was such an eclectic gathering: The Wailers, of like, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Chesney, and me playing honky-tonk in downtown Nashville. Super odd, but I loved it. There are just people everywhere. I met Patty Griffin at a clothing store a couple months ago. I walked out of a Bob Dylan show with Emmylou Harris. Keith Urban came in looking for his wife [Nicole Kidman] at the studio. There’s this awesome thing happening in Nashville right now. Just a really cool rock scene, but not necessarily the typical L.A. thing. A little more grounded in tradition.”
Nashville, his adopted home, seems the true recipient of the bittersweet love letter that is City of Black and White.
“It was hard for me in Nashville at first,” Kearney says. “Being a West Coast kid, I thought it was an odd place, but I fell in love with it. It’s a town that’s humble, it values humility, it doesn’t put up with fluff. It’s like the song is king in the music world, so people are always chasing after great songs, and you feel like you’re walking around in the shadows of these giants, you know?”
Home sweet home, Mr. Kearney.