Started With A Song

Country superstar Brett Kissel may be making his mark on the international music scene, but he’s still kept his Alberta roots.

Photography Curtis Trent; Shot on location at the Muttart Conservatory

The day before Brett Kissel was to sign his first record deal, his label, EMI Records, folded. On Canadian Thanksgiving Day 2012, EMI’s president, Dean Cameron, called Kissel’s manager and told him that, over the weekend, EMI had been bought out by Universal. “I’ve been let go,” Cameron said. “Our deal doesn’t exist anymore.” In a hotel room in Toronto where he received the news, Kissel started to cry. “My wife and I couldn’t believe it, this was our thing,” he recalls. “We had told our families I had signed a record deal. And now it was over.”

It sounds like the premise of a country song – perhaps “My Record Deal Said Goodbye” – all that was missing was a broken truck and a lot of whiskey. But Cameron and Kissel’s manager called Steve Kane, the president of Warner Music Canada, and asked him to consider meeting with Kissel. A meeting was set up for the time when Kissel was supposed to have been announcing his deal. “Dean reminded me that [Warner] didn’t do country, they hadn’t done country music in 15 or 16 years since Paul Brandt,” Kissel says. “I was down in the dumps, but I played. I was supposed to do two songs, I ended up playing a dozen.” After getting to know Kissel over a day of eating and drinking, Kane called Cameron for the details of the previous offer. “Wednesday morning, I had a record deal,” Kissel says. “They really got what I was about – ‘he’s country, he’s Alberta, he’s authentic.'”

Before Toronto, there was Alberta. Kissel grew up on a farm near two municipal districts – “if you’re in our garage you’re in Bonnyville, if you’re in our living room you’re in the municipality of St. Paul” – but moved to Edmonton while establishing his career. “There was never a moment where music wasn’t what I wanted to do,” Kissel says. “I never had another job. All I ever wanted to do was play country music. At 11 years old I was entering contests like the country vocal spotlight in Edmonton at Northlands. I was with Global Country for a couple years. A gig in Edmonton would lead to a gig in Calgary, which would lead to a gig in Toronto and, before you know it, I’m playing in the Maritimes. Then people in the west coast would see me perform and suddenly I’m playing out there. Before you know it, I’m 16 and I’ve travelled across Canada performing. It just happened.” Kissel continued to perform, and released five independent records before signing with Warner at the age of 22.

After Toronto, there was Nashville. While Kissel and his family – his wife, Cecilia, and daughters Mila and Aria – return to Alberta often to visit family and friends, play to an eager, established fanbase, and watch Kissel’s beloved Edmonton Oilers, they spend most of their time in Music City. “My wife and I took my parents’ minivan and a U-Haul [to Nashville], it was like your stereotypical trying to chase-a-dream-in-another-city thing,” Kissel recalls. “As we drove east from Edmonton through Saskatchewan to go down to America, my wife asked, ‘Do you think Nashville will ever be home?’ I said ‘Alberta will always have my heart.’ But Nashville’s exactly where I need to be for my career. In Nashville you can sit around with anyone and talk about country music, and, boy does that feel good for my soul.”

Since that fateful day in Toronto, Kissel has released three albums, all of which have garnered dozens of awards, No. 1 hits, international play and opening gigs for country music legends Garth Brooks and Brad Paisley. Having accomplished everything on what he calls his “Canadian Bucket List,” Kissel has set his next goals in the United States. “Shows like Fallon, Ellen, Kimmel – things like that I’d really like to do,” Kissel says. “And venues like Carnegie Hall and Buck Owens’s Crystal Palace. One of my big goals that brings in my passion for hockey is to be the first artist to ever play an anthem at every single hockey arena.” The latter got a kickstart last year when, during the Oilers’ playoff run, Kissel was invited to perform the American national anthem during every home game. “That was extremely special,” Kissel says. A highlight of the whole experience was when, surprised to find his microphone not working, Kissel led an enthusiastic audience at Rogers Place in singing the “The Star Spangled Banner.” The spectacle made headlines across North America.

Even with all the accolades in a relatively short time, Kissel doesn’t intend to slow down, and sees his career as very much still in progress. “I told [Warner] from the get go, all I want to do is work,” Kissel says. “They’ve made me work hard. And fast forward six years and here we are.”

“Here” for Kissel is always in flux. In March, Kissel wrapped a 51-show tour to promote his December release, We Were That Song, and is about to embark on the summer music festival circuit and the second part of the album’s tour. To keep up with the changing music industry, Kissel focuses on creating engaging live performances, and regularly sells out his shows. “This might be the last physical CD we ever print, who knows,” he says. “On a regular basis there are challenges with this career, with an ever-changing dynamic with the way people consume music.” The other challenge Kissel is contending with, like many parents, is balancing career and family. “I’m very blessed that my wife and daughters get to travel with me for the most part, but this life that I live is 24-7, 365. I need to make sure that my daughters fit into my career and that my career fits into the life of my family.” For help with the balancing act, Kissel takes inspiration from Garth Brooks. “Opening for him was a dream come true, not just on stage, but the memories and lessons I learned backstage,” Kissel says. “A lot of it is his work ethic, and then kindness. He’s the biggest star in the world, and yet he’s the nicest guy. On a bad day he carries himself at a 12 out of 10.” Brooks’s advice will surely continue to help Kissel as he and Cecilia expand their family – Kissel shares that they’d like to have one or two more children.

Online, Kissel doesn’t shy away from sharing personal content like family photos. “I want to give a shout out to a great Edmontonian, Carrie Doll, who taught me what Facebook and Twitter are,” Kissel says. “She literally taught me in 2008 and said, ‘this is the future.'”¬† Now, his personal, non-staged, #nofilter photos are part of commitment to maintaining a consistent social¬† media presence and an openness with fans. “The more I can use social media, the better off I’ll be because that’s how fans and music lovers want to consume their content,” Kissel says. “It’s been an amazing thing, bringing my fans into my life. I never had that as a fan growing up, I had to write them a letter and hope they’d respond, and I could go to a show and that was it. Now the door is wide open and fans can see how I live personally. I love that fans have the opportunity to reach out to me and tell me what they think, good or bad.”

Judging by the mostly sold out We Were That Song tour, and enthusiastic comments from fans online, Kissel doesn’t have to worry much about the bad.

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