Wild Belle – The Untitled Magazine – Photography by Rebecca Miller. Natalie wears a bodysuit by MARA HOFFMAN, a lace dress by BREE LAYNE, and shoes by PEDRO GARCIA. Elliot wears a blazer by SIKI IM, a shirt by PRADA, denim jeans by J. LINDEBERG and a hat by SAINT LAURENT.
“Nothing gets between blood. We’re unbreakable. We have a bond that you can’t fuck up.”
Growing up in a musical household in Chicago, a city known for its Bluesy roots, it was only natural for siblings Natalie and Elliot Bergman to form a band together. Known as Wild Belle, the duo’s signature style combines Elliot’s penchant for reggae rhythms and tropical sounds with Natalie’s raw vocals and rockstar swagger. Both musicians play instruments and collaborate on songwriting but it was Natalie’s life that provided the basis for their second full-length album, Dreamland. Reeling from the end of a romantic relationship, she packed up her bags and drove across country, settling in Venice, California. There she penned most of the album which proves to be a slightly darker follow-up to the band’s catchy debut, Isles.
Although the lyrics of Dreamland explore heavier topics such as heartbreak and destruction the music maintains the upbeat grooves of Isles, especially when the album is played live. On stage Natalie and Elliot have a synergy that could only have been cultivated from years of closeness. Fast paced songs like “Giving Up on You” and moody tracks like “Dreamland,” come alive in concert, thanks in big part to the band’s addition of several musicians and backing vocalists. Given their use of harmonies and instruments of all kinds, growing from a duo to an eight-piece band was a natural progression for Wild Belle. Natalie calls the band “a peaceful army” which hints at subjects that are often central to Wild Belle songs. Their latest video, “Throw Down Your Guns,” is both a musical and creative call to end war. It shows Natalie and Elliot melting down guns and bullets into bells. Surprisingly, the siblings actually made sets of the bells in real life. While it may be seem odd that a musical group doubles as metal smiths to Natalie and Elliot the synthesis of art and music is an organic one. Elliot actually shot Natalie’s portrait for the Dreamland cover and Natalie uses vintage magazines to create eclectic collages. For art and music fans alike, Wild Belle are ones to watch. Catch them this summer in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles.
The Untitled Magazine editor-in-chief, Indira Cesarine, recently talked to Wild Belle’s Natalie Bergman about inspiration, art, and the meaning of the music behind Dreamland. See the full interview below and check out the exclusive photo shoot.
Natalie wears a bra by 0770 and a Kimono by LANVIN.
Indira Cesarine: How did you and your brother end up becoming a duo?
Natalie Bergman: I was living in Chinatown in New York City, and I had hundreds of demos that I was working on. Sometimes I’d record them in my car in the late hours of the night, when everyone was sleeping, and I just needed to get in my own head. I would open up Garage Band and play guitar. My brother gave me this Pearl drum set when I was in high school that I just kept with me every time I moved. I’d make drum beats with that and then layer it with different sounds and different instruments. I made all of these recordings, and I didn’t really have a plan. The first thing I made was a little cassette tape under the name Bellezette. After that, Elliot was working on an instrumental record with Bill Skibbe, an extraordinary engineer from Detroit in Benton Harbor, Michigan, a kind of no-man’s-land. They would record music in this beautiful, old, abandoned theater. Elliot invited me to the studio to work on some of my recordings and we built the whole record. We recorded about 20 songs and we were pleased with the outcome but we didn’t have a name for ourselves. Then we started playing shows, and our first band name was The Rune Stones, like ancient runes. My dad came up with that then, he was like “How about Kensington’s Runestones?” so we played our first gig under the name The Runes. My middle name is Belle, so later Elliot came up with “Wild Belle”, and we rolled with that.
IC: Growing up in Chicago, was music a big part of your upbringing?
NB: Definitely. Chicago is deeply rooted in blues. I grew up listening to Howlin’ Wolf and Etta James. The timbre of their voices is really raunchy and raw and kind of dirty and dusty, and that’s something I’ve had in my ear my whole life—that sort of rich, blues sound. Music was always playing in my house. I played music in church and in school. My mother was always on the piano or on the guitar so it was constantly around me. It was a good environment to grow up in.
