Wild Belle: The Best of What’s Next

Music Features Wild Belle
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With her pre-teen ears exposed to psychedelic strings saws from Sun Ra’s Arkestra and billowy bleats from John Coltrane, its not surprising Natalie Belle Bergman’s own spin on pop music’s immortal tradition (The Love Song) would be that much keener, cooler and confident.

“It’s weird sometimes, I don’t want to sound like this kind of wounded animal, ‘cuz I’m not,” the 23-year-old singer/songwriter says. “But I do like writing about heartache. It makes me feel good.”

She chuckles at herself at that, pacing under an Austin sun at noon as she settles into a precious day off with her brother/bandmate/multi-instrumentalist Elliot. Wild Belle, their band that started almost a year and a half ago, has been on a bit of a whirlwind lately. Or, so everyone seems to think.

It’s been a full year since their debut single, “Keep You,” spun a lot of heads, and deservedly so, with the soulful sizzle of Natalie’s hazy, silky voice traipsing over subtle reggae riffs and a hooking piano punch that swells to the charming blurt of a baritone sax.

“In a way it feels like it’s all happening fast,” Elliot admits, reflecting on how they’ve been touring for eight straight months this year, playing with a range of exciting artists like Yeasayer and Toro Y Moi, while visiting numerous exotic and inspiring locales like Bob Marley’s dream studio in Jamaica.

“But, in another way, this has all been more of a slow train coming,” Elliot says.

Elliot, 31, flourished in the University of Michigan’s jazz program during the early 00’s where he went on to start an acclaimed afrobeat-funk ensemble called NOMO-a vivacious live act bolstering piquant blends of styles and instrumentation from trumpets, to guitars, congas and shekeres. For Natalie, growing up under her brother and two artistically inclined parents: “…music was just always around” her and “always encouraged.” She sang everywhere: school, gospel choir in church, every day at home.

These siblings have been working on their own music (and sporadically together) for almost their entire lives. So, it’s not like this is the Chicago-bred duo’s turn up to bat at the blog-buzz plate. This is no lucky strike; they’ve been swinging a while, actually.

Suffice it to say, the Bergmans undoubtedly had a uniquely cultured upbringing. Few among us get to sit down and play Gershwin tunes on the piano with our painter/author mothers, as Elliot has, while later slipping our kid-sister treasured vinyl records from the college-town’s quintessential indie-music shop, healthily blowing her mind with world-fusion/avant-garde-jazz jams by experimental post-bop wizards like Sun Ra and Pharoah Sanders.

But the chemistry palpable on their debut, Isles (as well as on the stages welcoming their current tour) brews not just from the siblings’ life-long music-bond, but also from the musicians currently backing them up, accomplished multi-instrumentalists from NOMO who’ve constantly been working with Elliot this past decade.

By autumn 2011, Natalie had “a nice collection of songs” that she’d been writing since she was a teenager.

She was strongly influenced by roots reggae (particularly Bob Marley), rocksteady and seminal soul-pop icons, but the stuff that really turned her on were songs like Marcia Griffiths’ “Dreamland.” Those reggae love songs have “a nice beat, a nice groove,” she says. “And, it just sounds like doowop music and the sunny-pop music we all love. I don’t think we’re a reggae band by any means, but my ears were just happy when they heard that music. And, you can’t help it, really, what goes into your own music; since I’ve been listening to all that for so long.”

It appears early exposure to psychedelic jazz provides a potent spurt to musical maturity rates. There’s an uncanny richness and resolve to the resonance of her plucked heartstrings.

Certainly Natalie’s dazzlingly airy voice with its lullaby lilt helped initially coax so many ears towards “Keep You” when Wild Belle self-released it online last year. While their debut single also showcases their knack for arranging such a zesty and eclectic blend of genres and tones (from the strutting, jazzy bluster of the baritone sax to the space-pop purr of auxiliary organs, to bass grooves as warm and wavy as Caribbean tides). It all adorns that striking voice of Natalie’s and that signature sass she subtly whips upon her wordage.

Her love songs aren’t your typical heart-withered lash-outs or tears-on-the-pillow emo type stuff. The retaliator of her love songs is more exactingly bad ass about her jibes (and about her flirtations, too).

Isles’ love songs, says Natalie, do feel more “after the fact. It’s not like I’m writing from a fresh would. I don’t feel like I’m bitter when I was writing this music. But some of these songs I wrote almost 4 years ago. I’m getting stronger as a lyricist.”

And so: “I brought my demos to Elliot,” Natalie says, recalling that last, fateful autumn, before their “whirlwind.”

Elliot, at that point, was deep into the production of a new NOMO album and was hoping to get his sister to collaborate on it. There was no way NOMO could just “do a 180 and become a pop band” for these other songs, though, he eventually assessed.

“Some (of the demos) were ballads,” says Natalie, “and some were poppy little tunes, just from GarageBand. These lo-fi demos of mine just bloomed into something, there was just something there.”

“We said: Okay, NOMO’s gonna exist as it does and we’re gonna have to just do something new,” Elliot says. “We’ll just have to figure out whatever the band’s gonna be later. Let’s just make the best record we can. That was the start: Let’s just do a thing, the two of us. Wild Belle started from that puzzle.…”

And what the siblings pieced together is Isles. Breezy and elegant, not quite reggae and not quite doe-eyed lovelorn pop ballads; jazzy and soulful, not quite Motown throwbacks and not quite synth sweetened, hooky indie rock. But somewhere in there, is Isles – the heart of the Bergman’s bond.

“There was a lot of emotion put into this record,” Natalie recalls. “We cut it pretty quickly but that’s because we were just so psyched about the sounds we were getting. Elliot invited me in, I recorded some songs and then…this just hasn’t stopped since then.”

Both can barely hide their excitement for the rest of the world to hear their whole album. “I think that the simplicity of the lyrics and the music will speak to people,” Natalie says, “in the same way that some of my favorite albums have to me, in my life.”