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Interview: Brett Kissel opens up about how the pandemic inspired his new album ‘What Is Life?’

The Canadian Country star reflects on his powerful new album

Brett Kissel
Credit: Warner Music Canada

Canadian Country singer-songwriter Brett Kissel is one of the leading artists in the genre in his home country.

In 2019 he launched his music in the US and he’s continued to pick up awards and nominations including a CCMA Award for ‘Country Album of the Year’ for his album ‘Now or Never’. After finding his creativity impacted due to the pandemic, Kissel was eventually inspired to make his new album ‘What Is Life?’ after reflecting on the important things in life during a time when we were all forced to slow down.

I caught up with Brett recently to talk about the inspiration behind the record, discuss the relatable lyrics to his song ‘Make a Life, Not a Living’ and to find out his hopes to come back to the UK soon…

This new album feels so timely and so relevant for what we’re going through right now. I understand over the last year you stopped writing for around six months so what’s the origin of this record?

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It was certainly six months, perhaps more. I guess I was just in a very blue state. I don’t want to say depressed because I know that that word carries a lot of weight and I know a lot of people that suffer with that mental health disease. For me, I think a lot about where the world was and where we were going and I couldn’t just write happy songs. I couldn’t just write another song about meeting a good-looking girl at a party and drinking beer out of a red solo cup, and tanned legs swinging on a tailgate and let’s go have a good time and park down by the river and see where this thing goes. I just couldn’t write. I couldn’t even have conversations with friends or family in Nashville because the first hour of a write on Zoom would be about the state of the world. I really retreated and quite frankly, I’m glad I did.

I retreated to my farm. I spent so much time with my family, with my wife and my kids. I watched them grow. I worked on my relationship with my wife, who I love with all my heart. Finally, when inspiration hit me to write again, I wrote a song called ‘Down To Earth’. It was about getting out of the city, going out to the country and getting in touch with your roots. I was so grateful to write that with Eric Paslay, that he held space for me, and that we were able to collaborate on that song. That really set the tone for the record and allowed me to let inspiration be my guide as opposed to trying to chase after a hit song. I didn’t care about the hits anymore. I cared more about my heart, maybe my integrity, and standing up for the things that I believe in, and the things I want to say. If they happen to be hits, great, but if not leading more with heart than I am with hits.

Brett Kissel - What Is Life?
Credit: Warner Music Canada

The last 12 months have been a time for all of us to take stock and reflect. When I heard your song ‘Make a Life, Not a Living’, it resonated strongly with me because it said all the things I’ve wanted to say but I’ve not been able to find the words. Tell me the story behind that song…

I’m really grateful that that song found me, quite frankly, and that I’m able to plant a flag in the ground and say, ‘this is who I am, this is what I believe in and this is what so many people are going through’. If you just go lyric-by-lyric of this song. Steven Lee Olson, Carrie Barlow and their friend Brandon Day wrote this song, and on my 30th birthday Steven Lee, who is a very good friend of mine, he sent this song to me, and he said, ‘Happy Birthday! I think if anybody is able to live, and eat, sleep and breathe these lyrics, it’s going to be you’. When I heard it, I immediately knew I needed to base my entire record and essentially my whole new life around this song. I’m really grateful that the universe provided me that opportunity and that vehicle. This song means more to me than perhaps any other song I’ve ever released, written or recorded because it is so true. You go line-by-line, and I think everybody who listens to it says, ‘I agree, oh yeah that’s right. Absolutely, of course’ and that’s exactly how I felt when I heard it for the first time.

It’s been hugely successful in Canada. What’s it been like to have such an incredible reaction to this song?

