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King Kearn

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Singer-songwriter Mat Kearney has come a long way from his rebellious, skate-punk roots, but his love for hip-hop — the music and culture — remains. That juxtaposition with his folky beginning has made Kearney the performer he is.

“That in-the-moment thing that hip-hop brings is something that I love. It’s unfolding before your eyes, and there’s such an urgency to it,” he said. “The tension between that and Dylan-like timeless songs is something I want to see.”

The Oregon native has melded those two worlds since his surprise breakout album in 2006, “Nothing Left to Lose,” that had him touring with the likes of John Mayer, Train and Sheryl Crow.

“I used to think that I was this pop, beat-driven artist or I was this folk, serious singer-songwriter. The longer I have done this, the more I realize that I may not really be either one of those, but rather the tension between those two,” Kearney said. “It’s something I’m now OK with. It stretches the record in two directions and adds a lot of depth.”

It’s never worked better than last summer’s “Young Love” disc — his most peppy work to date, especially compared to 2009’s “City of Black & White.”

“There were a lot of questions on that record,” he said. “This one is a lot more definitive. It’s got this swagger, even a certain cockiness that I think comes across as fun.”

That confident flair is no doubt a partial product of Kearney’s increasing confidence in his songwriting, but also the direct result of getting married and planting roots in his newly adopted home in Nashville, Tenn.
“The joy you experience on the record is from that,” Kearney said. “You can sense the butterflies in my stomach. You’re the fly on the wall as I’m falling in love with someone.”

Those personal achievements translated to professional success, with “Young Love” peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart (a to-date best) that he credits as much to the neon-green cover as the music itself … although the music and artwork seem a perfect complement.

“It was like someone took a highlighter to my record. You couldn’t escape it,” he said. “It reflected the record. It’s like, ‘Yeah. Deal with me.’”

Photo by Pamela Littky

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