When we called Mat Kearney last week at his home in Nashville, he didn’t hear the phone ring.
“Sorry,” he said, when he called back. “I was working on a song.”
It was a sad song, he said, appropriate considering the thunderstorm soundtrack playing outside.
Kearney, 34, isn’t on the road much these days. Apart from his April 25 gig at the University of Iowa and one this weekend at Vanderbilt University in his hometown, he’s writing and recording, gearing up for his next record, due out sometime this fall.
“I like to unofficially work on records,” he says. “You are always working on song writing. Song writing is like a long distance relationship. Whenever your lover shows up you have to drop everything.”
- Mat Kearney
- 8 p.m. April 25
- Iowa Memorial Union, downtown Iowa City
- Tickets: $21 to $24
- More info: scope.uiowa.edu
Since his most recent album “Young Love” and other singles chronicle love — including his own with wife of nearly three years Annie — from the highs to the lows and back again, it’s not surprising that later in our conversation he draws another comparison between music and relationships. Performing, especially when he’s playing for an audience unfamiliar with his music, is like dating, he says.
He knows what song he’ll play first and what he’s likely to play last, but what comes in between depends on the audience.
“It’s like a first date, trying to connect,” he says. “You know we need to cut through the B.S. … to play something honest.”
Right now, he says, he’s “just playing the gigs that sound fun, that I want to do.” He’s checking states off the list — after Alaska and Hawaii earlier this year, only a few remain. He’s been to Iowa before, though.
“I love Iowa, actually. Iowa is cool, the progressive Midwest,” he says. “There’s a charming melancholy to that part of the country.”
He particularly enjoys concerts on college campuses.
“I love playing for colleges. It’s a lot of fun. At a show in Chicago, you are trying to create an intimate experience,” he says. “When you walk into a college campus, you are allowed into that intimacy. It can be really fun and special. I’ve grown to love it.”
His Iowa concert comes on the heels of a weekend show at Nashville’s Vanderbilt.
“I don’t play a ton at home,” he says. “That is a challenging venture always. I have to go to the coffee shop with you tomorrow. I can’t love and leave ‘em in Nashville. It’s my town. I’ve been here long enough. I don’t know if I can keep claiming Oregon.”
It’s been 12 years since he moved east, but, “I think I have the west coast in my soul,” he says. “Grow up with your hippy parents in Oregon, you don’t shake that.”
In those 12 years, he’s seen Nashville change. In turn, the city has seen him do the same.
In as many years, Kearney has released three albums. His songs have been featured on dozens of television shows, such as “30 Rock,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Vampire Diaries.” He’s featured on “Pressing on a Bruise,” from Brad Paisley’s most recent album “Wheelhouse.”
Still, there are artists like Bruno Mars. Then there are local musicians and artists like Kearney, who, in the music industry’s version of the American dream, are still squarely middle class, trying to climb their way up.
You might sit next to him on an airplane and he’ll tell you he’s a musician. You might even recognize one of his songs if he sang a few lines. But, his name, he says, is not one most people recognize.
“I’ve had the Cal Ripken kind of life. You get a lot of singles, not a lot of home runs.”
So he continues to perform and record, hoping to hit upon the song that will make him a household name.
“It’s my whole life and energy,” he says. “Really, at its core, it’s all of me, these little moments called songs. That’s why I do it. If that didn’t happen, I’d do something else.”