nice to meet you
Natalie Bergman on Kites, Concerts, and Singing About Jesus
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“I didn’t know if I was going to exist as a human being or function in society,” says the 30-year-old singer-songwriter Natalie Bergman as she tries to explain the origin of Mercy, her debut album as a solo artist. Bergman is no newbie when it comes to music; she spent the past decade or so touring the world as the lead singer of the brother-sister duo Wild Belle. But after the sudden death of her father, Bergman had to grapple with her sense of identity. Grief is a heavy burden to process, and for the musician hailing from Chicago, it meant escaping to the desert in New Mexico, where she met some nuns and reactivated her relationship with faith. Mercy was born out of the pain that comes with the process of losing a loved one, but it’s also a conceptual album, filled with hymn-like songs about the fragility and resilience of this experiment we call life. Below, get to know Bergman, from her love of Whitney Houston to her affinity for kites.
On the coolest of the cool: When it comes to style, I forever love rock n’ roll, and that’s kind of the easiest thing to reference. I love visual artists. Eva Hesse is a style influence to me. Rebecca Horn also inspires me. I mean, Bob Dylan, I think he’s kind of the coolest of the cool.
On loss: It was a very intense experience writing this album because it has so much to do with the loss of my father, and my love for him, and my relationship to god. It’s a record that is very personal. It was also conceptual, though. When I started understanding that I was writing these hymn-like tunes, I quickly realized that I wanted to make a whole album of praise music. When I started writing these songs, it was about six months after losing my dad, and those six months prior to embarking on the album, I really didn’t think I was going to go back to music because of death. You know, life is so fragile, and it’s also so resilient.
On singing about Jesus: Johnny Cash has a song called “It was Jesus,” which ended up becoming somewhat of a mourning anthem to me. I like traditional praise music, gospel music, and Johnny Cash wasn’t necessarily gospel, but he did sing about Jesus, and he also managed to exude this very cool energy. I liked that juxtaposition because most people who sing about Jesus ain’t that cool, and it’s just unfortunate.
On the rewards of making music by herself: I really enjoyed making this record by myself because it was such an introspective body of work, and such a personal testament. It was a testimony to my faith and my own story. There wasn’t really room for that much input on the music because it was such a proclamation of my own experience. I think that in some ways I had some real growth spiritually, personally.
On tickling the ivory: I started playing violin when I was five and then that allowed me to reach out to other instruments. Once you get the roots of a couple of them, you can sort of dabble on others, but I’m no virtuoso by any means. I love the piano. That’s my comfort. That’s what feels like an extension of my fingers.
On music, in general: I’ve neglected it before. I’ve abandoned it, but it’s the most loyal relationship I’ve ever had. It wants you to keep on going. My whole life I’ve always looked to music as a healing power of some sort, and I just have experienced it more than ever writing these songs. I’ve always turned to it for getting through heartache, and getting through any sort of pain. Music was what I needed.
On her favorite concerts: My dad would take me to concerts all the time. I mean, I saw Bob Dylan with my dad twice. I got to see Neil Young. We saw Luther Vandross. I’ve seen so many amazing concerts with my family, Mavis Staples. The most memorable concert I’ve ever been to with my dad was Aretha Franklin at the Chicago Theater, right after Whitney Houston died. They had a tremendously beautiful relationship. I remember Aretha Franklin started just playing the piano, talking about her friend, talking about somebody she really loved, and then suddenly she just sings, “I Will Always Love You.”The whole audience started crying.
About the first song she ever (re)wrote: I was about 11 and 12. I was listening to Bill Withers’s “Just the Two of Us,” and I changed the lyrics. So what I used to do is I would reference my favorite songs and then start rewriting the lyrics to their music. It was good practice for just starting off. It was inferior to Bill Withers’s version, of course.
On her mission to give back to Chicago artists: I’m working with this group called Arts of Life and it’s a community of artists, adult artists with developmental disabilities and learning disabilities. It’s a community of visual artists and musicians that have a safe place to create together and they’re treated with equality. They’re not in an environment that makes them feel like outcasts, which they’ve felt their entire lives. I care for people who have been misunderstood, and who have been treated differently. I’ve experienced that in my life, and it doesn’t feel good.
On the desert: The desert is so brutal, and the elements are so much more extreme than we are. I literally spent the last two days in the desert making a film. You shouldn’t do anything in the desert, really. This is what I’ve learned, stay far away from the desert.
On her love for making kites: I love making things. I’m kind of always working because that’s what keeps me the happiest and keeps me alive. I’ve been making kites. I have a song called “Paint the Rain,” which references kites, and so I’ve been sort of building geometric kites, and that’s been fun. I successfully got one of them to fly.
On finding peace in long walks: Walking is so imperative to my daily life. I have a walk that I do every day, and it’s a little over four miles, and it just centers me. It’s when I have my solid hour-and-a-half to communicate with the Creator.