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A Conversation with Mat Kearney

Singer/Songwriter Mat Kearney talks about growing up in Eugene, Oregon, his journey into music, the stories behind his songs and life as a father to three girls. Listen in on this fascinating conversation through the lyrical landscapes of Mat Kearney's world, where every chord strummed, and every word sung invites us to embrace the beauty of the human experience.

In the vibrant tapestry of the music industry, singer-songwriter Mat Kearney stands as a luminary, his melodies weaving tales of love, loss, and the journey of the human spirit. Born in Eugene, Oregon, Kearney's musical odyssey began with humble roots, strumming his guitar in the cozy confines of coffee shops before captivating audiences worldwide with his poignant lyrics and soul-stirring vocals.

With an eclectic blend of folk, pop, and hip-hop influences, Kearney's sound is as dynamic as the stories he shares. His songs serve as poignant reflections of life's complexities, resonating with listeners across generations and continents. From the introspective depths of “Nothing Left to Lose” to the anthemic fervor of “Hey Mama,” Kearney's repertoire is a testament to his versatility and artistry.

But beyond the bright lights of the stage, Kearney's world is rich with the joys of fatherhood and the steadfast love of a devoted husband. Yet, within this idyllic tapestry, Kearney's journey as an indie artist continues to unfold, a testament to his unwavering dedication to his craft and the unyielding pursuit of his musical vision. Through triumphs and trials, he remains a beacon of hope and inspiration, reminding us of the power of music to heal, uplift, and unite.

I'm not sure if a lot of people know this, but you grew up in Oregon.

I did, sixth-generation Oregonian on my mother's side. Yes, so when you play Oregon Trail as a child, that was my family. Just covered wagons settling out West.

Is that a period of history that interests you?

Totally, yes. The gold rush era, Lewis and Clark… those kinds of explorers. I get sad to think that I can't be an explorer like that, getting to walk over a mountain… there's no highways, there's no buildings, there's no cities.

I was intrigued to find out that you were a bit of a wild child in your teens. You sold pot and graffitied trains...

Yeah. (Laughs) I think you know Oregon: it's a gritty community. There's a lot of the hippie culture and there's a lot of creative culture, too. I really valued creativity, so around that period, I got way into hip hop music and breakdancing and graffiti, and that led to hanging around with a group of people that maybe as a parent you wouldn't love your kid to be with. (Laughs) There was a legal graffiti wall on the rough part of town that we would sneak over to… we would skip school and go and paint stuff.


I'd meet a friend, who was a really talented artist, and we'd sneak out at night and drive down to the train yards, and he would paint. It was like sending a message down the I-5 corridor, and you'd see artists from San Francisco. This is pre-social media, so this was like the original Instagram post. You painted something on a train, and it went down the coast, and all the other artists could see it.

Nowadays, I don't want to see graffiti on everything I pass, but it was just really interesting to me at the time.

You went to California State University in Chico on a soccer scholarship. When did soccer come into your life?

Soccer has been there since I was 4 years old; I was always an athlete. My true passion was fine art and photography, but I was just really good at soccer. It was my saving grace in some ways. There was some discipline to it. I wanted to go to Seattle Pacific, which was a much better school, but my grades weren't good enough. I couldn't get in, so I ended up at Chico kind of last minute. I thought that I wanted to be an English teacher.

Actually, if you asked what I wanted to do, I would have said that I wanted to make films or something. I would skip a ton of school and just live in the darkroom. I just never left. I'd have my third period photography class, and I would just stay there all day. Hours would go by, and I would just be lost in this thing.

Chico is known as a party school, and from your accounts, you were having a pretty good time. But then, you had a defining moment where you began to look for more meaning to life and turned to Jesus for the needed answers. You told an interviewer that, “It was more than knowing Him. It felt like He (Jesus) met me in that time and place.”

I grew up around these ideas, but they were kind of off in the distance. It seemed interesting to me that we are all here for a purpose and that purpose is relationships and love. I think that going to college and kind of coming to the end of myself, of selfishness, I was like, “This is not what we're here for. This does not fulfill me.” I had these very beautiful, miraculous moments of really feeling like this, and of supernatural conversations; people would come up and just tell me something that I had been sitting in my bed praying about the night before. It was a really beautiful moment where it felt like the clearest I'd ever seen it. God is this force of love, and He loves you and has something for you. Like, our whole existence is about relationships with people and with the Being that created us.

