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When you record the type of smart, catchy songs Mat Kearney cut for his 2006 album Nothing Left to Lose, you end up spending a lot of time on the road. And after that album's title track throttled up the charts, that's exactly what Kearney did. Three years later, he returns with City of Black & White, an album informed by the traveling, performing and adventuring the Oregon-born, Nashville-based singer did while supporting his breakthrough album. An open-hearted album of self-discovery, City of Black & White is a chronicle of the people he met and missed during that journey. Musically, it's an upping of the ante, laced with hooks and rhythms that are meant to sneak up on you quietly and quickly, en route to winning your love.
If Nothing Left to Lose sent Kearney on a marathon tourâ ”during which he opened treks for the likes of John Mayer, Sheryl Crow, and The Fray, in between his own headline stintsâ ”it also built up to an eventual happy return to Nashville, his home for the past eight years. And City of Black & White definitely reflects that, as it's marked by the pride and happiness that comes with spending five years trying to make it, and then finally getting there.
"At its core, this record is about communityâ ”finding it and losing it," he says. "There's definitely the theme of this traveling/sojourner/vagabond kind of guy landing in the midst of people that he loves, and who love himâ ”guy/girl, musician, old people, all of that. It feels as if the traveling sojourner of Nothing Left to Lose has found a home, a group of companions, and a love. Many of the songs deal with what happens after thatâ ”after someone digs roots, allows himself to fall in love, to clasp arms with a brother, to dig in through high moments as well as the painful ones. It speaks of vulnerability more than distanceâ ”a place where someone can be pinned down to perseverance and heartbreak."
Fitting for such a well-traveled writer, some of the songs took route in places as varied as Oregon and Turkey. "During a recent visit home, I broke into the University of Oregon music room, which was under construction," he laughs. "I jimmied the door open and climbed down this balcony. I wrote â Straight Away' there. â City of Black & White' was born on a ferry as I crossed the Bosphorus River, which splits Istanbul in two as well as acting as an invisible dividing line between two continents. I was traveling with a friend celebrating what felt like victory after a five-year-long knife fight to establish myself as a new artist. I remember the water being dark and my friend turning to one side saying, â Look! It's Europe,' then turning to the other and saying, â Look! It's Asia,' then back again."
Co-produced by Kearney and Nothing Left to Lose helmsman Robert Marvin, and recorded last year at Blackbird Studios in Nashvilleâ ”where Jack White and Martina McBride and even Nicole Kidman were working in neighboring roomsâ ”the album finds Kearney going for a bigger soundâ ”and getting it.
"It actually ended up sounding bigger than I expected; big in a late-â 80s/epic kind of way. I knew that I wanted the whole record to feel good when I put it on. I wanted the drums and bass to
demand something of your body, I wanted the songs to come to life when I played them live. I had been listening to a lot of Sam Cooke and I wanted the rhythm sections to make your head bob before you could decide if you liked the songs…I literally approached every song like I wanted it to feel good."
The whole first half of City of Black & White, specifically, was written in that mannerâ ”to carry a Motown sort of heartbeat. "I was also listening to a lot of early U2 and Tom Petty, and songwriters like Randy Newman to try to figure out how they could be so concise and profound at the same time. If the last record was more stream-of-consciousness with lots of words and images, City of Black & White feels intentional and refined, attempting to be classic as well as grandiose. I didn't want to hold anything back."
City of Black & White also features Kearney playing a lot more electric guitar on record than he has in the past. In addition to acoustic and electric guitars, he plays "a lot of keys, sleepy â 70s piano, weird synth, this weird glockenspiel, and the bells with a screwdriverâ ”because I couldn't find anything else to play â em with."
A quintessential late-bloomer to music, Kearney didn't write his first song until midway through college. Raised by hippie parents in Oregon, he was charmed early on by music, smitten with albums like Michael Jackson's Thriller and Paul Simon's Graceland. But it wasn't until the summer between his junior and senior year at California State University Chico that his musical life began. Splitting for Nashville, he slept on a friend's couch for what seemed like an eternity, before cutting the learn-as-you-go debut album Bullet in 2004. Three years later, and thanks in large part to VH1â ”which kept "Nothing Left to Lose" in rotation for 45 consecutive weeks, before sending Kearney out as the headliner of the channel's first You Oughta Know tourâ ”he was playing Madison Square Garden and appearing on The Late Show With David Letterman. "Nothing Left to Lose," "Undeniable" and "Breathe In Breathe Out" all cracked the Top 40.
"It still feels surreal every night," says Kearney. "I feel like I may be fooling someone, like the audience is going to one day prove to be all cardboard cutouts or something. I'm so grateful and honored to be doing what I'm doing."