When the team here at Canadian Twang first began discussing what artist should be featured on “launch day,” there was only one name that merited any serious consideration. Paul Brandt has been deeply committed to the Canadian country music scene since returning home after a four-year stint in American with Reprise Records, a period during which he landed nine songs on the U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles chart (including “My Heart Has a History” (#5) and “I Do” (#2), both in 1996).
The singer and songwriter launched his own Brandt-T Records in 2001, at a time when artists stepping out on their own without the support of a major label was far less common than it is today. Since then, Brandt has won countless Juno and Canadian Country Music Association awards on his way to becoming one of the most respected artists in the history of Canadian country music. 2002′s Small Towns and Big Dreams and 2005′s This Time Around were each named the CCMA “Album of the Year,” and in 2005 he was named the (American) Country Music Association’s “Global Artist of the Year.”
Brandt recently took time to speak with us about his charity work, a new album that will be released in 2011 and his current single, a cover of the Junior Brown song “Highway Patrol.”
CORY NOEL: Let’s started by talking about some of the charity work that you do. Specifically, tell me about a trip that you made to Cambodia recently with a website contest winner.
PAUL BRANDT: It was an incredible trip. I actually had the chacne to go over there about four years ago for the first time, so it was the second trip for me. We wanted to run a contest where we bring a fan, and we’ve done this before—we did a tour through a promotion we ran with the Risk album, where we sold water filters that fans could buy. These water filters provide clean drinking water for 8-10 people in the developing world. Then, we took the people who bought the filters and entered them into a contest and on that trip we went to Etheopia and Egypt, where we got to see the pyramids together and do all this cool stuff. And, we did stuff that actually gave back.
The cambodia trip was another trip like that. We ran the contest through Twitter and through our website, PaulBrandt.com, and the winner who came with us, her name was Lara Howsem. I just ran into Lara at another benefit event that we were both at, and she’s a Masters Of Journalism student at University of British Columbia. She blogged about the entire trip while we were there—letting people know about some of the things she was learning about the people over there and the problems they were facing, like human trafficking. That’s going on around the world, and especially there in Cambodia.
CN: Another one of the charity things that you’ve been doing—and I say charity, but really it’s tied in with one of your sponsors, UFA (United Farmers of Alberta)—is the Small Town Heroes contest, which you just announced the winners for. Tell us a bit about that.
BRANDT: I think it’s really amazing to meet people overseas that are doing great work, but it’s also really special to recognize those who are closer to home that are also doing amazing things. We wanted to find a way, along with UFA, to recognize the great work being done by people right here. We wanted to recognize people who are heroes in those small towns, that do a lot of great work, but who don’t necessarily blow their own horn—they just get out there and get the job done. So, we asked people to nominate their small town heroes, through a website that UFA had put up. And we had tons—I mean hundreds of thousands—of people who wrote in with stories about people in their town that they look up to.
It was really hard to pick, but we did manage to narrow it down to two [nominees], and I’m going to be headed to Milk River and Beaver Lodge to perform a couple of shows in the early part of next year, and perform for our Small Town Heroes. Hopefully, those shows that will benefit their town in some way, through not only ticket sales—UFA is going to give them a special prize for being recognized, so it was really a pretty cool contest.
CN: Talk a bit about why charity work is such a big part of what you do.
BRANDT: I feel so blessed to be able to do what I do. I never—well, I try not to, anyhow—take credit for any of this. I feel like I’ve been given a gift, to be able to sing and to write, and for some reason people listen to me when I talk. But, I think we’ve all got something that we’re good at, and I just wanna take what I’m good at and do the best that I can with it. Country music and country music fans are the kind that always wanna help, always wanna give back. So, I wanna partner with them to do that. I feel blessed to be from Alberta, to be from Canada. What an incredible country, that we get to believe the things we wanna believe, and say the things we wanna say. What a great country. And with some of these trips that I get to take around the world, you realize that’s not the norm. So, I wanna just take advantage of that, and use that to do things that I think are really important to people.
