To say 2020 has been a challenge may be a bit of an understatement — but for Canadian country music Brett Kissel, it’s also been a time of reflection, inspiration and innovation.
Never one to rest on his laurels, over the past couple months, the reigning CCMA Fans’ Choice champ has hit the Web, the road and the lake, all for the love of music.
Now, in addition to rocking five nominations at this year’s CCMA Awards — including the prestigious Entertainer of the Year — he’s got some big plans in the works (no surprise there), and new music on the way.
We talked to Brett about what he’s been up to, where he’s headed, and what his team has in store.
Let’s kick things off with the CCMA Awards. Even with all of those nominations, we all know which one is most important to you, and that’s the Fans’ Choice. Has it been a different experience reaching out to fans in this new normal? And how much do you depend on social media to get the word out?
It’s been totally different. We haven’t had that live show aspect of, you know, getting to stand up on stage, acknowledge, and express gratitude for the nomination. Now, it’s a bit more of a one-on-one approach. When you’re talking on social media, even though I may have over 100,000 followers, it’s about that personal connection with everybody, and letting them know how much I appreciate their support. So, it’s certainly different, because we have no idea how many votes are coming anybody’s way during this time, but I think it’s been a really interesting process to put everybody’s fan base to the test. I’m really proud of the fans I’ve got, and how they’ve been able to prop me up during a very, very difficult time. As an entertainer, it’s very difficult to see your worth sometimes or figure out who you really are without the fans. So, after so many shows have been canceled. I’ve just tried really, really hard to connect with everybody as best I can and show it’s still something we can win together, if we’re lucky enough to win it — because in reality, it’s for all of us.
You’ve always made that very clear, that it’s not just for you but for the fans, by bringing your award out on tour. You make sure everyone that voted for you knows they’re part of it.
I’ve had a few friends who have won Stanley Cups in the past, and when they have their hometown parade everyone shows up to celebrate because that community is a part of history — that community won that Stanley Cup too. I heard someone’s speech say once, it isn’t just for me; it’s for my parents, my hockey coaches, and my teammates from peewee, junior and everything. And I thought, that’s exactly what a country music career is like. So, when I was lucky enough to win my Stanley Cup, which is the Fans’ Choice Award, it’s important that I share that with everybody. That’s why I’ve always brought it with me to every show, so that if I’m doing a meet and greet, it’s shared with whoever voted or with anybody who has ever been a part of this victory. My name may be on the glass, but this is something we all accomplished together. If someone else wins this year, I hope they would do the same thing and take that trophy out on the road in 2021, to make sure everybody gets a chance to hold it, because I know I sure will if I’m lucky enough to win it.
We all know you’re always so proud of your band, and I have to bring up the fact each member has also once again received CCMA Award nods in their respective instrumental categories — and in Tyler Vollrath’s case, two nominations. The whole team has to be excited.
I’m over the moon for them, and it’s so well deserved because they are the best band in Canada as far as I’m concerned, and the work ethic and the heart of the talent they’ve got is unmatched. For them to get a nomination has nothing to do with me and has everything to do with their own craft. These guys are extraordinary and if anybody’s going to sweep anything, I hope it’s my band. I would genuinely trade my nominations for theirs if it meant all six of those guys could walk away with a glass trophy. I truly believe that they are the best in the country.
So, for most of 2020, which is going to go down as a year of infamy, live streaming seemed to become an outlet for a lot of artists — and you were no exception. How active were you in those first couple months, and how important was it for you to do those live streams on a consistent basis?
