“When I started I was just trying to impress my little brother,” Mat Kearney tells Amerian Songwriter over the phone from his home in Nashville. The multi-platinum Oregon-born singer-songwriter will release his sixth studio album, January Flower on Friday, May 21 via Tomorrow Music / Caroline.
In January of 2019, Kearney, along with his childhood friend Marshall Roeman, a painter, and songwriter Eli Teplin, packed up recording gear and headed out into the desolate wonder of Joshua Tree. His goal for the two-week trek was to rid himself of distraction and record a full studio album. But, as they arrived, record rainfall swept the road they drove in on into a river. The house they rented was solar-powered, so by the light of a wood-burning stove, Kearney placed words between strums of his acoustic guitar.
They were able to write five songs for his upcoming collection. But more importantly, Kearney was reminded of his roots. “Stripping it back to me and a guitar and some friends reminded me of how I started and that was the genesis of this record,” he says.
The album was also inspired by his acoustic tour in the fall of 2019 to promote the 10th anniversary of The City of Black and White, which was the last time Mat was on the road before everything shut down in the pandemic. His vast touring history, which includes treks with John Mayer, Sheryl Crow and NEEDTOBREATHE, is evident in the vibrancy of the songs, as is his enduring success as a recording artist.
“Before I began work on this record, I wrote on a piece of paper, ‘For the joy of doing it,'” says the artists. “I kept that as a guiding light for writing. When I was just starting out, I just wanted to write a song that I could play in the car that my brother would like. And in some ways, I recaptured that throughout this project, creating space.”
As a producer himself, Kearney boasts sonic exploration in projects like EDM infused Crazytalk in 2018 and Just Kids in 2015. Yet, in an effort to remind himself of his roots, the artist was only interested in “super honest, raw, well-crafted songs.” This meant transcending his pop-leaning, trend monitoring past, and looking to his enduring inspirational, classic songwriters like Paul Simon.
This intention led him to reunite with producer and longtime collaborator Robert Marvin, who helmed his breakout LP Nothing Left To Lose and the chart-topping Young Love in 2011.
“There is a maturity, maybe, to my writing now,” he says. “It’s no longer just the young love, ‘one who got away’ infatuation. I’ve really embraced the idea of giving my opinion—as you do something longer, you feel more comfortable jumping into those places.”
“Boulder,” about a coffee shop in Nashville, a place he brought his child as a newborn that has since closed. His brother, who “still likes swaggier music,” feels his younger brother would be impressed by the contemplative “Can’t Look Back,” or his Bruce-Hornsby-inspired “Pontiac.”
Because of its introspective nature, Kearney feels the context of the pandemic only enriched his pre-COVID tracks. He points to a line in “Pontiac,” that exemplifies this phenomenon: My mama worried about my marriage / But now I’m worried about my parents.
“That one was first about the passage of time, and struggling with growing up,” he explains. “Weirdly with COVID, that line hits me so much harder. They were the reason we’ve been so careful throughout this time.”
“Anywhere With You” falls within the same vein, capturing the desperate wanderlust that became a universal sentiment since last March. The album opener, “Powerless,” gets back to that first night in the desert, surrendering to the external environmental factors that no amount of technology can change. Lines like, still felt close from far away, ring true as a testament to the persistence of humanity against all odds. He leaves it with a resonant reminder, I remember how it felt / How it felt to lose control.
Pre-save Mat Kearney’s January Flower here.