Chicago siblings Natalie and Elliot Bergman play nice on Isles, their eclectic, window-steaming debut.
I’ve known Wild Belle vocalist Natalie Bergman all of five minutes, and she’s already asking if she can borrow my lip balm. In a vintage fur-collared coat, animal-print blazer, faded black skinny jeans, and slightly scuffed Chelsea boots, she walks into a busy intersection, then breaks into a husky, infectious laugh, while her multi-instrumentalist bandmate (and brother) Elliot Bergman and I wait on the sidewalk for the traffic to clear.
With perfectly imperfect ombré highlights and fearless aplomb, Natalie, 24, is like the cool new girl that lonely outcasts dream about suddenly showing up at their high school to make everything OK. After loading into the Chicago duo’s Jamaican-flag-bedecked tour van, a dream catcher swings near my face as I dig around in my bag for ChapStick. “Do not give that to her,” clucks the bearded and lanky Elliot, 31, from behind the wheel. “She’s been coughing all day.”
We’re on our way to the Palm House inside the Lincoln Park Conservatory, a humid oasis on this frigid January afternoon, which just happens to be around the corner from the high school Natalie attended and across the street from the apartment where Elliot spent his early childhood years. The “paradise under glass” provides a clue to the tropical origins of Wild Belle’s eclectic sound, which also incorporates psychedelia, Afropop, dub, and rocksteady elements amid synths, blown-out baritone sax, handmade thumb-pianos, and speaker- fuzz soul wailing. It’s also an excellent location for a photo shoot.
“I love this place!” Natalie exclaims, stopping the photographer every few minutes to take her own snaps on her phone, and then to chat with her former English teacher, who happens to be visiting the Conservatory as well. Later, en route to a sushi restaurant, she admits she wasn’t exactly a model student, but that she could now see herself “totally being friends” with the teacher we just met. Over avocado rolls, Elliot explains that Wild Belle formed after Natalie (whose nickname is Belle) contributed vocals to a song for his Afropop band, Nomo. “Natalie turned pro at about 16,” Elliot says, laughing. “She was playing chimta [an Indian percussion instrument] for Nomo when she was really young. She’s been a tour dog for a long time.” Both wound up studying music in college— Elliot, jazz saxophone at the University of Michigan, and Natalie, jazz piano, voice, and world percussion at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
And then a couple of years ago, Natalie joined Nomo in the studio to make a new record. “The stuff that Natalie was singing on was not really feeling like Nomo,” Elliot says. “It was just more exciting to try to do this other thing.” They assembled a touring band of Kellen Harrison (bass) and fellow Nomo-ers, Erik Hall (guitar) and Quin Kirchner (drums). “It really just happened,” Natalie adds. “There was no thought to it.”
But falling into creative pursuits is nothing new for the Bergman clan. The siblings’ sister, Elise, is an accomplished Chicago fashion designer who’s created stage outfits for Wild Belle, and their brother, Bennet, a poet and fiction writer, directed the duo’s video for “Backslider” in the family’s backyard, using a painter’s tarp and their mother’s projector and slides. “Our family is kind of unusually close,” Elliot says. “People are always like, ‘That’s weird that you like your sisters,’ but a big part of it is that we lost our mom six years ago, and we all had to huddle up after that; everyone just learned to take good care of each other.” The work of their mother, Susan Bergman, a nonfiction author who died of brain cancer in 2006, lives on not only in the “Backslider” video, but also on the cover of Isles. An otherworldly painting of pyramids Susan made while in college graces the cover of the duo's debut full-length, out this month on Columbia Records. "It was one that we just kept coming back to,” Elliot explains.
“Working with people that you know and love, that’s the most valuable collaboration you can have,” he continues. “It’s really hard to connect with people in the high-pressure environment of, you know, when money is being spent and you have to come up with something really brilliant.” But when the collaboration involves 11 songs about your younger sister being wronged by men, it’s inevitable that the older-brother instinct will surface. “He wants to kick every guy’s ass,” Natalie says, laughing. She recounts meeting a gentleman after one of the band’s recent shows. “So, all night, every dude in the band was watching me and this guy,” she says. “And then I was like, ‘All right, I’m going to sleep.’ So Elliot asks, ‘How are you getting home?’ He walks me back to my hotel room and says, ‘I’m going to bed, too. I’ll see you tomorrow.’ And then he just goes right back to the bar!” Elliot jumps in: “That was not only of my own volition. There was a group consensus of, like, eight different people that were like, ‘Elliot, that is not a cool dude. He’s like 53.’” Natalie laughs: “He was 43. And he was sexy.”
Meanwhile, our server would like to finish her shift, and Natalie would like an Americano, so we head over to a place near Lincoln Hall, where the band needs to do a soundcheck for their sold-out hometown show this evening. Natalie’s about 10 steps ahead, humming an old Motown song, poised to walk into speeding traffic again, when she whips around to ask if we can be friends. “I mean, after this interview. You like coffee and sushi. What more could I ask for?” By this point, I’m pretty certain the singer asks this of everyone she meets. But the awkward high school outcast, still living somewhere inside of me, squeals with delight.