by Amber Goodwyn for The Session
February 16, 2019
Photography by Carey Shaw for The Session
Berglund (nee Hankewich) carefully selected her stage name Belle Plaine. “It’s a bit of a protective layer,” she says, adding that she knew that she would travel with her music and that it would be “a familiar yet anonymous name that would be feminine and also evoke prairie.” The nom de plume perfectly captures the sense of mystery, beauty and canniness of the artist who chose it.
If you’re unfamiliar with the powerhouse known as Melanie/Belle Plaine, allow me to bring you up to speed: she’s good people, she’s funny and she’s genuine, as you’ll read more about below. She’s also an accomplished singer, songwriter and musician whose unique roots music style blends elements of classic country, western swing and vintage blues. She hails from a farm near Fosston, Saskatchewan (population: 45) and has been training her voice since the tender age of six. Her fast vocal vibrato has lightening quick ability and precision, a wonder to listen to as she darts sonically through genre and mood. On stage she’s fun and sexy, sassy and serious with a presence thick enough to eat up with a spoon; homemade vanilla ice cream with whiskey sauce poured over top.
Melanie and her band (Elizabeth Curry, Steve Leidal, Bryce Lewis and Jeremy Sauer) released the album Malice, Mercy, Grief and Wrath in October 2018. The album is nothing short of excellent, revealing Belle Plaine at the height of her powers. It’s a haunting and gentle album that compels one to listen to it as a whole. The album was created at Studio One in Regina and has gone on to receive wide acclaim, ranging from a rave review in Rolling Stone Magazine to placements on the National Top 50 Earshot chart every week since it’s been out, and was recently awarded the honour of being named SaskMusic’s Best Saskatchewan Album of 2018.
Melanie is unhurried in conversation, listening carefully before revealing each candid observation. In our interview her relaxed manner reminded me to slow down enjoy the moment, in the same way a special record can wind you open to receive its stories. It’s a reminder that good art, like good people, can inspire you into new ways of being.
This is your third album proper. As an album-maker, from your earlier works to Malice, Mercy, Grief and Wrath, what are the noticeable shifts?
You had a very jazz/swing feel at first.
Yeah, very buttoned up. I still like the songwriting from Notes From A Waitress but it’s almost like a concept album because it’s so true to that early Peggy Lee style.
Are there any similarities running across these albums?
Gosh, I get so in my head when I’m making records. That’s just me in general as a person. I have a hard time stepping back. Not so much in songwriting. I know when a song is done, but with an idea I have a hard time knowing when we’ve gone far enough, or could go further. I always want to do more and then take away [again], which can be really fatiguing for the people that you’re working with and really fatiguing for me - feeling like I’ve just gone further down that path of Brian Wilson-isms of not knowing when to stop. (Laughter).
With this record I gave myself the ability to sit with it until I was ready. Part of that was preparing the artwork and giving time to the visual artists who worked on it. It also just takes a really long time for vinyl to get made, so that definitely gave me time. When it did go out into the world I felt like it had incubated for long enough. I feel like my next album, if it comes out in five years, will be amazing. (Laughter)
The album has a nice arc to it.
That was a big part of pushing the songs around, trying out different orders. This album did all the things I wanted the album to do, because there’s always these places where you’re like ‘oh yeah, this song is too important’ or it touches on emotions that can’t hack it. With ‘Is It Cheating’ I had to really work - because of all the other emotions on the record. It’s such a weird song to build around.
It’s a moment of levity and relief, perhaps.
Totally, and if you put that next to a song that’s heartfelt it’s like, what are you trying to do?
You would break trust with the listener.
Did you know what kind of album you wanted to make before you sat down to write?
No. I just wanted to make something that was true.
You received support for songwriting activities through an Independent Artist Grant from the Saskatchewan Arts Board. Did all of the songs on the album originate from the period of time you had funding for?
Some of the songs did. Is It Cheating? is an example of a song I wrote because one day I was writing sad songs, and was just like, just try making a song that’s fun. I wrote it really quickly and then played it with Beth and would bring it out like a joke now and then, but it always felt like it undermined the other songs that I was writing. That’s the oldest song on the record.
I think that being self-managed and being someone who cares about business and cares about presenting myself as an organized artist, most of my life gets focused on communicating with my band, or booking shows, or whatever management part of my life that I still am doing out of necessity. The funding allowed me to lessen the amount of time I was focused on those other things because I knew my bills were going to be paid. So I was taking walks and doing ‘The Artist’s Way” (by author Julia Cameron) which was just incredible in terms of lowering my anxiety and self-criticism. Songs came out of that period, but (moreso it was) a method to access creativity. That was the big lesson that the SAB time gave me.