It wasn't long after these experiences that you started to look for spots where you could gig.

Totally! It wasn't really at traditional venues or places, but in living rooms when friends were just sitting around together.

Do you remember the first time you ever got up at, let's say, a coffee shop… a public place and played?

Well, the tricky thing was my hip hop freestyle thing. I was telling my mom this the other day, I was fearless in high school, like, I became kind of the party trick guy. If there was a band, they'd be like, “Come up here and make up a song about everyone in the room.” I remember, I was with some friends, and we were in this mountain town for spring break, and we would walk up to the cover band that was playing in the courtyard and be like, “Hey, let me sing a song with you.” I would never do that today; I'm a professional musician and it would scare me. But I had the improv thing pretty dialed in as far as performing songs.


So, you're starting to write songs, it's obviously overshadowing school now and you're starting to get an idea that you want to do this as a career. Producer Robert Marvin was instrumental in your journey. Was he somebody that you knew back in Oregon?

I met him on fall break in Eugene. I was still in Chico going to school, and Paul Wright, a friend of mine, he kind of did this Jack Johnson spoken word rap thing, and it was in the realm of what I was doing. I thought, “I like that guy's music.” He influenced a lot of artists by blending this folky, song-writer stuff that was fairly unique for what was happening in Eugene. One of my friends had his phone number, so I called him that day. I was like, “Hey man, I'm in Eugene, I've always been a fan of yours.” He said, “I'm going to this producer's house, you should come over tonight.” We drove to Robert Marvin's house, and I ended up writing a song with him that evening. We became friends and then he became my creative resource because I had no recording stuff. When I'd go home for breaks or for the summer, I would visit, and we'd record music. At the end of the summer, he said, “I'm driving to Nashville, will you help me drive across the country? I want to be a producer in Nashville.” I said, “Sure, if we work on some music together.” So, we packed up his truck and drove across the country.

Tell me about that trip. You're driving with another guy, sleeping in the back of his truck… Nobody had any money from the sound of it.

That trip is funny. “Nothing Left to Lose” – the song – is about that trip actually, and I still reference it all the time. I remember, we drove up to Portland, we packed up his Chevy S10 truck – that had no air conditioning, because in the Northwest it didn't need air conditioning – and we just drove. We ran out of gas in Idaho because I wasn't paying attention, and we broke the fuel pump. We had only made it 10 hours on the trip, and we were stuck! But we happened to run out of gas on the exit near where one of his cousins lived! So, they came and picked us up. I remember, we rode motorcycles for a day. Somehow, they had a bathtub full of jelly beans. (Laughs) I don't know how or why, but I have this vivid memory of a tub full of jelly beans. And then we got back on the road.

We stopped outside of Salt Lake City, Utah, I remember, because we packed up everything and put the mattress on top, so we just jumped in the back of the truck and slept. We had pulled off down some dirt road. In the middle of the night, we woke up and heard a train noise. And it was getting louder and louder and louder, and we saw these lights coming. We were like, “Did we park on a railroad track?” We were freaking out. We jumped off the truck and then realized that we had parked maybe five feet from the train tracks. (Laughs)

We got to Nashville, and we slept in a parking lot, and we realized very quickly that our Oregon gear – the -10° sleeping bags and no air conditioning – did not fly in the South in August! We were dripping with sweat. It was such an interesting time. We ended up meeting some people who let us sleep on their floor. I can't remember where we met them, but we ended up getting an apartment pretty shortly after that, maybe a week or two after we arrived in town. That was in Hillsboro Village, not far from where I live now. We didn't realize it at the time, but we picked the coolest neighborhood; a lot of artists, and it was a really exciting, vibrant, creative community.

Did you guys know anybody when you hit town?

Robert knew a couple of people in the industry, that's why he wanted to come out. I met some musicians on the road that I called when we arrived, and we hung out a couple of times. But no, we didn't know anybody. But that was what was exciting. It was like a small town. Everybody hung out in one coffee shop – Fido. It was 2000, and even Starbucks hadn't moved to town yet. A lot of creative people went to Belmont, and we lived a quarter of a mile from there, so we'd often end up on campus, and just hang out with students. I was only 22 years old.

Did you have savings or how did you actually feed yourselves?

