CLASSIC – Singer/songwriter Belle Plaine performs at the Velvet Olive Thursday evening. Her latest disc

Singer with rich, storytelling sensibilities in City

Belle Plaine beautifully melds jazz, swing, pop and 'vintage' country

Singer Belle Plaine has one of those gorgeous and extraordinarily rare voices that is pretty much instantly addictive.

The guitair playing songstress, whose tunes percolate with jazz, pop and old-fashioned country richness, plays the Velvet Olive Thursday evening.

Making her music that much more enchanting is her ability to tell stories via her songs. Her original tunes are striking, as are her interpretations of jazz standards such as Fever and Bye Bye Blackbird. She’s also proven herself a master with folk and country classics like Dylan’s I Shall Be Released and Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys. Her latest CD, Notes From A Waitress, has been described as a throwback to the vocal jazz stylings of the 1960s.

Born and raised on a farm near Fosston, Saskatchewan, Belle, (aka Melanie Hankewich), is a true prairie girl. Surprisingly, she wasn’t raised in an overly musical home, but early on people were noticing her fabulous vocal abilities.

“I started to perform when I was about five years old,” she explains during a recent chat on a tour break in Edmonton. “I had a teacher when I was in kindergarten who played the piano every morning, and she heard me sing. She told my parents that I could carry a tune and that they might want to consider putting me in voice lessons.”

That training continued into adulthood. At 18, she knew she wanted to write songs, perform and have a home recording studio. But when she moved to Edmonton to study jazz at Grant MacEwan College, her focus shifted toward a more technical aspect of music: sound recording. After graduation, she worked in a Calgary studio, occasionally singing jingles for radio.

“I gave up on music in Calgary. I’d lost touch with my own voice. I had years of education, but artistically I felt drained.”

Eager for change, she enrolled at the University of Victoria as an environmental science major. Having fallen in love with Victoria’s arts community she dropped out of school. She also began to sing and write songs again. She later found herself in Sydney, Australia for a stint and the creativity continued to grow. In 2006, Hankewich returned to Saskatchewan and found a home in Regina’s arts community.

Having decided to pursue music, she was now searching for the perfect moniker. One day, she passed by the village of Belle Plaine. The name stuck. Hankewich left her job to perform full-time as Belle Plaine in early 2010.

As for her latest disc, it’s replete with sonic gems, from the sunny sparkle of Sweet Tart Baby to the polished glimmer of the title track. The magic continues with the lovely tones of Maybe Winter. Belle chose producer/engineer Doug Organ of Edmontone Studio to produce the CD, and she recruited a band of fellow Grant MacEwan alumni for the recording.

“I sort of let them jump into the songs,” she says of the magic of collaboration. “I think when you are recording it’s also easy to get really wrapped up in the ultimate version of the song. But it’s just a version of the song. My philosophy is to hire and work with people who you really believe in, and let them do what they do.”

Depending on the particular show she’s doing, there are a range of folks Belle may share the stage with. It can also depend on who is available for a given gig. But the various band arrangements fuel her creativity. “It’s allowed me to be flexible and look at the songs as having different incarnations depending on who is playing. It’s fun and keeps it fresh for me.”

She credits her time at MacEwan with heating up her interest in jazz tunes.

“I learned so much there about jazz, Motown and funk – it was a huge development in the kind of music I was listening to.” Jazz certainly fits her voice perfectly – and there’s much she loves about the genre. For Belle, it hearkens back to a time when people would enjoy long, lovely evenings at sophisticated clubs soaking up lots of good music.

But she’s also sharp with a number of styles.

When she performs, she taps into a bit of classic country, a little folk, her own material plus some favourite standards. “When we perform, I try to focus more on storytelling than sticking with just one genre. So it won’t be just a jazz show – there will be a few different styles for people to hear.”

For Belle, there’s simply no other feasible path in life to take. And she’s clearly grateful it can be her sole focus. “It just feels good to sing for people. It’s what I do the best, more than anything.”

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