Mat Kearney Talks Independence, Nashville and New Album ‘CRAZYTALK’
Nashville based artist Mat Kearney is a one-of-a-kind singer-songwriter — if it’s even fair to call him that. The term “Singer-songwriter” has come to conjure coffee house fodder and singing over acoustic guitar. Kearney indeed does play plenty acoustic guitar, but the similarities hardly go further. His 2006 debut album “Nothing Left to Lose” was as pop as could be, but infused with hip-hop influence in a way that would become ubiquitous in mainstream music a decade later. In the time since, Kearney has topped multiple charts, reached number 1 on iTunes, toured with the likes of John Mayer and Sheryl Crow, and has now released his fifth album, “CRAZYTALK.”
Coming from a seasoned recording artist and performer who had his first child last year, CRAZYTALK naturally reflects a more mature perspective than previous work. The record is also Kearney’s first as an independent artist, and consequently exhibits great creative freedom. The new music further expands Kearney’s sound pallette, with a variety of electronic influences seamlessly making their way in. On many of the new songs, traditional songwriting fare is framed in buoyant EDM packaging. In anticipation of the release, Kearney met with Entertainment Voice to discuss music, inspiration, and the new album.
“CRAZYTALK” is your first album as an independent artist, and you’ve spoken of how you wanted to take control creatively. The new album is still quite commercial and accessible. What is an example of something on this album that you wouldn’t have been able to do if you had stayed with a major label.
Well, I think creatively, I’ve always kind of done my thing and turned in my records. I think it was more just about the process of marketing and picking singles, and walking into an executive’s office, and him being like, “I don’t like this song! I like this one.” Just being able to be flexible and fluid with our own songs and singles that we want to pick. If I wanted to do a collaboration with RAC, I could just figure out a way to do it, whereas with a major label, there’s a ton of red tape, and all those deals become really complicated. A lot of it is the freedom to collaborate and do creative deals with people just to make songs work. That’s way easier as an independent artists. Like to make a video, you can just literally go and shoot a video four days after you get the idea, and get some buddies in it, and you don’t have to go through all this red tape with eight different departments and twenty-five conference calls. It just feels way more creative and flexible. I’ve been doing this for a minute, so being able to have control again and get my hands dirty felt like the right move for me at this season of my life and career.
What’s the story behind the album’s title, “CRAZYTALK?”
It happened in an accident in a text, when I was using it as a figure of speech, like, “This is my crazy dream. ‘Crazytalk’ guy would want to work with some different artists, play some amazing tours, and put out a record on my own.” I was sitting next to a friend of mine, and he was like, “That’s a great album title.” So it kind of became the word for my Y.O.L.O. record, just like, “Forget what everyone else thinks. What do you want to do?”
The new record pushes the boundaries of genre and the “singer-songwriter” label, fusing pop, EDM and even country. If you had to pick a label that you felt would do a somewhat accurate job expressing the type of music that you create, what would it be?
Uh… Singer-songwriter indie electronic music with beats (laughs.) I pick something different every time. It’s hard when you play with genre. I remember when I started my first record, “Nothing Left to Lose,” I had a lot of hip-hop influence, and I remember Rolling Stone just trashed my record, and were like, “Man, you can’t do that,” and now it’s like every kid in the world is genre-bending, and genres are becoming antiquated. I went into a record store the other day, and it had a rock section and a rap section and a country section. It’s not long until that’s just not even a thing anymore. There won’t be genres because everyone is borrowing from everybody, and everyone is influenced by everybody, and everyone is listening to everything. I think my whole career has been playing with genre as a singer-songwriter. This time I was super interested by indie electronic music, and I was like, “What would that look like, to approach it as a singer-songwriter?” and that kind of became the goal for this record.
How does “CRAZYTALK” differ from your previous work, if you had to pin it down?
