Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Genuine star

Award-winning Alberta country artist still just a humble guy from the farm

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Brett Kissel has had a hell of a year.

Last June, his first single, Started With a Song, set a Canadian radio record, becoming the most added track at Canadian country radio in its first week, surpassing Taylor Swift's We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. In October, the rising country star out of Flat Lake, Alta., released his major-label debut, also titled Started With a Song, for Warner Music Canada. Accolades followed: Kissel picked up two Association of Country Music in Alberta Awards before heading out on his first national co-headlining tour. By March, he was a Juno winner, snagging the trophy for Breakout Artist of the Year at the 2014 awards in Winnipeg, the first country artist in 17 years to do so.

At 24, Kissel certainly flies in the face of the stereotype that millennials are lazy and entitled.

"I think a great deal of credit has to go to the city of Winnipeg," he says of his banner year in advance of his gig at this weekend's Dauphin's Countryfest. "One of the first country stations to play me was QX104. And then being backstage at the MTS Centre with that Juno Award -- that was one of the best moments of my career."

When he says that, he's being completely sincere, because that's the other thing about Kissel -- he's just about the nicest guy you'll ever meet. He's so polite it's almost suspicious -- after all, no one is that nice, at least not in this business -- but he's genuine. Even after a short, half-hour of chatting, it becomes clear: his unassuming aw-shucks act isn't an act at all.

So how does he stay grounded in the music biz? Kissel says it has to do with his genre. "I certainly don't want to dig at pop or rock or rap, but I think maybe you need to act bigger than you are so people will believe you're bigger than you are," he says. "There's no room to act like a star in my life."

As his grandfather told him once, "He's no country star on the farm." Kissel is a fifth-generation Albertan, raised on a cattle ranch that has been in his family for a century. Country music is in his DNA. "We wear the jeans. We drive the trucks. It comes very naturally to me," he says.

He got his first guitar when he was six; his grandma bought it for him from the Sears catalogue. He took to the six-string quickly, and started hitting the talent show circuit in Alberta, playing three-chord Johnny Cash songs and singing a good two octaves higher than the man in black. Still, he was a hit.

"I knew my folks didn't think I was terrible, but I don't know if they thought I was so good until they saw the crowds react."

While he was a gifted guitarist, his songwriting took a little finessing. He recalls an early composition called Wasting Time. "Oh, it was terrible. I'm think it was like, 'If you ask me how I'm doing/I'll say I'm fine/If you ask me what I'm doing/I'll say I'm wasting time,'" he says with a laugh. He took the craft more seriously in high school, releasing a pair of independent records -- the first when he was just 12 -- before catching the attention of Warner.

These days, his focus is on honing his skills as an entertainer -- although performing his own material is paramount. He's not interested in just being a performer though. He's a singer-songwriter first, like his idol Garth Brooks. "He takes a song he's written and he really delivers it," he says.

Kissel's family has been supportive of his music career, even though it's meant that he and his wife, Cecilia, have had to relocate to Nashville to be where the action is.

"They understand that I'm chasing a dream, but I know my dad misses my help on the ranch -- I'm a much bigger help than my brother is," he says with a laugh. "If that makes it in the article, he'll laugh." (His older brother, Jamison Kissel, lives in Edmonton and works for the Government of Alberta.)

Music City has been energizing for Kissel, who is starting to turn his attention to a followup record.

"We've been so focused on working this album as hard as we could -- but you have to be looking forward," he says. The pressure is on: he wants to make an album that's even better than his career-establishing debut.

"This album was an introduction to the Canadian music community. It's important for me to deliver what that community has come to expect."

The momentum certainly isn't slowing. In the fall, Kissel will open for Brad Paisley on a 14-date Canadian tour (there's no Winnipeg date; the closest is Moose Jaw, Sask.). Before that, though, he'll be performing on Parliament Hill as part of this year's Canada Day celebrations, which just so happen to coincide with his third wedding anniversary.

"It's really nice of Mr. Harper to spend all that money on fireworks for our anniversary."

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 26, 2014 C1

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