CN: I know one of the other things that’s changed for you in the last couple years is that fatherhood has become a part of your life. How old is your son, Joe, now?
BRANDT: (Laughing) Yeah. Oh, man! Well, Joe’s two-and-a-half now. And, well, we don’t sleep much in our house anymore. I don’t know what that’s about. But no, he’s just awesome. He’s my pride and joy, and we just have so much fun hanging out together and just getting to see what he’s up to every day. Every day it’s something new—he comes up with something new that makes us laugh. And now, we’ve got number 2 on the way here…pretty much any minute now.
BRANDT: Yeah, we’re really excited about that. And yeah, it’s been great. It takes a lot of adjustment trying to figure out how to take all of that in stride, really for anyone with any job. But, for my job and what I do, it’s tough to figure out how we’re gonna take this and fit in all the road stuff. I was really excited the other day when Liz [Brandt’s wife and a back-up singer on the road] came up and said “I’m ready to get out on the road again. Let’s take the kids and hit the road.” So, we’re gonna be hitting it hard next year, and I’m really excited to share this new music with everybody. And to be getting on the road again with the whole family. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
CN: It’s going to be great to see you back out on the road, for sure. The other big thing you’ve been up to during your couple of years away from the road is that you got hooked up with those Rempel boys from up in the Lecrete country. Tell us about the trio High Valley and your work with them.
BRANDT: Those guys are great. We’ve had a lotta fun with High Valley. Actually, I was down in Nashville just a couple weeks ago and got to head out to a hockey game with Brad [lead singer Brad Rempel] and got to catch up with him. They’ve got some amazing things happening in their career right now, and the song they’ve got out right now, “On The Combine,” sounds great on the radio. I’m just proud to be associated in any way with those guys. They’re quality guys.
CN: They sure are. And, I wanna ask you about giving them advice. Now, I hate talking like you’re this grizzled veteran of the business, like Ian Tyson or someone who’s been around for 50 years, but the boys obviously have the benefit of leaning on your experience. So, tell me what it’s like for an act like High Valley breaking in to the business today, compared to when you were getting started back in ’95 or ’96.
BRANDT: Honestly, I gotta say, I think it’s a lot harder now than it was back then, for me. You know, I had some really great breaks and the business was just so much different back then, and it’s changed so much. I think it’s a lot harder now, trying to get people’s attention—especially as a new artist. And I think the fact that High Valley’s been able to do that shows that they’re incredibly talented and hard working guys—and really good guys. They put their hearts and souls into everything they do, and they work so hard and have been working so hard for so many years.
CN: As far as Canadian country music in general, has the scene progressed from when you started out? Are you proud of where it is right now?
BRANDT: Yeah, I think it’s really great. It’s really healthy. You see a lot of great new talent coming out, and new artists with new music, trying new things. In Canada, it’s always been a bit different than what’s happening doing in the US, because in Canada we’re a lot more accepting of new and different types of music that all kinda fit in to Country music. I think that just makes it a bit more lively up here. You know, I really enjoy that part of the scene here. I think it’s alive and well and doing great. It was really great to be at the CCMAs this past time, and see all the new talent coming up. It’s challenging times in the business for everbody, but for everyone that’s out there and working hard and putting out music, I think it’s going to be a good thing and I think it’s going to pay off, and I think we’re all still having a lot of fun.
CN: Speaking of new music, you’ve been back and forth to Nashville working on some new stuff that you’re expecting to have out in 2011. It’s different for you now, living in Canada and just traveling south for work, as opposed to living there full time. What was your experience like when you were living there, and how has it changed now that you’re just heading down for work?