The production is probably a little more modern and looking forward, but I would say the songwriter is actually looking back, and is very classic. It’s kind of very Nashville, classic singer-songwriter influenced. Some of my other records were more in-the-moment hip hop writing. It felt very autobiographical. This one feels a little more like bigger concepts, more broad ideas — like classic songwriting is. You know, there’s folk music which is timeless, big concepts.and then you have hip-hop, which is very personal, in the moment. And I feel like this album leaned a little more towards the folk tradition of classic, timeless stuff.
What impact has being based in Nashville had on your music?
Well, there’s just this community of songwriters that are insane. This record I tapped into it more than maybe some of other records, and wrote with a bunch of people that have written just amazing country songs and pop songs and American songs. I don’t know if there’s a city that has more quality songwriters than Nashville.
How did working with country songwriting legend Ross Copperman shape the sound of “Sleeping at the Wheel.”
I worked with Ross, and I worked with this guy Josh Miller, who has a bunch of number ones, and David Garcia has a number one. Heather Morgan is another really talented Nashville writer. It’s just like any other things. Ross is just an amazing writer, and even a better dude, and we just hit it off, and wrote a couple songs together, and “Sleeping at the Wheel” was one that kind of raised its hand. I figured, “How could I, like, screw up the song, from just being a ‘singer-songwriter song?” and I put in this weird African Bela Fleck sample in as the drop. And I loved it. It was so weird. It’s like here’s this classic kind of song with these weird moments, but it’s really organic. It kind of sums [it] up. Maybe the goal of the record was accomplished in that song. I feel like all the different genres, we nailed it. Like a thesis. My thesis statement of the album is in that song.
Your single with RAC, “Memorized,” is a love song of sorts to your wife. On the track you sing, “Listenin’ to Sade playin’ on the radio / Sippin’ on your latte drawing on your window” What’s the story behind these lines?
Yeah, I actually cover Sade’s “By Your Side” song on the record too, and I was just listening to a lot of her this season, and have forever. Her “Lovers Rock” record is one of my favorite records, and there are a lot of sunny memories of me and my wife around that song. I thought it was a specific reference that was dear to me, but also felt interesting to put in the song. It was just a simple love song that we wrote in no time, and then couldn’t get the production right. I think I tried five different versions of that song, with different producers, one by myself. And then finally, my manager was ike, “I’m friends with RAC.We should send it to him.” And I was like, “Alright,” so we sent it to him, and he just did it on his own, and made it amazing, and it was way better than anything we could have done, and it became this really cool advantage.
Your latest single “Money” asserts that love is more important than money. How did it come together?
That was just a fun song. I love that guitar riff, and I also wrote that with two big songwriters, Brian Simpson and Zach Crowell. He had the title. He was like, “I just like this title ‘Money’” I went home and produced that whole track, and I love the way it sounds, which was kind of an accomplishment to me because I’m growing as a producer too. I’ve produced songs in the past, but not one that I’m as proud of as that one.
What other lyrics from the album have a special, or personal significance to you, and what was the inspiration behind them?
I really love the lyric on “Better Than I Used To Be.” It’s one of the oldest songs on the record. I think it was two years old by the time it came out. It was one of the first songs I wrote for the record, and it kind of led me on this path to explore electronic influences, and I love that line, “I never thought we’d have so much to take for granted.” I just like that, you know? You’ve been doing it for a minute, and sometimes you have to stop and be like, “This is crazy.” We’re always hungry for the next thing, but it’s also really important to stop and be like, “This is amazing that I’ve gotten to do this. What a crazy blessing that I get to make music for a living, you know?”
What’s one musical influence of yours that might really surprise fans?
I don’t know if it’ll be a surprise, but I listen to a lot of hip hop music. A lot of the grooves and drums are directly influenced by pretty, like, deep urban music — like really swagged out trap music. I love trying to write Nashville songs over really interesting, hard-hitting grooves.
Do any particular artists come to mind?
Everything from Lil Yachty to Post Malone, obviously Drake. DeJ Loaf has a song called “Try Me.” I just love it.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
We have a part two of the tour coming this fall, and we’ll be releasing dates pretty soon, so I’m pretty excited about getting out and playing more of the album on the road.
“CRAZYTALK” is available May 4 on Apple Music.