We worked... we didn't eat well. I got a job shortly after I got here. By the end of the summer, some industry people had heard some of the demos that we'd made that summer. We started recording right away when we got here. We found these office cubicle things, and we set them up, stacking them so that they made a little vocal booth in our apartment. We slept in the living room and made the bedroom the studio.

The roof was cracked, so, every time it rained, you'd have to bring a garbage can. But we just started recording, and some artists and some smaller labels – I don't know how they heard some of the stuff we were doing… but by the end of that summer people began to show some interest. TobyMac, a high-profile person in the gospel world, really wanted to sign me.

I had only recorded maybe five or six songs at that point, but he was like, “Dude, this is special.” And that was enough fuel to go back to my parents and say, “Yo guys, I'm staying in town.” My dad was like, “I want you to finish school,” because I was a junior at the time.

The only school I could get into, last minute, was Tennessee State University, which is a Historic Black College. So, remember, I showed up from Eugene, Oregon, the whitest place on earth, man! It's flannels and tikas. That's the vibe there. I showed up to Tennessee State University and I'm the only freaking white person in half my classes. (Laughs) Talk about culture shock. I'd never been to the South, let alone the black South. I wasn't sure how they would respond to me, but they were cool. Everyone was just so cool. I remember seeing some of their stomp groups and it was fascinating to me. People gave me crap in class. Like, I skipped a few classes and this girl I sat next to was like, “Where've you been?” I was like, “What do you mean?” She's like, “Come on man, we know when you're not here bro!” (Laughs)

I have such fond memories of that place, and everyone was so sweet to me.

Did you graduate?

I didn't. I got so into music by the end of that year that I was like, “I don't really care, I'm dropping out of school.” I got terrible grades. I just didn't take it seriously. Music had stolen my heart, there was no degree that was going to matter. It was music, full time.

So, what made you choose not to go with TobyMac? You went in a very different direction.

I didn't grow up with a lot of contemporary Christian music or culture. I didn't understand it really. I grew up in Eugene, Oregon, where you listen to Paul Simon and Michael Jackson on your way to church. I don't know, it just didn't make sense to me. I didn't really like any music in that world, to be honest with you. I remember telling people that I just wanted to sign a major label deal, which is ridiculous as a young artist with six songs under their belt. Weirdly, I had a dream about being on this label called AWARE Records. They had signed John Mayer and Train and Five for Fighting… They were pretty hip, a smaller label under giant Columbia Records. That was the dream label. So, I just kept saying “no” to people. I think that from when I moved to Nashville to when I actually signed a deal ended up being three or four years. I ended up working at Starbucks to survive!

Your first album, Bullet, came out in 2004. How did the record deal finally come about? Were any of your songs from the demo tape part of that album?

Yeah, a lot of them. It's funny. My first record is literally 13 of the first 17 songs I'd written. Remember, I said “no” to everybody – and it's funny – once you said “no” to someone, more people started coming. By the time that I made Bullet, I had had 10 record labels offer me a deal. I just kept passing. A lot of them were like smaller Christian labels or something adjacent to that world. I just wanted to make a great record.

I went home for my first ever tour in Oregon. Me and a guy named Sean McDonald played coffee shops anywhere that would have us, and my parents saw me play for the first time, and they were like, “What is happening? You're off in the South turning down record deals… you're working in a coffee shop…” They just had no reference for what was happening in my career.


My dad felt that I should sign with a label and make a future from music. He set up a breakfast meeting with me the next morning in Bend, Oregon, and he asked, “How much do you need to make a record?” At that time, I probably needed around $20,000. He asked me to go and get a lawyer and set up an LLC. He offered to make the record together. He asked, “Do you want your inheritance money now or later?”

I found a lawyer, we set up a record label, and I kept all of these records… it was this whole convoluted thing. I spent all of this money – of my own – on the lawyer… thousands of dollars to set up this agreement with my dad, and we ended up making this record and licensing it to Inpop Records. But it was through that album that Columbia and AWARE Records heard me.

