Turn It Up: Our Interview with Wild Belle

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Photo by Tom Oxley

Whenever a new band with their music manages to subtly reference the past while simultaneously experimenting sonically in an entirely current way (and, perhaps most importantly, gets our toes tapping at the same time), they can count us as immediate and ardent fans.

Natalie and Eliot Bergman, the brother-sister duo behind Wild Belle, do just that. Their singular sound (on new album Isles) has footholds in reggae, soul, doo-wop and afrobeat, and seems to rely as heavily on powerful percussion and horn (brace yourself for some killer sax) as on Natalie’s rambling, retro-tinged vocals (think a funkified Amy Winehouse).

We caught up with Natalie to talk music and style icons, dream island destinations and what it’s like to work with her brother.

Can you tell me a bit about your musical background?

I come from a musical family. My mother was always playing Joni Mitchell on guitar and Gershwin on the piano. My father is a great guitar player and has a strong voice like Sinatra. Singing and dancing was always encouraged in our household!

I started playing violin when I was in preschool, then piano a few years later and shortly after found my fondness of songwriting. I was in gospel choir in school and my teacher, Mr. Bell, was an amazing pianist. I studied with him all through high school, and he gave me a real outlet for expressing myself. I was rejected from all of the school musicals, and Mr. Bell gave me a place to shine. I’ve never really thanked him, but I am so appreciative of him for turning me onto all sorts of soul music and a whole bunch of African music.

I moved to Boston for college where I studied piano and percussion for a few years, then took a break from school to move to New York City where I played with various musicians around town before eventually ending up in the studio with my brother! 

Had you worked together before? What was it like collaborating with your brother?

Elliot was recording a new record in Michigan at Key Club with Bill Skibbe. He invited me into the studio to work on some demos I had recorded in GarageBand over the past few years and we sort of reworked the demos and they magically evolved into something called Wild Belle.

Neither of us predicted what was to come, but it was all very natural. If I had no eyes and I no longer had ears, Elliot could navigate for me. He knows what sounds I like. He understands me more than most people on this planet and I am extremely thankful for that. 

Where did the name Wild Belle come from?

My middle name is Belle; my mother gave me that name. Elliot came up with Wild Belle—it was quite simple, really, and it clicked when we said it out loud. 

Who are some of your own musical inspirations, both for this album specifically and in general?

Sun Ra! He’s amazing. Also Bill Withers, Etta James, John Coltrane, Joni Mitchell, Hallelujah Chicken Run Band, Astrud & João Gilberto, Aaliyah, Dr. John—the list goes on and on and on.

Any favorite places where you’ve had the opportunity to perform? Any places you’d love to perform at in the future?

I hope we get to perform in Brazil someday—it would be a dream come true. We’ve traveled a lot, and we’ve seen some amazing things and met some beautiful people. I am thankful for it all. Really I am. We’re thrilled to go back to SXSW this year with a brand-new record in our hands! 

Your personal style is pretty amazing. Would you say you have a musical style icon?

I think Sun Ra is a big fashion influence on both Elliot and me. I love David Bowie’s style and Jimi Hendrix. We’ve been listening to Keith Richard’s autobiography on tour and he is a pretty radical dude with great style as well! Man, he has some stories.

I haven’t really flocked towards any one brand lately, but I love a good vintage find. I love patterns and blazers and funky pants, and I am especially drawn to suits from the 70s. I like looking at what Mick Jagger wore on stage and out and about. He really had great style.

Since your new album is called Isles and definitely has a tropical feel, do you have a favorite island destination? 

My favorite island I’ve ever visited is Lamu off the coast of Kenya. It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth!