Country-music stalwart Brett Kissel says he’s done looking for U.S. breakthrough

Canadian hitmaker says his new album is utterly true to himself — but he’s sure it will put him on ‘big stages, big festivals and arenas’ somewhere.

Nick Krewen, Music

 

There aren’t too many artists who can boast of an appearance by heavy metal guitarist Dave Mustaine and country music legend Charley Pride on the same album.

In fact, Flat Lake, Alta.’s country music sensation Brett Kissel is probably the only one: his new album We Were That Song features both guests on separate tracks.

Margaret Malandruccolo photographer

The 83-year-young Pride contribution to the album-ending reflective ballad “Burgers and Fries” probably isn’t so surprising, considering that Kissel grew up on a steady diet of Charley, Waylon Jennings and his all-time favourite Johnny Cash on the cattle ranch that has been in his family for over 100 years.

The rock-edged “Damn!,” however is a left-field choice that the married father of two reveals stemmed from an unlikely friendship with the Megadeth founder.

“I couldn’t believe that Dave offered to play guitar,” Kissel said recently at a downtown Starbucks. He returns to the city for two performances, including a matinee, at the Danforth Music Hall on Feb. 17.

“We were in Scotland together at a songwriting retreat with his daughter Electra (an aspiring country music singer). We’d become friends a year earlier, but it was here he asked, ‘So, when are you going to ask me to play guitar on one of your records?’”

Mustaine had only one condition.

“It’s got to be the most rockin’ track you’ve ever written,’” the 27-year-old Kissel says with a chuckle as he relates the story.

 While the distorted crunch of Mustaine’s guitar certainly energizes “Damn!” — a complimentary, upbeat song about a desired woman — it’s not out of place on the 13-track We Were That Song, an album where action-packed tempos outnumber the ballads.

Whether it’s the song name-dropping title track, the slightly Celtic Mumford-feel of the joyous “Anthem” or more rock-flavoured edge of “Guitars and Gasoline,” this album has a kick that Kissel said was premeditated.

“It’s definitely a very lively record,” says the nine-time Canadian Country Music Award winner, named Male Artist of the Year for the last three years running.

“When it came to song selection, it had to tell a story and it had to have a place in the set list. It’s meant to be cranked up loud and it’s meant to be played live.”

Kissel, who earned his first CCMA Rising Star nomination at the age of 16 following more than 70,000 in sales of his first three independent albums, makes no bones about the payoff he anticipates for We Were That Song, his fourth on a major label.

Brett Kissel ©MMFOTO

“This is the album that’s going to do it for us,” he says with a confident humility. “We want to take this not just one level up, but two, three, four levels up!

“We believe this music is ready for some big stages, big festivals and arenas. It’s a lot of everything.”

Now 27, Kissel has spent nearly half his life chasing the brass ring, and the homegrown success of such gold Canadian country music radio staples as “Started With a Song,” “3-2-1,” “Something You Just Don’t Forget” and “Airwaves” among others, as well as exciting shows and cheering crowds, has laid the initial groundwork.

South of the border, though, Kissel has been trying — like so many before him — to second guess what Music City wants out of its suitors. Despite having respected industry veteran Bob Doyle, Garth Brooks’ manager, as his co-manager, it’s been frustrating.

“I’ve been able to have great success here in Canada and it’s been awesome,” says Kissel, who is managed here by Invictus Entertainment Group’s Louis O’ Reilly.

“It definitely wasn’t easy, but I know the steps to take. Whereas in the United States, you think you’ll do these five things and it will lead to this result — I’ll do those five things, whatever’s asked of me — and meet a dead end.”

So rather than attempting to hit a mysterious moving target, Kissel has decided to bet on himself.

We Were That Song embraces the true Brett Kissel. He’s finally being himself without kowtowing to imagined U.S. expectations.

“My last albums (Started With a Song, Pick Me Up) were very special, but I was definitely trying hard,” Kissel admits. “There were elements of honesty there, but not full honesty.