IC: You and Elliot have such synergy when you perform together. Do you think that the fact that you are brother and sister adds a lot to the equation?
NB: Yes, I mean nothing gets between blood. We’re unbreakable. We have a bond that you can’t fuck up. Sometimes there will be nights when we just want to destroy each other and then it comes out. It becomes this raucous, intense energy, and the audience doesn’t always know what to do. For the most part there’s peace between us and it’s a really righteous relationship and sustainable, creatively. We’re about to start our third record and there’s still so much to create and say. I can always count on Elliot to bring new innovative ideas and cool sounds. He’s a very radical artist in every which way. He’s a painter, he’s inventive and imaginative, and he’s fearless. It’s really important for me to have a business partner and musical collaborator who’s as fearless as he is because I would say that I’m fearless too. If you’re unafraid then there are endless possibilities.
IC: How do you divide up the creative elements of being in a band? I know that you do a lot of the songwriting, and he’s very heavily into the instrumental side of things. Do you also play instruments?
NB: I play on most of the records that I’ve worked on in my life. The instrumentation is equally as important as the vocals. My mother told me that I couldn’t just be a vocalist. I had to play an instrument too. She was serious about music and about life. You have to be serious about music and you have to sweat and bleed your craft until it becomes your craft. You have to practice, and so I practiced the piano, guitar, and violin growing up. I remember I learned how to play drums by listening to the Fugees album, The Score. I would just start playing along to the beats and that’s how I learned drums. The instruments are just as important as my voice. For instance, the song “Mississippi River” was a funny collaboration because Elliot started the song on his ARP which is an old synthesizer. It is a completely out-of-tune instrument but he started playing these notes on it that emulated a helicopter sound. Meanwhile, I was in a completely different city working on a very similar chord progression. We came together and that was the first track on the record, so it was like “Here we are again,” it’s an arrival song. It’s a different process on all of the tracks. Sometimes it will start with the kalimba or a guitar riff and then we’ll layer it with vocals. Sometimes I’ll have a poem in my head and that comes out first and we’ll put the music around it. There’s really no laws or rules. It comes about naturally.
IC: A lot of the lyrics from your latest album, Dreamland, came from the end of a romantic relationship. The songs have a darker tone, compared to your previous album, Isles. How you would compare the two?
NB: My story isn’t that different from anybody else’s. We all go through pain and we all go through heartbreak. It’s not like I’m wowing people with new information, but Dreamland is a bit darker than Isles. Both albums have some heavy content on them, even if they’re told in a breezy way. This content comes from inside my head and inside my heart. Sometimes I feel like I feel everything. It’s a little bit of a problem. I can’t remove myself from emotions, and I feel like that really comes out in Dreamland. It’s my heart.
IC: How did your personal life inspire the tracks?
NB: My songs are inspired by men. I love men. I love writing about them. As much as I wish I couldn’t write a love song, because I don’t want to constantly do that, it’s inevitable. I feel like every song ends up being a love song. However, I just started writing a song that I really like about how it’s nearly impossible to ever feel satisfied. I know that’s a little bit grim but it’s a cool song. It does indirectly have to do with love. On the next record I think that I’m going to avoid hitting love on the head and find ways around it, instead of having it be so direct. I’m not afraid to talk about love. I wasn’t afraid to say what I wanted and to say some obvious things about how I was feeling. I wore my heart on my sleeve, and because of that I have more freedom, my heart is liberated.
IC: What inspired the title, Dreamland?
NB: Sometimes it was more of a nightmare that I was living in when I was writing this record. We’ve really been talking a lot about what we want this world to be. I’ve been talking to my family, my people, and my friends about how we are supposed to dwell in a good environment—a beautiful environment, a loving environment. What does that entail and how can we protect each other and love each other? This world is changing, the times, they are changing. How can you live in this world as a creative person and keep creating and keep giving a positive message? That’s what I want to do. I’m finding my dreamland and this is just one path on my journey. There is a Bunny Wailer song called “Dreamland” that we listened to growing up and it’s one of the first early Jamaican recordings that I heard. I fell in love with it and it empowered me so that always stuck with me.
