Brett Kissel’s New Album Is A Timely, Introspective Masterpiece

Featuring the anthemic lead single, "Make A Life, Not A Living!"

Written by Jeremy Chua
Brett Kissel’s New Album Is A Timely, Introspective Masterpiece
Brett Kissel; Photo credit: Ben Dartnell

Hit play on Brett Kissel’s new album and listeners will be welcomed by the crisp sound of a gentle breeze as waves crash on the shore. That is just a few short seconds before the singer ruminates on his opening thought-provoking soliloquy: What Is Life? 

What Is Life? serves as the album title and thematic anchor for Kissel’s fifth major label studio record with Warner Music Canada. With such a compelling, existential question taking centerstage, the quest to find an answer beckons. However, instead of putting forth his tenet in the opening reflection, Kissel lets the 14-track collection do the talking (and answering).

Brett Kissel; Cover art courtesy of Warner Music Canada

It is rare for celebrated superstars like Kissel to opt for an introspective project without much focus on the commercial, trend-chasing bells and whistles. After all, the Canadian singer has a heap of success to boast of. To date, he has won multiple CCMA and JUNO awards, and has several Gold certified albums, Platinum and eight Gold singles, and 15 top-10 country radio hits. So, what nudged Kissel to take an unorthodox approach and return to his roots on this LP? The 2020 reset button.

“I think because of the pandemic, I felt that the universe really turned up the volume and shined a spotlight on this [existential] question and topic,” the Flat Lake, Alberta native tells Sounds Like Nashville in a recent Zoom interview. “I’m so grateful that I actually had the gift of time where I didn’t have to get on a plane and go to the next show. Because of the pandemic, I peeled back a lot of layers and decided that this was the time to be personally vulnerable.”

With a clear vision in mind, Kissel began following his heart to create an “all-encompassing authentic project” that invites listeners “on this journey and quest with [him] to try and figure out the answer to the question: What Is Life?”

Leading “more with heart” than a formulaic “hit-driven” mindset is often frowned on in the music business. As far as album sales and hit singles go, the stakes are higher, and the guarantees lower. However, despite these risks, the country star remained resolute in following his instincts. After all, nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

“What’s interesting,” he notes, “is that by leading with my heart first, focusing on genuine topics and taking a very authentic approach with my music, I actually have one of the biggest hits on my hands.”

The hit Kissel is referring to is of course his single “Make a Life, Not a Living,” which has been flying up the charts. Right out the gate, 32 out of 33 of the Billboard BDS reporting country radio stations in Canada added the smash single and put it on “power rotation.” “Now, in only six weeks, my song is Top-10 [on the Canada Country National Airplay chart], which is crazy,” Kissel shares, as a warm smile lights up.

“Make a Life, Not a Living” was bestowed to Kissel as a gift on his 30th birthday by Steven Lee Olsen, who co-wrote it with tunesmiths Cary Barlowe and Brandon Day. “Well, there you go buddy, happy birthday” was all the warning sign that came with this surprise.

Arriving at an impeccable timing in his life, the powerful track resonated with Kissel so much so that he made a promise—one that, again, music business executives would not be a fan of.

“I wrote Steven back and said, ‘I promise you that this will not only go on the new record that I haven’t really started working on yet, but I’m going to base my entire album around this song. This song will also be the first single,’” Kissel shares. “Steven texted back, and was like, ‘Dude, you can’t promise me this shit. Don’t get my hopes up!’ And I said, “No, I promise you, I’m serious. This is exactly what I’m going to do.” Keeping to his word, the calculated heart-driven risk that Kissel took has been paying off tremendously.

Part ebullient and part reflective, “Make A Life, Not A Living” highlights the importance of true contentment with life’s simplest things as opposed to caving into the incessant pursuit of materialism. “I’m good with what the good Lord’s giving / Dirt under my boots and the air I’m breathing / Lose every penny, I’d still be winning,” Kissel sings triumphantly on the chorus. Of course, with the slowing down of the past year, it is no surprise that the timely tune has spoken to the deepest recesses of many listeners’ hearts.