The live streams were very important, and they still are. Anytime I go on Instagram or Facebook, it’s a wonderful opportunity to connect. And even though 2020 has been a really tough year in a lot of ways, I’m very grateful we’ve had that type of technology available. I’ve been cooped up; people have been cooped up — that’s why I called it the Cooped-Up Concert Series and had great guests. It was a lot of fun. Every time I signed off, and clicked my phone off, I would go back upstairs and talk to my wife Cecilia and I say, ‘You know what? It was good, but we’re still missing something; it was good, but it’s not the same. It was good — but it wasn’t great.’ There’s no stage, so you can’t really connect. And so, it was only a matter of time until we figured out a way to bring people together, but apart, because that’s what we had to do. That’s how the drive-in model came to be, and I’ve been so blessed they’ve turned out as amazing as they have.
And those drive-in shows, of course, took you around Alberta, then Saskatchewan, now Ontario for your show in Ottawa on Sept. 19. Unfortunately, Ottawa is a little outside the 519 — which I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of people moan about — but is that show maybe the first of possibly more here in Ontario?
Absolutely. I mean, ever since we launched in Edmonton in June, my phone was lighting up with different organizers different potential sponsors, as well as people in government across Canada saying this is really special, how did you do it? Can you let us know how you did it? Whether it’s because they want to get some local acts going, or they want to have us come. I’ve loved sharing everything and I’ve been an open book not just on social media but behind closed doors with anybody who wants to know how this went and what hoops we needed to jump through. That being said, it’s so funny because when you announce one show in the province, a lot of other people get excited. So yes, we’re definitely looking to play in other markets. After the Ottawa show was announced, everyone I know in London — I swear — either sent me a message on social media or texted me asking me why not London? Because they know London is one of my favourite places to play. So, I can assure everyone, we’re working on more shows, more cities and more locations to come!
We’ve been lucky enough to have a few small, live, distanced shows here in the city and in the area, and the feeling is so different. As someone who’s been lucky enough to photograph a lot of live music over the years like myself, or for all the diehard fans, finally getting to get back to a little bit of that normalcy is kind of overwhelming. It has to be the same for you —being up on stage again, no matter the constraints, having the fans in the cars cheering much me a welcome change than the silence that would come with a livestream.
Getting an opportunity to stand on stage and look out at a sea of vehicles, everything I have to do as a performer is ten times more than what happens at a normal show — because it’s so important we entertain the very best we possibly can. And the fans are making sure their presence is known as well, honking their horns, or they have giant signs. It’s truly been amazing to look out at all those people — it’s been beyond my wildest dreams and I’m so glad we’ve been able to do it so many times this summer.
Drive-ins are great, of course, but can you tell us a little bit about your boat-in on Lake Windermere, BC, on Aug. 2? Where did that idea come from?
The boat concert was kind of the ultimate social distance concert in the sense that we realized that on any given weekend in some of the big areas — in British Columbia or Alberta — there’s hundreds of boats out on the lakes, and you physically can’t connect with anybody unless they’re in your bubble, or on the boat with you. So, my very good friend Brett Wilson is an incredible philanthropist out here, and together we’ve raised millions of dollars for a lot of charities across Canada. Brett has a gorgeous cabin out on Lake Windermere, so he said; Why don’t we do a pop-up show here? And so, I said yes. I wanted to just get out to the lake and just enjoy, and so did my band, so it was a holiday that turned into an epic event. And of course, we had to follow all the rules, we reached out to BC Health and said look, if we do this, how’s it going to look? So, we brought a sound system. Then that Saturday morning, I went for a run and at 7:30 a.m. I said 12 hours from now we’re going to be on this lake lot, bring your boats, tell your friends. And we had 3,000 people on the way. All in boats, social distanced. It was unbelievable.
There are a lot of people out there that have taken this time with COVID as a time to rest and relax. You know, maybe find a new hobby. But with you, it just seems like you’re constantly trying to think of new and innovative things to do. How much of this is personal? Or is it more a drive for your fans?
