Alanna Nash
October 25, 1996 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Country newcomer Paul Brandt has just finished his set at 12th and Porter, Nashville’s most eclectic music club, when a waitress with a nose ring, assorted tattoos, and a trayful of attitude ambles over. ”I hate country music,” she blurts, ”but that was cool.”

The waitress isn’t the only one buzzing about the 23-year-old Brandt, who, in a time of tenors, has a baritone that likes to troll the bottom of his three-octave range. His debut single, ”My Heart Has a History,” has already reached No. 1 in Brandt’s native Canada. And a second single, ”I Do,” from his recently released album Calm Before the Storm is currently powering its way up the country top 10.

One reason Brandt stands out from Nashville’s herd of greenhorns may have something to do with his previous line of work — he spent two years as a pediatric nurse in Calgary, Alberta. Where many young performers don’t sound as if they’ve done much living, Brandt’s voice is brimming with experience.

”Working in the hospital, I saw a lot of things that people don’t see their entire lives,” he says. ”When you get a chance to help a woman through childbirth, or to work with a dying child, it’s a pretty incredible thing.”

Case in point: Upon returning from a trip to Nashville, where he spent every other month collaborating on songwriting projects, Brandt learned that a favorite patient, a 13-year-old named Aimeelee, had succumbed to cystic fibrosis. His deep regret over her death is expressed in Storm’s ”I Meant to Do That.” ”Aimeelee taught me an important lesson — to find the potential in every day,” says Brandt. ”It’s a reminder each time I sing it.”

Seizing the day might well be his family’s motto. To escape the Nazis, Brandt’s Polish grandmother traveled across Europe and booked a boat to Canada because she’d missed the one to the States. Brandt’s father, originally a hospital janitor, managed to work his way up to paramedic. The singer’s mother joined her son when he enrolled in nursing school, and a sister, during a trip to Jerusalem, became nanny to the grandchildren of Israel’s president, Ezer Weizman.

Though his parents were strict and religious (no TV, no listening to secular music), Brandt says they firmly support his new career and have no qualms about his leaving nursing.

”I always wanted to make a difference in people’s lives,” he explains. ”Music is just another form of healing.”

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