There’s a strong sense of storytelling in your songs, creating worlds and creating characters. Where do you find your inspiration?
An actual story, usually, or in trying to find the thread of an emotion. The most obvious example is the song I wrote for my grandmother, Laila (Laila Sady Johnson Wasn’t Beaten By No Train). That’s what happened: a train hit her, my grandfather saw it happen. I don’t know what the engineer thought and that was the only real piece of fiction, the third verse. He knew he hit her and I can only imagine how he would have felt. That song was written because my grandmother is the matriarch of the family and she’s so highly respected. She’s very funny. So that song is something for her that we could all look to; a gift for my family. It’s been fun for everybody to have that song.
The opener to the album (For All Those Who I Love) was meant to be evocative of forgiveness and trying to understand my father. We had a really difficult relationship. I wanted to give myself an entry point to release the judgements I had of him, and to understand that we’re so complex as people, (as are our) motivations…we might be trying to do right by someone but we’re just really clumsy and we hurt people. I stumble over how to explain it, but when I sing that song I get to repair a little connection between us and say, ‘ I love you and that part of us is over now.’
There are so many different moments on the album where I try to get the perspective of a character, whether they’re real or imagined, in order to try and say something. The funny thing is that the album never really concludes anything. I don’t think so anyway; it feels like it has lots of open-ended questions. But I also think that’s what life is, and it’s up to us to make amends and be settled with the fact that you don’t get a pat answer very often in this world.
You dedicated the album to Laila, LaVonne and Chloe. Could you tell us who they are?
Laila is my grandmother, LaVonne is my mother and Chloe is my niece. My grandmother is just so proud of what I do and, as the album has become more successful, she is just pumped. She also had a big part in raising me. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother when my parents were going through the tumultuous part of their relationship. I was very close to my grandmother and grandfather. My mom was always super proud - never had that parent reaction of ‘this is a terrible choice’ (laughs), and my father too. But my mother was excited for me to sing. She passed away in January of 2011, so I had not released anything at that, so it feels like all of this is a gift my parents gave me. They all feel sort of related to bravery in one way or the other, either in ways that they’ve inspired me to be brave, or that I want to carry on the tradition of being brave.
You’ve invited a number of talented artists onto this album, including Blake Berglund, Megan Nash, Colter Wall, and Kacy Anderson. Did you have these musicians in mind when you were writing the songs?
Not when I was writing. Blake’s song is the only song that I didn’t write. When he played that song for me it was our first date…and date is a generous word, we weren’t really intending it to be a date but it was the day when the spark was found. I knew that was going to be a song that resonated with me. Some of it was about choosing artists that I loved, both as people and creators. I wanted that piece of Saskatchewan on that album. It feels like I could have gone way down that rabbit hole.
It has a nice family-community vibe to it and it also reminds me of that video you did with Little Jack Films (for Squared Up). It actually features sort of the same cross-section of artists as on the album.
I feel like that’s one of the luxuries you have as a singer-songwriter, is to pull communities together and kind of define yourself with your friends.
There’s that old saying of ‘you are the company that you keep.’
I like looking at who is playing with who and what circles are collaborating because it kind of builds a scene, kind of like what happened with the outlaw movement of the seventies - not something I really want to model my life after in terms of healthy life choices – but in seeing how those writers were sharing songs. Like Emmylou Harris brought Townes Van Zandt; she was one of the first people to record his music. Knowing that about that crew, you start to see the connections and you start to see all of these other characters and players emerge. You see the scene emerge. This was my teeny weeny version of that; including people in my close music community on the record instead of looking to session players I didn’t have a relationship with. I wanted to show what we had going on at home.
Can you tell me about the artwork?
Terri Fidelak drew all of the plants. The creation of the artwork was almost as involved as the songwriting. She spent months with the lyrics and the recordings starting with the rough mixes, and started to pull the themes out. One of the first things she said to me was, “Did you realize that you say the word ‘sin’ three times on this album?” I was a like, no, what an odd thing for you to notice. We just moved on from there.
She came up with the name. We were struggling for a name and early on we talked about how all of these songs have stories to them. I heard once that birds migrate for sustenance, not for climate, and that felt like me: I travel, not because of weather or wanderlust. I do it to earn a living as a musician. So we started talking about traveling, and traveling with our stories, and migratory patterns and kind of going down that rabbit hole.
