Wild Belle: Tropical Complexities
With the release of their debut album Isles, Chicagoan siblings Natalie and Elliot Bergmann introduce their distinct sound to a broader audience: mellow but catchy and inspiringly bright and uplifting. Raised by musically inclined parents, a love for jazz, folk, soul and rock’n’roll was instilled early on. After dabbling in various musical projects, big brother and little sister came together to combine their multifaceted influences and experiences into a diversified but harmonious sound. Their approach of sourcing from classical genres for their debut makes for a feel good album with retro flavor.
We met with Natalie and Elliot in Berlin during their European tour and talked about their growing excitement for the release of their first album, the benefits of growing up in a musical household and the splendid video to their single Keep You.
Congratulations on your fantastic debut. A first album is special because you set the bar instead of trying to meet it. So, how do you feel about it?
Natalie: We finished the record a year ago, so we’ve been waiting for a long time. Now that the day has finally come, we’re very happy. It is exciting to see how people respond to the music and I think, so far, people like it.
The album title gives a taste of everything your sound has in store for us: the Afro-Caribbean flavor and its sunny-mellow feeling. If we took the concept a little further, we could also talk about isles in terms of isolation. Do you feel isolated with your sound in the current music scene?
Natalie: A little bit, yes. And speaking of isolation, we recorded the album in a studio in Benton Harbor, Michigan, which is a very unpopulated town. There was the studio, a café down the road and maybe a dysfunctional library somewhere. We didn’t have any exterior influences coming in, so we were feeding off of each other, the colors in the room and all our musical influences.
How do you approach the construction of a song – do the lyrics come first or are they initiated by a certain sonic input?
Elliot: We construct songs differently every time. We both like to build things up from the rhythm, though. You can start with a drumbeat, or an organ part, or a loop. In the studio they get broken down and built back up again. It is like arranging blocks. We always try to get songs to a certain place so that we can say "Now we see what it is," and you don’t always know how it will turn out. Sometimes you have to leave it alone for a while.
Natalie: Sometimes you just have to cry over it.
Elliot: Right. We had made a version of the song June, which was just Natalie and a guitar and it turned out to be very sad. And then we adapted it to be a little more up-tempo. It turned out to sound very Motown and fun. Everyone declared it a hit and the best song on the album but I just thought "I hate this version!".
Natalie: It didn’t resonate with us in the same way. It lost all of its emotional depth. When I was performing it in this way, it felt like I was lying. We simply had to change it back. It was an emotional process in the studio, because we were so invested in this album. It was Elliot, myself, and our engineer Bill. I had to cry for him to re-record the song.
Elliot: I tried screaming for a while.
Natalie: Then Bill quit. But he couldn’t go anywhere because we were in his house. Eventually everything turned out well.
What are your musical influences, what did you grow up listening to?
Elliot: We grew up in a house in which everyone listened to Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Prince, all of that. As I got a little bit older, my mom introduced me to records by John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders. We had a really cool listening environment growing up. When I went to college, I started working in a record store and I got into African music, so I started listening to Fela Kuti, different Afrobeat sounds and highlife music, as well as reggae and music from all over the world. I was drawn to rhythmic music. And Natalie went down her own path.
Natalie: There are so many influences. You think of one genre and then you realize how you can get to a different one. For instance, I love Bossa Nova, I love Astrud Gilberto – and then I think about the records that João Gilberto made and how I’m into different elements in them, like horns, and then I find myself exploring the realm of Jazz. We both went around the world separately, exploring it, and then we got together and poured all of the influences into the record.
What are you listening to right now? Any tips on fresh or up-and-coming talents to watch?
Natalie: We generally gravitate towards older music, it’s what we fall back on. But we’re also excited about new music. Our friend Ahmed Gallab has a band called Sinkane. He is Sudanese, so there are Sudanese elements mixed with Electronic influences and a very Brooklyn sound. It’s awesome.
Elliot: We got to do a tour in France with Michael Kiwanuka, and played with the Alabama Shakes in Paris. Both of those bands are great live, and their records sound amazing too. We are looking forward to a new record from our old friends Saturday Looks Good To Me. Their album All Your Summer Songs is an underrated masterpiece. We’re also excited for the new Major Lazer record, and for our friend Drums of Death to put out his record. Also, we like what Solange and Dev Hynes are doing together. Our friends Delicate Steve make some really uplifting instrumental music, and Caveman is great.
Describe your own sound in three words!
How about two? Blues Tropicale.
Tell us about your outstanding video for Keep You. It was produced by one of the most sought after video directors of the hour, Melina Matsoukas.
Natalie: It was shot in Kingston, Jamaica. When we talked about the inspirations for it, we connected on so many levels with her. We were like: We love Rocksteady, we love Malick Sadibé – the Malian photographer from the ’70s, and we love reggae and Jamaica, so we were all excited about it. I would say it was not exactly what we envisioned originally, but it was so amazing to work with Melina and I love how it turned out. And I adore Jabari, the little kid from the video. It was, overall, a very special opportunity.
You’re promoting the album right now, then there’s the tour. What else is coming up?
Elliot: We’re going to Brazil soon. We’re playing one show there and then we’re going to stay and vacation for a short while. We’re doing some festivals throughout the summer.
Any favorite famous last words by another musician?
Elliot: I have to go with Bob Marley on this one. Money can’t buy life. We just visited his studio outside of Ocho Rios. He started building it near the end of his life, and never got to use it. There are some plans in the works to get it up and running again soon, and I hope that the amazing space can host some musicians that will try to create some new sounds with the tremendous spirit of his music.
Fill in the blank: Music is … ?
Elliot: Powerful. It can move people, heal people, and bring them together.
Keep You music video