Breakfast with Brother-Sister Act Wild Belle
It’s a rainy morning in Brooklyn and I’ve just sat down to breakfast with Wild Belle, a sibling pair who craft cross-pollinated pop that’s “of the soul and tropical,” as sister/singer Natalie Bergman, 23, would say. She pulls the heartstrings while brother Elliot, 31, plays the keys, the sax, and the kalimba, among other instruments. Together they’re a collage of sounds and places and family and kindness.
They’re too sweet, shaking your hand hello and hugging you goodbye; they compliment our harried waitress on her lipstick. When Natalie has to cough, she excuses herself from the table. And when I mumble something about ordering the beets and eggs, her face lights up — so does her iPhone — and she’s showing me the beets their brother Bennet grew in his Chicago garden, sharing the pictures like a proud auntie. Face all aglow, she asks if I think they’re amazing. What can I say but yes?
It’s disarming just how disarming the two are, given their talent: The singles that have trickled out in anticipation of Isles, their March debut, are as catchy as they are heartfelt. Natalie’s soulful-sensual voice and Elliot’s organic-electronic instrumentation combine to make Wild Belle sound equal parts Amy Winehouse and Santigold, Detroit and Kingston, 1967 and 2013 — the same kaleidoscopic aesthetic displayed via Tumblr and video.
It’s impeccable pop music, burrowing into the ear at first listen and still revealing secrets after the twentieth. It’s no wonder a gaggle of major labels wanted them after they made waves at South by Southwest, or that by June the chairman of Columbia Records was telling them, “You need to sign — with us.” (They did.) That and they’re both, well, beautiful — Elliot tall and dark, Natalie a sunny, elfin blonde — even if they’re short on sleep, long on hunger, and have to squeeze in a press interview before hopping on a plane to Minneapolis.
"When does our flight leave?" Elliot asks, glancing at his phone.
"I don’t know and I don’t care!" Natalie declares with a chuckle.
It’s this family dynamic — unfiltered and, as Natalie describes, “surprisingly non-dramatic” — that makes Wild Belle work so well.
The duo grew up in suburban Barrington, Illinois, two of four siblings in a house rich with art; mom was always playing hymns, Joni Mitchell, and jazz standards. (Elliot recalls a moment in high school when he played through Gershwin’s jazz preludes and declared, “Music really is the best thing in life.” Mom smiled and nodded.)
It clearly had an influence. Elliot would go off to Ann Arbor study jazz at the University of Michigan as an undergrad, where he found himself working at an indie record shop. He says it was his musician colleagues who’d hand the young saxophonist the albums that would rear his taste. He fell hard for afrobeat, then founded NOMO, an experimental dance act that launched from the African avant garde. Four albums in, the group — still performing — has gained a dedicated following.
Elliot handed that inspiration down to Natalie, who was likely the only 10-year-old in Illinois singing along to Sun Ra records. By high school, she was writing songs and performing with her brother’s band; her first gig was the 2007 Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, where she played an Indian sword-tambourine called the chimta. Afterward she went on tour with the band.
The sibs weren’t yet their own act, and yet something special was stirring. “We would be walking around town and people kept recognizing her as ‘the girl from NOMO,’” Elliot recalls.
They would soon become Wild Belle (Belle is Natalie’s middle name). About a year ago, without a record contract in sight, the two decamped to the lakeside Benton Harbor, Michigan, to make a pop record in peaceful isolation.
Natalie came in with the bare bones of a few of her songs — some keys, some guitar, and “maybe a little Casio beat” — and Elliot helped expand (and refine) them in the studio. They built up layer after layer of organ and synth. “There were like 50 keyboards on each song,” Natalie says, and from there they had to “shave some things away.”
To experience it, open up a tab, turn up a song called “Backslider" and listen deeply: you will notice how the keys and the bass gather and recede to welcome Natalie’s vocals. Soon "ooo-ooo-oohs” back the chorus of “You’re just-a backslide every single day”; by close, a congregation of instruments are joining in on her last line — “You just backslide into your grave.” The sounds assembled disperse in turn, making for a crisp 3:24 arc of moody pop music.
"It’s all coming from my soul," Natalie says.
If their upcoming album is anything like them, it’s going to be gorgeous.
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