“This album is completely honest, a result of Bob and a lot of other influential people in my life telling me, ‘You’re not going to be happy if you’re not doing what you gotta do. It might be the long way, but you’ve got to forge your own path, be who you are.’”

Kissel says fun-embracing, attitudinal songs like “Shootin’ It” and “Drink, Cuss, or Fish” are representative of the new “looseness” he’s incorporating into his songwriting.

“It’s walking the line of taking different risks on the record and caring more while caring less,” he explains. “I’m caring more about myself and what the fans want to hear, and caring less about being placed in a box.”

Also helping him find his way are the music business tête-à-têtes Kissel has enjoyed with both Brooks and Brad Paisley; he’s toured as an opener for both and Brooks, of course, is country music’s biggest-selling artist.

“Garth was just himself,” Kissel says. “Now that I know the story firsthand from Garth himself; it took a long time to get that traction: for someone to see him as a stock and invest in it, then watch him go to the very top. For the last couple of years, I chased and chased what I thought Nashville, American labels and the American industry wanted me to be. ‘Shootin’ It’ and this entire record is a perfect example of me saying, ‘I don’t care anymore. This is who I am and at least I’m going to be happy putting out this record.’”

Kissel is also taking a page out of the Garth Brooks concert playbook. With his return, Brooks has been performing multiple shows in one tour location, usually over a weekend, sometimes two or three full concerts a day.

In Canada, Kissel is ambitiously attempting the biggest domestic tour ever by a country artist — 100 dates — including 10 to 15 where, like his upcoming Danforth Music Hall shows, he’s staging two full concerts in a day.

Can he handle it?

“I’ve never done it before,” Kissel says. “But if Garth can do it, I’m sure as hell going to try.”

Country-music stalwart Brett Kissel says he’s done looking for U.S. breakthrough | Toronto Star

 

Golden Globe or Golden Throat?

Actor Musicians

Nick Krewen

Grammy.com

October 2003

Golden Globe or Golden Throat?

There may be a sizeable increase in the number of actors pursuing their muse as recording artists these days, but trying to earn respect from the masses, the music industry and critics is still an uphill battle.

Some, such as Hilary Duff or Jennifer Lopez, are talented television and movie multi-taskers who seem to have no trouble climbing the Billboard charts and finding millions of fans to buy their albums.

But others, such as the Oscar-winning Russell Crowe and ex-Party Of Five ingenue Jennifer Love Hewitt, are still struggling to find an audience for their music.

While public choices concerning such matters as talent and material may be subject to individual tastes, at least one fledgling actor musician feels there’s a bigger obstacle to overcome.

“People just don’t take actors seriously,” says Crazy/Beautiful star Taryn Manning, who is simultaneously pursuing a career as singer of Dreamworks recording act Boomkat.

“It’s been one of my biggest hurdles. The whole deal is the perception that anybody can act, but not everybody can play instruments or write songs.”

Manning, whose Boomkatalog.One was released to critical acclaim earlier this year, says the notion that acting is an easier profession to conquer doesn’t help.

“If you have a pretty face and a nice body, you have a chance to make it as an actor unfortunately. You really do.”

Academy Award winner Billy Bob Thornton, who recently released his sophomore album The Edge Of The World on the Sanctuary label, also feels actors are at a disadvantage when it comes to establishing their musical legitimacy.

“We’re definitely under a microscope,” says Thornton, revered for his starring roles in such films as Monster’s Ball, The Man Who Wasn’t There and his self-written Sling Blade. “I don’t think you have as fair a shake.”

He says the perceived glamour of Hollywood lifestyle often creates suspicion both within public and music industry circles.

“I think that people think that the only reason actors have the opportunity to record music is because they’re rich guys who can get what they want, or that maybe they have an ‘in’,” Thornton explains. “And maybe that’s true to a degree. But there’s a downside – there are people within the music business who have a prejudice against actors doing it.  They watch you with one eye kind of squinted – ‘Wait a minute, what are you doing in my yard?’”

He also feels that much of the bias is media-driven.

