Brett Kissel was a good 2,300 miles from Nashville when he phoned to talk about his upcoming album What Is Life, due out on April 9. But, from the sound of the new music, it’s as if Kissel has always been at the very heart of Music Row.
Calling from Edmonton in Alberta, Canada, Kissel and I started our conversation talking about how a bona fide country star from Canada can sound so Nashville. Kissel is the it-guy in Canada, winning all the awards and accolades from country fans there, but he still wants to create the kind of country music legacy that can only come from making it in Nashville.
His brand new single ‘Make A Life, Not A Living’ - the follow-up to his last No. 1 ‘A Few Good Stories’ - is the first release from his upcoming album that will feature 14 original songs. Here, Kissel explains why he poured his heart, soul and family into his first official Nashville studio record, and the importance of staying true to your roots.
You are at the top of your game in Canada, so why even bother with Nashville?
The thing that lit this fire under my you-know-what is that, in country, Nashville’s everything. It always has been and always will be. If you want to get into the oil business, you have to be in Texas. If you want to be an actor, you have to go to Hollywood. So, if you really want to be in country music, you have to go to Nashville; make contacts, write songs, record music, play gigs, be invited to the Opry. That’s the Mecca. I felt my greatest chances for international success would come out of Nashville.
Did you officially make the move, or do you just travel back and forth?
Technically, my wife, kids and I live in Nashville and have done for the last ten years. But in 2020, when those giant tornadoes tore through our neighborhood, we saw it as a sign from the universe to take the kids back home to Alberta. We’d planned to go back to Nashville a few weeks later but then covid hit, so we’re still yet to make it back; we only came up here with carry-on luggage, just enough for a few weeks!
Sorry to steal your album title, but what is life up there in Canada like right now?
It’s literally like a country song. We are up there in the wilderness; we go ice fishing, hunt and live off the land.
"I would take a night on my farm counting a billion stars from the hilltop over a city skyline any day"
That only adds to the authenticity of your music. You’re not just singing about those themes, you are truly living them.
There are guys like me who are unapologetic about who they are. Like, “This is who I am, take it or leave it.” I would take a night on my farm, counting a billion stars from the hilltop, over a city skyline - any day. I like that country artists shine a light on that rural way of life – whether they’re living it or not – but you can always tell the real country guys from non-country guys. I will say this: living on a farm and having a cattle ranch isn’t the only way - there are still more layers of authenticity that I can’t even cross off my list. There are guys who can rope, ride and do all the things I can’t. I can raise cattle and build you a fence, but the next-level guys belong with Kevin Costner in Yellowstone.
It sounds like real life and music had equal impact on you growing up. Were you more influenced by Canadian country or American country?
A mix. As a Canadian, I’d gravitate towards the Canadian stars. We were always acutely aware that making it in Nashville as a Canadian seemed to be extra hard. They are so many things about Canadians that are relatable. Yet there’s just enough of a difference between them, that someone from Alabama or Arkansas is more relatable to the American public than a person from Alberta, Canada is. So, when you’re trying to develop a career in the U.S., it’s like trying to light a campfire with wet wood. First you need to take time to dry that wood, and then you can light that fire. If you get a big bonfire going, you can be as big as Shania Twain or Anne Murray. I looked up to them as much as I was looking up to Brooks & Dunn, Garth Brooks, George Strait, and Brad Paisley. I love having both sides seep into the artist I am today.
During your decade in Nashville, you’ve written with many of the best songwriters. How did you make that happen? Also, how did you get the attention of Jesse Frasure, one of the hottest power players in Music City?
Jesse Frasure is one of my longest friends in Nashville. He signed me at Major Bob Music, and I wrote songs and Ioved every minute of that publishing deal. I think that if you lead by developing real friendships in Nashville, as opposed to “you’re somebody famous so what can you do for me”, you are better off. I care more about the person than the success they’ve had. If the connections are real, that’s the secret to life. If you take the ego out and lead with your heart, then that’s what helps when you sit down to write songs.
And you certainly sat down with the very best: Rhett Akins, Josh Thompson, Jessi Alexander, Cary Barlowe; the list goes on. How important has it been for you to be able to collaborate with such prolific hit-makers?
I’ve always had the perspective that the writer is the most important person in the room, without question. It's not the artist - the writer is the one who matters. They are the base, the foundation and the ecosystem that is Nashville, they are the magic. An example: without Dean Dillon, there might not be a George Strait, and without George Strait, there might not be a Dean Dillon.
Throughout the album there are interludes from your insanely adorable children: Mila, 5, Aria, 3, and Leo, 2.Where did that idea come from?
I wanted to include my family because they’re everything to me. I thought it would be unique to get their perspective on life and gratitude and affirmation. It’s like a little voice that could brighten your day.
Was it inspired by Brad Paisley’s ‘Anything Like Me,’ when his son Huck is on guest vocals?
I remember that song so vividly - it was a hand-selected song that a local radio station up here in Alberta played, so I heard it on a regular basis. That made me wonder what it would be like to have a son, before Leo was born. Now he and I look and act similar, just like Brad’s song says.
Now that the world is slowly but surely getting back to the old normal, are you going to take your own advice in soaking it all in from now on?
All of our lives are forever changed because of what we’ve been through. Because of the uncertainties, challenges, and frustrations. I’ve made this vow to myself: I’m going to be a lot more present, lead with my heart, and be a lot more grateful. When things are taken away from you, that’s when you truly realize how good you had it.
'Make a Life, Not a Living' is out now via Bak 2 Bak Entertainment Inc. Brett Kissel's upcoming album, What Is Life, is due for release on April 9.
Photography courtesy of Aristo Media.