Singer/Songwriter Mat Kearney: Everything Left to Gain

Singer/Songwriter Mat Kearney: Everything Left to Gain

Written by Ray Chelstowski

18 years ago, the world was introduced to Mat Kearney through his breakthrough single “Nothing Left To Lose.” It was a song so perfectly written and performed that it almost arrived without a time stamp. The song could be released today and make as much of an impact as it did then. It really was the ideal song to get people’s attention, because it also came with so many viable jumping off points. This has allowed Kearney since to test drive new elements to his music, but always seem to remain true to the sound we all first fell for.

Since then, he has modestly made a career where the sparkle of opening for big name acts like John Mayer and NEEDTOBREATHE, appearing on the Today show, Ellen, The Tonight Show, Late Night with David Letterman, and Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and being the critic’s darling in many media outlets has always sat on top of a body of really solid material.


Kearney is about release his new self-titled studio album, Mat Kearney, via Middle Kid Records. The new record is his first in more than three years and was self-produced with help from Micah Tawlks (Hayley Williams, Liza Anne, COIN) and Marc Scibilia (Breland, Robin Schultz, Teddy Swims). The first two singles from the record, “Sumac” and “Palisades,” are classic Kearney. They’re acoustically-driven tunes that have a crisp percussive underpinning. They’re also summer songs perfectly timed for a May 15 release and a summer tour where they feel as seasonally appropriate as beach days, ice cold beer, and barbecues.

We had the opportunity to catch Kearney before the tour kicks off and learn more about his creative process, the people who’ve impacted his music most, what was different about making this record, and as he looks toward the tour, which spots he’s most excited to see. It was a fun exchange with one of music’s good guys, a person of great openness and humility, and someone who musically continues to find ways to connect with us today as creatively as he did when there really was “Nothing Left To Lose.

Ray Chelstowski: Can you believe that the song “Nothing Left To Lose was released 18 years ago? Did you know then the trajectory it would set for you?

Mat Kearney: It’s a pretty good first single if you are gonna have one that blows up. As far as it goes stylistically, it’s kind of an open-ended song. There are singer/songwriter and rock elements to it, but it’s not like “The Macarena” where you’re locked into one thing. I love that song still. It’s funny; it’s one of my favorite songs that I get to play every night. I wrote it about not knowing what the future would hold. I’d signed on to Columbia Records and was scared to death of the reality of being presented with your dream. When I play it now, it continues to take on new meaning to me.

RC: You have toured with a lot of big-name acts.  As someone who came to music later in life, who had the most impact on helping you grow so quickly as an artist?

MK: Early on it was a lot of my friends who helped me. That community felt so safe. I didn’t know what I lacked or where I wasn’t going as a musician. We kind of just did it all together. I remember opening for John Mayer on the Continuum tour. I’m just playing songs and he’s up there doing acrobatics. He’s such a talented guy. But at the end of the Madison Square Garden show I just poured my heart out, singing my songs and the front half of the arena stood up and gave us a standing ovation. It was us doing it our way, not how John Mayer would do it and anywhere near his level of talent, but I learned that I have something that really means something to people. I’ll never forget that moment. I poured my heart out and people responded to it, and so far they still do.

RC: Your songs tell stories.

MK: In some ways I’m a better autobiographer than I am a fictional writer. I find the richness of life to be the furniture and colors of the story. If I have a big idea for a chorus, say, it’s much more interesting for me to back into it with a story than to spell it out. Then the chorus becomes more interesting as well. It also becomes more interesting to me.

On this new record there’s a song, “Drowning in Nostalgia,” about a guy leaving a burning house that never felt like a home and his need to sabotage things. So at times I do think there are times where you invent a world, but the deepest truth tends to come from my own life.

RC: There’s a solid percussive element to your music. Is that always on your mind as you write?

MK: It’s the result of a kid growing up on A Tribe Called Quest. My first love was jazz, which I get a kick out of because I’m the furthest thing from that as a musician. I fell in love with Maceo Parker and Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. There’s something about swagger in music that I feel so deeply. When things start feeling too cerebral I lose interest. So the marriage of the two is an interesting space and what I love about music. Any time I can mix beats, and the percussive element with this heritage of songwriting it becomes very interesting to me.