I was playing in Chicago, and the day before, Gregg Latterman, who was the president of AWARE, heard it, and he came out to the show, and he was freaking. He was like, “I can't sleep; I've been listening to the album for 24 hours! I wanna sign you.” The funny part is, he was like, “Wait, you have a deal with your dad?” I was like, “Kinda.” He looked at the contract and was like, “This is so convoluted!” I went to my dad and told him that I need out of my record deal with him. I told him that Columbia Records wanted to sign me, and he was very supportive. And then it was off to the races. I wrote a bunch of new songs at that point and included a few of the tracks that I wrote for Bullet, and that became the Nothing Left to Lose album.

You've now been signed by a major label and not just any label, but the one that you dreamed about. Were you feeling the pressure?

Emotionally, I was pretty overwhelmed on some level. I probably didn't even realize it at the time. I felt like, “Okay, here we go. It's finally happening. I get to realize the dream.”

I'd driven across the country to pursue this thing I love, and now it's happening, and we were in the studio, and I wrote “Nothing Left to Lose” the night before. I was just playing it in the back of the room and my engineer, Joe Baldridge, asked, “What is that?” I was like, “Oh, I wrote it last night,” and he suggested that we record it.

One song that I love from the album is “All I Need.” I thought that it was so creative to look at a relationship in crisis and compare it to a natural disaster. I feel like a lot of your songs on that album could be interpreted as a struggling relationship. Did you draw from personal experiences?

Nothing. I was like Springsteen: “I've never worked a day in a factory in my life, but I write about it all the time.” I think that the romantic context is a great way for people to latch on to general relationship ideas. I don't think that there's anything unique about it. I've been married now for a while, and it's like, “Wait, this is just like any person you're trying to have a relationship with.” It's all of the principles and the struggles and things, they're just the same; your dad, your mom, your brother, your boss… It's the general principle that people long for, and want, and get hurt by, and struggle with. Yeah, the romantic relationship is obviously the most vibrantly distilled version of that, so that is a fun context that people pay attention to.

“All I Need” was written about a couple who were in Nashville during Hurricane Katrina. I wrote it for them as a gift. My producer was on my way home one day, so I decided to stop over. I was like, “Dude, you gotta hear this song that I wrote last night. I think that it's good.” I remember, he was remodeling his studio and there was nothing inside the room except this upright piano with this plastic over it, because he'd been painting. I asked, “Can we record a demo real quick?” He said, “Okay,” and pulled back the plastic. He put a microphone in one place, and I just played it. It's literally the first take – one take – that performance that you hear on the album.

Actually, we went back, because there's a big band that comes in at the end, and we went and tracked the big band to that performance. It took some finagling to get it all to line up, but the gist of that whole song, until the band kicks in, is literally just this demo from that day with this plastic tarp over the piano, in this empty room, with one microphone.

What was the inspiration for “Breathe In Breathe Out”?

That song came later actually; we added it on. The record had been out, and I just wrote it... by this point I had a house and a piano, and I just wrote this simple kind of song in passing. I sent it to my manager, and we said, “Oh my gosh, this is perfect! Do you think you could record it?” I produced it with my buddy Paul Moak. We recorded it in a day, and Paul sent it off to his friends at Grey's Anatomy. Soon after, they told me that they want to use it. I'd had some songs on Grey's by that point, but they used it in a big premiere. It was a big deal.

Had you been a fan of Grey's Anatomy when they approached you about featuring your music?

No, I knew nothing about it. I don't even think I had cable television at that point in my life. We had to go to a friend's house to watch it. I was on the road. I think my furniture was in someone's garage and I was sleeping on someone's couch when I was home. I was so out of touch with the normal pop culture… what people were listening to and what people were a part of. I felt like, “Whoa this show!” I've watched some of it, and I get why this was so awesome, but no, not at the time.

I loved Grey's Anatomy. That's how I discovered much of the indie stuff that I still adore. That's how many people discovered indie artists like you. What was going on in your life professionally at this time?

Well, my record came out with little fanfare in the spring. I think that we sold a couple thousand copies. We started a radio campaign and some station in Tucson, Arizona, started playing “Nothing Left to Lose” on its own, no one picked it as a single. It was just the song that they liked. It didn't sound like a hit.

