Songwriting isn’t easy — but it’s better if it’s solidly rooted in a philosophy, according to ace folk-pop tunesmith Mat Kearney, who has based his craft on Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters To a Young Poet.”
“It’s one of my favorite pieces of literature, because in it he says that you should first ask yourself if you have to, and if you don’t have to, please don’t do it,” he says. “I struggle with that question every day – ‘Do I have to write this?’ But the songs that come from that kind of place will be the ones that resonate with people and feel like a universal truth.”
That could account for the warm, homespun feel of “City of Black and White,” Kearney’s new third set, and its addictive flagship single, “Closer To Love”; he’ll likely play it in concert at the Fillmore in San Francisco next week.
There’s an innate honesty and genuine love of composition crackling through his work, qualities lacking in many of his contemporaries, and it crosses borders.
When his last album, “Nothing Left To Lose,” became a breakthrough hit in 2006, the Eugene-born, Nashville, Tenn.-based singer suddenly found his music accompanying emotional moments on a veritable slew of TV series, including “Scrubs,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The Closer,” “The Hills” and “Laguna Beach.”
Still, Kearney felt no followup pressure with “City.” He had one motivation: “I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time.” So he took several risks. “I left behind some of the novelty of my last record and refined my style,” he says. “I wanted to attack this album with a limited amount of tools, and I wanted to try writing these classically cut arrangements from the Tom Petty school.”
The sessions took on a life of their own. “Every day, I got more interested in the pared-down truth in a song that hits you like a freight train, where you’re saying more in two lines than you ever said in 10 pages,” says Kearney, 30. “My last record was more Jack Kerouac-ish stream-of–consciousness. This one was more haiku.”
Kearney’s Everyman approach is complemented by his equally Everyman appearance: fedora, baggy untucked workshirt and three-day stubble.
But sometimes he’s recognized. “I had one girl spot me at my local coffee shop and start freaking out, and she made me take a snapshot with her whole family,” he says.
“And then I got pulled over by a cop the other day, and he said ‘Wow! Are you really Mat Kearney? Just slow down, man — I really like your music!’”
IF YOU GO
Where: The Fillmore, 1805 Geary Blvd., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 5