Belle Plaine and Blake Berglund went west with their friends
MUSIC by Emmet Matheson
Belle Plaine & Blake Berglund
It’s a partnership that began with a break-up song.
Like any typical couple might on a Sunday night, Melanie Hankewich, better known as Belle Plaine, and Blake Berglund are sharing a glass of wine — literally passing it back and forth. But they’re not chilled out in front of the latest episode of The Walking Dead, they’re in a corridor that connects the two sides of Vancouver’s historic Railway Club. A loud rock band is tearing it up on the club’s main stage. It’s a tough place to have a conversation, but they’re doing their best to tell the story of how their collaboration on “Town to Town/Saskatchewan”, a 7-inch vinyl single of two covers of songs written by Saskatchewan-raised and now Toronto-based singer/songwriter Zachary Lucky, came to be.
“We weren’t even really a couple yet when we wrote our first song together,” says Berglund.
It’s a bit of stretch to say “Are We Okay?” is a break-up song, but it’s not not a break-up song, and it’s definitely not a happily-ever-after-song either. It’s got back and forth and harmonizing that puts it firmly in the tradition of country music duets that goes back from George Jones and Tammy Wynette through Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.
“It was a tough road in the beginning,” Hankewich says. “Neither one of us had ever written like this before. Neither of us is that experienced harmonizing.”
“I was not comfortable as a harmony singer when we started,” adds Berglund. “It’s kind of a puzzle.”
They’ve just finished two sets on the Railway Club’s north stage that ought to put a rest to any worries about their harmonizing skills or on-stage chemistry. It’s a tiny room that feels packed with just under 30 people. In all honesty, not bad for a mid-September Sunday night in notoriously aloof Vancouver.
“The crowd tonight, there’ll be more people in the front row at our Regina show,” Hankewich says like maybe it’s a promise, maybe it’s a threat.
It’s not the room where k.d. lang or Spirit of the West proved themselves in the ’80s, but it’s around the corner. The room is filled with friends, family, acquaintances. Tom, an old friend of Berglund’s originally from Langenburg (just south of Yorkton), is streaming the show to his Periscope account. Hankewich gives a shout out to her aunt in the room. During the break between sets, someone at a corner table that inexplicably has a roll of duct tape on it can be heard asking, “so when did you leave Saskatchewan?”
The smallness of the space and the eagerness of the mostly ex-pat Saskies audience to see the band succeed gives the show a casual warmth. It could almost be mistaken for the Club Side at the Exchange, circa 2004.
Hankewich has been performing as Belle Plaine since 2010. She’s become a mainstay and fan favourite on the Regina scene, a multiple winner of Prairie Dog’s reader-picked Best of Regina awards.
She opened the show, along with her loyal bandmates Elizabeth Curry on standup bass and Jeremy Sauer on keyboards and occasional accordion, with songs from her first album, 2012‘s Notes From A Waitress and newer songs, including some written collaboratively with her band. It’s their tenth show in 10 days, the 12th show of the tour, and they’re really on.
Belle Plaine’s songs exist somewhere on the continuum between jazz, pop, and folk, and she’s got enough range to do it all. But “Town to Town” is pure country.
Berglund, who grew up on a pregnant mares’ urine farm near Kennedy, Sask., calls it “fringe country”, and from where he stands as singing cowboy in the Ian Tyson/Corb Lund tradition he’s got a point.
The Belle Plaine trio is joined on the single by Berglund’s band, which includes fast-fingered Bryce Lewis on electric guitar and Steve Leidal on drums. Leidal hasn’t joined them on tour, but will be with them at their homecoming show at the Artesian.
The two bands have become something of a blended family.
“Everybody’s kind of paired off,” Hankewich says. “Bryce and Jeremy sit up front in the tour van together all day, I mean all day, coming up with ideas for all the new bands they’re going to start together. And then there’s the rhythm section with Beth and Steve.”
Hankewich and Berglund put the project together to celebrate the talent of their friend Zachary Lucky (who will also be at the Artesian show) as much as for the opportunity to work together. Berglund has a vision of other Saskatchewan acts covering each other’s music. Both of them rattle off names of acts they admire, from Rah Rah and Andy Shauf to Jason Plumb and Library Voices.
When the Belle Plaine trio is joined by Berglund and Lewis, the songs get a little louder, a little greasier. There’s even a Townes Van Zandt cover. After a break, Berglund does half a solo set with Lewis before Hankewich, then Curry and Sauer, come back to close the show. The set ends with surprisingly slow-burning, full-of-yearning cover of “Mercury Blues”.
Berglund has been working on getting the single onto mainstream country stations across the country. It’s an uphill battle, he knows, but it’s far from impossible. He sees it as an opportunity to build relationships not just with music directors, but with the DJs too. When they hit a town where no one at the station has answered Berglund’s e-mails or returned his calls, he’ll show up at the station with booze. “That always gets you in the door.”
Courting mainstream country radio is a bit surreal for Hankewich.
“My world is more CBC,” she says. “I’m kind of like the prodigal daughter. I used to sing at the CJWW stage at the Melfort fair when I was a little girl. It’s come around full circle.”
After another gig in Vancouver, the band is off to Victoria for Break Out West, the four-day music industry schmoozefest that culminates with Western Canadian Music Awards. Then it’s back on the road for shows in small towns across BC, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, before their tour-ending homecoming Sept. 27 at the Artesian.
After that, Berglund will start working on his next album, following up 2012’s Coyote. Hankewich, who has basically been on the road since last December, is looking forward to a break.
“I think I’ll go hunting,” she says. “And then just take some time to write.”
Berglund wonders out loud if that means he can steal her band.