I enjoy the rhythm of it. Now that I’ve been doing this for a while I recognize that there’s this kind of season where you mine your soul. Then there’s a time when you kind of have to surface. With this record I went in the studio with this band called The Brook and the Bluff. They are this Nashville band that’s kinda yacht rock and also really indie. After we got to the end I realized that I didn’t have enough songs, and within a month I wrote five that are now on the record. That happened after I’d been writing for two years. So that’s the pace that I still don’t quite understand.

RC: You produced this record and wore more hats that usual. Is that why it’s self-titled?

MK: On some level, the album title will reveal itself during the recording process. That didn’t happen this time. There was nothing that felt right. I didn’t set out to make a self-titled record. I got to the end and I was so proud of the record. I played it for my bass player who’s been with me for 10 years and he said, “wow. This feels the most like the guy I’ve been hanging out with than anything [else] you’ve ever done,” All of the influences were here and this just felt like “me.” So, self-title? I might as well. It’s about time.


RC: You’re about to head out on a jam-packed tour. Is there anywhere you are most excited to visit?

MK: I’m from Oregon and we’re playing Bend, Oregon. That’s where I vacation and I’ve always wanted to play there. It’s one of the smallest rooms on the tour and it sold out on like the first day, which made me say, “see, I told you we should be playing Oregon!” I always love heading west. I’m a sixth-generation Oregonian so I can’t shake it. I love Nashville, and it made me who I am as a musician, but Oregon made me the person I am.

It’s very spiritual for me to go to the Pacific Northwest and smell the smells I knew as a child. With a family, touring is now one of the main ways I get to do that. I get to be part of that community that I left a long time ago. There’s always an asterisk next to those dates because I can’t wait to drink that coffee! Somewhere deep in my blood is that explorer who goes in a covered wagon and heads West. Touring is still exciting for me for all the places and things I get to discover. It makes me feel alive in every way.



Mat Kearney. Courtesy of the artist.


Mat Kearney confirmed US tour dates:

6/13 - Bend, OR – Tower Theatre
6/14 - Seattle, WA – The Moore Theatre
6/15 - Portland, OR – Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall
6/17 - Spokane, WA – Bing Crosby Theater
6/18 - Boise, ID – Knitting Factory
6/21 - Missoula, MT – The Wilma
6/22 - Bozeman, MT – The Elm
6/24 - Aspen, CO – Belly Up
6/25 - Denver, CO – Paramount Theatre
6/27 - Kansas City, MO – Madrid Theatre
6/28 - Des Moines, IA – Hoyt Sherman Place
9/10 - Indianapolis, IN – Egyptian Room at Old National Centre
9/12 - Minneapolis, MN – State Theatre
9/13 - Milwaukee, WI – The Pabst Theatre

9/14 - Chicago, IL – The Vic Theatre
9/16 - St. Louis, MO – Pageant
9/17 - Columbus, OH – Southern Theatre
9/19 - Nashville, TN – Ryman
9/20 - Louisville, KY – Bourbon & Beyond Festival
9/21 - Atlanta, GA - The Tabernacle
9/23 - Raleigh, NC – Carolina Theater
9/24 - Charlotte, NC – Knight Theater
9/26 - Washington, DC – Lincoln Theatre
9/27 - Glenside, PA – Keswick
9/28 - Boston, MA – Orpheum Theater
9/30 - Albany, NY – The Egg
10/1 - New York, NY – Webster Hall
10/2 - Harrisburg, PA – XL Live
11/7 - Houston, TX – Heights Theater
11/8 - Dallas, TX – Majestic Theater
11/9 - Austin, TX – ACL Live at The Moody Theater
11/11 - Santa Fe, NM – Lensic Performing Arts Center
11/12 - Tucson, AZ – Rialto Theatre
11/14 - Phoenix, AZ – Van Buren
11/15 - San Diego, CA – Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay
11/16 - Anaheim, CA – House of Blues
11/18 - Santa Barbara, CA – Lobero Theatre
11/19 - Menlo Park, CA – Guild Theater
11/20 - Napa, CA – Uptown Theatre


Header image courtesy of Noah Torralba.

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