BRANDT: Well, we’re back and forth quite a bit, and I guess it’s weird for me because it doesn’t seem like it’s changed all that much. When we were down there in the beginning, I mean we were doing 180, 190 shows a year. So, my house was in Nashville, but we sure weren’t there very much. What was great about it is when you are home, and you need to get work done on your music, you can just head down to Music Row and everything is right there for you. All the people are right there. My creative team and all the people who have played on my records, they’re all based there. So, it’s kinda like old home week now, when we go back there and I kinda get the best of both worlds.
I enjoy being back in Alberta and being around all our extended family here, and then I take trips down to Nashville for recording, and y’know, you talk about me going down there for work, and I guess it is kinda like that, but lemme tell ya, I’ve got a pretty awesome job. It’s so much fun to go down there and catch up with everyone and record this new music. It’s a project that is going to be about two albums worth of material, and we’re actually trying to put together one version of this project that will include a book that sorta tells the story of from way back in ’96 when I got my record deal, all the way to present time. And it’ll include every album from Small Towns Big Dreams, which was the first album we put out on our own label, to present time. So, it’s gonna be a really cool look back but also an exciting look forward to what we’ve got coming next.
CN: It sounds really cool! You talk about the label, Brand-T Records, and I have to ask, since every project you’ve done since starting your own label has won “Album Of The Year,” what kind of pressure do you feel going into the studio now?
BRANDT: Man, I try to not think about it, ’cause you can’t put pressure on yourself to outdo it every time. It’s the same thing I tell anyone who comes up to me and says, “How do I make it in the business?” The thing I tell them is that the one thing I’ve always kept in mind—right from the very beginning—is that I do it because I love it. I absolutely love performing for people and writing songs and doing what I do. And, y’know, I think that if you don’t win “Album Of The Year,” and if people aren’t coming out to shows, if all that happens…well, I’m still doing it because I love it. You can’t take that away. I think that’s really the key for all of this, for me. It’s just being really passionate about it, and using it as a platform to do great things around the world and partnering with the fans to do that. And, it’s about doing my best to make the best music I know how.
CN: The first single from the new project is a cover song, a cover of the old Red Simpson and Junior Brown song “Highway Patrol.” But your own material, your own songwriting, has always been a big part of what you do. How much of the new project is going to be your own material?
BRANDT: Yeah, y’know, “Highway Patrol” is really the only outside tune we’ve got on this project. It was a favourite of mine from when Junior Brown put it out, way back in the early ’90s. I started doing some digging and looking at the songwriters, and Red Simpson, a great Bakersfield-area artist, y’know, part of that era, had cut it back in the late ’60s. I just loved hearing that version of it as well. I’m really happy with how our version turned out, but yeah, in these last three years I’ve done a lot of songwriting behind the scenes, and I’m really excited about sharing that with everybody too.
CN: Do you have a release date yet for the new project?
BRANDT: I don’t have a specific date just yet, but I am thinking the middle of next year. It’s one of these things where it’s been such a labour of love. I don’t want to rush it and put it out before it’s just as perfect as I can make it. But, we’re hoping it’ll be about that time, and then we’re going to get out there on the road and start playing this stuff for everybody.
CN: And I know everyone is really excited to see you back out there on the road. I wanna take a second just to talk specifically about the new single, “Highway Patrol.” Like you said, it was a song you’d wanted to do for quite a while, and just hadn’t got around to it yet—but what was it about Junior Brown’s version, specifically, that drove you to want to record it?
BRANDT: Well, y’know, it’s one of those things that always sorta resonated with me, because he’s got that same kinda baritone, bass delivery that I like to have in some of my songs. I thought that his version had a real quirkiness to it, and a real artistic vision to it, in the way that he delivers it and plays his guit-steel guitar. It’s one of those songs that I’ve always enjoyed, too, ’cause it’s sorta tongue-in-cheek, in that it’s sorta paying homage to the men and women of the police force who are keeping us safe out on the roads, but at the same time, it’s like you’re trying to get away with something. I just like that part of the song, and we’ve had a lot of fun playing it live. We’ve had a lot of great response from it so far.