Q&A: Country Singer Brett Kissel Talks Cancer, Cancer, Cancer
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Country music singer Brett Kissel, who tonight (Oct. 6) will receive the Allan Slaight Honour at Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto, recognizing young, inspirational Canadian musicians, is donating the proceeds from the download sales of his song “I Didn’t Fall In Love with Your Hair,” until Oct. 28, to the Canadian Cancer Society. Businessman/philanthropist W. Brett Wilson, former panelist on the TV show Dragons' Den and himself a cancer survivor, will match the amount raised up to $25,000.
The 26-year-old Alberta native released his latest Warner Music Canada album, Pick Me Up, last September, and won four trophies at the 2016 Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA) Awards, including male artist and fans’ choice. The album includes the No. 1 country single “Airwaves,” and top 10 “Cool With That” and “Pick Me Up,” but it’s taken this long to release “I Didn’t Fall In Love with Your Hair” — which features Carolyn Dawn Johnson — as a single and video, despite a lyric that really hits home with many cancer patients and the people who love them.
Kissel spoke with Samaritanmag about the lyric, why he was uncertain about releasing it as a single, his mother Brenda’s battle with cancer, and how fans have reacted.
I actually wondered why it took so long for you to release “I Didn’t Fall In Love With Your Hair” as a single? It’s a great, hard-hitting lyric.
It was a big risk for us, and a worry, as to whether or not we were going to release “I Didn’t Fall In Love With Your Hair.”
Why would it be a worry?
Well the optics of country radio today and promotion, there are all of these songs that talk about relationships, that talk about tailgating's fun and party, and there's songs like this on contemporary radio around the world. And then the more that we thought about it, the more that we analyzed it to death, the more that we realized how foolish we were perhaps as a team to not look at the big picture. And the big picture is that this is a song that needs to be heard obviously, across Canada and around the world because it just means so much and it has the opportunity to do so much good.
It's interesting because you start listening to it and you think it's about girls and our silly self-esteem with our hair, and then you get to the punch line, I guess. There's no room to misinterpret; it's got the word “cancer” in the lyric.
That's the first thing that people think about when- — well, probably mortality is the first, but we all know that losing your hair is often associated with getting cancer and going through treatment, and it’s tough.
Without question. That's why the song is important, so that you can really tell men and women, whoever listens to it that, like the lyric says, ‘The heart that's inside is why I stopped and stared’ because I think women really get their identity from how they look, and their hair and their outfits and everything like that. It's important for us, as supportive men, or for a significant other, to say, 'You know what? That doesn't matter. We love you for who you are.' And that's why I really fell in love with the song and had to record it based on what my family has been through, my dad and my mom. And myself, as a young husband now, if my wife and I ever were to go through that, I would want her to know how much I truly love and respect her no matter what's going on and no matter what she looks like.
Are you aware Princess Margaret Hospital here in Toronto has a campaign they started two years ago called No Hair Selfie? Have you heard about that?
No, I haven't.
You pledge money to see your friend, your loved one, shave their hair off, or there's an app that makes it look like you shaved your head, in solidarity with those who lose their hair during treatment. It raised a fortune. But I went to the press conference at the hospital, one of the women that spoke said that that losing her hair was one of the most difficult things to deal with.
I can only imagine. I've had aunts that have gone through that, that have lost their hair. I had a teacher that I was extremely close to, who has since passed away, who lost her hair. And then some of the women that I brought up onstage at the Canadian Country [Music] Awards, one of the young girls, her name was Kay-Lynn, and she had lost all of her hair and was very brave to come up onstage and stand beside me and let me hold her hand. That type of courage for women is so special and it's truly inspiring. And that's why this song was so important for me to release and record, then with our own cancer initiative, just same thing like you're saying at Princess Margaret. If you get an opportunity to do good in a philanthropic way, that was also important to me to make sure that I have an opportunity to give back to families across Canada and to the Canadian Cancer Society to help with cancer research, which has been so instrumental to my mom's recovery, and to the recovery of so many Canadian families going through this.
I was amazed to read that your mom went through 40 surgeries.
Yeah, and you know what, I have to be honest with you, that as a kid, or as a teenager, I never really thought about it. I never understood the significance of it.
How old were you at the time?
I was 11 when my mom was first diagnosed.
What kind of cancer?
Her first cancer was diagnosed as breast cancer, so she immediately had a double mastectomy. However, to be honest, it was a misdiagnosis. They had found that she had a specialized cancer called neuroendocrine, which was found first, I think, through trial. My mom had just turned 40 and said, “Well okay, I'm 40, I'm going to go and get a check-up, as all women should,” at that time. And they found some lumps, but she also had a brain tumour that needed to be removed, and then my mom also had ovarian cancer.
Yeah, her body has been hacked up quite a bit, but she's a fighter. And I think maybe she just wanted to keep everything normal for my brother and I, and for my dad, so it was business as usual. She was, in a lot of respects, the same mom, no matter what, day to day, surgery or not, cancer treatments or not, she was the same. And I really appreciate it. Looking back now, we lived a very normal lifestyle thanks to her courage.
I was surprised also when I read in the press release the quote from the person [Kim Rossi, manager, major gifts] from the Canadian Cancer Society, that they expect a jump in cancer cases of 40 percent in the next 15 years [due to Canada’s aging and growing population], whereas we probably all think it's going to be lower because there's so much attention, there's so much fundraising, and there's so much research and advancement. That's a staggering amount, 40 percent.
