The Family Band: Wild Belle
PHOTOS BY VAN SARKI.
Natalie Bergman hands over her iPhone, excited to share the artwork for Wild Belle’s new album. “It’s a painting that my mom did when she was in college. I know that lots of people can identify with a photograph more, but her paintings really resonate with both of us,” Natalie explains. “We lost her a few years ago,” she continues. “I think that she’ll probably be psyched that we’re using her painting on the cover.”
Siblings 31-year-old Elliot and 23-year-old Natalie Bergman are receiving a great deal of attention for their musical duo, Wild Belle. But it’s well deserved—there is not one song on their forthcoming debut album, Isles, that sends you reaching for the skip button. With touches of Motown pop and reggae beats, there is a slow groove to every song, a catchy musical hook that makes one want to get up and dance—if not a “let’s rage tonight” dance, then certainly a cathartic, autonomous one. “We thought Isles because each song is its own island, and each song has its own story,” Natalie explains.
Interview recently met Wild Belle for lunch to talk about the release of Isles in spring 2013, Damien Hirst, and losing your music. The Chicago based siblings were on their way back from a 24-hour visit to Art Basel Miami Beach.
EMMA BROWN: How was Art Basel? How did you end up playing at the Soho House party?
NATALIE BERGMAN: Our friend Rob Stringer, who wanted to put us on his label, Columbia Records—he is good friends with the people that work and own Soho House, so he said, “Hey, check out this new band on the label.” We were only there for a night, but it was kind of a magical night. We played a fun party. We just got to hang out with some really cool artists, including Damien Hirst. We just saw an exhibit of his when we were in London a few months ago, so it’s just fun to be in this environment where there are so many creative people, and they’re all welcoming and encouraging of your own art.
EMMA BROWN: Was it easy to talk to Damien Hirst? I feel like I would be so intimidated.
ELLIOT BERGMAN: He’s like a real dude. You just say, “Hey, what’s up?”
NATALIE BERGMAN: And he’s a storyteller also, beyond being an exceptional artist with his hands, he also has a lot of good, fun things to say. So that was fun. We had some drinks with him the following day right on the beach. It was beautiful. A very romantic setting.
EMMA BROWN: I know that you’re eight years apart; were you friends as children? Or is this a new, adult friendship?
NATALIE BERGMAN: I think we’ve always been companions. We have a very loving set of parents, and they just tried to instill love in us as much as possible. But I think we started hanging and listening to music together when I was 12 or 13. We’ve always had a nice musical exchange.
ELLIOT BERGMAN: I’m emotionally underdeveloped, so I’m about the same age, emotionally, as Natalie.
EMMA BROWN: What kind of stuff did you listen to?
NATALIE BERGMAN: Some Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, Sun Ra. He sort of turned me onto jazz music and West African music, and it’s helped me find my own path. He gave me a good core of world music to listen to, and my mother gave me, and my dad gave me a nice door to roots music—roots, soul and folk—and then I sort of ventured of into other regions of Africa and other regions of the Caribbean. And so you have a lot of influences combined, but I hope that in the record you can hear the different world of sounds.
EMMA BROWN: And did you play music together when you were younger?
ELLIOT BERGMAN: A little bit. My mom played the jazz standards, and Natalie played the violin. I played the clarinet. And so we did a little bit of that, but we didn’t really start working on stuff together until Natalie was about 15 or so and she would start coming on tour with our band and stuff.
I have a band called Nomo. It’s still sort of active, but it’s been difficult throughout the years. Natalie had come out on tours with us, and she would play percussion and things, sing a little—oohs and ahs and stuff. As Natalie was kind of developing her own music as a songwriter, there were little glimpses, like, “Oh, maybe we should try this together. Maybe this could work.”
EMMA BROWN: Elliot, I love the song where you take the lead vocals, “When It’s Over.” Are you going to be singing in more songs?
ELLIOT BERGMAN: I don’t know, maybe. Natalie’s just such a better singer than me, it’s embarrassing.
NATALIE BERGMAN: A lot of those songs, I wrote years ago. I wrote this song “When It’s Over”—I like singing it, too, in a different key—but I wrote it for a man, then I just gave it to my brother. [laughs] And he did a great job!
ELLIOT BERGMAN: Thanks!
