They share a small-town Saskatchewan upbringing-he's from Kennedy; she's from Fosston-and they count the province's Premier Brad Wall among their fans, but Blake Berglund and Belle Plaine (aka Melanie Hankewich) bring their audiences critically-acclaimed performances that have foundations built on country and jazz, but are influenced by artists from Besse Smith, Jay-Z, and even a little Bryan Adams and Neil Diamond.
“As far as country, Kris Kristofferson-especially as a songwriter-and Waylon Jennings are two artists,” says Berglund. “And it's kind of cheesy, but Bryan Adams and Neil Diamond and hip-hop as a genre, especially for phrasing, as well as Jay-Z.”
“And I started taking piano lessons from the age of three, so I have influences that come from the realm of classical music,” he adds. “But as far as musical influences, it spans; it really spans for me.”
Belle says, “I've got a love for old music from the 1940s, and the Tin Pan Alley stuff has laid the foundations for a lot of pop,” adding that jazz vocalist Bessie Smith's version of Depression-era songwriter Jimmy Cox's song, 'Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out' still resonates today.
“But the vocal performances and how the lyrics of a song are interpreted-for me it's the marriage of those two,” she adds. “I think you can have a beautifully-written song, but if the vocal delivery doesn't work, well...”
“We're both big readers,” adds Berglund. “We record a new album in March and books helped to define me as an artist. Because that's part of what we do-we're storytellers. We tell some of our stories and other people's stories.”
Berglund's extensive catalogue started with rodeo culture, but his songwriting has progessed to include songs such as 'Pretty Good Guy,' which pays hilarious homage to his meeting with guitarist and friend, Bryce Lewis, who he hired prior to a gig gone wrong in Grenfell.
“What's important in my show is definitely the storytelling,” says Belle. “Onstage with Elizabeth (Curry, on bass) and Jeremy (Sauer (on keyboards and accordian), we mix genres and include a lot of jazz, folk, and country stuff.”
One of her most moving-yet deeply personal-compositions is 'Frozen,' recounting her “winter walks on Quill Lake, when I had the pleasure of looking after my mom when she was ill...It's a song abour letting go and realizing you can't change everything.”
Both artists are assured and comfortable onstage, which makes Berglund's disclosure that he suffers from stage fright surprising.
“I started performing when I was three, when I had piano lessons,” he says. “Often I'd start playing and I couldn't even finish the pieces. Belle's given me a lot of positive reinforcement, because she's found her comfort zone in performing. She's supplied that place for me, too.”
“It usually takes me two or three songs to settle into the crowd,” he adds. “I still feel like I have off shows, but it's moving into place.”
“But it also has a sense of excitement,” says the veteran performer. “It's like hockey, you're in the game and you're figuring out the play. With different venues-whether they're theatres, rodeo cabarets or coffee shops, you have different audiences. We like to showcase our original material to our listening audience. It's an opportunity to sell ourselves as artists and our material to other people and it allows us to develop a different side of our artistry.”
Belle adds: “With different shows, you're communicating with an audience...It's fun to combine our groups onstage. Things change and we create different iterations of our show.”
Although the pair “is always releasing new music,” Berglund says that a musician's life is equal parts challenging and rewarding.
“The biggest part of touring is getting along with the band,” he laughs. “There's a joke that it's like a marriage and this, our 'Town to Town' show, it's a marriage of five different people in a vehicle. On a personal level, how everybody works, depends on and totally alters you as a performer,” adding that this tour has been successful on that front.
During their recent show in Carlyle, Premier Brad Wall voiced his support for the pair on Twitter, tweeting: “It will be a great show!” Wall, a longtime admirer of the pair, is said to especially enjoy their renditions of 'Town To Town' and “Saskatchewan,' composed by their close friend, Saskatoon songwriter, Zachary Lucky.
“We've both received such great support from our audiences and everything they do for us, we appreciate and it's just another piece of the puzzle as far as trying to make a living in the arts,” says Berglund. “We're selling our music and offering a service to people and hopefully, they will enjoy it and support it.”
“Whether they walk across a street to a show, or are too far away to make it to a show and instead, share a YouTube video on their Facebook page, or send 50 emails to a radio station-asking them to play our songs, or whether they buy a CD or download our music from iTunes, we really appreciate it,” adds Berglund.
“I've done shows where I've received a couple thousand dollars and I've been paid with a $20 Tim Hortons gift card for performing for seniors in a church hall. It's all fullfilling and I really appreciate it all.”