Canadian Musician - March/April 2023 - Page 35

music . So that was very unique . The fact that my grandma — she got me a guitar for Christmas when I was about to turn seven — that was really , really cool . Because I mean , no one thought that I would ever take this thing and run with it . And it would become the career that it would become . But everyone thought it was very unique and very special that I took such a liking to country music and it wasn ’ t any other genre . It was only country . And it was the good old stuff . Like Johnny Cash was actually easy to learn . “ I Walk the Line ” was an easy song to learn for me as a kid ; Marty Robbins songs ; Willie Nelson songs ; George Jones songs .”
As a youth , Kissel honed his early craft playing local rodeos and opening up for acts like George Canyon and George Fox — artists who have now become friends and mentors , and in the case of Fox , a member of the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame inducted by Kissel himself . “ I think the whole community really rallied behind me . I think country music was a plan for me before I realized I [ could ] even do it as a career .”
He also feels that another country legend has his back — if not physically , spiritually . Following June Carter Cash ’ s death in May 2003 , a then-12-year-old Kissel wrote a letter of condolences to Johnny Cash through his fan club . Subsequently , he recorded his first cassette , entitled Keepin ’ It Country with Alberta fiddle player Calvin Vollrath . Fast forward to Friday , September 12 , 2003 , a bittersweet day that not only heralded Keepin It Country ’ s debut , but also the sad death of Johnny Cash .
“ I sold 600 tickets for my album release party . And my mom gave me the good news . ‘ Congratulations , you sold out your first show ever ,’ I was so happy ,” he recalls . “ And she said , ‘ but I also have some sad news : Johnny Cash passed away this morning .’ So I remember crying . And when my dad came home from work that day , he handed me a stack of mail , letters from aunts and uncles and cousins from across Canada , wishing me good luck for my album release concert that night . But there was a yellow envelope that had shaky handwriting on it . And I opened it up . It was a signed 8x10 and a letter from Johnny Cash . The picture said : ‘ To Brett , Jesus First , Johnny Cash ,’ and I got that on the day he died . So , I ’ ve always felt that in some wild , weird way Johnny Cash has had his hands on my shoulders , guiding me through my career . And I hope it ’ s a long time , but I do hope that I ’ ll get the chance to meet him one day up in the clouds .”
As the son of two teachers , it was expected that Kissel would attend university — yet his heroes ’ footsteps beckoned in Nashville . “ I remember having a bit of a tussle with my mom and my dad ,” he explains . “ I really did it the old-fashioned way … I just got into my vehicle and I drove to Nashville . I didn ’ t know anything about getting a visa . I didn ’ t know any of that stuff . All I did was ‘ I ’ m going to write songs . I ’ m going learn how to be an entertainer on music row .’” A few connections led to more connections and before he was 19 , Kissel was renting a garage in a house owned by Jason McCoy . “ Oh , and I was also engaged at the time which drove my parents crazy ,” he adds with a mischievous grin . “ They were upset that a 19-year-old was engaged . And it was my fiancé who ’ s now my wife of 12 years . We were the ones who moved down to Nashville together .”
Kissel released his major label debut , Started with a Song , in 2013 , which garnered a nomination for Country Album of the Year at the 2014 Juno Awards and a win for Breakthrough Artist of the Year . Back-to-back wins for Male Artist of the Year at the Canadian Country Music Awards followed in 2016 and 2017 , with Kissel winning his latest Juno for Country Album of the Year with 2021 ’ s What is Life ?
While Kissel admits that the pandemic was a creatively fallow period , the floodgates opened as restrictions were lifted . “ Songwriting for me always starts with a title ,” he explains . “ I have a love-hate relationship with songwriting because sometimes I ’ m so inspired to create , and I will have these creative bursts of energy and just true inspiration to write and write .”
“ I didn ’ t want to reminisce about the old days ,” he adds , reflecting on the lyrical inspiration of The Compass Project South . “ I ’ m a guy who wants
to look forward to the future . And so , all of that was a very interesting era for me . It ’ s because the world started again . And I could go back to Nashville again , boy did I ever create , I ’ ve never been in a better mental space than I am right now .”
With their sing-along choruses , songs like the breezy “ Never Have I Ever ,” the poignant ode to fatherhood “ Watch It ” and “ Line in the Sand ” have the infectious radio-ready polish one would expect from Kissel , yet it ’ s the patriotic celebration of the great white north ( and current theme song for Travel Alberta ) “ Our Home ” that might get the most love here in Canada .
“ Well , I really missed Canada , when I was down in Nashville , this was last year , my dad came to visit me . And we were talking a lot about the farm ,” explains Kissel when prompted about the song ’ s germination . “ I know that I [ was ] called to be in Nashville at this time . My heart was torn , because I love Nashville , but I love Canada , and how can I do both ? At that moment , I was going to write a song called “ I Miss My Home ,” but then I felt that there was an opportunity to make it more general . I decided to change it to “ Our Home ,” so that it would be a lot more relatable , and a lot more inclusive . So everybody can be like , ‘ Yes , this is our song .’ I wrote that song in like , four minutes . And then we went back up to my house I got on my guitar , and I sent it to my manager . [ It just so happened ] that later that day my manager was having a conversation