With a new record fresh out of the gate, and yet another Juno Award nomination in hand, there’s little doubt Brett Kissel is living his best life.
Even so, in these constantly changing times the Canadian country star has found himself looking for answers — not only contemplating the next phase of his career, but the importance of family and the true meaning of it all.
The answer? An album pairing those thoughts and questions with lyrics, music, and sounds — and some very special guests — resulting in a carefully curated line-up of tracks expressing love, gratitude, and everything in between.
We recently logged on with Brett to talk about what it’s like to have time at home, the ideas that inspire him, and the biggest question of all — what is life?
Your latest record What Is Life? recently dropped. What has the reception been like?
We’re very proud with the success so far. I think it’s really followed the criteria for success in terms of the statistics and the streams. All of the things the label really looks for — which is amazing. But for me, I’m going at it a little bit of a different way. I’ve been judging the success of this record based on the incredible amount of response I’ve been getting from friends, family, fans, and just people coming out of the woodwork. They want to talk about all these different songs that are on the record, which proves to me they’ve been listening to it from top to bottom. It’s not just about the lead single. It’s very special getting that type of reaction. It’s been unlike anything I’ve ever experienced with other records. I think I’ve got the most response by texts and emails and DMS — so I’m really proud of that.
You’re no stranger to having guest stars on tracks; Nelly, Walk Off the Earth, your grandpa — but you kind of brought some new people into this one. Some little, tiny people. Where did the idea to add Mila, Aria and Leo to the project come from?
Well, my favourite people in the world are my kids — as you know. So, Mila, Aria and Leo play a very important role in my life. Anybody who sees me on social media, or anybody who knows me personally, obviously can tell. My daughter Aria — she’s right in the middle — she’s the glue of our family. She was the one who essentially titled the record, What Is Life? And so, I thought it would be really unique to have different little monologues from my kids that had to do with the things that are very important to me on a personal level. Aria’s is her bedtime prayer. It’s the cutest thing in the world, so I thought that might be a really unique thing to include on the record. In doing so, I found some great clips of recordings I had with my son Leo, as well. Little words of affirmation that he follows with his mama, and then Mila — she’s the oldest — she’s quite the leader. She’s just a great little entertainer, so she talks about all the things that she loves and the people that she loves and how she likes to spend her time, which was a great thing to add, as well. So, all three of my kids play a very important role in this project.
Was it the kids’ additions that encouraged you open the record with your own words?
Absolutely. Because of their contributions, I wanted to add one of my own — and that came second. The opening monologue — like it or not, there’s some mixed messages because it’s so out there and different for me and I wanted to set the intention for the album and set the listening experience. It’s really nothing different than an opening monologue that a host would give before the Oscars or the Golden Globes. If someone is listening to my record, I hope they take the 90 seconds to listen to the heart and the thought process that went into the song selection. If you’re not going to listen to it from top down and just find the songs that you like, that’s still awesome. But, if you want to take it a little bit deeper and take it a little bit further with me, you have the opportunity to listen to that opening monologue, which I think can get you in the right headspace for this entire musical journey.
When did you start putting this album together? Was it pre-pandemic or post?
It was right in the heart of things, and quite late in 2020. I was really hoping that some of the songs I was writing were going to have a bit of a different life. And what I mean by that is, I was hoping we were going to have brighter skies ahead in 2021. Now, we’re about six months in, and it’s still always changing. It hasn’t really been the light at the end of the tunnel that I had hoped for or expected, but it actually made me take an even deeper dive into the soul searching I had already been doing. It’s all been deeply reflective, and that’s what this record is all about.
Do you have a real standout track from the record, or do you see What Is Life? as more of a complete story?
It’s a complete story, without question. More so a complete story than anything else I’ve ever done. There are standouts from previous records; whenever we think about the We Were That Song album, that was also the song. The Pick Me Up album, it was Airwaves, with all these other incredible tracks to support it. But, on this project, it’s truly — for the very first time — an all-encompassing record.
If I had to pick the standout, it’s Make A Life Not A Living by design. That’s the first musical track on the record, and that’s me planting a flag and a stake in the ground, saying this is who I am . . . this is what I believe in.
It’s my most true and authentic and genuine self in this song. If you’ve known me all my life, of course, you get it. If you’re just meeting me or hearing about me for the very first time, this is like my business card. You want to know who I am? It’s in those two minutes and 47 seconds.
We do have to go back to a previous record, because we also need to mention your Juno Award nomination for Single of the Year for Drink About Me. We’ve talked previously about how much that track meant to you and where your career was going. How did it make you feel to have that specific song acknowledged in that way?
I’m not usually short for words, and you know that — you’ve known me for quite a while. That one is indescribable. It doesn’t feel or seem real, because that’s a category in an award show that has just always gone to pop or rock, period. There are very few circumstances where a country act has gotten that nomination and recognition. To be in the same category as Lennon Stella, who’s a friend, JP Saxe, The Weeknd and Justin Bieber — enough said. So, for me, when this guy from Flat Lake, Alberta, in the middle of nowhere on a farm who just plays country music, gets this type of recognition . . . I can’t put that into words. It’s unreal.