Out of that came a connection to the sky and celestial bodies; behind me on the cover is a nebula photographed by friends from British Columbia, Peter and Deb Ceravolo. He built the telescope that she photographed the nebula through. I will forever feel guilty for changing the particular colour of the nebula, because NASA has adapted her colouring system and recoloured their own photographs with it. They’re amazing people that I can’t believe I know.
Terri had the pattern of the snakeskin inside; it leant to this duality that she found in the album. Partly in how it is reflective of forgiveness and redemption and hope - that’s at the core of the songs, but also what you have to pass through to get to those emotions. She plucked the line out of Laila Sadie Johnson’s song, ‘a machine can bear no malice, mercy, grief or wrath,’ which is what we do. We have all of these emotions that we pass through to redeem the rewards of forgiveness and all the things I’ve just mentioned. So that duality came in the form of the snake.
Terri went so deep and transformed my lyrics into artwork. (The collaboration) is one of my favourite things about making albums because you get this whole other viewpoint of yourself. There are times when I said ‘I like this, I don’t like that,’ but truly the whole thing was her creation. It felt so good to come out of it and feel closer to her because that’s not always the case when you work closely with somebody. A lot of trust was built.
I think that collaborating is so critical. As a society we’re not so good at listening to each other. With the band and with Carey Shaw – the portrait photographer for the album cover - there’s just so much trust. They’re not the only players I’ve worked with but they’re the ones who listen to each other, therefore we can work together. You don’t have to be the best player to be on stage with me, though it turns out that I do have some incredible players. We have a mutual respect for each other, that’s what’s most important for me. I’ve fired some good players. (Laughter).
I admire your behind-the-scenes work as a self-managed artist. Why did you choose to manage yourself?
It wasn’t a choice. Next question. (Laughter)
Are you open to a having a manager?
Yeah, to have a manager would mean that I could spend more of my life working creatively instead of strategically to earn a living, especially being a self-booked musician too. Somehow I’m able to generate enough income to live on as a musician. When it comes to managers, I have approached people and I truly believe that the right one is out there, and I possibly even know who they are, but it’s about timing and about it being the right fit. I have a whole ethos around longevity and work and how I want to be treated and how I want to treat people. I’d rather just work hard on my own than sacrifice that.
It’s amazing what you’ve done with this record on your own and with your merry band of thieves.
I depend a lot on the band for support and advice. For this record I managed the whole project, from hiring the musicians to working with the visual artists. I like to deflect praise to other people a lot, but I need to recognize that this is what I do from the time I wake up in the morning to the time I go to bed. Almost every part of my day has some kind of relationship to getting on stage and singing music that I’ve written. That’s a wonderful thing to be able to do and it’s also a very singular focus. When I get into a conversation with somebody I feel like I’m always ‘in the interview.’ It’s important for me to disengage from it just for the sake of variety.
I also hired a U.S. publicity company, Hearth. That was a huge step, and big risk in terms of an investment. I just prepared myself for it and went in and it worked for many reasons. (First) people liked the album - that made it good for the publicity company and they really went to bat for me. I also got turned down by a lot of publicity companies I pitched, and even when Hearth said yes, they still interviewed me. (Second), it wasn’t just ‘we’re going to do it;’ there was a lot of testing the waters and trust that had to be built between us before either of us would sign on.
It’s so easy to get into a situation, like it is into a relationship, (but) it can be really difficult to get out of one. I think that despite occasionally still wanting a manager to just come in and help, I think that doing things the way I’ve done them has given me a thicker skin and more confidence.
Maybe that experience would also give you insight into who you would eventually want to work with.
One hundred percent.
Congratulations on your recent marriage to (country artist) Blake Berglund. How do two touring musicians plan a wedding?
We kept calling it “the show.” We had a four-month engagement and planned the wedding in about six weeks. It was not overthought by any means. We had this ethos of ‘no flow, no go.’ If it wasn’t flowing: abandon it.
You and Blake occasionally perform together, share band members and share tours. What’s it like working professionally with your life partner?
It’s like living with another manager because that’s what we both are (laughter). We’re both managers who have a hobby of singing every now and then. That’s been an interesting development in my career, it was exciting to share that binary male-female image, singing together. We also didn’t know how to harmonize so there was this challenge - two lead singers who had to learn, it was really comical. I still struggle with harmonies.
Combining our styles was challenging because I had that jazzy element and that little bit of country, and I really ended up being magnetized into the country aspect of my work so that we could perform together. For a while I felt like I was ignoring a large body of my work, the more jazzy stuff. Another funny thing was when we got on stage, even though both our names were on the poster, people would ask me if I gave up my career to be in Blake’s band.
Wow, quite the assumption to make.
