Sorry about the headline. We had to.
by Vanda Schmöckel
WITH JULIA AND HER PIANO
Melanie Hankewich, better knows as Belle Plaine, is making a brief pit-stop at home before racing out the door again. Just back from a gig in Langenburg, she's heading off for another sound check at Red Hot Riot, Regina's wildly successful monthly comedy cabaret. She and musical partner Jeremy Sauer regularly perform as the house band for the event under the name Rico & The Continos. Flexibility is part of the gig, and something that seems to come easily to Hankewich. She says the Langenberg show shifted from rootsy folk to old country standards to jazz.
Jazz is definitely the dominant flavour on her new album, Notes From A Waitress, which is set for release on Jan. 27 at Artesian. It's a departure from the much rootsier-sounding Hello From Belle Plaine which Hankewich released last May. But the change of pace makes sense. Hankewich's roots are in jazz, which she studied at Grant MacEwan college in Edmonton, and the players on this album are some of her old pals from that time.
But, says Hankewich, despite the obvious genre shift, many of the songs were actually written around the same time as Hello From Belle Plaine.
"The songs that encompass the originals on Hello just really fit as folk songs," says Hankewich. "For me that album was mostly just about doing it - seeing if I wanted to do a whole album project, and learning how to do it.
"As soon as that album was out, I was back in the studio again in June recording the second album, so they happened right on the heels of one another."
Notes From A Waitress features a kind of dinner-jazz-infused songwriting for contemporary life - lovely melodies that often give way to well-observed criticisms beneath the surface. The playful title track looks at the indignities of the service industry, while an ode to Waikiki quickly cuts through the pretty scenery to skewer the mess that mass tourism has made of the place.
"It's probably the only activist song I've ever written," she laughs. "Which is just because I had a crummy vacation."
Hankewich says that, despite her roots in jazz, it wasn't an area that she'd consciously thought about revisiting.
"I'm a bit of a slow bloomer. I don't think I'm a late bloomer, but it sort of takes me a long time for influences to work their way through," she says. "It took a lot of years to let the jazz from Grant MacEwan make its way into my writing process, which then made its way into these songs."
The shift is clear from the get-go; even the album's cover art is reminiscent of jazz releases from years gone by.
"That's what I wanted to give off, that whole era of Peggy Lee and Julie London. That sort of sexy jazz singer on stage."
Hankewich says she and her band (Jeremy Sauer and Elizabeth Curry) would love to work in smaller classic jazz venues around Regina - if only there were such a thing.
The era of Hy's Steakhouse and Tiki lounges has long passed from this town, but Hankewich makes a sound argument for a revival.
"I've been getting to know [beloved local jazz chanteuse] Pat Steel recently," says Hankewich. "They used to play six nights a week here. That doesn't exist anymore. Like, I can't go to Hy's Steakhouse and have a home in Regina and a career with any income.
"In some ways, I wish it were possible to have a six-night, 'I'm here all week' kind of thing. That would be nice for us. My influences come more from the people of that era that were able to do that. They were able to sort of settle in as the house band and just play a really tight set for a couple of weeks straight."
Hankewich says the band has been talking about seeking out that kind of engagement - even considering a gig in Las Vegas. In the short term at least, several small theatres around Saskatchewan and Alberta will have to do. Belle Plaine is set to start a mini-tour that will take them through Lloydminster, Medicine Hat and Red Deer.
"We're getting to go to smaller places, like the soft-seat theatres, where I feel like this album has a nice home," says Hankewich.
But before you peg Belle Plaine as a newly minted jazz trio, think again. They're still all about the mix.
"We still do the folk stuff from Hello, and we do the jazz stuff from this album," she says. "So we just try to mash it up. It's a fun way to do things. Because there's all this variety for me vocally and Jeremy goes from playing a piano solo over a Nina Simone tune to picking up a banjo and then drifting into an old standard.
"I'm not exactly sure what the formula is for that. Somehow we make it work."
Belle Plaine's "This Is A Big Deal" Party and CD Launch starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15.