EMMA BROWN: Have you ever written for another band?
NATALIE BERGMAN: I’ve taught my music to boys my whole life. I’ve said, “Okay, here are the songs, you play this and you play that.” And I had group, when I was in Boston going to school [at Berklee], of dedicated boys. I was living with the bassist, my boyfriend lived next door, my drummer lived up the street. It became way too claustrophobic. I was like, “Bye bye, Boston. I love you. And bye bye, young boys.” It’s time to work with some of the best musicians in the world.
EMMA BROWN: There’s a sort of ongoing theme of dangerous love on your album—did you write all of the songs based on one experience? Or several?
NATALIE BERGMAN: It’s an experience. There are some from the same… affair. Some are from a broken heart, some are from somebody that I don’t want at all, and then some are a different sorrow within me that is beyond heartbreak.
EMMA BROWN: Do you ever get to go to shows? Or are you too busy touring?
NATALIE BERGMAN: We just saw Alabama Shakes for the first time and it blew my mind. Brittany [Howard], the lead singer —she is a real, real talent. She’s like Al Green in a female’s body.
EMMA BROWN: When you see other bands play, is it encouraging, or is it like, “Oh my goodness, there’s so many great people, how are you supposed to distinguish yourself?”
ELLIOT BERGMAN: It can be really inspiring. It’s always a learning experience. Pretty much any band that you’re on the road with you can learn something from, whether it’s how to do something or how not to do something.
NATALIE BERGMAN: Uh huh. And the more you are touring with another band, because it’s such brief encounters with them you wanna develop a good relationship with somebody in a week. It’s like summer camp. It’s like, okay: you either are their friend, you are a good friend for them, or maybe they want nothing to do with you. You have to be loving and sincerely open your heart to people that you tour with, because there’s no room for judgment or prejudice. We’re all trying to grow, and we’re all trying to improve our art by being inspired by other people. So if you’re not loving, then how the hell are you gonna inspire someone?
EMMA BROWN: What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
ELLIOT BERGMAN: I don’t know who the best advice is, but since we’re on the subject of touring, we were hanging out with Tom Tom Club—we got to play on their record—and Chris [Frantz] and Tina [Weymouth], every time we hang out with them, they can always tell us something. Tina, she’s so cool, and so—
NATALIE BERGMAN: Insightful.
ELLIOT BERGMAN: And so smart. She said that we really have to make sure that we love the way we sound. You can’t have bad sound, because it’ll really rail you down. We have to take care of that first, and make sure that we enjoy playing it, because if we don’t, it’ll definitely come through to the audience. Audiences are really smart. Audiences can tell when you’re happy and when you’re in a good place and when you’re loving what you’re doing .
NATALIE BERGMAN: You’re transparent up there. If you don’t like how you sound, then I—
ELLIOT BERGMAN: Then no ones does.
NATALIE BERGMAN: It’s a disaster. And rude, not because I’m upset with the audience, I’m just upset with how it sounds onstage.
EMMA BROWN: I know that one of your songs was in The Vampire Diaries—where do you draw the licensing line, what would you definitely refuse?
NATALIE BERGMAN: I don’t want my music in some sort of pornography video—vampires are actually kind of like the closest thing to it, in my opinion. [laughs] But come on, I just don’t want it in porn, I don’t want it in an anti-Obama documentary. There are things that I stand behind wholeheartedly. Obama is one of those things. And pornography is not. [laughs] Those are lousy examples, but…
EMMA BROWN: You would be upset if you were Rage Against the Machine?
NATALIE BERGMAN: Haha, yeah. What do you think, Elliot?
ELLIOT BERGMAN: I think you want to align yourself with things you can stand behind. You can’t just sign on to do things that you’ll regret later, because then you’ll start to feel disconnected from your own music, and you’ll start to feel like somebody else has more ownership over it than you do.
NATALIE BERGMAN: But we’ve never felt that way. Nobody owns our music, and even if we share it with the wrong outlet—
ELLIOT BERGMAN: No, I have felt that way. I had a song that was used in a pizza commercial one time. It wasn’t a Wild Belle song, but they did the license. It was a dancing bee—a guy in a bee costume—and it was just so silly. And it was a song that I thought was kind of cool and badass, and then you see the commercial and you’re like, “Oh, they think it’s a funny song, it’s like a clown song. I never heard it like that, but it works in the commercial.”
