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Kearney returns home as star of show.

Byline: Serena Markstrom The Register-Guard

Mat Kearney credits his Northwest upbringing and his Christian faith for allowing him to stay humble amid a flurry of success.

The South Eugene High School graduate is in the throes of his first headlining national tour behind his major label debut, "Nothing Left to Lose." Another South grad with a major record deal, the Epic-signed Justin King, will open the Thursday show, with Joshua Radin in between.

Kearney, an AOL Breakers artist, has appeared on `Last Call With Carson Daly,' shot a music video and done radio and newspaper interviews in most of the markets he's visited on his tour. He has been profiled on as an up-and-coming artist and debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart.

"My mom would kick my butt if I got too full of myself," says the the 27-year-old singer, who recently purchased a home in Nashville, Tenn. "There's a real humble approach to art and celebrity and musicianship (in Nashville). Eugene was that way."

When his managers tell him bits of good news, he usually doesn't know what the big deal is. So when he found out he was a Breakers artist (as were Ne-Yo, 50 Cent, Michelle Branch and John Legend), he says his management was thrilled.

"It was the happiest I've ever heard them,' he said during a telephone interview on the road between gigs in the Midwest. `I was like, 'OK, what does that mean?' '

It means he's a peer in a select group of five other emerging artists who will get special attention on and AOL's radio networks, according to a news release.

Kearney's style is a mix of lyrics-driven folk and spoken word. "Nothing Left to Lose" came out April 18 as a dual release from Aware and Columbia Records.

Some of the songs from "Nothing Left to Lose" appear on Kearney's 2004 semi- independent debut, "Bullet." But he says about two-thirds of the tracks hadn't been released before.

The album already boasts the No. 1 most-added song at Hot AC radio this week. It's currently in the Top 10 on AAA radio.

Kearney got attention early in his stay in Nashville, but says he held off from signing anything because none of the offers felt right. He didn't want to make a quick record; he wanted to make a good one.

He kept playing, refining his skills and writing songs, then took a brief hiatus from the business side of music, he says.

"If there's one thing that I'm learning though, and I'm happy it took four years, is there really is not one thing that makes or breaks you," he says. "It's not a record deal. It's faithfully doing what you do and doing it well.

"I'm a big fan of keeping your head down and just plugging away and working hard. I try not to enter into that mentally of 'made it or not made it.' '

It didn't happen over night

Kearney says he runs into people from high school all over the country. And as people hear about his success, old friends have contacted him through or through his Web site,

"The great thing about South Eugene is that people were not afraid to travel," he says. "It is a little freaky. They are just so shocked at what I'm doing.

`(Fellow alumni) show up at shows all the time. They look freaked out."

Back in high school, Kearney was best known as a soccer player, but he says he was into all sorts of creative things.

"Even at South, I would sneak into the practice rooms in free periods and mess around on the piano," he recalls. Back then, he and his friend Marshall Roeman, who he remains close with, used to watched local folk mainstay Mark Allen perform, which got Kearney into writing his own poetry.

He says he was also passion- ate about photography and painting on the legal graffiti walls.

"I would get on tangents," he says. "I was never very cliquey in high school. I kind of prided myself on being the kid who sat at random tables."

The only class he was good at, he says, was English. When he got to Chico State University, he enrolled as an English major and played on the soccer team.

He wanted to do something with art or writing, but as a junior in college, he discovered musical talent.

"I started writing songs and it was like a glove that fit very well," he says. "It seemed to make sense. Melody came very easy."

Although he has been performing for many years and comes back to visit his parents often, he has performed solo in Eugene only once - opening for the Newsboys at the McDonald Theatre last October.

"In the beginning, I stayed away on purpose until I felt I was good enough to come home and play," he says.

Christian rock?

The fact that Kearney gained some fans on a Christian label is fine by him. He appreciates any niche market that likes his music, he says, but he doesn't make music to satisfy a genre's requirements.

On "Nothing Left to Lose," references to faith and God are subtle, but present. The last word in the album is "Hallelujah." Kearney's mother, Shannon, is a pastor, and he grew up in a Christian household.

Kearney didn't come to an understanding of his own faith until, he says in a bio, a hard-partying lifestyle left him feeling bleak. That's when God found him, he wrote.

"My music is a representation of who I am,' he says, `and if you met me, it's not like my faith doesn't exist within the real world. I try to write that way.

"I don't create music for any specific market. I create music that I think is good and hope it resonates with people. Hopefully, people will judge my art by what it is.

`If they like it, they like it, and if they don't, they don't."

The forces that compelled him to hold out for a deal that suited him were spiritual, artistic and, he admits, at least partially from a fear of commitment. It's proven to be worth it, because he had almost 100 percent creative control over "Nothing Left to Lose," combined with the support of a major label.

His first label, Inpop, is still backing him, too, distributing the album through its Web site.

So what did holding out cost him?

"Besides complete insecurity and self-doubt?" he asks with a slight laugh. "It cost a few more years of living where cockroaches live, and it cost me the potential to burn out before you get a shot."

It took a difficult step of faith, he says, to not "strike while the iron's hot" and wait for something that feels right.

Now, he says, "The iron feels very hot."


Mat Kearney, Joshua Radin, Justin King

What: Acoustic singer-songwriters

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Where: WOW Hall, 291 W. Eighth Ave.

Tickets: $10 in advance, $12 at the door


People often accuse Mat Kearney of being "all artsy" when it comes to spelling his name with one T. But he says his legal first name is "Mathew" due to a nurse's error on his birth certificate. Kearney didn't know of the error until eighth grade when he saw that his mother had corrected the certificate with red ink, but never took legal steps to correct it.

You can call Serena Markstrom at 338-2371 or e-mail her at


Mat Kearney learned humility early. "My mom would kick my butt if I got too full of myself."
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Title Annotation:Entertainment; Hometown boy plays a local show as part of first tour as a headliner
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 5, 2006
Previous Article:Juke Joint jumps early for jobsters.
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