December 9, 2013 Sections
The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
TORONTO - The precocious Canadian country singer Brett Kissel hit a number of milestones earlier than expected: he became the youngest artist — at age 15 — ever to earn a CCMA award nomination, got engaged at 19 and earlier this month issued his major-label debut, "Started With a Song," at age 23.
At this point, the Flat Lake, Alta., native must feel like a grizzled old pro having grown up in the industry, right?
"No, I don't feel like a veteran," replies the chipper, diligently polite Kissel in a telephone interview. "I look at guys like Charlie Major, I look at guys like Paul Brandt — they're veterans in the Canadian industry. I even had the opportunity to meet one of my all-time heroes in George Strait about a month ago — you know, he's a veteran. There's nobody like George Strait.
"So am I a veteran? No. But I'm not really a rookie anymore, that's for sure."
His latest record marked that graduation. The 10-song collection is firmly rooted in traditional country and boasts a radio-friendly mix of love songs and suds-spilling party anthems ("Raise Your Glass" chiefly among them).
But Kissel's record also delves more deeply into personal songwriting than one might expect from a newbie still trying to find a home on radio. The laid-back "Country in My Blood" tracks his upbringing in a family of cattle ranchers (none of whom, Kissel points out, were musically inclined), while "My Cowgirl" documents his teenage romance with the woman who would become his wife.
A courtship that, he acknowledges now, didn't necessarily seem wise to everyone around him at the time.
"When I was 19, I proposed to her after dating for about two years and ... personally, it set my family on fire," says Kissel, who now lives in Nashville with his wife.
"It was pretty crazy to think that at 19 I was engaged. But we've been married for two and a half years and I always tried to tell my parents and those who were iffy on the idea early on (that) if this was the 1960s, if I was 21 and wasn't married, people would be looking like I was (doing) something wrong.
"She's my best friend and the best possible topic to write songs," he adds of his wife.
Even more personal is the austere album-closing lament "Together." The six-minute saga chronicles the lives of his grandparents from their childhood afternoons throwing rocks together at recess — where they met as six-year-olds in a one-room schoolhouse — to their shared hard times as a farming married couple in the 1950s, and well beyond.
Kissel's grandparents died in a car accident at Christmas in 2011. He wrote the song in about five minutes, he recalls, as soon as he'd arrived home from the hospital.
"I'm not much of a spiritual guy ever in my life, I wasn't raised spiritually or in a religious home, but I feel this song must have come from heaven or another place because I'd never written a solid piece of work like this (before)," he said.
"This is a complete biography of the story of their lives, and I'm just honoured that I got to put it on the album."
He hasn't, however, included the song in his live sets.
"I only performed it at their funeral," he said. "I don't know if I'll ever really play it live. It's just for them."
Otherwise, performing live is rarely a daunting proposition to the thoroughly prepared Kissel.
He got his first guitar at the tender age of six, performed at small community rodeos soon afterward and had already declared to his parents his intention to become a country singer by 10 ("whether they believed me or not, I don't know," he says with a laugh now).
On the ranch growing up, he had access to only one radio station: an AM country channel. He listened exclusively to country, and was sufficiently isolated that when he was very young, he didn't understand the divisions between the different eras of music he was hearing.
"I didn't know George Strait or Garth Brooks were stars. I thought Faron Young and Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins were as relevant then at that time as I guess they were in the '50s."
Now, Kissel and Brooks actually run in the same circles. Kissel is managed by Bob Doyle, who has steered Brooks' record-breaking career since the late '80s and also counts the Band Perry among his clients. (Kissel ruefully says he's yet to meet Brooks, due to their mutually busy schedules).
Though his home base is now Nashville, Kissel jokes that it feels recently like he just lives in hotels, lugging his big green suitcase around North America.
It's certainly meant significantly less time back on the ranch. And don't think Kissel's close-knit family has let him forget it.
"My brother and my dad really like to rub it into me, that in all these interviews that they read or hear on the radio, I talk about: 'Oh, here I am, working the cattle and working the land,'" he laughs. "And I really only come out twice a year.
"They really like to rub it in. But you know, it's a fun place to grow up and it's a great place to be from."