However, perhaps unbeknownst to fans, where Kissel stands today in his personal growth is far from where he stood at the top of the pandemic. In fact, as the world started shutting down, the singer was hit with a wave of disappointment, sadness and emptiness—and rightfully so. For someone who makes a living writing songs and playing them live on the road, it is a difficult pill to swallow. 

“I didn’t wanna sit in this exact spot and just write songs about partying and relationships,” Kissel shares. “I didn’t know what was going to happen to the world. I didn’t want to write anything.” Fortunately, three months later, things started to pick back up. The singer was paired to write with hit singer/songwriter, Eric Paslay. At long last, there was a glimmer of light at the end of Kissel’s dark tunnel. 

During their co-write, both artists started reflecting on the indescribable peace gifted to them when they’re on their farms. After all, with the hustle and bustle of their job, there is something therapeutic about being back on acreage on the outskirts of town. Thence began the meteoric writing process for Kissel’s jubilant album cut, “Down To Earth.”

“I’m so thankful that the universe paired us together,” Kissel says, “I could have written with anybody else that day, but it was with Eric. We accomplished something really special—a song I’m so proud of, and a song that got me out of a dark place.”

While What Is Life? can be heavily pensive at times, the collection still boasts some roll-your-windows-down, party-friendly songs. “Night in the Life” is an infectious up-tempo tune that celebrates the small town life and carefree youth, while “Without” is a romantic country-pop offering. The stand out of these lighter, fun songs, though, is Kissel’s euphoric Diamond Rio hat-tippin’ tune, “Slidin’ Your Way.”

Written by Justin Wilson, Trea Landon and Michael Lotten, the feel-good track pays homage to the group’s massive 1991 hit. When Kissel first heard it, he told Wilson that if superstars like Blake Shelton and Kenny Chesney recorded it, it would be a chart-topping hit. “We went down the list, and [Wilson] was like, ‘Dude no one’s going to cut this song ’cause it’s just kind of a little cheesy maybe.’ So I said, “Well, shit. I’ll cut the song.” And cutting the song is exactly what he Kissel did—albeit with his own unique twist. 

Drawing on inspiration from how Brad Paisley pays an ode to country group Alabama with his 2011 single “Old Alabama,” Kissel adopted the same approach. “The only way it’s going to really work is if we bring ‘Meet In The Middle’ in to the middle of the song,” Kissel said. “So we did, and I’m getting incredible responses from everybody who’s heard this song, saying, ‘This is fun!’”

Though each song on What Is Life? is unique to Kissel, it is the LP’s pristine third track, “Die To Go Home,” that holds a very special spot in his heart. “On a personal note, this is the very first time I really talked about my story,” the country singer admits. 

As evinced in its confessional lyrics, the now-30-year-old found that “After a while, the empty smiles make lonely nights.” And with all the ladders climbed, he is faced with a sobering realization: “New York’s hard and LA’s cold.” He adds, “Even though LA’s a very hot destination, the juxtaposition is that it’s a cold city where so many people there care about you until they don’t care about you at all.”

“All of these ideas and things just came out of me when I was writing with Jesse Frasure, who was I think, to a degree, going through the same thing,” Kissel says of his write with the hit Nashville songwriter/producer. “We realized how good we had it back at home, especially me.”

While commercial pandering, popularity and success chases are sometimes embedded in the fabric of an artist’s life, Kissel has decided to focus on the art and heart of the matter, and leave the quantifiables to his team. “This year, I’m working very, very hard to focus a lot more on being internally driven, instead of externally driven,” he reflects. “If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

“As far as I’m concerned, I think it is very, very important to have this internal flame within you to do things that make you proud of yourself and be the best that you can possibly be.” He continues, “Every life coach and all these wonderful memes on great Instagram accounts will tell you that. But being internally driven is really the secret.”

The opportune gift of What Is Life? offers hope and emotional catharsis to anyone who listens to it with their heart. Though it is tempting to write this introspective album off as a product of 2020’s lockdown, Kissel’s latest offering is more than that. Each song on the collection intentionally chronicles a hardworking dream chaser’s road to contentment with life’s simplest things—love, family and the little blessings along the way.

Overall, if there is one lesson listeners can take from this sentimental masterpiece, it’s that sometimes, just sometimes: it does pay off to “care a whole lot more about caring less.”