by Roman Mitz for Open Spaces
Last year was a good one for Brett Kissell, which can be confirmed via the four Canadian Country Music Association nominations he received in 2015 on the heels of his debut album ‘Started With A Song’ and gold single ‘3-2-1’. Well, the sophomore jinx is certainly not a factor for Brett as the first single, ‘Airwaves’ from his new album ‘Pick me Up’, shot straight up to Number One on the Canadian Country Charts. He joins a handful of Canadian artists who have reached the top spot on various Canadian radio charts in the past few years – a club that includes Arcade Fire, Magic!, Sam Roberts Band and The Weekend. Despite becoming a member of this elite group he’s even more excited about joining another outfit next February…the first-time fathers club.
“There’s nothing as exciting in the world as having a baby,” Brett says during a whistle-stop promotion in Toronto, enroute to Simcoe to kick off his cross-Canada tour. “We’ve been blessed with this so my wife and I are really over the moon. As far as Airwaves going to Number One, to be in that company of Canadian artists in other genres to have reached the top is really special. It’s remarkable for a kid from Flat Lake Alberta to be mentioned in the same sentence with those guys.”
Flat Lake is now far behind Brett as he now calls Nashville home, where he makes the most of his new Music Row neighbors. While he wrote several of the songs for the album, including the catchy title track which serves as the new single, Brett was overwhelmed by the number of songwriters beating a path to his door.
“When you write a song, marrying a great lyric to a good melody is very important for all things in country music. As a musician and a guitar player myself, having a great hook is key and I think Pick Me Up has a great hook. But this time around, some of the great hooks came from other songwriters. It was a unique process to be at that level where there are songwriters pitching material to you. Some of the who’s who in Nashville are saying ‘I think this would be a great song for Brett Kissell’. I’ve been forming friendships and relationships with so many great songwriters and industry members who wrote songs for artists like George Strait and Tim McGraw.”
George Strait is an obvious influence on Brett and he tips his Stetson to George by name-dropping him on ‘Cool With That’, a song he co-wrote with Nashville heavyweight Phil O’Donnell who’s penned a few of Strait’s hits. While the song stirs up some nostalgia in Brett, he also hopes it will serve as a starting point for some of his fans to explore the music of some of the artists that influenced him.
“When I told my co-writer about my love for George Strait we took it to a personal level,” Brett begins. “I mentioned to him how when you hear a Strait song, it kind of takes you back to certain great memories. That’s what sparked the idea of writing a song about making memories, and throwing a reference to George in there was important to both of us. It was guys like him and George Jones who paved the way for artists like myself. Even when you look at an artist that’s more pop or rock like Florida Georgia Line or Sam Hunt, we all took our influence from the forefathers of country music. Acknowledging that to my fans is very much in the forefront.”
The first two singles from the album are guitar-driven, but the axe really takes the lead on the raucous ‘I Can Play The Guitar’. The track features a special appearance by noted guitar slinger and hit maker Hunter Hayes, who leads an all-star lineup on an extended jam to take the song home. You may be able to hear a little Van Halen in the jam and you can chalk this up to the Brad Paisley factor.
“Songs like that one and ‘That’s Why God Made Guitars’ really just talk about the relationship I have with the instrument and how important it is to me,” Brett begins. “Hunter Hayes and I have been friends for the last 10 years. His career took off in the U.S. right at the same time that mine did in Canada about three years ago. We talked about this song which I wrote about Brad Paisley, and Hunter saw a little clip of me playing it on YouTube and asked if he could play guitar on it which, for me, was a no-brainer.
“I toured with Brad Paisley last year, doing just shy of 20 concerts across Canada and in the U.S. Every night Brad would play Van Halen’s ‘Hot For Teacher’ toward the end of the show and all of the musicians in the house would come side stage and watch him do it. Not only did he rock it, but his entire band The Drama Kings nailed it. We brought in the Drama Kings to play on That’s Why God Made Guitars, along with Hunter Hayes and my second cousin Matty, who plays guitar in my band. It was like ‘Alright boys, you have four minutes to end the song so just go crazy and solo’.”
The album also has a softer side, most notably the big ballad ‘Why Won’t You’ that serves as a showcase for Brett’s strong vocals. The song has yet another catchy hook and could be a candidate for the charts if it can muscle its way through the up-tempo numbers that dominate the Top Ten.
“It’s very difficult for a ballad to crack the charts,” he agrees. “But for me, as long as the song is good enough and the timing is right anything can happen. Songs like Tim McGraw’s ‘Live Like You Were Dying’ or Lady Antebellum’s ‘I Just Need You Now’ are what are known now as mid-tempo ballads, and Why Won’t You is in that category. It’s really up to country radio and country fans, and if the fans enjoy it and request it enough that would make the difference.”
In a year of highlights, one of the pinnacles for Brett was his first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry and he still finds it difficult to capture the moment in words. He feels his performance there added ‘just a little bit more credibility’ to his career but perhaps more importantly, he was able to follow in the footsteps of country’s legendary performers including his child-hood hero Johnny Cash.
“I was such a big fan of Johnny’s,” he admits. “When June Carter passed away I was 12 years old and wrote a condolence letter to Johnny and sent it to his fan club in Hendersonville Tennessee. I didn’t know if he received it and a few months later he passed away. I was in a band and on the day that he died we did a tribute concert to him. Later that day my dad came home with the mail which included a big yellow envelope addressed to me. When I opened it I found a signed 8 x 10 picture of Johnny Cash and it said ‘To Brett, Jesus first, Johnny Cash’. I look back on it now because it kind of told me I’m meant to be doing what I’m doing.”
Following his opening date in Simcoe, Brett’s tour takes him to the east coast then turns around and heads back across the country all the way to B.C. Along the way he’s looking forward to connecting with his fans via social media, a pastime he certainly enjoys as evidenced by his second straight Canadian Country Music Association Award for Interactive Artist of the Year.
“We’re doing close to 50 shows and we’re hitting every province and territory and I think it’s great to visit every market in a bus with your wife, best friends and your dog. I’d love people to pick up the new record, come to a show and follow me on social media to let me know what they think.”