I was opening for people in concert, and I remember that Grey's came and said, “We want to use ‘All I Need.'” They wanted to use it on the premier of season three. It paid decent money back then to license a song for television, but my manager told me that he was going to negotiate that they don't pay us. I was like, “What!” What they did instead was play “All I Need” at the end. Then the first thing you see is the cover of my album and it says: music by Mat Kearney. It did help iTunes sales and album sales, and I did notice that people from shows started coming to discuss licensing. I think that was when I was doing my first headline tour and people were starting to come to the concerts. So, I look back at that time very fondly. I remember my agent sat me down one day and he said, “Hey man, you can only come up once, be here now. Enjoy it.” Like, this is only gonna happen one time, where you get to rise. It was a really special time for me. It was like a rocket ship that I had jumped on that just kept going.

What was it like when you went on David Letterman?

David Letterman was really… the first show that we did was Conan O'Brien. I was so nervous, it's the most nerve-wracking thing you do: play on live television. It's just so unlike anything else. At that point, I was growing as a performer, but I didn't feel comfortable for like four or five songs in. Then you get your groove, and your pitch probably gets a little better as you go. But Conan is just like… you show up at 3AM in the morning; it's freezing cold; you stand on the spot right before you play; Max Weinberg and his band are a mere foot from you, and they're playing the bumper out of the commercials, and you're just standing there. The audience is maybe 50-feet away from you, and there are cameras swarming around your head. Do I look at the cameras? Do I not look at the cameras?


I remember, I was like super freaked out. But we started to play “Nothing Left to Lose” and Max Weinberg… and this point I've signed to Columbia Records and I'm the biggest Springsteen fan! And now I have Max Weinberg, the E Street Band drummer right there next to me, and as soon as we start the song, he stands up, crosses his arms, and puts his drumsticks on his arm. He was kind of mean mugging us. He was maybe 15-feet from me, just to my right, and I'm like, “What's happening? Why is Max standing like that?” I'm trying to not be in my head. We get to the first chorus and… it actually has what's called a drop measure in it. Most non-musicians wouldn't even pick up on it… I didn't even know when I wrote it, I just kind of did it. My drummer was like, “What did you just do?” I said, “I don't know.” He said, “You're skipping a beat.” It's weird because it kind of breaks the rule; you're not supposed to do that, but for some reason, that song does it in a really effortless way that people don't even understand.

So, we get to the first drop measure of the chorus, he's got his arms up, and his knees buckle. He looks at me and he looks at his band, and he's like, “Did you see that?” and then he's kind of into it. And I'm like, “Oh, Max likes this!” So, I'm singing the second verse and I'm feeling a little better about myself. We get to the next course and he's anticipating the drop measure at this point, and we drop measure, and we can tell that he's feeling it. Our whole band is feeding off of his energy, and we're playing… he's off camera, so you don't see him, but we're seeing him, and we get to the last one, and by that time, when we get to the drop measure, he's air drumming it with us, and our drummer is staring him down as he's doing it. It was this whole emotional journey in one song.

Wow, that's crazy. So, by the time you did Letterman, you were pretty much a pro?

Letterman was the real deal because I grew up with Letterman. Conan was like our favorite at the time when I was in college. He was the funny guy that we all liked, but Letterman was who we grew up with. Talk about a freezing studio; he keeps it at like 40°. I guess that the theory is, he thinks people will laugh more and be more engaged if they're cold versus if they're warm. It's just freezing. He's always done it. You can't hold your guitar! I remember, we played and at the end of this song, he said to Paul, “What do you think about that song?” Then Paul goes, “Man, drop measure, that's the real deal!” They talked about it for a minute and then Letterman had me go and sit on the couch as they cut to commercial. They don't always invite you to sit on the couch. I didn't say anything, but I'm sitting next to the host, and it was really freaking cold. That was the moment that I thought, “I think we can do this.” You have those little wins in your life.

Once you started to transition from the 300-person clubs to playing Madison Square Garden, that must've been a trip.

Oh, it was wild. I mean, I'm opening for John Mayer, you know… the support was massively invigorating. It was a huge confidence boost because John is so good and his band is so good. Playing Madison Square Garden is nerve-wracking. You walk out onto the stage and there's these like 30-foot posters of Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Paul Simon… you walk out and it's a hallway of legends. Right before you go on, which is sort of good luck. This is what you're trying to follow. We got up and I remember I played, and we finished, and the first third of the crowd all like stood up and gave us a standing ovation. That tour really taught me that I don't have to be John Mayer; I don't have to be anybody. I look back now, and I sometimes feel like some of it was lost on me at the time.

What a journey you were on. How did your life practically change?