I’m so grateful for that. I don’t take that for granted whatsoever. The fact that radio and of course, their listeners have gotten behind this song in such a big way, is huge. As far as I’m concerned, this song of course says everything about what we’re all going through and maybe the mindset that so many of us have right now, but when every radio station pretty much adds it out of the gate… This song debuted inside the top 30. Usually you’ve got to start at 100 and within a couple of months you get to 50, a couple months (later) you get to 30, (another) couple of months you get to 20 then 10, and hopefully you get that number one. It’s very interesting how the song that I’m not working hard to promote, is just getting all of this attention. That’s the merit of the songwriting. Don’t get me wrong, I love to work, and I love to tell the story of this song but before I try to think of marketing gimmicks to help get a song off the charts and help get it noticed, this one doesn’t need it. It is what it is.

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As you mentioned the lyrics are so powerful and have really connected with people so it’s not hard to see why it’s been received the way it has…

Absolutely. I think it’s very interesting, as a student of Country music and a guy who loves the classics, how that saying, ‘make a life not a living’… we’ve known about that saying for a century or more. Yet, it’s never been written. I can’t believe it. It was meant for 2020/2021.

Your children are featured in spoken word interludes on the album and you open the album with a spoken word track. Why did you decide to do that?

A lot of people thought that it might have come from an artistic direction and just trying to do something that’s outside the box, but truly it came from my heart and wanting to feature my kids to show younger generations and to ask them that question to a degree about what is life? What are you thankful for? What do you love? My son Leo, he just turned two, my daughter Aria, she’s right in the middle and she’s going to turn four in a month or so, and Mila, our eldest just turned five. Getting a chance to ask them the questions, ‘what is life and what do you love? Who do you love? What makes you happy?’ I think is a really great thing because children are so innocent. They are not contaminated by media, the world, hate, frustration, disappointment… none of that has come into play for these kids. There’s a lot of joy that comes into play with the way that I interact with them and I thought it would be a very special thing to break up the songs, if people listened to the record top to bottom, with unique perspectives from little people.

The whole album is emotional and it hit me straight in the feels. What was the hardest of these songs to get out and record?

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Every one, to a degree. It’s funny because there are some songs that are up tempo. Look at ‘Sliding Your Way’, which is an ode to Diamond Rio, that was an extremely difficult song to get out because I missed being on the road. I had my band in the studio. I brought up a couple of moments where we were playing and the crowd was amazing, and we had such a great moment on stage, and I said, ‘remember that, now going to the studio and let’s get that out’. Well, I’m singing it and I’m getting emotional thinking, ‘when’s the next time I’m going to be playing for a crowd like that of 20,000 people? When’s the next time I’m going to get a chance to open for Garth Brooks? When’s the next time I’m going to play on the Grand Ole Opry with Diamond Rio?’ and that hit me in the feels. Then you’ve got a song like ‘From This Day Forward’ that really hit me in the feels because I love my wife so much. It’s a beautiful tribute song. It’s a wedding song and we’ve been through so much in the decade that we’ve been married. That was a very emotional song for me.

The most emotional song for me was ‘Die to Go Home’. It was super vulnerable and it was a story I didn’t think that I would really ever share, especially not in music form because it came full circle. Me coming home to the farm, that I swore I’d never come back to. I slammed the door on the way out, especially when locking horns with my mom as a teenager, and I moved to Nashville. I realised that all of the conversations that I would have in stand up cocktail receptions, people are looking not looking in your eyes, they don’t care, they’re looking over your shoulder. That second verse is so true. ‘All that matters, climbing ladders, now I find that New York’s hard and LA is cold. I was praying to leave now I’d die to go home, where real life exists’. This year, I got a chance to do that. That is my favourite song on the record because it says so much and it means so much.

Brett Kissel
Credit: Warner Music Canada

What do you think the last 12 months has changed for you and what things you’ve learned will you be taking forward?

There’s two different sides to this coin. To be honest, there’s still a lot of frustration. There’s a lot of injustice and frustration and hypocrisy that’s going on, on a grand scale in the big picture. But that is just sometimes such a negative thing to hold on to. I just want to be honest with you and vulnerable that part of my brain goes there and then I really get down. I get down about the state of the world, I get down about where we’re at, but I have to realize that whatever you think will go into action, and if you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right. If I have that negative outlook, which I’m learning, my day is just shot and I’m just down, down, down, down, down, and I spent months like that.

