Great Barrington — On Friday, November 17, the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center will present a double bill of award-winning singer-songwriters Mat Kearney and Jon McLaughlin. Both are capable singers, even covering other writers’ tunes occasionally, but songs are their stock in trade, both having substantial catalogs going back a couple of decades, both having received substantial airplay over the same period, and both having written songs for television and film. Their appearance at the Mahaiwe is part of their November tour of the Northeast, New York, and West Virginia, with McLaughlin opening the shows and staying onstage to play keyboards for Kearney.
Jon McLaughlin’s most successful song is the 2008 single “Beating My Heart,” from his second album “OK Now.” In 2007, McLaughlin’s song “Human” was featured in an episode of the NBC comedy “Scrubs,” and his song “Beautiful Disaster” has a place in the TV series “A Little Thing Called Life,” as well as in the film “Georgia Rule.” In 2007, McLaughlin appeared as himself in the Disney film “Enchanted,” singing the Oscar-nominated song by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, “So Close,” which led to a performance at the 2008 Academy Awards.
Like Kearney, McLaughlin is based in Nashville, but don’t expect twangy vocal stylings from either of these guys: They are pop singers of broadly cosmopolitan tastes. (McLaughlin actually evinces something of a late ’90s British vocal sound at times.)
Mat Kearney has had five songs reach the top 20 of the Adult Top 40 Chart, so that is probably how you know his music—unless you heard it first on “30 Rock,” “Scrubs,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” or any of several other television shows. Or you may have heard him perform the song “Billion” on “The Today Show.” And if you follow the Contemporary Christian Music scene, you may recall that in 2006, Kearney won the Gospel Music Association’s Dove Award for “Rap/Hip-Hop Recorded Song of the Year” (“Trainwreck”).
I spoke with Mat by telephone a couple of weeks ago. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length:
How long have you been a part of the Contemporary Christian Music business?
I’ve always kind of been influenced by my faith and that journey, but as far as being a part of the industry, I don’t know if I’ve ever really been part of it. My very first record really got embraced by that community. It was always interesting to me because I grew up in Eugene, Ore., and didn’t have any familiarity with kind of the commercial side of faith stuff. So when I moved to Nashville, I got really embraced by that community but was reluctant to jump head first, because I didn’t really understand it and, surprisingly, had a lot of success on the first record by being embraced by that community. But in many ways, that was never the goal. It was like, you know—I was on tour with John Mayer and signed to Columbia Records and loved—you know, I’ve always appreciated expressing what I am and what I believe and in the context of the real world, not just kind of a subgenre. So that’s always kind of been my approach, and at times I’ve been in favor or out of favor with kind of the commercial side of it, but I’ve never actually attempted to be a part of it.
Didn’t your song ‘Trainwreck’ win a Dove award?
What’s that song about?
‘Trainwreck’ is kind of like … Man that is one of the first songs I’ve ever written. You’re bringing up a song I think I wrote 20 years ago. It’s like … I have to remember … I think that’s kind of being at the end of yourself, you know? And realizing you have great needs outside of yourself, you know, and maybe coming to the … to your limit, and the humility of that kind of moment when you’re on your knees, praying for something other than just the power you have within yourself.
But if it won a Dove Award, it must be about Jesus, right?
Yeah! I mean, I definitely walk that line in all my songs, I would say.
You’re touring with Jon McLaughlin. He’s your opening act, and it looks like both of you are songwriters first and performers second. Is that a good way to put it?
Yeah. I mean, over the years that’s definitely how I started. I was, you know, writing songs in my college dorm room, and I had to learn how to become a performer later. I would say, these days, it’s grown into more of a 50-50 thing, you know the craft of performing has become something I really enjoy. But, yeah, if I had to pick one, if I was on a desert island and you could only perform or write songs, I think, in my core, I’m more of a writer than anything else.
How did you end up touring with McLaughlin?