NATALIE BERGMAN: That sucks!
ELLIOT BERGMAN: So then there’s this visual of a fat guy in a bee costume dancing around with a pizza. It really changed how I understood that people could hear the music, because they were like, “We have to have this song. It’s the perfect song.” And then I saw the thing and once it was on TV, it was so embarrassing.
EMMA BROWN: Do you find that new music helps you create? Or does it get in your headspace when you’re trying to think of your own ideas?
NATALIE BERGMAN: I don’t generally seek out new music. I search old music. I like to look through the archives for inspiration, because that’s where it is. There’s so much good music that’s created nowadays, but that’s not what really fuels my artistic expression. We do have many friends that are making brilliant music. Our friend Ahmed [Gallab], he has a band called Sinkane. He’s Sudanese, and it’s just got all of these cool percussive elements and there’s a little bit of vocals. And this band that we just toured with, Michael Kiwanuka, it’s just good, soulful music. But yeah, I think that my creativity is triggered by history in many situations.
ELLIOT BERGMAN: I like listening to new stuff and looking at it from a production standpoint, like what people are doing and the way that they’re making records. It’s interesting. But also I’m not seeking out the bands, so it’s always nice when you get a mixtape—
NATALIE BERGMAN: Right.
ELLIOT BERGMAN: —with a few things. We were just traveling this past week with my friend in San Francisco and it had this Kindness song on it. It was this song called “Swinging Party Moves.” We listened to it probably 30 times.
NATALIE BERGMAN: It’s so good. Please put that in your article. [laughs]
ELLIOT BERGMAN: He’s a sweet guy. He came to our show. We played a show in London and he was there. We didn’t see him, but then we saw him at Heathrow the next morning at Wagamama [restaurant]. so we just kind of chilled at Wagamama for a minute.
NATALIE BERGMAN: Besides his title, he exudes kindness and love. It’s really easy to hang out with somebody like that.
EMMA BROWN: What was the first song that touched you?
NATALIE BERGMAN: You’ve got good questions. You’ve got all of those written down on that small piece of paper? [laughs] Honestly? “Just The Two Of Us” by Bill Withers. I heard that when I was like five years old, and I was like, this is the dreamiest song ever. It’s amazing. And there’s a cheesy sax solo.
ELLIOT BERGMAN: It’s Grover Washington’s record. Bill Withers is the guest on the record.
NATALIE BERGMAN: You’re right.
EMMA BROWN: What about you, Elliot?
ELLIOT BERGMAN: I would say “Just The Two Of Us” by Grover Washington Jr.
NATALIE BERGMAN: [laughs]
ELLIOT BERGMAN: No, I’m just kidding. I’m trying to think… I think the first record that I had was The Beatles’ Rubber Soul. That whole record I would listen to in headphones in bed every night and my first-grade self really connected with “I’m Looking Through You.” But actually, that’s such a mean song. What did I really like? “Norwegian Wood” was a song that I just loved. I had no idea what it meant, and I misunderstood a lot of the words. But then I went on this camping trip when I was a kid, and everyone had to sing a song, and I sang “Norwegian Wood,” and all the counselors were kind of like, “Whoa… This kid’s a little bit racy for first-grade summer camp, a song about a one-night stand!” But I didn’t know it was a out a one-night stand. I thought it was about, like—
NATALIE BERGMAN: A chair in somebody’s bedroom?
ELLIOT BERGMAN: I didn’t even understand the line, “This bird had flown.” I thought it said, “Whispered the fool.” So I probably had like half the lyrics wrong, but that was my song that I sang at summer camp. The first-grade remix.
EMMA BROWN: Did the other first-graders make fun of you and ask you “Why are you listening to parent music?”
ELLIOT BERGMAN: Oh, I was always listening to parent music. In sixth grade I was like, “Have you guys heard In A Silent Way? It’s amazing.” And kids would be like, “No, dude, The Offspring. What’s wrong with you?” And I was like, “No! Miles Davis!” Everyone was freaking out about Pearl Jam and The Offspring, and I was like listening to a lot of Supremes and stuff like that.
To see more of our 13 Faces of 2013, click here.