Hit Folk/Pop Singer/Songwriter Mat Kearney Returns With His Upbeat, Feel Good Album, Mat Kearney

Mat Kearney
Mat Kearney
(photo credit: Orchee Sorker)

For almost 20 years, Mat Kearney has been an acclaimed singer/songwriter who’s had several hit songs and best-selling albums. He’s had a lengthy string of adult pop hits such as “Nothing Left to Lose,” “Closer to Love” and “Ships in the Night,” which have all been certified gold. And notably, his album Nothing Left to Lose (from 2006) has been certified gold, and his album Young Love (2011) is his most streamed record on Spotify.

Currently, Kearney has just released his first album in over three years, the self-titled album Mat Kearney (on the indie label Middle Kid Records). This album marks an impressive return, with Kearney creating 12 new songs that have a mostly upbeat, feel-good style that is very enjoyable to listen to. Each of the songs present his expressive, soulful lead vocals and distinctive songwriting.

Here’s an excerpt of our interview with Mat Kearney, who talks about his new song “Headlights Home,” which features Nashville band The Brook and The Bluff.

In his new bio, Kearney describes the music that he wanted to create for his new album. “I wanted to make something that was honest, warm, raw, that felt like a big hug, the soundtrack for a drive into mountains, and beach hang with friends. I spread my wings and took on more of the production. Some songs I did start to finish alone. I also collaborated in ways that I haven’t before. My favorite Nashville band The Brook and The Bluff played on a handful of songs.”

The album contains such highlights as the uptempo singles “Headlights Home” and “Palisades,” that feature The Brook and The Bluff as his backing band. Other key songs are “Good Thing Going On” (an appealing midtempo song with a positive lyric theme), “Real One” (a catchy tune that has some hip-hop phrasing), and the heartfelt acoustic ballad, “Daydream.”

Kearney grew up in Eugene, Oregon, and he’s lived in Nashville for the past two decades. As a teenager he initially focused on being an athlete and playing soccer, and it wasn’t until he attended college in California that he started playing guitar and writing songs. Then once he concentrated on music, writing and performing came naturally to him.

Here’s the video of Mat Kearney’s song, “Headlights Home.”

After college, Kearney decided to move to Nashville, partly because his producer friend & collaborator had moved there. Once he arrived and experienced the music community and began co-writing there, he loved it and he’s lived in Nashville ever since.

It was about four years later that Kearney’s songwriting & performing advanced to the point that he was offered a label deal with Columbia Records. He then released his debut album on Columbia in 2006, called Nothing Left to Lose. This album contained the hits “Nothing Left to Lose” and “Undeniable,” and launched Kearney’s career as an artist.

In 2009, Kearney released his next album, City of Black & White, that included the hit, “Closer to Love.” Then in 2011 he released one of his best-selling albums, Young Love, that featured the singles “Ships in the Night,” “Hey Mama” and “Down.” Since then, Kearney has released the albums Just Kids (2015), Crazytalk (2018), Jaunary Flower (2018) and Mat Kearney (2024).

Now with his new album out, Kearney is launching a major new concert tour. This month (June) he’s starting his tour in the West, playing many cities including Seattle, Portland, Boise and Salt Lake City, Denver and Kansas City. Then in September, he’ll be playing shows in Indianapolis, Minneapolis, Chicago, Nashville, Atlanta and other cities.

We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Mat Kearney. He talks about the making of his new album Mat Kearney, and he discusses his earlier key albums and songs.

DK: I read that you’re from Eugene, Oregon. How did you get started with music and writing songs?

Mat Kearney: Actually, I didn’t start writing songs until later in life. I was in college majoring in English, and my roommate had a guitar, and writing was the only way I had gotten through school. So I picked up the guitar and all of a sudden I started writing songs and it made sense to me. It became my favorite thing to do.

Here’s the video of Mat Kearney’s song, “Good Thing Going On.”

DK: From the time you started writing songs in college, to the time you released your first album on Columbia Records, how many years passed?

Kearney: Probably four or five years. I started writing songs during my sophomore year of college. I met a friend who had been my only way to produce songs, and he said, “Hey I’m moving to Nashville.” So I helped him drive across the country, so I could still record with him. Then we got to Nashville and we started recording songs, and I fell in love with Nashville. We spent a couple years gathering songs until we got the first batch ready to record, and that ended up becoming the Columbia Records release.

DK: In 2006, you released your first album on Columbia Records, Nothing Left to Lose, and in 2009 you released your next album, City of Black & White. Can you talk about these early albums and your favorite songs on them?

Kearney: Nothing Left to Lose probably had 13 of the first 15 songs I’d written. So there’s a young, passionate, unedited voice in those songs. And in some ways, you’re always trying to return to that freedom as a young writer. I love that record, and I still love the song, “Nothing Left to Lose.” That song has taken on extra meaning as the years have gone by. It continues to be something that I look forward to playing every night.

