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Band Notes: Mat Kearney

The singer-songwriter opens up about his competitive edge, playing DC, and the “comical” aspect of having a song on the “Grey’s Anatomy” soundtrack.

Singer-songwriter Mat Kearney. Photograph by Pamela Littky.

Oregon native Mat Kearney has been grinding out his eclectic blend of hip-hop and folk music in Music City—Nashville, Tennessee—since releasing his first album in 2004. Since then, he’s hit number one on iTunes overall album charts and number four on the Billboard Top 200. He’s also spent a good bit of time at the 9:30 Club.

Seven months ago, Kearney, a former soccer player, posted a video on his blog in which he discusses how success can create a slightly competitive edge. In the video, he says he’s not that popular, his proof being that he never opened for Adele.

Well, this year finds him opening for Train during a three-month tour and moving from the 9:30 Club to the much larger Wolf Trap. We caught up with Kearney in the little time he had between shows to talk about playing DC, getting competitive, and what it’s like to hear your song on Grey’s Anatomy.

Are you still down in Nashville?

Yeah, I’ve been in Nashville for ten years now.

Living in Nashville, do you see major differences in audience reaction when you play a place so inundated with music versus playing a place that might have other focuses, such as DC?

Totally, though the country is becoming more homogenous every year . . . with the Internet and everything. When we tour, there’s always this unique quality to every town you visit. . . . Touring, you get a sense of a collective identity for different cities. That’s one of the things I love about my job.

What, to you, is DC’s collective identity?

DC always strikes me incredibly impassioned. It’s a very passionate crowd, but also attentive and smart. They’re into the subtlety of what’s going on with the show.

You’ve created a blend of hip-hop and folk music, two genres that don’t generally overlap. What’s the attraction to those two styles?

My earliest memory of really loving music was driving around with my father and listening to [Paul Simon’s] Graceland. When I started forming my own taste, there was a period in high school when I listened to only rap and hip-hop, like A Tribe Called Quest. I grew up in Oregon, so there was always a lot of that folksy, Bob Marley stuff. There was a mural of Bob Marley on a wall at my high school.

What inspired you to blend the two styles?

I’ve always been a writer. I’ve always done writing or spoken-word, hip-hop stuff with my friends. It was kind of my form of a diary, and in college I’d pick up my roommate’s guitar. I was terrible at covers, so I’d just kind of write my own songs.

I started writing them for myself and for my friends. Then their friends wanted copies. Then someone would ask if I’d play this coffee shop. Then . . .

You’ve played soccer, and in a video filmed in DC on your website, you discuss how there’s a competitive edge that creeps in as you become more popular. You’ve been received by a larger audience since then—how has affected you in terms of competition?

It’s funny—the more successful you are, the more room there is to be discontent with what you’re doing. For me, I’ve really been on a journey to be hungry and grow what I do. I want people who haven’t heard my music to hear it. But I’m incredibly grateful and thankful to be able to do what I do.

A few of your songs have been played on Grey’s Anatomy. What’s the experience like of watching a song you wrote that presumably has a particular meaning to you appropriated over some images that might seem somewhat disconnected from that original intent?

It can be comical at times. Like you write a song about your best friends in Hurricane Katrina, and you turn on the TV and there are doctors making out to it. It’s generally very flattering, though. Images and music share a weird connection. It [might not] necessarily relate to what I wrote the song about, but the two connected really makes me see my song in a new light.

One of your shows is at an outdoor venue. How does that differ from your indoor ones?

It’s a little more jovial. I feel like the songs are light. And you sweat a lot more.

Mat Kearney appears with Train at Wolf Trap on August 21 (sold out) and at Innsbrook Pavilion on August 22 (tickets are $21.50 in advance, available through the venue’s website, or $25 at the door).