Without question. It's very, very difficult to hear that statistic and realize that is the truth and that is the fact of the matter, but with the aging population of Canadians, that does make sense. But all the more reason to donate, all the more reason to raise not just funds but awareness of such an important cause because with such a high increase in percentages, it's important for all of us Canadians to do our part to put an end to this disease, or to bring those percentages down as time goes on, instead of seeing it increase.
You said when you heard the song, you had to record it. I know you have co-writers on it, but does that mean that you didn't write the lyrics for the song?
This song was pitched to me by two very good friends in Nashville, but after hearing the song and the way that it was presented and written, I had asked if I could go in and edit it, which in the music community is very uncommon and it's not accepted. But after explaining to the songwriters what my story was with my mom, I was able to rewrite it to make it a lot more personal.
So did it not have the line about the phone call and the cancer spreading in it? It was more a self-esteem thing for women?
Much about self-esteem. It wasn't that there was this opportunity to bring up cancer, but I felt that the song could've really gone in a different direction if we did make a mention about cancer, and if we did talk about that type of situation, and take the song to the next level, like you said, that hook, that turn, once you get to the bridge of the song. That was an important thing to really emphasize for the creative elements and the artistic element of it.
It's been a year since the song came out on the album, before it was a single and a video. People, your fans, must've approached you the past year with stories about being touched by the song.
Yes, on a nightly basis, and that's something that I always appreciated and I always have time to do is to chat with these amazing people telling me about their own stories, so that it continued to give me inspiration to, obviously, release the song and say we have an opportunity to do a lot of good here. And everybody that I've spoken to across Canada, and really around the world, has been the exact same thing. They have the exact same stories as I do. So that was very, very important.
A lot of people will be buying the song for the second time because your true fans hopefully already own your album.
Exactly. That's why we have the charity initiative to it because download it more times. If you have another email address, do it again, and that way you can gift it because on iTunes you can gift songs. And that's exactly what we want people to do on a regular basis because all of the proceeds are going to the Canadian Cancer Society. So it is, without question, a huge win-win for all parties involved: me as a musician, getting my music out there, and having the ability to heal and encourage people; and then on the next level, you have this opportunity to donate a significant amount of money to do some good for Canadian families.
And then Brett [Wilson] is going to match up to 25K. Was his association because of Carolyn Dawn Johnson’s involvement on the track?
No, Brett Wilson is one of my best friends. We've been friends for about six years, and we share a condo in Nashville that my wife and I rent from him. He's a part owner of the Nashville Predators. Living in Nashville, we live in his place. He's like an uncle to our new baby girl. It's very difficult to describe the friendship because it became a fast, lifelong special friendship. So when I told him this was what I wanted to do, inspired by his philanthropy and his charity work that he's done over the last 10, 15 years, he said that he loved it. He loved the idea so much that he wanted to match whatever was made in the downloads that I will be donating to the Canadian Cancer Society. What we call it is double the good.
Tell me about the video and the couples in it. I don't know why, I just have this weird feeling that some of them have gone through cancer.
I have to be honest with you, I wish that I knew more of their personal stories. As it is in the acting world, and in the life of music videos, I wasn't there while the filming was happening for the other characters and the other actors. I did get a chance to meet a few of them in London [Ontario] during the Canadian Country Music Awards. Like I expected, all of them brought up I think how important it was for them to be a part of this video because they had recently either gone through cancer, or their mother had, or their daughter had or their son had. So given all those situations, I think that's why they were honoured to be a part of the video, and that's why I was honoured to have them.
Your parents aren't in it, are they?
No, they're not. You know, I was talking with my mom and my dad, and my dad is a down-home country boy and Ihim being in front of the camera would be probably the last thing on his mind.
What does your mom think of the song and the charity initiative?
My mom finds it very special to give back in the two ways that we are. She's done a few interviews based on this song and based on, obviously, her connection to the lyrics. And that's really special and I'm very proud of her for that. I know that she's very appreciative and honoured by this song, and to be honest, that was my goal.
Artists are always asked to show up to this charity event or support this cause. Up until this point, has there been another cause that you’ve been heavily involved with or is this the start of it for you?
I've been involved with a number of cancer-related charities and fundraisers my entire career. From when I was really young, starting out, and playing concerts to 25 people or 250 people, to now playing in great theatres and arenas around the world. I've always done things, whether it's on a local level or with the Canadian Cancer Society and the Canadian Breast Cancer Society, a number of chapters [like the] Edmonton Cross Cancer Institute. It's always been a silent part of my mandate as an artist to give back to the community, whether I would perform at the event and waive my fee in order to help the bottom line, or to now, at this level that I'm at in my career, to donate portions or proceeds of some of my album sales that I've done in the past. Or things like donate portions of my concert fees back to the organization to raise money for, you know, Stollery Children's Hospital and their specific cancer wing in Edmonton, Albert; the Kids Cancer Centre in Calgary. So the list goes on. I've done a lot over the last 15 years.
That’s amazing. Well, I've asked you every conceivable question I can probably ask you about one song.
The biggest thing is for me to express to you is that if there's anything that we can to really drive people to listen and share the song. We would really appreciate the download and the donation, but I think the biggest thing is just to listen to the song. Listen to it, then you can share it, and hopefully that can bring a lot of hope.
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* Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.