We actually go to church together, and he’s just a dear friend, and we had never worked together, and my regular keyboard player couldn’t do this tour, and historically this trio tour we do is always like drums, keyboard, and me on guitar. And I went to Jon and said, ‘Hey Jon, this is probably like … you’re overqualified for this, but do you have any desire to go out and play songs with me?’
And he was just like, ‘Man! That sounds so fun, to get to hang out and …’ We’d never worked together professionally, we’ve just been friends. So, yeah! I’m really excited to get to spend some time on the road with him.
So Jon is your opening act and also your keyboard player?
Can you give me an idea of what your repertoire will be for this concert?
You know, part of the fun of this is that I kind of get to do whatever I want each night. So … anything from … You know we usually have a rough set list where I start out … we kind of know where we’re going, where we’re gonna start, where we’re gonna end. But part of the journey is like following where it feels like the night wants to go, and, you know, I have a lot of catalog now, so I can play songs from all my records. And I tend to do that. I tend to try to hit all the highlights from all my different records. But sometimes people call out requests, and I’ll try to remember ’em, or we’ll play a cover, or whatever—wherever it leads is kind of the fun of the night for me.
The most interesting quote I’ve heard about your music is attributed to Ricky Gervais, who reportedly said, ‘This singer-songwriter does spoken word that sounds like French Hip-hop.’ Did Gervais really say that?
He did say that, yes. He said it in, like, a People Magazine article, and I remember being floored, because I was such a fan of ‘The Office’ at the time, which he created, and I actually met him on the ‘Today Show,’ and I walked up to him, and I was like, ‘Ricky! It’s Mat Kearney!’ And he looked at me with a blank stare. And I was like, ‘You mentioned one of my records one time,’ and, like, the light went on and he’s like, ‘Oh yeah! You!’ He’s like, ‘Cool man!’ And he just said hi and walked off. I think it meant more to me than it did to him.
What song was he talking about?
I don’t know. He was just talking … He just recommended my whole first record. It was like a list of recommendations, and he recommended, like, a Sarah Silverman movie, some book, and my record.
As a songwriter, what do you aspire to?
Songwriting in many way is kind of an extension of how I process life. So the longer I do this, the more I’m chasing being honest and truthful with what’s going on in my own life, what I believe, what I see in the world … Maybe a younger songwriter … maybe in my younger days I had more voices, you know, that you’re trying to sort through, but … especially this new record I did, it was like, Man! How do we—How do I write songs that just make me want to come to tears or celebrate or feel joy … I don’t know … That’s not a very good answer, but …
I think it’s a pretty good answer …
I think … I don’t know … I’m always on the pursuit of that song that feels like it existed before you. And the great songs feel like gifts. They’re like … It feels like what U2 said where God steps into the room, like the song just is, and you feel like you’re doing very little work. And I may write 30 songs to get one of those. Or sometimes you write four in one week. You never know. It’s just … That’s the kind of drug that keeps me coming back is like ‘when does the magic happen’ and when do I find that song that just floors me?
You just mentioned your most recent release. What songs are you most looking forward to performing on this tour?
I’ve really enjoyed digging up older songs that people maybe have really loved, and maybe, you know, it’s funny when you have this body of work, you fall out of favor with certain things. Maybe your taste changes, and you forget about ’em. And it’s fun to go back—I was just playing a song called ‘Renaissance’ off my first record, and I was playing it in my living room for my daughters this morning, and I was like, ‘This is a really good song! I should start playing this song.’ So that’s fun for me is having this body of work now and going back now and mining these moments that were really special to people at different times in their lives.
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Hear singer-songwriters Mat Kearney with Jon McLaughlin on Friday, November 17, 8 p.m., at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. Tickets: $35 Limited (Upper Balcony), $45 Reserved, $55 Preferred, $75 Premium, $125 VIP Package, $15 ages 30 and under. Mahaiwe Members receive a $5 discount. Tickets are available here or by calling the Mahaiwe box office at (413) 528-0100, Wed – Sat, 12–4 p.m.)