Although Kearney's music combines a mix of electric and acoustic guitar with piano, surprising enough, he doesn't own a piano and instead, finds ways to access one when necessary. "I found that institutions had the best pianos sitting around and would find ways to get into them. I don't think the University of Oregon figured it out. I had to use a credit card and scale a wall. There was a balcony involved."
I don't think the University of Oregon would mind too much as long as they receive some writing credit. In fact, City of Black & White is sure to follow in the footsteps of his previous hit album, Nothing Left to Lose. I spoke with Kearney recently and learned more about his writing process, struggles of being an opening act and the album, which he hopes "hits you in the chest like a fist."
You've been on tour non-stop the past few years. Do you feel that experience helped out with writing the new album?
Nothing Left to Lose was an album that I wrote in my bedroom and you don't know who is listening or who cares. This record is 500 shows later so there's definitely the live thing that helps inform what you're doing. You just get better playing live. You find what kind of players you want around you. You end up writing songs that are a little more tense and you picture how they're going to interact with people. The live thing just totally influences how you make the record.
Did you feel pressure recording the album since your last album was so successful?
Yes and no. I wasn't that nervous because I had all these other bands like The Fray and John Mayer and people who had these massive successes to compare myself to. I was like, "Well, I'm not dealing what they're dealing with" so that's nice. Nothing Left to Lose was literally 12 of the first songs I had ever written. I was so excited to keep creating. Even now, I'm really looking forward to recording again because I haven't been doing it my whole life and I'm so excited about it. From that process, it was really fun.
I tried not to think too much about it and just keep my head down and write songs that I really believed in. But, it definitely is different knowing there are people that care and are waiting for something. Its different then you and your buddy making a record in your living room. As much as you try and pretend you don't know that, you care about what they think and whether they want to buy it or not. At the end of the day, music is about self expression but it's also a communal thing for me. I write songs to be shared with other people and I have other people in mind when I write them.
Do you have a typical writing process?
It's always different. Sometimes there are songs, sometimes it's a movie, sometimes it's your friends, sometimes it's a book, sometimes you're laying in bed in the middle of the night and you hear this idea going through your head so you have to get up and write it down. Sometimes I'm breaking into schools and writing on a piano because I really wanted to write on a piano. It's very varied. It's elusive the writing process.
Do you have a certain track that sticks out most for you?
I think "City of Black and White," the album title, is a good one. I was writing it with a friend and we were far away. We were in the city of Istanbul of all places. We wanted to get away and I wanted to go where my cell phone didn't work. We were sitting overlooking the river in this really hectic city and we were just messing with this idea, this black and white idea of these colors exploding into this black and white world. It just seemed like a good song to anchor the record on.
Writing, at times, is very much like a diary entry. Do you ever hold back because you don't want to share too much?
You find your ways to say what you need to say. But no, I think there are those things where if you feel like you're supposed to talk about them and they're a little bit freaky, I think those are the things you really need to talk about.
Tell me about "Lifeline." I love that song, the lyrics behind it are so moving.
I wrote it with some friends, Trent [Dabbs] and Matt [Matthew Perryman Jones]. We were just exploring this idea of losing something and finding the end of yourself. It's pretty simple in its desperation. It's one of the more desperate pleas for something. It's someone at the end of their rope looking for some help and some guidance. It's a desire to fit in. Or, maybe they've tried their best and there's this foiling of all their plans that they've created. Sometimes it's a good place to be, being completely humbled in a sense that your plans are frustrated in a good way.
Of course I have to ask about "Annie" because it's my name also.
"Annie" was a song I actually wrote about this girl. She used to work for my label in Indianapolis. She told me her story about her family and having to leave. So I was driving home on the way back from this really smoky, dirty venue called Birdies. We were in the back of the van on the way to the hotel, I think we were listening to some weird ambient music, and I just remember writing the whole song, word for word almost. Just trying to think about that idea of those difficult moments where leaving is really hard, especially when it's people you love, but you know it's what you need to do.
Do you feel a song comes out better when it's based on a real relationship vs. writing from fantasy?
Well, I don't think that anything is entirely real or anything is entirely fantasy when you write it. It is bits and pieces from real life. Some of it is stories and characters interacting together in your head. Sometimes it's the movies, sometimes it's the books, sometimes it's a friends life, sometimes it's so painfully specifics of my life that I wouldn't even want anybody to know that they're that specifically honest.
When was the moment you realized you wanted to be a musician for the rest of your life? Do you want to be a musician the rest of your life?
I don't know. I just feel lucky to be able to do what I'm doing now and just keep doing it. I was in high school and I was this kid that didn't know my place and got terrible grades, but everyone was like, "This kid is creative. He is really smart." I wrote this poem and I remember the teacher read it and she sat me down. I thought I was going to get in trouble. She told me, "You're really, really good at this. You need to write."
So I had that little nugget that I was carrying with me in my heart and I went to college and became a literature major. I remember sitting down with a guitar and I started writing songs and I felt like the whole world fit. This thing this teacher told me that I could write, and this world of music I grew up completely moved by, it just came together. And I was like, "Okay, this makes sense and I want to do this." It wasn't like I want to do this the rest of my life, it was like, "I want to do this now." Then I want to do it tomorrow and the next day and every day I would wake up and I still want to do this. This is still something I'm really passionate about. The rest of my life is a scary term anyway.
As an opening artist, do you feel it's still hard to win over the crowd?
It's the fun challenge of opening. I feel like it makes you better, opening for people. It's like, if you're telling a joke to your mom everything is funny, but if you tell a joke to someone who doesn't care about you, you learn where you stand if it's funny. Opening, I love it, but it's challenging. I think we've held our own.
Earlier tracks you had more of a Hip-Hop spoken word feel, and this record not as much. Are you going to go back to that?
I don't know. For this record, I met with [producer] Rick Rubin, and we talked about that and I said, "I'm struggling writing this way." And he said, "Just write all the songs you're supposed to write and the songs that are supposed to be together will and they'll make sense." And that's what I did. I wrote almost 30 songs for this album and the songs that I felt strongest about were these 12 on City of Black & White. As far as a particular style, I have to keep moving for me and I have to be excited about what I do. I don't want any part of what I do to become a shtick for someone for what I have to do.
What's your advice to upcoming musicians?
I always go back to my uncle's statement and it is maybe why I love Nashville. He said, "If your vibe outweighs your substance, you are destined to be a novelty." I've always sought to get after something that's foundational in people. That comes through my faith, through my belief in life, through trying to hit something that's true every time. I think that's really where you move people, when you touch on something that's true, that's not based on fluff or based on a moment or a movement.
Annie Reuter is a freelance writer and music blogger who covers concerts and music festivals around the country. In constant pursuit of the next show to attend and band to interview, Annie keeps up her own music blog, You Sing, I Write, where you can listen to her full interview with Mat Kearney and read more on the latest up-and-coming bands.