For a young woman with an unremarkable name, Jane Smith makes remarkable music with her band, Belle Histoire. And at an age when most people are slightly intimidated by the enormity of the decisions ahead of them, Smith has a clear idea of what she wants.
“We’re going to work as hard as we can, and we’re OK with being really poor to make this band work,” says the 18-year-old vocalist/keyboardist over an espresso. “I’ll be the happiest little girl on earth if I can play shows every night the rest of my life.”
Belle Histoire’s just-released full-length debut, Dreamers, is solid evidence of a sonic maturity beyond the band’s brief existence and relative youth. Dreamers’ expansive vibe suggests a heartland translation of The Cranberries with dashes of Coldplay and U2, standing as a logical extension of the band’s first two EPs, 2011’s Spirits and this year’s I Can Tell.
“We’re nervous but excited because it’s definitely a step in a different direction,” Smith says. “We went in writing what we wanted to write without trying to do anything specific. And we all got to be a part of it.”
“That wasn’t the case with the EPs,” bassist Mitch Winsett notes. “The first EP was already recorded when I joined the band and the second EP, everybody played on two songs, but the other two were already recorded.”
Belle Histoire (the band prounces it “hist-wa”) is French for “beautiful story,” but Smith’s narrative is more compelling than pretty. As a child, Smith was steered down a musical path by her supportive parents, who encouraged her as a pianist and singer. At 10, her parents were both diagnosed with cancer, forcing Smith to mature beyond her age and resulting in an unexpected creative outcome.
“There was a lot of stress in the house and (songwriting) was the only way I could really think,” Smith says. “I couldn’t talk to my friends because no one understood that stuff. I sat down and taught myself guitar, and two years later my dad passed away. But all the time he was sick, he would say, ‘This summer we’re going to record some songs for you.’ I was 12 but I was ready.
“After that, I was like, ‘I can’t let this terrible thing in my life hold me back.’ I think that’s everything he would have wanted.
I’ll always be in bands and enjoy it because writing a song has always been my personal diary. I want to be positive because what I went through is way easy compared to what a lot of people in a crowd at a show are dealing with, and I want to show them that it will be OK in the end.”
At 15, Smith was singing with Formulas, learning the ropes of band life while channeling her normal teenage angst and very adult fear and frustration through a visceral Punk prism, leading to another unforeseen result.
“I would write songs that would not fit that genre,” Smith says. “My brother was like, ‘These are your artsy, more creative songs. You need to use those.’ Formulas was ready to be done at that point and I was ready to start something new.”
With her mother’s remission, Formulas’ dissolution and her radically different songs waiting in the wings, Smith was prepared for a new path. Her brother John (“Jane and John Smith; our parents hated us,” Smith says, laughing; her mother actually requested to be on record as loving her daughter very much … aww!) encouraged her to find an outlet for her new songs, even finding players to back her.
“None of us actually thought about doing anything with it,” Smith says. “My brother told me he’d pay for the recording, and he did. I was showing it to friends and more people started hearing about it, and suddenly there were members and we were playing shows. It was weird, because we didn’t really try, we just played the music we wanted to play.”
First in was John Smith’s best friend, former Seabird guitarist Aaron Hunt, followed by Formulas drummer Wes Comer. Guitarist Austin Livingood, a friend of Jane’s, was equally eager to get involved; Winsett became the final piece of the puzzle when he joined in May 2011.
The initial quartet hit Brandon Weaver’s Iron Wing studio in Covington to record Spirits, and he asked about their name, which at the time was The History.
“He said, ‘That’s not unique. You guys took the easy way out,’” Smith recalls. “He started looking up names in French, and he said, ‘What about Belle Histoire? It means beautiful history or beautiful story.’ That had a lot of character, it’s unique and we loved it.
“It just sucks because some people don’t understand what we’re saying.”
“It makes for a good talking point,” Winsett says. “People are like, ‘What are you guys called?’ ‘Belle Histoire.’ ‘Wait … what?’ If they still have a confused look, you explain it. It’s good.”
Recently, Hunt shifted his focus to production, leaving Belle Histoire to function primarily as a quartet. He’s remained involved in the band as a utility member (the band’s Bunbury appearance this past weekend was officially his last), but he’s pledged future production support.
If the EPs were Belle Histoire’s getting-to-know-you period, Dreamers, improbably but sincerely released nationally through Metal/Hardcore label In Vogue, is where the band’s personality was forged in the fires of collaboration.
“I wrote the songs for Spirits, and Aaron produced them and made them into songs,” Smith says. “On Dreamers, we collectively wrote as a band. Also this is the first time ever in my life that other people helped me write lyrics. That was a big thing. I had to swallow my pride and realize that someone else’s lyrics might be as good as mine. We definitely grew as a band.”
Belle Histoire is a part-time band comprised of members with part-time jobs, so scheduling is complicated, but Dreamers shows they’ve grown into a fully realized band with incredible internal chemistry and the potential to leap into the spotlight with Walk the Moon-like speed and success. Smith has already written about her life’s joys and tragedies with equal passion at an impossibly young age, and she and the band are poised to become even better as they progress. But in the final analysis, Smith’s feelings about Belle Histoire have more to do with gratitude than ambition.
“We’re just blessed to be doing this,” she says.
BELLE HISTOIRE’s Dreamers is available now. For more info, visit bellehistoiremusic.com.