Classified as an “adult alternative” musician, Mat Kearney wanted to explore how he got there.
The Oregon-born and Nashville-based singer/songwriter’s newest album, “Just Kids,” shows an artist trying to portray what growing up was like not just for him, but the moments that we all remember and perhaps struggle with in our childhoods.
Though he’s no stranger to soft rock radio, Kearney stands out through his unique relationship with hip-hop that he has integrated his brand of emotional folk rock. Kearney, who performs Saturday at the Town Ballroom, took time on the phone to discuss hip-hop as “modern folk music,” writing about his childhood and the secrets of emotional resonance in his work.
Question: What led to the idea to create an album that not only let listeners know about your youth and childhood, but also lets them remember their own youth?
Answer: I think there are a few reasons. I’m nostalgic, and I think getting married and running into the forces that have shaped you and colliding with another human being just causes you to think about where you’ve come from and who you are. The good, the bad, and the Michael Jordan poster are all things that make us who we are.
Q: There’s definitely always been a pretty big hip-hop influence in your music, especially on this album. You mention as a kid listening to the Wu Tang Clan. Does the influence stem from what you listened to in your childhood? What about hip-hop inspires you?
A: I think in a lot of ways, hip-hop is interesting to me because it’s like the modern-day folk music. All these other rock and indie songwriters are doing throwback stuff where they’re trying to sound like the past, and it sounds like old Neil Young or something. I like hip-hop because it’s trying to be current and it’s trying to be modern, and I grew up on all that stuff.
Q: A lot of the love songs on this album definitely come across as more upbeat and like you’re in a good place. Is that coming from where you’re at right now in life?
A: I think that there are some serious moments and some really happy moments. I love real heavy moments but I’ll also be the goofy life of the party. Those moments are fun to play live.
Q: As an artist, all your songs are intensely personal, but was it weird shifting gears to exposing what it was like for you growing up?
A: Yeah, I think it was difficult for everyone except me. You write this song in your bedroom that’s intensely personal and you think, “Wait, I’m talking about people that are real that will hear this album.” And it’s always a challenge. Generally, the songs that are the scariest ones are the ones that people connect to.
Q: As you’ve grown over the course of five records, is there anything new that you experienced while touring and playing songs live? Is the music cathartic, or a different kind of expression for you?
A: I think everything changes. The first album was literally the first 12 songs I’ve ever written. You have more to compare it to and it’s a higher standard. You’re comparing the songs you’ve written today with the songs you’ve written in the past. It’s a job and it’s challenging. But I love music and creating. That’s why I got into music. I still find that that’s true.
Q. Has writing both lyrics and music gotten easier over time, or is it still something you view as a challenge?
A: It’s harder probably. When you start you just say anything and it’s cool. Now there’s an audience and you’re juggling more. It’s still the most frustrating thing in the world. You could spend a year working on a song and it’s never any good. And then one night when you’re tired and you get off a plane and you write “Ships in the Night.” I wish I knew how to control the muse.
Q. What’s the secret to crafting a song that resonates on an emotional level with so many people?
A: I have to love it. If you’re not there, and you’re not making the hair on your own arms stand up, then it’s not worth it. I can explore a lot relational ideas. Ideas like that we’re broken people searching for answers, and maybe there’s a redemptive element in the middle of that. We’re all struggling with those things. That’s what I know to be true, and I think people connect to that.
What: Mat Kearney
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Town Ballroom, 681 Main St.