It definitely changed pretty fast; you couldn't take stock often because you were always on the go. I was just a young kid that had no family, no girlfriend… I was just in love with my music and my craft. That's literally what I ate, slept, and breathed. I'm in the studio, I'm writing songs when I'm not… my social life definitely wasn't very active. It's funny, I look back now and I've had to touch base with some of the relationships from that season, because I kind of just disappeared. If you weren't my immediate family, I just kind of checked out. I was on go mode. I remember, all of a sudden, I could buy any guitar that I wanted. That is how it changed. I just bought guitars. (Laughs)

My life didn't change that much financially, other than I could own a house, and I could take my friends for dinner. I didn't go on vacation; I didn't buy cars. I think the shocking thing that took me a few years to get over, after having “sudden” success, is how easy it is to define yourself by it. I think, naturally, as humans, we want to do that, but I know that ultimately, we're not meant to define ourselves by worldly success.

Did you have a lot of pressure from AWARE/Columbia after the success of “Nothing Left to Lose,” to come up with another hit album?

I think I felt it. City of Black & White (2009) is an interesting record, because it wasn't the most fun process. We went to a big studio and hired a bunch of musicians. I look back and I think it's a beautiful record, but I didn't want to do anything spoken word. I probably made a bad error in [going] purely commercial; the spoken word stuff on my earlier [music] was what had gained fans. But I was in Nashville and all I was listening to was Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, and all these legendary Nashville songwriters. I had gotten the bug being in town; I couldn't write that way [commercial], I just wanted to write classic singer-songwriter records. So, there is nothing like spoken word, or rhythmic, on City of Black & White record.

I was also influenced by this Rolling Stone interview I read: they had just ripped apart “Nothing Left to Lose” and the interview definitely made you choose whether you liked it – the song – or not. I've learned that it is a powerful, creative tool these days, but at the time, it was like, “Why can't everybody like me? Either people love me or hate me.” So, City of Black & White was probably influenced by that a little bit; “I'm just gonna show them with my pure songwriting that I can hang.” Looking back, it maybe wasn't the greatest motivation.

You ended up walking away from major record labels. What made you say, “I think I can do this just as well on my own”?

That would have been like 2016 to 2018, somewhere in there. The one thing that puts you on a major label is radio play, but radio was changing radically. They were becoming pop, [and] they were cherry-picking the successful 10 artists from each genre. Like rock radio, they didn't own any artists [but] tried [to] champion artists. But they stopped doing that, so I didn't really have a lane with radio. Seth, my manager, he's like, “Dude, if we're not going for radio, you have enough cash now that you can make your own record.”

The major label deals are terrible. They keep 80 percent right off the top, they use your 20 percent that you earn to pay off all of the money that they spent. It's totally backwards, and it comes from an antiquated day when they had to break 30 artists to find one that worked. I had a fan base and I remember my manager said that I could own 80 percent. He realized that we could hire a distribution company that has radio, for 30 percent, instead of giving up 80 percent. I was like, “Let's try it.”

So, the Crazy Talk (2018) record was my first experiment, and Spotify really got behind it. Not that much changed, other than I was writing the checks. My creative process was the same. It was also smarter, because you make a music video on a major label and the budget would be so inflated. You have all these people and all these hangers on… like a person is the stylist's assistant and getting lunch. But I didn't need them, I can buy the lunch. (Laughs) I understood where the money goes out, where it comes in, and it made it a lot more fun to grab that side of the business. I had kind of been oblivious to it. Suddenly, it was, “No, the buck stops with you,” and you get to decide where you spend money, and where you don't. It just made sense.


As I get older, and have not as wide of a net, but a deeper net, it makes more sense for me to speak directly to the people that are excited about what I'm doing.

In 2010, you married Annie. Did this new chapter in your life impact your songwriting style or touring at all?

I wasn't the most mature relationally that way because I'd been living my career for so long, and my girlfriend was my guitar. Annie became my muse in a lot of ways, because it was this rich, blossoming love that I had never experienced. One of the charms of the Young Love record [2011] is my relationship with Annie. You feel it coming through in a very visceral way, because there was now a real person, and I think you see it in those songs. They're deeply personal and not as ethereal.