“The media creates it and perpetuates it,” says Thornton, who has toured with Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello. “A critic may be slamming your thing for many reasons. You may have slept with his girlfriend, or whatever he thinks you did. If you get a critic who’s got a bee in his ass about you and they want to talk about you in that way, that’s the only way a guy in Wichita, Kansas hears about that. There are people out there always looking for this angle that’s easy for them, a soundbyte.”

And then there’s the residue from the “Golden Throats syndrome,” the ‘60s and ‘70s era of big-name movie and TV idols that regularly savaged pop classics through ill-advised recordings. Remember Leonard Nimoy’s “I Walk The Line?”

However Rhino Entertainment A&R manager and staff producer Gary Peterson, co-creator of the four-volume Golden Throats series for Rhino Records, says a return to such an ear-cringing movement would be unlikely.

“When an artist from the movies or television or another type of entertainment field wants to do a recording now, there’s a safety net of recording technology at hand to fix up the mistakes because the production values are higher,” says Peterson.

“Of course with these artists now, and the high profiles that they maintain, they’re much more guarded about what comes out.”

“The fact of the matter is that you’ve got to look at people for what they’re doing and not who they are,” says Billy Bob Thornton, who received critical acclaim for his Marty Stuart-produced first album Private Radio.  He says he considers music and acting equal priorities.

“I consider it all the same thing,” he says. “ It’s all about telling stories and moving people in some way or another. But there are different feelings you get from it. What movies do that music doesn’t do for you is put you into a different world for a long time, whereas a song might tell a story and put you in another world, but you’re not able to develop it that far.

“What music does for you is more immediate. You can write a song and go cut it that night. If you’re writing a movie, it’s going to take you awhile, and then you have to go get it financed or set up in a studio.  Then they’ve got to cast it, so it’s a long process.”

Boomkat’s Manning says she shouldn’t be pigeonholed.

“I like to dabble in and hone all my talents, which range from singing, acting, and dancing to making clothes, doing hair and makeup.”

Manning, who has begun working on Boomkat’s second album, says she’ll honor her musical commitment through action.

“You’ll have to start believing in me when I’m five records in, because I never plan to stop making music. People should open their minds and not be so judgmental.”

Postscript:  This was published by Grammy.com in either October or November 2003. The site has since been upgraded and some of the archival files are no longer available.

I also remember Billy Bob Thornton telling me during this interview that he wrote the script for his Academy Award winning Sling Blade while Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention’s Burnt Weeny Sandwich served as the soundtrack.

Lucinda Williams gets stellar assistance at Massey Hall: review

The alt-country darling had to read her lyrics from a binder, but her top-notch backing band more than filled in any gaps in her memory.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Fri Nov 21 2014

Lucinda Williams
3.5 stars
At Massey Hall, Nov. 20.

What on earth is going on with Lucinda Williams?

That’s the first question the good denizens of a half-filled Massey Hall were probably asking themselves on Thursday moments before the Lake Charles, La., native took to the stage, as they spotted the separate music stand with an open binder placed next to her microphone.

At first, there might have been cause for worry: the 61-year-old, three-time Grammy-winning alt-country darling ventured on stage unaccompanied with an acoustic guitar strapped around her shoulder and proceeded to strum through “Blessed,” the title track of her 2011 album, reading the lyrics to the entire song, as her three backing band members joined her one by one.

As her nearly two-hour concert continued, first with Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’s “Can’t Let Go,” and then one of her earlier numbers, “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad,” Williams continued to leaf through the binder for the lyrics to the song she was about to sing. It was a prop that might have been better tolerated if it had been solely relegated to assisting her with material from her recent 20-song effort Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone instead of her entire 11-album catalog.

But life is a series of balances, and luckily for Williams, she had a secret weapon that pretty much nullified the distraction of the binder reliance: her band.

They were damned spectacular. In fact, if Williams continues touring with the same unit — Wallflowers guitarist Stuart Mathis and her long-time rhythm section David Sutton on bass and Butch Norton on drums — she should bill them as The Damned Spectacular, because they were nothing short of mesmerizing, elevating the Massey show to a level beyond reprieve.