The City of Black & White album—when I look back at that, it was my ode to Nashville songwriting and classic songwriting. In some ways, that album was challenging because it was following a massive success with Nothing Left to Lose, so there’s a little bit of the sophomore self-awareness. I love the song “City of Black & White”—I wrote that on a trip to try to get away from the whole world that had shifted for me. I was in Istanbul Turkey, and I’m sitting on banks of the river with a friend, and I was reading a poet who said that Istanbul was the city of black and white. And I thought…that sounds like a relationship song. I love that song…it’s why it became the album title.

DK: In 2011 you released Young Love, which has been one of your most popular albums. Can you talk about making this album?

Here’s the video of Mat Kearney’s song, “Palisades.”

Kearney: Young Love was my third record, and we were just back to playing again and having fun. We ditched the big studio and we went back to the bedroom studio with some microphones and drums and friends. And I brought back some of my love for hip-hop music and some of the beats, and the more rhythmic delivery of songs. “Ships in the Night” is one of my favorites, because it’s one of the few songs in my life that it took almost 10 months to write and it ended up being a big seller. Usually, I feel like if I spend a lot of time on a song, it’s probably flawed on some level. I think the best songs just spill out of you. But “Ships in the Night” is the exception to that rule, that proved that the labor was worth it.

DK: In the years after your Young Love album, you released the albums Just Kids, Crazytalk and January Flower. Can you talk a little about these records?

Kearney: Just Kids was an extension of Young Love in some ways. That was a record that I took on more of the production, producing half of it. Some of the songs are really experimental. I think I explored going more into the hip-hop world, using samples and these sort of things.

After Just Kids, I was coming to the end of my major label record days. All I’d known was being on Columbia Records and Universal Records, and it wasn’t really making sense…the deal didn’t make sense for me or the major label. And I remember having an identity crisis going into my album Crazytalk, because I wasn’t on a major label. I made my first independent record, which was really fun and scary and it changed my whole world. I realized that I could do it on my own, that I didn’t need a major label.

January Flower was a special record because I went out to the desert with one of my best friends and we started writing songs. This was the record that turned me back to simple songwriting and my love for crafting a song. I wasn’t trying to be as experimental with the production. And I’d say that it led to my new self-titled record (Mat Kearney), which in some ways feels like a return to home. I’d gained the knowledge and wisdom of all those journeys and mistakes and victories along the way, and I wanted to simplify what I did. I wanted it to be the Margherita Pizza of what I do, with the simplest ingredients that are just delicious and profound. And I felt like I found a level in my writing that I’m incredibly proud of. It’s some of my favorite writing that I’ve done in a long time, some really personal stuff. And I tried to keep the palette simple with guitars, drums, pianos…just really approachable, and let the songs and grooves do the talking.

Here’s the video of Mat Kearney’s song, “Sumac.”

DK: In your bio about your new album, you said, “I wanted to make something honest, warm, raw, that felt like a big hug, the soundtrack for a drive into mountains, and beach hang with friends.” So would you say that your new album is a feel-good record?

Kearney: Totally. I think the year I was creating that record was one of the most challenging years of my life, with family health issues. And I felt like I was sinking, trying to balance all the different things in my life, and also have the creative space to live at the level I wanted to as an artist. I found myself writing songs that were encouraging and hopeful and felt good. And I listened to Bob Marley, Jack Johnson and records that felt really good. That became the North Star for my record. You can put it on and it’s a seamless experience. Maybe it doesn’t command your attention on the first listen, but hopefully you keep returning to it.

DK: One of my favorite songs on your new album is “Good Thing Going On,” which is easygoing and flows nicely. Can you talk about writing that song?

Kearney: On “Good Thing Going On,” I worked with two writers that I work with a lot: Mokita and Trent Dabbs. I wanted to write story songs, and I’d gotten back from Monterey (CA) where I played an acoustic show. And the song just spilled out, this traveling song where you miss someone and the distance makes your heart grow fonder. I think that’s a sentiment that I’ve known very well over the years. And we went to Monterey and shot the video at Big Sur which is just outside Monterey. I thought this was the perfect place to film the video.

DK: What are your favorite songs on your new album?

Kearney: I love “Headlights Home,” because it was this journey back to playing music with a band. I remember calling my buddy Micah Tawlks who’s a producer, and he’d been working with this band The Brook And The Bluff, which is one of my favorite bands right now. And I was like…”Man, I love this record you’ve made with this band.” And he said, “Let’s get them in to play on some of your stuff.” “Headlights Home” was one of the first songs we worked on. And it was one of the first times in a long time where the band had their own ecosystem of filtering ideas. And I got to be a part of that and it was fun having everyone’s opinion. I feel like the results are bigger than what I could have come up my own, because they were five or six individuals who were weighing in on the decision like a band, which is something I don’t get very often.

DK: Speaking of a band, you’ve got a big concert tour lined up for this year. can you talk about your live show and your tour?

Kearney: I’ve never been more excited about a tour. I feel like the energy’s palpable in the group of musicians that we’ve gathered together. For the last few years, I did this acoustic trio tour and it reinvigorated my love for what a show could be. And now I’m excited to bring some of that raw, unscripted passion and song choices that we brought to the acoustic trio, into the full band thing. So it’s exciting to be touring with a band.


Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima