Mat Kearney talks handclaps, licensing songs, Google Zeitgeist and carving out a niche as a singer-songwriter
But he can see how you might be confused.
“Being a songwriter, there’s an innate challenge to differentiate yourself and be interesting,” Kearney said by phone from his adopted home of Nashville. But once you get to know him, he wants to make sure you don’t forget him. “There’s an intimacy with a solo artist that you don’t experience with a band,” he said. “I think if Bob Dylan had been in a band, there wouldn’t have been some of the deep moments you experience with him.”
So what sets Kearney apart from his singer-songwriter brethren? There’s his emotional voice, a throaty croon reminiscent of Coldplay’s Chris Martin, perfect for radio weepers like Nothing Left To Lose and All I Need. And there are his four albums, the most recent of which, Young Love, is an infectious melange of big hooks, hearty handclaps and pop positivity.
His biggest selling point, though, might be his surprising omnipresence in pop culture. Of the 30-something songs he’s released on a major label, he estimates 20 have been licensed for use in TV shows, movies, commercials and other projects. A recent example: Google used the Young Love track Sooner or Later to score its year-in-review “Zeitgeist 2011” video, which has more than 7.5 million views on YouTube.
As Kearney’s solo tour hits the Ritz Ybor on Jan. 26 (tickets are $20-$30; click here), we asked him about solo success and the art of licensing songs.
Does your wife go on tour with you, or does she stay in Nashville?
Yeah, she’ll come out a lot. Until she gets sick of boys, and then she goes home. Or until she gets bored of following me around. But yeah, she usually spends some good time out on the road.
You moved to Nashville from Oregon. Let’s say I’m a young singer-songwriter living in Tampa. Why should I move to Nashville?
I don’t know if you should. I’m not someone that says you need to move to Nashville or New York to be successful. I actually talk people out of it all the time. It has more to do with where you find the community that makes you the most creative. For me, Nashville could have been anywhere. Quickly once I got here, it began to transform my songwriting and my ability as a live performer. I’d never even been to the South. It was a road trip that I’ve been on for 12 years.
It seems like making a name for yourself as a solo singer-songwriter has to be incredibly difficult. You make some inroads as a solo artist, you open for more established artists, and then you graduate to your own headlining tours. Is that sort of how you see the path to success for somebody in your position?
Yeah. It’s incredibly overwhelming. There has to be a lot of luck and a lot of breaks that go your way. Even once you get signed to a major label, that doesn’t mean anything. That’s the beginning of the end for a lot of people. But I also really believe what I was doing creatively was kind of different for a singer-songwriter. A huge part of what helped me get going in the beginning was the novelty of this kind of spoken-word, storytelling, melodic music.
Was that what you would say made you stand out from other singer-songwriters?
I think early on, stylistically, I was definitely doing something different, with the real hip-hop influence, a spoken-word style, (as opposed to) just being a normal singer-songwriter writing about girls. I was definitely not doing that. And then as time has gone on, people have realized, “Wow, something about his songs stand out.” I think that’s what has brought people back to what I do, is my songwriting, more than the stylistic boundaries that I was jumping around between.
Are you ever confused with other artists? Do people ever come up to you, like, “Matt Nathanson! I love your stuff!”
(laughs) No, that’s never happened to me. I really don’t like singer-songwriter records, to be honest with you. They bother me. They’re boring, and they’re usually super flaky. And I think I’ve challenged that. The first record, half of it was a hip-hop record, but then I was talking about car crashes and teenage girls struggling with being a high school student. There were still love songs, I wasn’t trying to do that thing of making girls swoon. I mean, I’m not saying I haven’t caused women to swoon, but that wasn’t a motivating factor for what I was doing.
Last year you wrote a blog post where you said, “From the outside I watch my friends in bands and it seems like keeping a band together looks like a hellish marriage & other days it looks like true companionship.” Today, where do you stand on being in a band vs. being a solo artist?
I’ve just resigned to the fact that I am what I am. I didn’t mean to not be in a band; it was just out of necessity. I had a guitar, I wrote songs in my living room, my roommates liked it, so I recorded some of them, and I played by myself. And then one day I put a record out, and all of a sudden, my manager was like, “Hey, we need to make this sound like the record.” So I invited some buddies to go out with me that could do it for nothing. I’m incredibly involved in everything I do. I think as a solo artist, that’s the part where I would be a tough guy to be in a band with. Because I like to do it all. I co-produce my albums and play a lot of instruments. I’m very involved.
For the most part, the past decade or so has been pretty friendly to singer-songwriters, at least from a licensing perspective, with TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy turning to solo artists for songs. Do you have any idea how many of your songs you’ve licensed for use in other media?
I only have 30 songs that have been out there. Out of the 30, let’s see ... I have no idea. Maybe 20.
Yeah, it’s been amazing. Every album. There are certain songs that lend themselves to licensing more — a real specific name and a place doesn’t generally get licensed very well. Or a real aggressive song, or a beat-driven song, is harder to place. The more metaphysical, U2-ish ones work better than a storytelling song. So yeah, out of those that fit that kind of licensing, we’ve had a stupid amount of licenses. I think on my first record, I was the most licensed artist in the whole Sony world, which kind of blew my mind.
Billboard did an article not too long ago about the Black Keys, where their manager said that in order for a synch to work in a TV show or commercial, it’s not really the whole song that matters — it’s just about finding the right 30-second snippet that’ll fit in a commercial or a scene in a movie or TV show. Do you ever break down your own music that way?
You know, I don’t. I never really tried to write licensing music. And it’s funny, on this record, I actually went the other direction. I think there are artists that are writing for licenses, and it’s created this kind of milquetoast, “you don’t have to deal with me” type of songs. On this record, I wanted to jump from the background to the forefront, and I wanted people to deal with me. I didn’t want to be in a supporting role. I wanted the songs to be very specific and have characters and be their own stories. And I knew when I did that, I was taking a chance, that I probably wouldn’t be licensed as much. But I didn’t care. I’m not making soundtracks. I’m making songs that are their own world. I love it when a toothpaste commercial wants to use my song, but I’m not trying to write music for toothpaste commercials.
I got that listening to Young Love, but then, Sooner or Later is the one that Google latched onto for their Zeitgeist video.
(laughs) Yeah. And I don’t think it’s as black and white as I’m making it out, too, because we’ve had four or five songs licensed on this record already. So I guess it didn’t work. (laughs)
Total failure, this album, yeah. Did you get a preview of the Zeitgeist video before it launched?
I didn’t. I just met, they sent me — I was working with him, he was like, “Hey,” he was like, “I want to give you a little cameo, because we’re using your song,” the advertising agency. So that’s all I knew.
I have to think that as an artist, the Google Zeitgeist video was a pretty perfect marriage of what you wanted to do with the song, and what it ended up being.
Oh, those moments where someone takes your song and puts it to an image or story that makes it explode into new worlds, that’s pretty special. It was put up against the whole world and what we’re going through, and I think in some tiny, small way, that’s what I love writing for. It was really one of those moments where you pinch yourself, like, “Wow, no one’s going to be able to take this away from me. My kids can look back at 2011’s Google Zeitgeist video, and there I’ll be.” It was really special and a total honor to be used in that way.
Is there a secret to laying down a good handclap? Because they’re all over Young Love.
Oh, it is very difficult to record a good handclap. We would sit around and talk about this: “If you clap the inside of your palm, is it a loud clap, is it a soft clap ...” We tried them all. It’s hard to make claps sound good. There’s a good dozen different people clapping on that record.
Why? Don’t get me wrong, I love a good handclap in a song, but why was that the percussive instrument of choice that runs throughout Young Love?
It was kind of a fluke. When I wrote Hey Mama, I was just clapping by myself, because I made it on my laptop, and that’s all I had, sitting in my room with an 808 kickdrum and clapping. We started doing it in other songs, and all of a sudden, we were like, “Oh, this is a thing we’re doing.” Something about it has a lot of life — it’s playful, but it also sounds really good. It’s human.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photo: Pamela Littky