The few times that happened came as a real shock, and made me realize that I had to dig a little deeper into my own career; but also that I had to stop listening to what I was being told by spectators, or people who weren’t involved in my career. It also came with understanding for Blake and I, how to have separate careers, and how to choose when playing together would be worth it in terms of money and also trying something new. I would ask myself, is this a band show or a solo show? What makes the most sense in all aspects of the business? The same goes for Blake: are we doing this because we can, or because it’s special?
You’ve had great success touring in the States, for example Kansas, Oklahoma and Nashville. How did those tours come together?
They’re all a little different. Blake was a big part of touring in the States. He woke up one day and was like, I want to go to America, I just want to go. I think that he thought I would be opposed to the idea of him leaving and sleeping in his van and just sort of following where his heart wanted to take him that day. Right from the get-go I didn’t oppose him. He would wake up and tell me the same thing the next day. And the next day (laughter) It was like, why are you still here? So he went on this big adventure by himself, and built many relationships going into Kentucky, Tennessee and as far down as Louisiana, I think, on that trip. That set a little trail for us to follow. I have to give credit to Blake; I haven’t toured in the states unless it’s been with him.
Is that something you’d like to do more of?
Yeah, I really enjoy the music culture. Because I’m Canadian I obviously don’t sound like I’m from around there, but I’m familiar with the musical history of the region. There’s this funny game that’s played where they can hear the musical references to American country music in my work and they seem a little surprised that we know as much about their culture as we do. But they still kind of expect that we should know.
It’s so incredible to be in the backyard of the music that I love. Like when we go to Kentucky and hang out with our friends they talk about how ‘Loretta’s holler is just two doors over,’ and I’m like, what’s a holler, and they’re like, you’re in one (laughter.)
It’s exotic for both of us. America gives me anxiety in so many ways but when I get there, there’s this incredible music community who understand the music and shares it. The unfortunate thing about getting recognized professionally in America is that that’s what it takes for people in Canada to take notice of you. It’s that reciprocal arrangement.
It seems like it’s been that way forever.
I’m experiencing it on this micro-scale in comparison to people who get Top 40 play, but I still feel it – a perception that being in the states heightens peoples’ respect for you here. I mean, I’m cool with that. I want to have a long career; I want to have access to all these different viewpoints in the world.
You’ve made connections with a number of artists on tour. How important is it for you to make these connections, and how have they helped your career?
Hot tip: have a husband who talks to everyone (laughter).
I think that trying to learn about communities is really important. I’m not one who’s a really strong strategist. I just want to have lasting relationships. That’s the only strategy that I can have, so finding a community that I love and finding the people in it that I trust and love, that’s where a lot of energy comes from, to be with those people. To hear them play, to hear their new songs.
All the people in Kentucky. Tyler Childers, Kelsey Chabot, they both come from this area of east Kentucky that I can’t wait to get back to. The sooner I can get back there the better, honestly, because it feels a lot like Saskatchewan; it’s not hugely populated, there are a lot of ties to agriculture, there’s a lot of making-do, which is something I grew up around. We didn’t have a lot of money but that didn’t really seem to matter. I feel that. I feel all of those things when I’m down there. Just a sense of love for each other, there’s a real outpouring. I think it’s important to make friends in the industry so that when you’re out touring you find home.
What’s next for you?
Planning tours for the next year. I want to be on the road and write. Trying to find the balance, trying to find new stories to write about. After creating something there’s such a cycle. I’m a one-woman organization. So getting back into the creative side feels a little slow but I know that it will come, just from being on stage.
I think it’s really admirable when artists say they have a five-year plan, but it just doesn’t suit my personality. I have big dreams and that’s kind of the fun part of this album: it’s already reached all of these high points for me. I feel so satisfied and rewarded and I want to chase the dreams that I have but I also feel like ‘oh, it’s really done good.’
I just wake up in the morning, journal with a cup of coffee, plan my day, get one thing off of my list of ten and repeat (laughter).
Belle Plaine performs next February 15 at The Bassment in Saskatoon, and February 16 at The Artesian in Regina. As this goes to press, it’s been announced that Belle Plaine with guest Blake Berglund will perform a full length show with the Regina Symphony Orchestra as part of their Shumiatcher Pops Series in February 2020.
To learn more, visit belleplainemusic.com
About the Author
Amber Goodwyn is the Program Director of 91.3FM CJTR, Regina Community Radio by day and the home-fi synth pop musician Natural Sympathies by night. A jack-of-all-trades, she occasionally makes short films, short stories and poems. Follow her on Instagram: @naturalsympathies.
hair: Kara Firman. mua: Anh Pham. clothes: Hazelwood