Brittany Kennell wants to transform Montreal into Canada's country music hub
The former The Voice contestant was building a career in Nashville until a breakup forced her to come home
To some, Brittany Kennell's name may ring a bell.
The rising country artist was the first (and only) Canadian to ever appear on the hit NBC singing competition, The Voice, back in 2016. Kennell battled her way to the knockout round before getting eliminated, and while her run was cut short, five years later she still sees that opportunity as an important milestone in her career. "My life has completely changed since that day," she tells CBC Music over Zoom, from her current home in Montreal, "and I'm all the better for it."
The journey to that point was a lifelong discovery of music and purpose. Kennell grew up in Beaconsfield, Que., with two country music-loving parents, and started writing songs at a young age. "I would just write songs with kids on my block, I would write songs with kids at recess," Kennell recalls. She would fill notebooks with lyrics and ideas that she laughs at now because "none of them ever made any sense," but it was evident that she had a passion for writing and music.
Unaware of a career path in songwriting, Kennell originally contemplated going to school for journalism. But once she discovered a program at Boston's famed Berklee College of Music, she realized, "Oh my gosh, this is what I want to do." The common thread in both these interests sprouts from a love of storytelling that she credits to her dad, who introduced her to one of music's best storytellers: Bruce Springsteen. Kennell explains, "I find that that's just how you relate to people, is by telling each other stories that have happened or stories that you've been through and that, to me, is the most important part of music and songwriting — it's connecting with people."
Like many Canadians hoping to make it in country music, Kennell eventually moved south to Nashville. Away from the busy metropolises of New York City or Los Angeles, Kennell says Nashville fostered a sense of community that she fears larger destinations lack. "There are so many amazing, cool highs and experiences," she says of Nashville's music scene, "and there's a lot of lows that kind of go with that, too, because everybody is there trying to make it in the industry." Instead of competition, Kennell says artists in Nashville formed a camaraderie, especially since a large portion of aspiring musicians are expats: "Everybody wants to see you succeed. It's not like L.A. and New York — it's a little easier to dream there."
Kennell's dream when she moved to Nashville was to become a songwriter. She said yes to every writing session in hopes of building a portfolio and writing for bigger acts. (During her time there, she worked and performed with Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby, Tenille Townes, Carly Pearce and more.) Somewhere in there was a skill and talent for performing, too — a voice that blends a classic country twang with a buoyant pop coolness — which complicated matters and confused Kennell, who admits, "I just didn't know what direction to go in."
Enter The Voice, which pushed Kennell out of her comfort zone, paired her with A-list mentors like Blake Shelton and Miley Cyrus, and helped her realize that pursuing music as an artist was a possibility. Working with Cyrus, Kennell learned "there has to be a moment in songs that makes people feel something." Being a pretty shy person in reality — she remembers singing as a kid and stopping immediately if her mom caught her — Kennell learned from Cyrus's outgoing nature that "it's OK to sing loud or to belt and have a moment."
Armed with a clearer vision of what she wanted to do, Kennell returned from The Voice reinvigorated. She continued to work on her own music, releasing singles like "Speed Queen" and the self-acceptance anthem, "Be You." She got engaged to her partner at the time. Everything was going well until that engagement was called off. When that happened, roughly three years ago, Kennell decided to return to Canada. She settled in Montreal, picked up a job in publishing (that she still works at today), and briefly gave up music. "I didn't expect to move home at that time, but it was what I needed," she assures now.
While she wasn't seeking it out, she was pleasantly surprised by the country scene she found in Montreal. "I honestly didn't even know how much Quebec loves country music," she concedes. "That blew my mind." Matt Lang, Lydia Sutherland and Five Roses are just some of the many artists she shouts out with a real enthusiasm, noting the burgeoning but tight-knit group of musicians that represent a potential to become something bigger and more notable.
Kennell hopes that Montreal can become the new Nashville. That sense of community she saw south of the border is something that she is keen on bringing to, and developing in, Quebec. "With the country scene growing, everybody is collaborating and writing together all the time," she says, of Nashville's ethos. "I want that here. I want artists to feel like they can lean on each other, and work with each other to write songs or to support each other. That was probably my biggest takeaway from that city." Next year, Kennell is even scheduled to perform at Montreal's first major country music festival, Lasso. (The festival was postponed from 2021 to 2022 due to COVID-19.)
When she's not busy developing a much-needed country scene in Canada, Kennell is refocusing on her own music once again. During this past year-and-a-half, as the worldwide pandemic forced many musicians to hit pause, Kennell found herself writing a single first, which turned into an EP, and has now snowballed into a full-length debut album. "For me, this album is really all about being honest," she reveals. "Every song taps into that message and that theme; being honest with myself and choosing happiness."
There's a real lightness and ease to Kennell's songs. "Eat Drink Remarry," a song that was written before she broke off her engagement, is a judgment-free pep talk that reminds us how love takes practice and sometimes you'll go through more than one relationship or marriage before finding the right person. "Little did I know that that was going to be my story," Kennell says with a hearty laugh.
Other tracks, like "You Don't Get me Stoned" and "Bought the T-shirt," also take a look back at falling out of love and moving on from past experiences, but Kennell does it all with a winking humour like a rom-com protagonist strutting off into the sunset with no regrets. Kennell says that during her time spent at writers' rounds in Nashville, she noticed goofy songs or funny lyrics always caught people's attention, something that she makes sure to draw from without ever going into cheesy or kitschy territory.
Instead, Kennell's music strikes a balance between sweet and fiery, funny and serious. "Drunk Lips" is an example of sombre Kennell, who is equally frank about the downsides of getting out of a relationship. "Is your heart really talking/ feeling every bit of this," she wonders, over a sparse chorus, "Or are you just kissing me with drunk lips?" Diving back into the dating pool can feel simultaneously exciting and hopeless, and Kennell wanted to convey both on this track, adding, "I want somebody to hear this and know that they're not alone in finding love and that it's a difficult process. Sometimes we don't know whether somebody is being honest."
Whether it's the sunnier or darker moments in life, Kennell hopes her music ultimately entertains you with a story. For now, perhaps given the past year-and-a-half of events in the world, Kennell wants to lean a bit more into the fun. "I feel like all I want is fun music now," she says. "I want to make people smile. I want people to enjoy the music. And hopefully we can get some new country fans in Montreal."