Most musicians claim they were inspired by music from birth. And VH1 Behind the Music and E! True Hollywood Story specials seem to suggest this is true: Home videos of Justin Bieber playing the drums or Britney Spears singing in church hint at the talent that is to come.
But this trend doesn’t apply to Mat Kearney, the rock-folk artist behind hit songs like “Hey Mama,” “All I Need” and “Nothing Left to Lose.” Though Kearney dazzled audiences Friday night at the Nokia Theatre at L.A. Live, music wasn’t initially a priority for the singer-songwriter. Instead of entering talent shows in elementary school or performing in high school musicals, Kearney played competitive soccer — even attending Cal State Chico on a soccer scholarship.
“Soccer is the closest to music of all the sports,” Kearney said. “There’s creativity, and you’ve got to be unique.”
But even without any formal training, Kearney soon found himself transported from the soccer field to the music room.
“When I was in college, I would steal my roommate’s guitar,” Kearney said. “I would go outside and play a few chords and make up some songs.”
These songs were apparently good enough to warrant the attention of Kearney’s friend group.
“I made a little record and all my friends wanted it and then their friends wanted it,” Kearney said.
It wasn’t just his friends — the music industry also took notice of Kearney talents, and he can now celebrate the fact that he has released four albums and several songs that can be heard everywhere from the radio to shows like Grey’s Anatomy and One Tree Hill.
“I didn’t have a lot going on and there were just a few key moments when a song would be on a TV show and it kept my first record alive,” Kearney said. “It’s odd. You write these songs about these really emotional moments of your life and then all of a sudden there are two vampires making out to it on [The Vampire Diaries].”
Still, Kearney has managed to remain humble despite his numerous successes, a quality he attributes to his move to Nashville.
“I’ve been living in Nashville and a lot of my friends from Portland have been living here,” Kearney said. “We needed something real, a tiny bit of farmer and blue-collar truth to it, so Nashville has been an amazing place. It reminds me a lot of Portland in the sense of the kind of artists that are here. There’s a real down-to-earth, gritty quality about it.”
Even in Nashville, though, Kearney’s Oregon roots are still apparent. With a recent influx of Oregonian musicians making it big in the industry, Kearney seems to know where the talent originates.
“I played in Portland last night so it’s hard to beat the weather in the summer; there’s just a creative bug in the air,” Kearney said. “I took painting lessons [as a child] and my uncle was a potter. It just felt like art was just an intrinsic part of the culture — it’s just a creative place and once it became the [music] scene, people started showing up.”
Kearney’s geographical mix and unusual start in the industry has led to four albums with genres that are difficult to pin down.
“I would say I’ve pulled from a lot of different genres,” Kearney said. “Most singer-songwriters are super boring for me. I loved hip hop music and freestyling in my ’68 Volkswagen growing up, and I was a skater boy and that just sort of stuck with me. I always think to myself, what would Springsteen and Kanye West do together?”
The opportunity to bring his small-town sound to major cities on his current tour excites Kearney. But make no mistake. The indie artist’s performances won’t be small in any way.
“We try to treat [a show] like a good movie,” Kearney said. “It takes you on a ride of all these different emotions. It makes you laugh, it makes you cry, makes you dance.”
Kearney looks to one of his idols, Bruce Springsteen, for an example of how a musician should perform.
“I’m not just sitting on a stool — there are a lot of big, epic moments in our set,” Kearney said.
Kearney also stresses that opening for a big band like Train differs from headlining one’s own show.
“When you’re opening for someone, it’s kind of like a first date,” Kearney said. “You’re bringing out your best songs and you’re hoping that you’re getting a kiss at the end of the night and the chance to go inside with them.”
Kearney often performs music from all four of his albums — a large discography for a 33-year-old musician. But even with a late start, Kearney has been able to develop his songwriting talents.
“On one level, I didn’t start writing until college and my first record was the first 12 songs I had written in life,” Kearney said. “I’m still figuring out how to do this. I feel more inspired now than I have at any point in my life.”