Sutton and Norton are a tightly disciplined, in-the-pocket tandem that fill in so many holes with just the right notes that it makes Williams look like a certified genius for hiring them.

This was particularly noticeable on “Unsuffer Me,” where Norton slowed the song and maintained it at a restrained yet powerful enough pace — with Sutton adding intermittent notes that gave the arrangement room to breathe — to allow Mathis to cut through the air with laser-like riffs on his electric guitar.

And Mathis was no slouch either when it came to applying his own sonic paintbrush in terms of enlivening Williams’ tunes: he added great grit to “Essence,” strong pathos to “Changed the Locks” and shone with pretty much every note he played.

As for Williams, her charming Southern drawl sounded less ragged and vulnerable than on record. Her full-throated warbling on her emotionally honest, heart-wrenching songs “Changed the Locks” and “Compassion” — the song adapted from one of her father Miller Williams’ poems — was full of powerful gravitas, the icing on the cake of what ended up being a buoyant, jubilant evening of the passionate roots music jambalaya for which Williams is renowned. But the reason she was so good was unquestionably due to her blisteringly amazing band.

Also kudos to the soundman: the mix was perfect, and nicely captured the dynamic range of the music throughout the evening.

Just a final note to the headliner: Hey Lucinda, it wouldn’t kill you to spring for a TelePrompter.

Lucinda Williams gets stellar assistance at Massey Hall: review | Toronto Star

Bob Dylan and The Band’s complete Basement Tapes resurface at last

Toronto duo largely responsible for lifting the veil off “the most sought after and mysterious recordings from the post-nuclear, pre-digital era.”

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Wed Nov 05 2014

 

Sitting at Johnny Rockets, a ’50s-style burger joint in Yonge-Dundas Square, my dining companion pulls out a cardboard envelope and hands it over.

“Open it up and have a look. Have a little whiff,” he insists.

Inside is a box containing a reel of recording tape, inscribed in marker with the following song titles in order: “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” “Any Day Now — I Shall Be Released,” “If Your Memory Serves You Well,” “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” (Take 2 is written beside it in pencil), “I Shall Be Released” and two separate takes of “Too Much of Nothing.”

It takes a moment to sink in and realize what I’m actually holding: an original Basement Tape, one of the more than 20 reels recorded by Bob Dylan and the majority of Toronto legends The Band when Dylan was convalescing in Woodstock, N.Y., following a 1966 motorcycle accident.

How do I know it’s an original?

Because my dining companion is Toronto’s Jan Haust, Canadian music archivist, current curator of the Dylan-driven collection, and primarily responsible for the release earlier this week of The Basement Tapes Complete, a lavish six-CD set issued by Sony’s Legacy that finally lifts the veil off what Haust calls “the most sought after and mysterious recordings from the post-nuclear, pre-digital era.”

He’s not kidding. Music fans have been waiting nearly half a century to hear these recordings: 138 takes of 115 songs, all of them recorded informally throughout 1967 by The Band’s Garth Hudson, mostly in the cramped Woodstock-area basement of the abode known as Big Pink.

Jan Haust with Garth Hudson

Every note of such future Dylan-penned classics as “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” “I Shall Be Released,” “This Wheel’s On Fire” and “The Mighty Quinn;” covers of well known and obscure songs like Hank Williams’ “You Win Again,” Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds” and Johnny Cash’s “Belshazzar” has been lovingly restored and digitally remastered in Toronto by Haust and renowned Cowboy Junkies engineer and producer Peter J. Moore.

Prior to this week’s releases (there’s also a two-disc Sony edition of highlights called The Basement Tapes Raw), fans had received a limited taste of the Big Pink sessions, including the official 24-song The Basement Tapes and a few tracks that have surfaced since, mostly notably “I’m Not There” from the 2007 Todd Haynes film of the same name.

The Basement Tapes sessions were significant for a number of reasons.

First, the relaxed atmosphere of everyone crammed into an intimate space allowed Dylan (who performs at the Sony Centre on Nov. 17 and 18) to explore another songwriting direction, which was a little more laidback and humorous.

