Songwriter Interviews

Mat Kearney

by Dan MacIntosh

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Daddy come home fired up looking for some sort of release
He beat the hell out of Timmy, Timmy beat the hell out of me


In his song "Rochester," Mat Kearney tells the story of his father, whose dad ran a gambling operation out of his cigar shop and was prone to fits of violence. It's a deeply personal song, and one that came to Kearney out of the ether - the kind of song that only later can he fully understand.

Kearney is one of those writers whose story is told through his songs. As he reflects on them here, it becomes clear that emotional vulnerability is his hallmark. He can, however, bust a mad rhyme when he has to, and even won an award for it - something that amuses him to this day.

Young Love, released in 2011, was Kearney's fourth album.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): This interview is for Songfacts, so we talk about songwriting, which should be right up your alley.

Mat Kearney: Awesome.

Songfacts: The song that really stuck out for me from the Young Love album is "Rochester." When I heard it, it made me think back to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska album, and I just had to ask you first of all, was that any kind of inspiration on you as a singer/songwriter, and did it help inspire the form that that song took?

Mat: Yes, very much so. Nebraska is one of my favorite records of all time. I sat down and I was kind of doing my best Springsteen imitation for the form of the song. Then the subject matter, the chords, and the melody went in its own direction.

When I sat down I was thinking through the mind of Springsteen. I don't do that tons, but it was fun. On that record, I really set out to write songs that were within an arm's reach of me story-wise, and I actually sat down and said, "I'm not going to write songs." That was my M.O. It was: we're not writing songs, I'm going to tell stories. So when I sat down, I was messing with chords, and I started messing with my dad's story.

Songfacts: Was that hard for you to do?

Mat: Yeah, it was really, really hard. It's not hard for me to be vulnerable on some levels, but it's risky. There's the whole other world outside of just creating a song of who it affects and how it affects them that is the hard part, sometimes. But those are songs where you're that vulnerable and you're that open.

You also want to feel fair, because when a song's that literal and you're talking about abuse and stuff like that, you don't want to dramatize stuff just for the sake of a song. I wanted to just tell the truth and be fair. That was an interesting exercise for me. I've never really written a song that literal about people that close to me.

Songfacts: One of the things that I liked about it is that you're an outspoken Christian, and Christians tend to like to present this positive "everything's good in my life" image. And your dad is not presented in that light at all.

Mat: Well, I don't think that's very true of Christianity, even on a theological level. I think if your hero's this guy that died on a cross, you're definitely not embracing the whole message if you aren't expecting some sort of sacrifice and suffering in your own life, or the acknowledgement of pain and suffering in this life.

But that's what I love about writing. I love these ideas of grace and redemption, and these really gut-wrenching stories. I just feel like that's me. My life has been that way and songs written that way have so much weight because there's pain in there, which opens room for some really great themes.

Songfacts: One of the other songs on the album, "Hey Mama," was written about your wife, right?

Mat: Yeah.

Songfacts: Do you call her Mama?

Mat: (laughing) I don't really call her Mama that much. Maybe joking around the house, but not regularly. I think she thinks the song is cute.

Songfacts: Did you have to clear any of the lyrics with her beforehand?

Mat: (laughing) No, no. Not too much on that song. It was like, "Here it is, babe."

It's so funny, in the creation of songs, I'm not thinking of necessarily what it'll mean later. If it's good and it resonates with you and it's gripping, then it's cool with me. And then later you're like, Wait a second. I'm writing a song about how we met and our marriage. Well that's going to be a point of discussion now with every interview I do, and are we okay with that? (laughing) And oh yeah, I'm talking about this – I'm hard to please, you're hard to get. You start realizing that's going out into the world.

Songfacts: That's sort of like everybody knowing the intimate information about your relationship. You talked earlier about being vulnerable. That's being vulnerable, right?

Mat: Yeah. And with this album, I really embraced that process. If there's one clear thing that I made a decision to embrace, it was my own vulnerability in the music. And artists can play that hand in different ways. They can keep everyone at bay, keep the mystery alive, they can invite people in a really intimate way. I just learned that I'm a much better documentary songwriter than I am a fiction songwriter.

Songfacts: I like that.

Mat: I was looking back at all the songs I've written and the craft of songwriting, and the stuff that really resonated with me and with my fans were all these songs where I was incredibly vulnerable - about my own life and those around me. It doesn't mean that I'm not morphing characters into each other and people from my own life, but when I'm drawing from what I know and the stories that I bled, they tend to translate in a way that I really believe them and I'm proud of them.

In 2006, Mat's song "Trainwreck" won a Dove Award for Rap/Hip-Hop Recorded Song of the Year, which it turns out is a real category (we checked). Other winners include Lecrae with "Hallelujah" and "Walking on the Stars" by Group 1 Crew.
Songfacts: Let's shift gears a little bit here for a second. "Trainwreck" was the Rap/Hip-Hop recorded song of the year – you're laughing already...

Mat: (laughing)

Songfacts: My question is, does that say more about where the Christian industry is with regard to rap music, or more about your mad skills as a rapper?