It’s both. But personally, as creative entrepreneurs, we can’t sit back and let the chips fall where they may. You have to take destiny into your own hands. You have to take the future and your present into your own hands. Don’t get me wrong, did I come up with new hobbies? Absolutely. Did I soak in this time with my wife and my kids? Absolutely. In fact, I know I’m going to be a better dad and a better husband going into 2021, because now I realize that music isn’t everything. Live shows aren’t everything. My family is everything. Where I would be on the road for 300 days over the last five years in a row, and yes, my family came along, it was still 300 days on the road. Whereas now, I’m going to flip the switch and I’m going to say, I survived, this worked out — I’m more fulfilled when I spend this time at home with my family than I could ever be on a tour bus.
But, with that all being said, while I’m finding the balance between both worlds and realizing what’s truly important, I did sit alone for a few months at home. There were months of planning, ideas, and frustration. Looking for a silver lining and feeling the uncertainty. And then when I got a text from a friend of mine telling me about what this one guy did in Europe. It was just one guy and his guitar on stage, playing a drive-in in the middle of a field in Latvia. You said, you should do this in Canada. I texted my manager, my agent and my friend Jackie Ray, and said I’ve got an idea, and it’s going to be amazing. And I referenced Big Valley Jamboree, I referenced Parkjam. We went to work, and from that text, 28 days later we did eight shows in Edmonton.
When you’ve got the willingness to work — when you’ve got the idea and the team, you can be successful with it. I’m extremely grateful we accomplished what we did for the charity, for the community, for the province, and for Canada — not just for myself in my own heart.
I know you and Cecilia definitely popped into my mind July 1. I know you’re always together but usually spending your anniversary on the road. How was that different this year?
We’ve always made a point that every July 1, we’ll be together no matter what. But, like you said, it’s usually for a show. Whereas this time, we dressed up and we took our kids for a beautiful dinner, and it was a date with all five of us. It might have been the best Canada Day yet.
I’ve noticed on social media you’ve been taking a lot of time to kind of look back and reflect on important moments, whether it was hitting the stage with Garth Brooks, or the Nashville Tornado benefit concert. You’ve also reached back and re-released your song Tough People Do. It’s always been a very important track to a lot of people, but why did you choose to revisit it seven years later?
I wanted Tough People Do to come out again this year because of what everyone is going through. I got so many messages on social media, and there were a lot of one-on-one conversations or phone calls that I had with friends and family, saying they’ve been listening to the song on repeat. You know, it’s a really tough time right now — so many people have lost jobs, so many parents are overwhelmed with having a kind of home-school situation with their kids. But if there’s anything I’ve learned or anything I’ve seen or I know to be true, it’s that tough times don’t last forever. Tough people last. Everybody gets through it; through financial recession, or in this case, through a global pandemic. We’re absolutely getting through it and we’re adapting as a human society, as a global society, and as Canadians. We’re adapting and we’re making the most of it. We’re learning, and that’s the epitome of what the song is all about. So, I was really grateful that my record label Warner said, if you want to do this, we’re all about it and we just put that out to the world. It wasn’t about a chart position; we just wanted every radio station to give all the fans a new version that was a lot more vulnerable to go with the times.
What kind of themes have influenced you in your songwriting this year?
If there’s been anything that has been a consistent theme in my songwriting right now during this time, it’s been the topic of appreciation. You don’t need materialistic things to be happy. Sometimes it’s great to just put your hands in the dirt and when you do that, you just get back to the basics. You know, my wife and I bought the family farm from my grandparents, so we’ve always got a place to come home to. It’s those kinds of things that fall under that category of gratitude and appreciation. Sometimes the biggest moments come from living a smaller life. Those are the kinds of things that I’ve been writing about a lot lately.
Well, you know after that I’m going to have to ask the ever-present question; when can we expect new music?
Jan. 1, 2021, is exactly what we’re planning for. We released Now Or Never on Jan. 1, 2020, to start the new decade off on the right foot — did that ever go downhill real fast. But anyway, that’s our goal, our plan, and our desire to have new music. Whether that be at least a new song, or a new full record hitting the shelves, everyone will be able to get something new the stroke of midnight Dec. 31.