Like many musicians, the pandemic forced Mat Kearney to do something he had rarely done during the preceding decade plus as a recording artist — take time off.
“I pretty much jumped on a rocket ship in 2007 and spent a lot of the years since then just touring or I’d be in the middle of a project or grinding in the studio all night. It was the first time I’d really had a chance to just stop and take stock of where I was at and focus on home in a way I hadn’t," he says during a recent phone interview. "It ended up being kind of, I almost feel guilty saying it, but a really beautiful season.”
One of the great things that happened was Kearney and his wife had their second child.
The pandemic also gave Kearney plenty of time to think about his next album, which became the recently released January Flower, and ask himself big questions like what kind of music he wants to make and what matters most to him about his music.
“I don’t know a simple way to answer that question because at the core, it’s kind of a journey as a human I’ve been on, reconnecting to myself outside of music,” Kearney says. “Who am I? If the music goes away, what are you? What do you have to say? What have you always had to say? What is something that you’ve always loved? And I think the longer you do this, the more voices enter the picture of, ‘Oh, is this commercial?’ Will it (work) on radio? Is this going to license?’
"And those voices, they’re important on some level, but it just felt like the (next) record needed to be ‘You know, I don’t care about any of that. I want to go back to when I made records for my little brother and my best friends and I played for them in my Honda Accord.' That kind of became the north star for that project."
“I think this record was like a resetting of like, you know what, this is the kind of music that I love, that I want to make. This is the kind of album I would be proud of,” he adds.
Kearney began his music career by offering what at the time was a unique melding of styles. Fundamentally, Kearney was a Pop-Folk singer/songwriter, but he also incorporated elements of Hip Hop into the music on his 2007 major label debut album, Nothing Left To Lose.
His second studio album, City of Black & White, was more singer/songwriter-oriented than the debut. But after that, Kearney pushed his genre-blending tendencies further to the forefront, making Hip Hop beats, electronic elements and modern production more of a focus on his three subsequent albums, Young Love, Just Kids and Crazytalk.
Kearney enjoyed some early success while on major labels Columbia and Universal Republic, notching four top 20 hits on Billboard magazine’s Adult Pop chart from the Nothing Left to Lose and City of Black & White albums, but saw diminishing returns after that and went independent with the Crazytalk album.
January Flower was released last May on Kearney’s own Tomorrow Music label. The project began in January 2019, when Kearney went to a house in Joshua Tree, California with longtime friends, songwriter Eli Teplin and painter Marshall Roeman.
The original idea was to set up a studio in the house and write and record some material over a two-week period. But Mother Nature had other ideas and delivered a historic rain storm that flooded the area and knocked out power to the house.
Leaving the house and re-booking time there later was not an option.
“We couldn’t leave because the house was situated like 10 miles from anywhere on a dirt road that had become a river,” Kearney says. “We’re just sitting in this dark house together. I can’t remember who did it, but someone made a fire in the fireplace and that kind of added some calm and something you could at least look at. And I pulled out my guitar, and as a joke, I sang ‘powerless, we’re out of power.’ And then my buddy who I was there with said, ‘That sounds kind of cool. You should write that.’ So I wrote the song kind of about that whole journey.”
That song became January Flower’s lead track, “Powerless,” which found Kearney examining what it means to be powerless, both literally and in terms of one’s life being pleasantly out of control.
When the two-week session ended, Kearney had five new songs. Much work remained, but the Joshua Tree sessions set the tone for“January Flower by sending Kearney back to creating songs built around acoustic guitar and voice, while he also sought to be more honest, vulnerable and brave than ever in his lyric writing.
January Flower was also a back-to-his-beginnings album for Kearney from a production standpoint. When he returned to the project in 2020, he reunited with Robert Marvin, who produced Nothing Left To Lose and Kearney’s third album, Young Love.
“Robert’s one of my best friends. We moved to Nashville together and he said, ‘Hey, if you’ll help me drive across the country, I’ll help you record some of your songs.’ So he’s the first person I ever sang on a microphone in front of,” Kearney says. “He’s been there since the very beginning, and like any great behind-the-band documentary, we had a weird falling out over some dumb business stuff after the Young Love record."
The duo reconciled after several years, and Kearney told Marvin they should get the band back together. They did — navigating occasional disagreements — and came out with January Flower.
Kearney is justifiably pleased with January Flower. Its 13 songs have agreeable melodies, and overall a bit leaner, more acoustic-oriented (but full-band) sound on songs such as “They Don’t Know,” “Boulder,” “Powerless” and “Blame” (an especially honest and vulnerable song).
But January Flower also has its share of songs (including “Grand Canyon,” “Can’t Look Back” and “I Don’t Really Care”) that incorporate synthetic beats and the Hip Hop and EDM elements for which Kearney is known.
Kearney’s live shows will feature a good number of January Flower songs, as well as material from across his career. He’s happy with what the January Flower material brings to his shows.
"In some ways, this album has reconnected me to a band playing songs. And when I made this record, in the back of my mind the live show was a huge influence on the choices I made and the instrumentation we picked,” Kearney says. “I really wanted it to be an album that would be really fun to tour and would come to life on tour. I think that’s just where I’m at, like just emotionally, COVID and going through that whole thing made me want to have a little more organic, stripped down, live kind of record, which lends itself really well to live shows.”Mat Kearney plays a sold-out show at the Taft Theatre (317 E. Fifth St., Downtown) on March 5. More info: tafttheatre.org.