The Chimes

Humble hitmaker Mat Kearney visits Biola

The "Nothing Left to Lose" singer sits down with Heather Leith to talk about communicating grace, navigating awkward moments and storytelling through songwriting.

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Humble hitmaker Mat Kearney visits Biola

Mat Kearney answers a few questions for Heather Leith before he performs on Metzger Lawn. | Olivia Blinn/THE CHIMES

Mat Kearney answers a few questions for Heather Leith before he performs on Metzger Lawn. | Olivia Blinn/THE CHIMES

Mat Kearney answers a few questions for Heather Leith before he performs on Metzger Lawn. | Olivia Blinn/THE CHIMES

Mat Kearney answers a few questions for Heather Leith before he performs on Metzger Lawn. | Olivia Blinn/THE CHIMES

Heather Leith, Writer

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Mat Kearney answers a few questions for Heather Leith before he performs on Metzger Lawn. | Olivia Blinn/THE CHIMES


If Mat Kearney knows he’s famous, he certainly doesn’t act like it. Relaxing in his green room in Lower Rose Hall, genuine excitement glows on his face as he shares that he has connected his laptop to the room’s speakers.

“There’s a cord! You can like — bump — in here,” Kearney says.

He turns the volume up and his friend’s band, Leagues, pulsates through the room as he grooves along to the beat. The Oregon-based musician’s hard-hitting yet upbeat tunes have been featured on the likes of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “30 Rock,” yet he doesn’t demand star treatment. Instead, he apologizes for the sub-par lighting conditions and the holes in his jeans and gracefully engages in conversation with the students in the room.

With a quick, “Check, 1, 2” into the iPhone 4 microphone, Kearney straightens up in his armchair and grabs a keychain to fidget with, and the conversation begins.

HL: How would you describe your sound to someone who’s never heard you before?
MK: It depends, I feel like each record’s so different. My sound would be schizophrenic maybe? I’ve always grown up listening to hip-hop music, so there’s a real rhythmic, kind of beat influence to what I do. But then I’m a singer-songwriter and I love pop music and ‘80s music and Springsteen, Paul Simon, Tribe Called Quest, so somewhere in all that, if you threw it all into a stew, that would be me.

HL: An element in a lot of your songs is the story. What is your favorite type of story to tell in a song?
MK: I tend to process life in my music, and a lot of it will end up being like a prayer, almost; not necessarily having answers, but you’re identifying something that’s hard or challenging. I’ll take these characters and myself and they’ll be working out something and they’ll kind of come to this place of redemption or hope. And then there’s just some songs that I just like writing, fun love songs and joyous moments, because I kind of probably am all those things in my life. Depends on what mood I’m in.

HL: You got married just two years ago. Has that influenced your songwriting recently?
MK: Yes, “Young Love” was very influenced by getting married, because I was writing love songs and it wasn’t canned and fake. … It was very real to me and our story is very much in there. “Hey Mama” is so literal about how we met in a clothing store. She was with a friend … I was like a total creep that just walked up to her out of the blue. So yeah, there’s a lot of joy, you can almost sense there’s butterflies in my stomach, you can sense that, I think, in the record.

HL: At Biola, a lot of students are trying to figure out how to meld their faith with their career. Can you speak to that with being a Christian in the secular music world?
MK: I’ve always viewed … my interaction with people that like my music like if you worked at Starbucks or if you worked at any other job, how you would treat people. At first you just care for people and you’re nice to them and you invite them into your world and you tell jokes and you just get to know them and as your relationship progresses, there may be these moments where you get to more real things and there’s these open doors and more of yourself makes sense to reveal. I view my music that way. I know there’s people that totally track with my faith and what I’m writing about and there’s some people that don’t, and they don’t really want to. And I love that I’m on a journey with my fans like I would be with the different friends I have in the world.

I grew up in Eugene, Oregon, which is real hippie and liberal and odd. So my faith kind of existed in that world and I would go play songs at the local coffee shop, so it kind of had to work in that context where I could get up there and have something that people liked and respected, and then as they dug in they were like, “Wow, what’s going on here, there’s something else that’s happening in your music that I really like.”

HL: What’s it like to have something so personal resonate with so many people?
MK: You know, it’s funny how being vulnerable really allows people to experience the redemption in your life, the grace in your life, the pain in your life. People respond to some vulnerability in some of the stuff I’ve written about, from songs about my dad to even maybe not telling the whole story but little snapshots of things that are very real to me. The best songs I’ve written are that way. It is odd when it resonates with people, and it’s awesome, it’s a gift. On one level it’s very flattering; on one level it’s bigger than just someone connecting to my story.

HL: What do you mean by that?
MK: I mean, I’m making music and I’m trying my best and if someone really resonates with it, it may be about what I’m talking about, it may be about the journey I’ve been on, it may be about bigger truths and bigger ideas of who God is, and I can’t take credit for that stuff. It’s like, that’s what’s moving me and I’m just trying to communicate that. For me the moments where you’re really moving someone, you’re usually touching on something bigger than yourself.

HL: What is your most embarrassing moment during a performance?
MK: We were playing a show and it wasn’t very good security, and this lady just slowly started climbing onstage, and I was in the middle of a song so I couldn’t stop, and I was playing guitar so I couldn’t leave the microphone. So she just walked up and stood next to me, and she just grabbed my bottom with her hand and looked at me, and then just slowly crawled back into the crowd! And it was in like the middle of the first verse so I had to play the whole song. It was really awkward. I just ignored her [for the rest of the show].

HL: If you could tour with anyone, who would it be?
MK: Springsteen, I think. I’m a sucker for ‘80s arena rock. He’s such a good storyteller.

HL: What’s your tour routine? How do you keep it balanced now that you’re married?
MK: The routine is, we see the world together. … We kind of make it work where it’s just open and plane tickets are just part of the job and you come and go. I’m lucky enough that it’s kind of my circus, so we can carve out room for us. It’s amazing. We just got back from Dubai, we saw Dubai together. We get to see the world. It’s hard when it’s fall and you’d rather be at home, carving pumpkins.

HL: How’s your next album coming along?
MK: It’s awesome. I’m so excited about it. It’s like ‘80s-ish. It’s like hip-hop, ‘80s, Paul Simon. It’s really pretty. I think it’s epic and exciting. It’s like “Young Love” plus. It’s definitely connected to my last record, but maybe even a little better.

HL: What is your biggest hope in songwriting? What would be your ideal response from people?
MK: Ever?

HL: Yes. Ever. We’ll go that far.
MK: That’s a tough question, because every time I write a song there’s a different goal. I think if I zoomed out on a big macro level, I love identifying with people and I think what I find the most joy in is identifying with people’s pain and struggle and reality and somehow turning that into a piece of the Lord in a way that is unexpected to them, in a way they can’t dismiss and they can’t just brush it off … I think I love sneaking up on people and communicating the grace I’ve experienced in odd ways that catch people off guard.

HL: Have you interacted with a lot of fans that have felt that?
MK: Yeah, a lot of times. It’s the greatest joy of my life. You know, you get letters from people, or people come up and tell you like, “I was in the car, and this was happening and your song came on and it really struck me, and [I was] on side of the road in tears.” That’s a gift and you can’t take a lot of credit for that, you can’t. But it’s still fun to be a part of that. And then there’s people that are like, “I hate you, and your music sucks.” So it all balances out.

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Humble hitmaker Mat Kearney visits Biola