Drink About Me is by far your most popular song as far as streaming goes, with 15 million on Spotify alone. Clearly people love it and it really made an impact.
Exactly. In total, across all platforms, we’re looking at over 40 million streams on that song, which is Thomas Rhett category, Florida Georgia Line category — which is mind-blowing. So, for me to be there with that kind of success is incredible. I tried to justify the nomination because — I’m still self-deprecating, so that happens — but I’d like to hope it did for country music what some of these other huge hits did for pop in their years. It was something more ahead of the curve out of anything else I’ve ever done. It’s a drinking song disguised as a memory song, and it’s a memory song disguised as a drinking song. I love it and I’m so proud of it.
You talk about closing that gap between country and all these different genres represented in the category, but my research tells me that’s not new for you either — on account of your win for Breakthrough Artist of the Year in 2014. Was that a similar feeling?
Have you ever seen the movie The 40-Year-Old Virgin? So, Leslie Mann is in the film with Steve Carell and they go on a date. After, she gets behind the wheel and she drives home and she hits a parked car. Her saying, which has been in a million memes, is that f’er came out of nowhere.
When I got that nomination for breakthrough artist, and then won the award, that’s what it felt like. It came out of nowhere. I was like, are you kidding me? Everybody at Warner thought the exact same thing because that’s something that just doesn’t happen for country music.
We are a genre that historically does our own thing. We dabble in other genres, or bring P!nk or Bebe Rexha or Dave Mustaine into our group and then we move on.
The question was how did this happen? It was unreal.
Do you have any favourite Juno memories? Other than just the joy of winning, of course. Is there a moment that holds a special place in your heart?
Well, there’s a bunch of different ways I can take this; super sentimental, or I can talk about the party. When I won that first Juno in 2014, Melanie Hurley was the president of the Juno Awards at the time, and she could tell I was rip-snorting, ready to go. I was ready to party. She came up to me backstage and said, I know you want to go and party, but you have a performance tomorrow night in the arena, and I can assure you that if you stay up all night, you may not deliver the performance you want — in front of 4 million eyeballs. So, I’m going to make you a deal. Let’s party together on Sunday after the show, and we’ll make up for lost time and I’ll stay up all night with you. So, I was a good boy. We stayed up till about 10 or 11, maybe had a cocktail or two. But I went to bed and got up at 9 a.m. for my rehearsal and nailed that performance. I was pretty grateful for that advice.
On Sunday, we went to the Warner Music after-party. I thought it was going to shut down whenever last call was. However, we just went wild. It was like a Stanley Cup celebration, and I loved it. I was on stage with Ron Sexsmith and singing Takin’ Care of Business with Randy Bachman and The Sheep Dogs. It was the best night I’d ever had. At about 5 a.m., I round up about 15 passenger vans, full of artists, and we all go to McDonald’s and I buy McDonald’s for everybody.
I remember being so mad it was the breakfast menu, we couldn’t get double cheeseburgers or quarter pounders. It was breakfast burritos and Egg McMuffins.
It was such an epic celebration, that even after that we headed to Jim Cuddy’s famous late-night jam. We walked and I said, Jim, why did you pack up?
We’re here to party! He’s like, Brett, it’s 5 a.m. Go to bed. And that was the Juno’s 2014. The infamous story where I partied like it was the Stanley Cup.
And how did that compare to the Country Album of the Year win in 2019?
It was very different, and here’s why. I had every intention to top what I’d done in 2014. In fact, I have already learned the lesson that I wasn’t going to book a flight at 8 a.m. after the Juno’s, I was going to book a flight on Tuesday. I even booked childcare for our kids so that Cece and I could party, and we intended to. However, winning on the actual broadcast meant an incredible amount of press. I did press till about 1 a.m. It was a really unique circumstance where I put my career ahead of partying, and I answered questions all night long. So, when I arrived at the after-party at 1:30 a.m., it was already starting to die out, and I was either going to have to make up for lost time and just throw a few back or just say, I’ll make my rounds, I’ll go home, hug my wife, hug my kids, and I’ll cherish this Juno win like a dad would instead of a young guy who’s 23 years old. A lot changed, but I’m hoping there’s an opportunity to maybe win another Juno and see if I still got some of that gusto and still have a big party.
These days I look at every single moment and truly weigh out the pros and cons about whether or not the hangover tomorrow is going to be worth the party tonight. There are times I can absolutely justify it, like if my Edmonton Oilers win the Stanley Cup, or maybe after my first headline show at Budweiser Gardens to a sold-out arena. I’ll make sure that that happens on a Friday night and I don’t have a gig the next day. That’s the kind of night you throw down.
No matter the venue size, I think we’re all ready to get back to live music. Honestly, anything that happens, we’re there. It doesn’t matter who’s playing, we’re just going to take in the music, and really appreciate it. It’s going to be amazing.
I agree with you, and I will be right there with you. I’ve said it now 14 times; we have so much time to make up for. I think there’s going to be a tsunami of concerts and great events that are going to happen, and I just can’t wait to go. I’m excited to take my kids to shows, and we’re going to travel everywhere. Walt Disney World, and any live event my kids want to go to, I don’t care. I just can’t wait.
Check out BrettKissel.com to keep up-to-date with Brett Kissel’s music.