We didn't have kids for a while on purpose. We decided that we would come and go on the road. I remember my first acoustic tour, which was a month after we got married, and we just got in a van and drove around the country. That was a really special time, having someone that you see the world with. You go to all these places and there's this longing to share it with someone. Even if you're out with your band, that's still kind of a transient relationship. Some people come and go and there's kind of this work that overarches it. The longing to be and share some of these moments with someone that you love had grown in me. You're looking at the beautiful view and you're like, “Man, I wish I could share this with someone,” and [now] I had that person. It was a really fun season of life.

And now you are a father of three daughters! Did you know that you wanted to be a dad? Was this something that you had been looking forward to?

No, I was not that far-sighted. I was reacting to this rocket ship I'd been on for five or six years, and I found someone that I wanted to be with. I think the desire grows; it should be fun to have a family. I'm one of three boys and it definitely seemed like it was going to happen. I had my nephews and nieces, but I had no emotional attachment to any kids or that idea. When you have your own, it's weird how that part just kicks in. I never knew I would love someone like this.

I always knew that I was going to have daughters. I've never really told this story, but there was a season around when I signed a record deal that felt like I was deeply spoken to in my soul. Like this idea that God is telling you something. I'll never forget it.

I was 26 years old. I was on a plane to Spokane, Washington, to play a show, and I was watching Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants on the airplane. It was back when there was one screen that folded down and you all watched the same movie together. I'm in the middle seat and I'm watching the movie – and I can't hold it together. I'd written this song called “Girl America” that was about some of these ideas that I'm seeing in the movie, and I'm literally crying – more than I should have on the plane. (Laughs) I'm embarrassed because I'm sitting between these two people and there is this good old boy next to me in overalls. The movie ends and I'm kind of shaken, and I remember saying a prayer.

To this day, it was the clearest that I've ever heard a voice; even when I say this, it sounds strange, but it was like, “I made you this way because you're gonna have daughters.” It was just as clear as I've ever heard anything in my life. I felt shocked, and I told my wife when we were dating that if we have kids, they're probably gonna be daughters. Lo and behold, three [years] later, they're all girls. I love it, and I wouldn't change anything for the world. It's such a special thing to have women in your life and support them in every way to be everything they can be and given every opportunity.

Do your daughters understand what you do or know your music?

We were at an ice cream shop in our neighborhood the other day… I'm with my daughter, and one of my songs came on and she said, “Dad is that you?” I'm like “Yeah, that's my song.” She said, “Do they know we're here?” (Laughs) and I was like, “No, they don't know we're here.” She then said, “Wait, are they friends with us?” I was like, “No, it's just the ice cream shop.” She said, “So, people that don't know you, play your music?” I was like, “I mean, they know my music, and they know me through that, but we may have never met them personally.” She said, “Oh, I thought we knew everyone.” (Laughs) I love seeing them figure it out.

They keep you humble.

Yeah. (Laughs)

Your new record, Mat Kearney, comes out in May. “Palisades,” “Daydreams,” and “Watch Me Go” are three of my favorites. It's self-titled and feels like a return to some of your earlier music. Is it all going up on Spotify?

We've put out “Headlights On,” and “Our Houses,” and we put out “Sumac.” There's all these algorithms and things you're supposed to be doing. People say that we need to put out four or five things before the record comes out, to let people know what's going on. It helps build momentum for when the album is released. I think that as far as the radio single… the fun part is that it's democratic. The data is all there, and you're not sitting in a room saying, “This feels like the hit. These songs are the ones that people want to hear.” It's the exciting part of this new era: there's no gatekeepers, the people vote and either they are in or they're out.

If you could go back and speak with 22-year-old Mat Kearney as he is packing up the truck to head to Nashville, is there any advice that you'd give him?

It's a dangerous question. No, I am so grateful for the journey that I've had; it's very special. I can go out in public, I've made a living, I'm a normal person, and I have a normal existence. It's kind of perfect because people respect me, or they don't know who I am. It's a great thing to be.

That said, the perfectionist in me is like, “Oh, I would have turned left or turned right…” Over the years, I've come to peace with it, but I think I wouldn't encourage listening to other people. Not to be defined by other people; I wasted some years of my life really being bothered by that. I came out on the other side and have been at peace with my talents: what I have, what I don't have.


*Check out Mat's new album, Mat Kearney, on Spotify and visit him online to check out his tour schedule. He has a ton of great shows on the schedule.


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