Mat: Uh, I have no idea. That was a long time ago. That was what, 7 years ago? Yeah, I'm so out of touch with what the Christian industry is, so I couldn't tell you. I wasn't even there and I was bummed out, because when they gave me the award, they said Pelé gave the award away and I wasn't there to receive it. So I was kind of bummed out I didn't get to meet Pelé – the Brazilian soccer player. But I have no idea. I mean, I don't think I should be winning hip-hop awards. I do have some mad skills, though, I'm just gonna be honest. But I don't know if I'm the best guy to carry that banner.

Songfacts: But it probably gave you some street cred, at least, if nothing else.

Mat: I don't know how much street cred you get winning Gospel/rap awards. (laughing)

Songfacts: (laughs) We'll just move past that one. I read that you toyed with calling the album Blinking Lights and Intimate Things, as opposed to Young Love. What swayed you to settle on Young Love, or was that a record company decision?

Mat: No, no, no. I think that was a joke, the Blinking Lights and Intimate Things, but I do think that summed up what we were doing. There's a lot of hype and lot of beats and a lot of visceral in-your-face quality of the sonics. I love the tension that that brought with these really intimate stories and specific narratives. So those two worlds colliding felt like the cornerstone I was building this record on – and even on the song choices, from "Hey Mama" to "Rochester," it's like there's some in-your-face fun, undeniable, you put it on and your head-has-to-bob songs. And then there are these gut-wrenchers that are maybe some of the most gut-wrenching songs I've ever had. For them to sit side-by-side on a record, it's interesting to me.

Songfacts: Curious bedfellows, as they say.

Mat: Yeah. Even a song like "Ships In The Night," with that beat... you put it on and it is undeniable. Bam. Five seconds in you're bobbing your head and you're hooked in with the texture in the song. And then you start listening to the story and you're like, Aw, this is kind of sad. You say things like, How many of our parents have made it anyway? Like, we're just fumbling through the gray, that kind of thing. Like, whoa, did you just say that?

Songfacts: You songwriters like to do that, you like to couch some of your most serious messages in the happiest sounding music. It's like you're playing with our heads.

Mat: That's one of my favorite things. I just feel like it's life. I've always resonated with songs like ""Dancing In the Dark" target="_blank">Dancing In the Dark" and some of U2's stuff. "Dancing in the Dark" is one of my favorite songs, because it's so heavy, but it's this talk song. Then you start breaking it down and there's just so much weight behind it. That model's really interesting to me.

Songfacts: Let's talk about a few of the older songs. "Nothing Left to Lose." Does it mean something different now than maybe when you first wrote it?

Mat: Not really. It's just become richer. When I wrote that song it was about the unknown, and this road I've set my sights on and have no idea where it's going. If anything that's become more true every day. So in some ways it's become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Songfacts: What do you think about "Closer To Love"?

Mat: I had a love/hate relationship with that song. It was hard to play and I didn't know what I thought of it. I really appreciate that song. It's been interesting how that line, "I guess we're all one phone call from our knees," has really meant a significant thing to a lot of people. I didn't foresee that when I wrote it.

Songfacts: Isn't that amazing when you're just trying to find a line that fits the song and then your fans pick up on it and treasure it? I've talked to some songwriters that don't feel like songs come from anywhere but themselves. But I think in your case it's like it must have come from somewhere. Someone was trying to get that message out and it went through you to some extent.

Mat: Yeah. I don't know any good songwriters that think that they are in control of it all. I feel like there are those moments where it feels like those songs existed way before you got a hold of them. Those always are the good songs, it seems like. "Rochester" was that way. I wasn't the owner of my father's story. And "Nothing Left To Lose," the same way. It was one day, I sat down and wrote that whole song, and I'm still trying to figure out how I did it.

Songfacts: So it's almost as if you can't figure out how you did it, and you did it.

Mat: Well, if I could pay a million dollars to figure out the muse in songwriting, I would.

I've heard Bruce Springsteen go through and talk about all these things that are going on in a song. And then when he's done, he's like, "I wasn't thinking about any of that when I wrote it." He was feeling it, as he'll say. When I write I'll experience this weight, and I'm just trying to somehow articulate this weight I feel or this thing that lands on my shoulders. I'm just trying to get it out on a piece of paper. Then I'm done and I'm like, wow, I communicated that, but where did that come from?

Songfacts: Does it feel like a weight is lifted when you're done with the song?

Mat: Sometimes when you're writing a song, you're adding weight to your own shoulders.

Songfacts: Making it worse?

Mat: It's fulfilling, that's for sure. Whatever it is. Whether you're adding it or taking it away, there's a sense that you've accomplished what you were supposed to be doing. I don't know of any greater feeling in my life than when a song shows up at the door and I finish it, or get the bulk of it down. It's like a drug. It's exhilarating. It doesn't happen that often. I'm not a guy that sits down and writes every day. I kind of wait around for these planes to fly over my head.

September 26, 2013
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Comments: 1

  • Cw from CaMat Kearny is great -- would love to hear more from this interview. THanks for doing it, as always.
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