Mat Kearney Q&A: ‘The Ducks were my heroes when I was growing up’

On Saturday March 7, Mat Kearney blew away his hometown with an incredibly personal and passionate performance that highlighted the things he loves about Eugene. After his Just Kids tour moved through the state, Kearney had some time to speak with The Emerald about making the transition from a Eugene kid just trying to make it through high school, to the successful musician whose heart is still in Oregon. He gave some advice for college kids trying to pursue music and reminisced that one time he may have broken into the university’s music department… 

Sydney Zuelke: So you grew up in Eugene, at what age did you leave?

Mat Kearney: I was born at Sacred Heart and went to South [Eugene High School] and left Eugene to go to college at California State University, Chico.

SZ: At this point in time did you know you wanted to pursue music? Since you majored in Literature, did it have any influence in your songwriting?

MK: I actually didn’t start writing music until college. I was growing as a writer and I realized it was something I was good at. I would steal my roommate’s guitar, I knew three chords, and would make up these songs with the chords that I knew, and you know, people responded to it.

SZ: Did school ever seem pointless or monotonous to you, if you knew that music was what you were meant to be doing?

MK: College was the first time I actually started liking school. You know, I breezed through high school and in college I actually fell in love with learning and reading and writing. There was this point that my buddy asked me if I wanted to drive to Nashville and set up a home recording studio, and that’s when I left and never came back. I was probably 21 years old.

SZ: Eugene is a pretty quirky place to grow up, don’t you think? Do you think coming from somewhere like here has grounded you at all as you have become this famous musician?

MK: Definitely [laughs]. I think I owe a lot of my understanding of community to growing up in Eugene. I think yes, some of the odd-ness to me and some of the humility comes from here. It’s a really wonderful place to grow up, a small place but a place open to ideas. You know, I went to South and at the end of the year they put up a map of all the places people went to college – and it was so widespread, and I don’t think that’s as normal somewhere else. I think when I was going to high school there was a sense of purpose. It’s interesting because you see it in a lot of friends of mine I went to high school with, who went on to pursue crazy things. (For example: War Paint, an all girl indie rock band).

SZ: From all the times you mention Oregon or Eugene in your music it seems like you’re very fond of it. When do you miss it the most?

MK: There’s a bit of nostalgia I think for everyone, with all the places and people and scenery that have made us who we are, and for me that’s Eugene. I really love it. I think I miss it the most it in the summers. You don’t realize until you travel the country, and realize how much you appreciate it, that ability to get out and hike and go to the ocean… We’ll go up Sahalie Falls or to Sisters wilderness. My brother is always the one who drags me out.

SZ: They play your song “Coming Home” at Autzen Stadium during football games. What does that mean to you? You’re a big fan of the Ducks, did you ever imagine you’d have a song playing in front of thousands of them?

MK: It’s literally one of the most exciting things that has ever happened in my career. The Ducks were my heroes when I was growing up. You know, we weren’t any good back then…

SZ: I’d like to think that has changed.

MK: [Laughs] Things have changed. I have never missed a game on TV. I’ve had to bribe bartenders in like, Florida to put the game on. And there’s the song “Chip Don’t Go” that I wrote, too. The Ducks are one of the ways I stay connected when I’m away – a piece of the community in Eugene that I get to celebrate with. When I wrote “Coming Home” I had to finish my record, and I finished producing it a week before coming to Oregon. I played it for the athletic department and by the weekend we had done some filming and they had it playing on the Jumbotron at the stadium. I wanted to write something personal and real to me first, and not just any song to be played at a football game.

SZ: You had a show here on Saturday. Can you describe the feeling of coming back to your hometown for the Just Kids tour, after becoming this successful artist?

MK: It’s always kind of overwhelming playing in Eugene, first because it’s still crazy that I get to do what I do – play music and have people show up and care about what I’m doing and writing. When I play in Eugene I see the faces of people who helped me get where I am.

SZ: You opened your show with quoting slam poet Anis Mojgani’s “Shake the Dust” in your new song “Heartbreak Dreamer.” Where did you get the inspiration to do that?

MK: I was there the night [Mojgani] performed “Shake the Dust” at the charity event for the non-profit To Write Love on Her Arms we were both performing at that night. It really moved me, it almost brought me to tears. When I was writing “Heartbreak Dreamer” I found the recording and sampled it on YouTube. I sent it to him and he was like ‘Wow, this is great.’

SZ: How often have you played in Eugene?

MK: I got nervous and waited for years until I came back and played for Eugene, because I wanted it to be perfect. It feels like family. Also, when I came home and visited in the summers I would break into the music department at the UO. I actually wrote a song on my new record in there. There was construction so you could just sneak in everyday, so I would write music and play the pianos. Or I would go to performance halls. So whenever I was bored or sick of hangin’ out with my family I would go play. 

SZ: That’s hilarious, what song did you write in there?

MK: It might have been “New York to California” but I’m not sure.

SZ: Any suggestions as to a favorite Eugene bar to hang out at?

MK: I really enjoy The Barn Light downtown, which is probably super hipster.

SZ: What advice would you offer to college kids trying to pursue music, and what do you think you did differently to become so successful?

MK: Find the songs only you can write, which helps you find a unique voice. If you try to imitate everything out there no one cares, if you find the songs only you can write people might pay attention. I think it’s also very invaluable to learn things like Logic Pro on the Mac, it’s like GarageBand on crack. I’ve made half of my record on it. It’s this brave new world where you don’t need a big company or a ton of money to make music or become successful.

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Sydney Zuelke

Sydney Zuelke