“What was going on for the most part, pretty basic,” recalls Hudson, who set up the basement with microphones, a recorder and a mixer, in a separate phone interview.

“He (Bob) would write the song upstairs, couch and coffee table, then take it down and we would play it, and usually, not even run through it once. We’d do the introduction and then a bit of the song and then I would put the machine on record.”

Some argue it may have been the birth of alt-country, but a bigger significance is that it completed a musical coming of age.

“It’s where it all ended up coming together,” notes Haust. “And that’s the fascinating component here. The basement is the incubator of what became The Band.”

The Band

For Haust, the release of The Basement Tapes Complete marks the end of a 12-year journey for him and Moore, the engineer. The duo first heard the tapes, through an arrangement via Haust’s friendship with Hudson, when Robbie Robertson was assembling 2005’s The Band box set A Musical History.

“Some of the tapes were in rough shape, through no fault of Garth Hudson’s and through no fault of anyone’s,” Haust recalls.

Several reels were mouldy and Moore had to delicately unwind and re-spool some 1,800 feet of “very, very thin” reel-to-reel tape by hand on a few others to “flatten them out.”

There was also a bigger challenge: all the songs were recorded on a rare quarter-track machine with such poor quality tape that Moore didn’t have the equipment for proper playback, let alone restoration.

“These tapes were never meant to be heard by the public,” said Moore in a separate interview. “These were sketches — the jotting down of ideas. So the tape’s speed was 7½ inches per second, where most of your quality pro recordings are at 30 or 15 inches per second. I told Jan, there’s no such thing as a professional quarter-track machine.”

So Moore had to get a playback tape head custom made for his own equipment and found a New Jersey manufacturer who had the expertise to make it. The request was so rare that the manufacturer, Jim French, had only built one prior to Moore’s request.

The buyer? Neil Young, known for being quite persnickety when it comes to technical recording tools.

“Once I heard that, I knew I was following the right logic,” Moore says.

When Dylan’s manager Jeff Rosen and Sony Music finally commissioned Haust and Moore to assemble The Basement Tapes Complete, the duo huddled in Moore’s studio from March through September, deciding to follow Garth Hudson’s original lead and sonically restore what was going on in the basement.

“We kept the integrity of what Garth envisioned,” says Moore. “I didn’t add reverb or anything to these tapes. I’m phase correcting — not changing the picture, just realigning the lens.

“But when you realign the lens, all of a sudden you have that much more depth of field. I phase corrected a lot of the tapes and suddenly the bass appears. You’re actually hearing the bass for the first time — Rick (Danko) and his lovely melodic glissandos and everything he’s doing on that bass.

“Whereas on the bootlegs, there’s no top end, no bottom end, just more of a whiny mid-range. I’m bringing it into focus.”

The sound is immaculate, even impressing the man who commandeered the original tape recorder, Garth Hudson.

“I remember the sounds very well, the background sounds and the instruments,” Hudson says. “What we have now is clarity. It was a lot of work on Jan’s part and Peter Moore with his incredible talent. The voice is more alive. It’s clearer. And Peter has also assembled and revived tape that has been crinkled, stretched. So it’s been a big process.”

Now that The Basement Tapes Complete has finally seen the light of day, Haust and Moore have one more ambitious project in mind: an eight-CD, DVD and book box set chronicling Levon and The Hawks, dating back to their individual pre-Ronnie Hawkins musical pursuits in the late ’50s.

In the meantime, Haust will savour the arrival of The Basement Tapes Complete.

“I’m pleased as punch that we were able to put it together,” says Haust.
“This is the first time ever that a Bob Dylan project was produced in Toronto. That’s very significant. It’s four Canadian rock ’n’ rollers and an American folksinger. Now we’ve set the record straight. . . .

“We have cleaned up these recordings. We have repaired the damaged tape. We have treated these 47-year-old recordings like the archaeological gems that they are.

“This isn’t the Mona Lisa. These are the sketches.”

