For the record, when Mat Kearney namedrops Anthropologie about 20 seconds into his song "Hey Mama," he means the store in Green Hills. It was there, he sings, that he met the initially reluctant object of his admiration. And that's pretty much the way it happened in real life. At least, that's what he's said each of the times he's retold the story behind the song — a story that ends on an upbeat note, considering he wound up marrying that girl.
Kearney is the kind of pop songwriter who'll come up with something catchy, danceable and laced with autobiographical detail and readily talk about the events that inspired it — even, or maybe especially, if it casts him in the role of an earnest Romeo who knows what it's like to get shot down.
"It's an interesting way and a vulnerable way, writing about my wife and how we met and me being very open about it," says Kearney. "All of a sudden now that means you're talking about these really intimate things to you — which I don't mind, though. I think, for me, the more I've revealed and the more I've been open about who I am, I think [it] rings true with who I am as a person. It suits me well, I think, as opposed to the bands that play the mystery card and they keep everyone at arm's length."
Not keeping his listeners at arm's length has been a good thing for Kearney. The hooky, hand-clapping hip-hop confection "Hey Mama" is the lead track on Young Love, the fourth album he's released during his decade in Nashville. His new set proved once and for all that nice pop singer-songwriter guys can finish first: It knocked Adele's 21 from the top of the iTunes chart at the beginning of April. This town has no shortage of sensitive, tuneful types; he's gotten as far as any of them, and for good reason.
The condensed version of Kearney's story makes it sound almost like he just showed up one day and a record deal fell in his lap. But that's the stuff of myth. He spent his first summer in Nashville slumming in a water-logged apartment with his aspiring producer friend Robert Marvin ("Every time it would rain — you know, like the Nashville downpour — we had to pull a garbage can in there"), and spent the next several years making lattes at Starbucks, serving banquet guests at the Opryland Hotel and playing the few songs then in his repertoire at showcase nights like Daniel Tashian's long-gone 12 off 12th at 12th & Porter, where Kearney soaked up the positive feedback he got from further-down-the-road songwriters like Mindy Smith.
"Literally, when I moved to Nashville," Kearney says, laughing, "I had probably written five songs in my life, six songs total. I don't tell everyone that. It's embarrassing. I'd discovered [songwriting] a year before [I moved]."
Up to that point, he'd been going to college in California (he put in one semester at Tennessee State once he got here), but he attended high school on the hippie fringes of Eugene, Ore., where pop music was anything but popular. When he discovered that Marvin actually owned an 'N Sync CD, he was completely thrown for a loop. "I didn't think anyone really bought that record," says Kearney. "I couldn't believe it."
Still, during a sort of self-imposed artist development period, he slowly assembled an album's worth of songs that were equal parts hip-hop and pop, though not the same breed of strategically choreographed pop as 'N Sync. "I could play simple things on the guitar," says Kearney, "and I'd write these simple melodies and everybody would be like, 'Wow, that's really catchy,' and I was like, 'Really?' " He saved up enough to record his songs with Marvin. Then another local pop guy, Matt Wertz, passed along the resulting album, Bullet, to someone he knew. Several steps later, Kearney was signed to the label home of the previous decade's leading guitar-slinging crooner, John Mayer.
Kearney's songs proved well-suited for the prime-time drama Grey's Anatomy (his first TV placement was a coveted end-credits spot on a season premiere) and too many other shows since then to count, and this year's Young Love has outdone each of its predecessors on the charts. But you don't get the sense that he's chased down popularity by making things more complicated than they need to be. He has players in his band who've been on board since the Bullet days — like drummer Jeremy Lutito and bassist Tony Lucido — and Marvin still produces him (most recently in collaboration with Jason Lehning). Most importantly, Kearney has a thoroughly mellow, to-the-point way of delivering those earnest lyrics to his audience.
"It may be on a small level where we're gathering people one at a time," he says, "but it feels like that intimate connection between people that really relate to my music, it goes beyond fashion and what's cool. Because I'm definitely not playing that game."