Click on the image to play the video of Brett Kissel’s “Our Home”

For many musicians, the pandemic pause in touring was a welcome break to focus on the creative side of their career; for Brett Kissel, the opposite was true. Catching up with the multi-platinum selling songwriter on Valentine’s Day 2023, he reveals what that period was really like.

“I had such a dark cloud over my life,” he says. “Honestly, it was raining all the time… My self-worth came from the stage, and I figured if I couldn’t perform, what was there? I was filled with so much doubt, and constantly asked myself questions like, ‘What good am I?’ and ‘What can I provide the world if I can’t perform?’”

The last thing Kissel wanted to do was write songs. Creativity? There was none. As time passed – and Kissel put in the work – the desire to create slowly returned. After a few years of looking in the mirror, the father of four – who enjoys a beautiful life off the road, shared with his wife on their northern Alberta ranch – realized for the first time that even without touring, and the adulation of his fans, he was enough.

This feeling is captured in the aptly-titled “Our Home.” First released as a single in May 2022 and included on the South ­album – the first instalment of Kissel’s four-album cycle to come in 2023 called The Compass Project (more on that later) – the song was written as an ode to Alberta. But on a deeper level, it speaks to his love for – and the importance of – his homestead, with lines like, “There is something strong about it / There’s something magical about it / There’s something glorious about it / It’s our home.”

“That took two full years of self-discovery,” explains Kissel of his return to songwriting. “From that point on, I was able to freely create, with no expectations. I didn’t judge. I’ve never revealed this before in such a direct way to anyone… I’m surprised I just shared such a private moment, but the reality is, I finally had creativity flowing inside me – and because of that, I could be a lot more courageous with these records.”

It All Started with a Song

Kissel says that the first song he ever wrote was called “Wasting Time.” He was seven years old, and according to him, it was terrible. To prove it, he recites the chorus: “If you ask me how I’m doing, I’ll say I’m fine/ Ask me what I’m doing and I’ll tell you I’m just wasting time.”

While the radio hits and awards over the first 10 years of Kissel’s career show he was definitely not wasting time, the truth, according to the songwriter, is that the creative side of his career was never a passion.

“I never fell in love with songwriting until the last year-and-a-half,” he explains. “It was an important part of my career, and I enjoyed it, but it didn’t fulfil me the way being onstage did. The songs I wrote when I was carefree, in my late teens and in my twenties, were all about getting a hit. My first few years I was driven by statistics.

“Now, I care more about the feeling,” Kissel continues. “I write things I genuinely enjoy rather than chasing what the radio wants. That is so freeing. For the first time in my, life, I’m excited about writing my own songs. I actually really love this.”

As our conversation ends, we ask Kissel what makes a good song. “Goosebumps,” he says. “It’s got to give you goosebumps.”

This courage and newfound desire to write from the heart started with “Make a Life, Not a Living” the single released in March 2021, from his fifth major-label studio record What is Life?, Kissel sings about this balance of living in the moment rather than chasing what’s in front of you, or regretting what you left behind.

A decade into an already successful career that includes three JUNO Awards, 18  CCMA Awards, two Gold-certified albums, and 16 Top-10 radio hits, Kissel, 32, has few regrets, but he decided it was time to go big or go home. And, more importantly, write for himself, not just chase a radio hit.

The Compass Project is the culmination of his new artistic approach. In 2023, Kissel announced that he’s releasing not just one, but four albums. Each is a nod to the four directions on the compass. Each represents a different side of his songwriting.  Why now? “I felt it was time to peel back a few more layers,” he says. “I wanted to take a deeper dive. Not just one layer, but four albums that speak to all of the important sides of my artistry.”

The South album, released Jan. 27, 2023, is the first instalment. This record is most similar to what fans of the Canadian country star have come to know and love. As he says, “it tips its hat to Nashville, and how much I love Music City.”

Kissel still owns a home in the Tennessee capitol, and, as he adds, “I’ve got a cowboy boot on either side of the border! I’m like a snowbird. I live half the year in Alberta, and when it gets cold I head south.”

Next up is the East album, which is the one sure to surprise Kissel fans. He describes it as a singer-songwriter record about love and connections that shows a different side. The third instalment—the West album— is old-time Country & Western. The songs speak to rural themes like oil and cattle. One of these, Kissel reveals, is “Strait Country,” an ode to George Strait, one of his country heroes. “That’s a song that is too country for country radio!” he laughs.

Finally, the North album is Kissel’s greatest hits from his first decade; it’s not your typical curated collection. “These are all my favourite songs, and my fans’ favourites, recorded live in various cities across Canada over the last few years,” he says.