Sony executive Steve Berkowitz, Jan Haust and Peter J. Moore receiving a Grammy for their compilation and restoration work on Bob Dylan: The Basement Tapes Complete

 

Bob Dylan and The Band’s complete Basement Tapes resurface at last | Toronto Star

Rascal Flatts concert worth braving the weather: Review

Country music band — along with opening act Sheryl Crow — delighted the wet crowd at the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre on Saturday night.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Sun Sep 21 2014

Rascal Flatts is something of an anomaly in the country music world.

A country pop band with Christian overtones, the core of singer Gary LeVox, his bass playing cousin Jay DeMarcus and guitarist Joe Don Rooney have never really possessed “it”: that intangible level of charisma that undeniably screams “star” whenever you look at them.

LeVox has an OK voice, a high tenor (that jumps up an octave into the realm of annoyance whenever he shouts), with both DeMarcus and Rooney taking occasional leads, and their harmonies are efficient, though not spectacular.

Yet these average Joes have enjoyed above average success since the Nashville-formed band first hit the country charts with “Prayin’ For Daylight” 14 years ago, selling more than 20 million albums, producing a relentless string of No. 1 hits and gathering a crazily-devoted fan base comprised of folks like the one who tweeted on a giant screen prior to the band’s 90-minute set at the Molson Canadian Amphitheatre on Saturday night, that he had driven 1,800 km from Labrador City to watch his musical heroes in action.

The audience consensus — and there were 9,000 or so predominantly plaid-clad denizens in the venue, with another 2,000-3,000 enduring the pouring rain to witness the occasion and warm-up act Sheryl Crow — would probably be that it was indeed worth the drive, despite the fact that the band occasionally fell short in their delivery.

But the song has always been the most important aspect of the country music medium, and Rascal Flatts certainly knows how to pick them: the ballad “What Hurts The Most,” “Fast Cars and Freedom” and “Bless The Broken Road” — all country chart-toppers — found the audience jovially singing along and filling in the gaps whenever LeVox pointed the microphone in their direction.

Except for a lacklustre “Why Wait,” a slightly shaky “Here Comes Goodbye” and LeVox’s extremely pitchy opening line of the newer “DJ Tonight,” the trio strengthened in momentum as the show progressed.

Something that separates them from the rest of the pack is their quirky charm: DeMarcus is the comedian, so he took some time to do a short shtick about the end of summer coinciding with the disappearance of women wearing Daisy Dukes shorts that the audience lapped up.

They also pulled a novel twist on the band introduction, recruiting their six backing musicians to join them in an a capella version of “Love You Out Loud” and an alternate take of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.”

For the acoustic portion, LeVox announced he was taking a pee break and returned to the stage with Sheryl Crow, who performed her song “The Picture” and then stuck around to help the band with “My Wish.”

Speaking of the seemingly ageless Crow — looking marvellous at 52 as she did at 32, around the time Tuesday Night Music Club introduced her to the rock mainstream and multiple Grammies — she delivered a solid hour-long set in which she seemed a little livelier than in previous performances.

Also accompanied by a six-piece band, Crow delivered enjoyable renditions of “All I Wanna Do,” “If It Makes You Happy,” “Soak Up The Sun” and “Everyday Is A Winding Road” with the rock edge she’s known for, as well as a political and pensive “duet” about war with the late Johnny Cash of “Redemption Day.”

Although largely sticking with guitar, she also played a bit of keyboard, bass and harmonica, loosening up to venture out to the extended stage in the pit to slap hands with the crowd. For a woman who has been accused in the past as being a staid entertainer, it was nice to see her loose and relaxed.

The same could be said for Rascal Flatts, who ended the show strongly with their hit rendition of Tom Cochrane’s “Life Is A Highway,” and then encored with a cover of Motley Crue’s “Kickstart My Heart” before finishing with “Me and My Gang” and a thundering flashpot explosion.

Rascal Flatts may still be somewhat of a head-scratching country music enigma, but there’s little doubt that their fan base will walk to the ends of the Earth to experience them.

Rascal Flatts concert worth braving the weather: Review | Toronto Star