IC: How has living in California impacted your music?
NB: It’s funny, the closer I get to sunshine, the darker my music gets. I moved to Venice about two years ago and I actually just moved over to the east side of LA. There’s a lot more music and artists over there that I’ve been working with and some musical collaborators. I’ve been having a really cool time exploring sounds with this guy, Carlo Illangelo. He just did The Weeknd’s record and I’ve been working with him a lot. LA is a cool place to get inspired. There’s also an amazing hip hop scene, I’ve been working with some hip hop producers for this next album. LA also has awesome museums. The Getty is gorgeous. Sometimes we just go to The Getty or to the LACMA to get inspiration. LA is a cool spot to become inspired. I’m getting lost there, but in a cool way.
IC: Elliot photographed you for the cover of Dreamland and is very into contemporary art and you work with collage. How does your art intertwine with your music?
NB: It is all universal. My songs, they’re all over the world. Each song is its own destination or place that hopefully nobody’s been to before. It’s the same with my collage. I’m trying to expand my collage world right now because normally I just use old Chopper magazines or anything from the 60’s, 70’s, or even 80’s that I can get my hands on. Sometimes I’ll just go and get a newspaper from the gas station. It’s whatever is available to me. Now, I’m trying to use paint, which is a medium that I don’t have much experience with but I think that being uncomfortable is really important and good for creativity. I would love to plan a show within the next few months and have the evolution of my collages, starting with just the paper and then incorporate the painting. I’m stoked about that.
IC: You guys expanded your repertoire to a much bigger band of eight musicians. Can you tell me about your decision to do that?
NB: I think that it’s really important to have harmonies in my music. When I record, I’m the one doing all of the harmonies and so, when it’s live, I want to hear that. I’ve been working with two beautiful women. They’re supporting me and shining and they can wail! It’s just so fun to have them on stage. I met one of our band-members at The California Clipper, a honky-tonk bar in Chicago. I spotted him from across the room, and I fell in love with him. I didn’t even know if he was a musician. We were playing Lollapalooza that weekend, and I just went up to him and was like “Can you play congos”: and he was like “No, I’ve never played the congos before.” I said “Okay, well can you audition because I want you to be on stage with me at Lollapalooza,” and then he went on stage at the California Clipper and played congos and he had never even played them before so I hired him that night. I really do feel like I’ve got an army on stage with me. They’re my soldiers. They fight for me and I fight for them and together we conquer. It feels like a peaceful army. We just got off of a month-long tour, and it was really wild and exhausting and beautiful and emotional. I think that we sold out almost every show so that felt really good.
IC: That’s awesome. Were there any stand-out destinations on your tour?
NB: In San Francisco we played Bimbo’s, which is an old 1920’s cocktail bar and theater. There was a grand piano on the small side stage and there were beautiful velvet and gold curtains and I was like “I need to play ‘Throw Down Your Guns‘ on the grand piano tonight.” We did it as an encore and I just sat down at the piano and did the whole song by myself. When I sang it like that, it was performed the way that I truly wrote the song. I was sad when I wrote that song and just looking for anything to satisfy me or fulfill me in some way. I sat down and I played it and I took my time. It was really emotional for me and then I looked around and the whole front row was crying. It was so awesome and freeing. That was one of my favorite moments on tour.
IC: What’s next for Wild Belle?
NB: More artwork and more videos. I also want to score films and be in a movie. Once you get off tour, time feels like it stops but really the world goes on without you. Now that I’m back home, I’m scrambling to write a new video treatment and finish my song and then work on my friend’s music video. I have a lot on my mind and I feel an urgency to get it done.
IC: When do you think you’ll have a new album out?
NB: Probably next year and then a bunch of B-sides will probably come out within the next few months.
Interview by Indira Cesarine
Photography by Rebecca Miller
Styling: Tiffany Briseno @ Wilhelmina Artists
Hair by Deborah Brider using Shu Uemura Art of Hair
Make up by Tadayoshi Honda
Shot on location at The Carlton Hotel and The Millesime restaurant, NYC