Interview: The talented and graceful Belle-Skinner chats with Nippertown
(NIPPERTOWN)–Belle-Skinner is the opening act for caroline at Lark Hall this Thursday, the third in a string of local venues she’s playing for Nippertown this spring. After hearing her sweet nostalgic vocals at the Joni Mitchell tribute, I couldn’t stop thinking about her voice and was delighted when she agreed to answer some questions for Nippertown.
I started by asking her about her stage name, Belle-Skinner, as I was surprised to learn her legal name was actually Maria.
“The name “Belle-Skinner” comes from a place that’s named after a person – more specifically, a music building that was dedicated to music-lover and philanthropist Isabelle Ruth Skinner,” she graciously explained. “My last year of college (at Vassar), I got very invested in music, so I spent virtually every day in that building, and it became my favorite place on campus (it’s also really beautiful). Every day I would pass by this plaque on the entryway wall that said, ‘This Building is Dedicated to Belle Skinner.’ I liked the name, and several years later when I was looking for a moniker, I remembered it. Not only was it personally significant, but it also felt like it fit my music really well. I put a hyphen in there because it’s not my given name, but I still get called Belle, and that’s fine.”
She certainly has the beauty to go with the meaning of the name. Belle-Skinner’s snow-white skin and shorn auburn hair emphasize her beautiful big eyes, which she uses perfectly to connect with audiences as she performs. Her voice drips with grace and artistry as well.
Belle-Skinner’s responses to compliments about her voice demonstrate humility, and some guidance for fans who are interested in also developing their vocal skills. “I took a couple of years of classical singing in high school where I learned most of my technique, and then three years of lessons in college, where I learned a wide variety of classical repertoire. I’ve sung in the church choir and a cappella groups as well. I have a very high voice naturally, if you hear me speak – but classical training definitely helped me shape notes, learn warm-up exercises, and get exposed to lots of interesting music that I wouldn’t have heard otherwise.”
The music she sings also spans the romantic languages. “I’ve sung in Italian, Spanish, French, Czech, Russian, German, Ukrainian, Portuguese, and Japanese … from what I can remember. But anyone can do this – if you have the written text, at least one recording of a native singing the song (for pronunciation reference), and a computer in order to translate the song word-by-word (because it’s important to know what each word means as you are singing it). Anyone can do this. The only tricky thing is pronunciation, if you are not used to it – but I think you can develop that skill.”
A previous singing teacher also noticed her strength in pronunciation. “I studied Russian and French in school, I used to have a British accent from living in London for a few years as a kid, and in general, I like to imitate accents, so I think my ear for accents is good enough,” she remarked.
But most telling was Belle-Skinner’s enjoyment of language in general.
“I also really love languages – I love how the structure and sound of a language completely changes how songs are written. There are songs that would be impossible to write in English, just because of the way English works. So, if you think about it, listening to only one language really limits how you see the world – there is so much beautiful music out there that we don’t know about. You don’t even have to understand what is being said – if the melody is beautiful, that alone is worth it,” she explains.
Belle-Skinner recently sang a french version of “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You” during her opening act at Cohoes Music Hall, coyly teasing the audience with the familiar melody. The song has the opposite meaning in French, which was also playful fun for the audience. Her enjoyment of how the structure of the lyrics impacted the song was clear for everyone who listened.
She listens to varied music as well, enjoying “calm, melodic music. I love Francoise Hardy, songs from old Russian movies, and jazz music like that of Chet Baker, Sarah Vaughn, Astrud Gilberto, and Nat King Cole. From more contemporary music, I like Weyes Blood, Lana Del Rey, Neko Case, and Ichiko Aoba.”
Belle-Skinner lives in upstate New York, and makes frequent visits to the Capital Region. “It’s funny, the same places my family liked to go to when we visited Albany on the weekends are the same places I still like, such as Indian Ladder Farms and Thacher Park with their beautiful scenery. I enjoy nature a lot. I also like old cemeteries: Albany Rural Cemetery and Oakwood Cemetery in Troy are lovely.”
The musician and songwriter is a deep thinker and shared she’s an avid reader as well. “I generally like classic novels. Dickens, Vonnegut, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Austen, Alcott, David Sedaris (a modern classic!). I also sometimes read nonfiction. Some books that have stuck with me are Dostoevsky’s “The Possessed/Devils” and “Brothers Karamazov” (hugely important in forming my current worldview – as well as Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”), “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith, “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut, “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote, and “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion” by Jonathan Haidt (highly recommended for our socially-divided times).”
Jim had heard her perform prior to the Joni Mitchell concert, but I had not. Since that night at Cohoes Music Hall, I’ve done a deep dive into her recent covers of Mitchell’s music. Her versions of the songs reveal a deep respect not only for legendary musician’s work, but also her life as well.
I asked her about Mitchell’s music, and any influence it had on her. I was shocked by her answer: Mitchell was relatively new to her.
“I didn’t grow up listening to Joni Mitchell – that’s why I found it interesting to learn more about her and connect to her music through her life story. Much like how I think it’s important to really study every word of a foreign-language song, I think it’s important to study the inspiration behind the songs you cover – especially when it comes to Joni Mitchell. Through learning all those songs and stories of hers for the Joni album I made and for the Joni tribute show afterward, I gained a new appreciation for her music and for what she represents in the pantheon of American music history.”
Belle-Skinner has a clearly well-rounded and developed wit both in her songwriting and storytelling while on stage. She quickly captured my attention and heart, as I imagine she’ll capture yours at Lark Hall on Thursday, April 6th. Come enjoy her alluring artistry in the comfort of Albany’s historic Lark Hall.