Whereas now I’m choosing to look at the silver linings. I’m choosing to count my blessings, take stock of the things that I’ve got, take stock of the things that make me happy… the things that are in my control. The wonderful relationship I have with my wife and my kids. Understanding that where I’m at in Alberta, Canada, there are some more freedoms. I do have an opportunity to spend time with my family. I’ve got a farm that I get to go out to. I get to plant a garden in the summer. I get to chase cows in the fall. I get to go hunt deer in the winter, and I get to live that lifestyle. There’s a lot of silver linings that have actually come my way if I choose to look at it. That’s something that I’ve been trying very, very hard to express to anybody that I speak to, or who cares to listen or have a conversation, is that there are many, many silver linings if you choose to look for them. Sometimes you don’t even have to look hard for them but you can find them.

The last year has been such a rollercoaster and I can really relate to what you’re saying. It’s been a tough time but I imagine it’s been even tougher to have three younger children to help through…

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We made a very early decision. With Mila just turning five, Aria being almost four and Leo being two, we made a very conscious decision to turn off mainstream news, to focus on ourselves and to not bring up, talk about or have any sense of fear come into our home. We treated our home as a sanctuary and we wanted to make sure that any conversations to do with COVID, virus or anything like that was not a part of daytime conversation. I’m glad we made that decision because truly our opinion was, for our own little family, a four-year-old doesn’t need to know about everything that’s going on in the world or be scared about all of these things if we know that we can protect them. Sometimes it’s important to protect their mental state.

Now as they get older, we’ll answer any question that they’ve got but it would be similar to talking about all of the, prior to COVID, true injustice and poverty and challenges in the world and in third world countries. We’ll bring it up when we know that the time is right. With our children, we’re very grateful that they didn’t ask, we didn’t say and we just kept our family unit tight. Dad just didn’t have to go on a plane anymore. Dad gets to be here for the whole year. Oh my gosh, how great is this and our kids are loving it. We’re baking, we’re painting we’re doing all these little things and taking ittle day trips to the mountains, or to go for a hike or a walk or go ice fishing or summer fishing. It’s been the best year ever for them. When they’re 15, 18, 20, 25 and they want to ask me, ‘what was it really like?’ I’m gonna tell him. But for a five year old, there’s no point. Let’s just go fishing.

With the world starting to open up again, are you hoping to get back over to the UK to play some shows next year?

Absolutely and quite frankly, that’s priority number one for me. The show that we did on my 29th birthdayin 2019, at Buckle and Boots, was one of the most special events I’d ever done. That was my first real show in the UK. Me and my band and my crew didn’t know what to expect. We know everybody loves Country music that bought a ticket and came to the show but did they know my music, did they care and how could we entertain? We speak the same language. We tell the same stories. We’ve got similar groups of friends. We love to have a beer after a long day’s work. We love to turn it up on a Friday night. But I didn’t have my Canadian fan base or my American fan base with me so I wondered how it was gonna go? That show was so special and proved to us as entertainers, as a performing group, that we actually have something special; an ability to connect.

I told the organizers, Gary Quinn and his team, I had said, ‘whenever you want us back, it’s an instant yes’. We had all these wonderful plants for the UK from small shows in pubs that I was going to do just me and my guitar, to big festivals that we were going to do, to everything we were going to do across Europe that really started in the UK. Of course 2020 happened, nothing happened. 2021 is here, doesn’t seem like anything’s gonna happen again. However, when I do come back, it’s going to be so sweet, so special and I will have the best time. Nobody will have more fun than me.

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Brett Kissel’s album ‘What Is Life?’ is released on Friday 9th April 2021 via Warner Music Canada. Watch the video for ‘Make a Life, Not a Living’ below:


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