The Road (Way) Less Traveled: a Conversation with the Collective Quarterly

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Consider it the B side to the American dream—instead of the white picket fence and the well-manicured lawn, there are those whose fantasy involves sweeping expanses of wild terrain, no neighbors in sight and a general willingness to do things the hard way.

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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!

Artist Spotlight: Rebecca Kolsrud

Playful. Awkward. Irreverent. That’s how we’d describe painter Rebecca Kolsrud’s portraits of anonymous women she discovers by combing through old photographs or books. Though these women remain nameless, Kolsrud captures little subtleties and gestures that manage to offer a glimpse of their personalities (or at least who we imagine them to be). With a new show at New York’s JTT Gallery slated for later this year, we caught up with the LA-based artist to talk about her work and her secret desire to be a Sears photographer.

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Has LA always been your home base?

Yes, I was born and raised in LA, more specifically the San Fernando Valley. I went to NYU for my undergraduate degree and UCLA for my MFA. 

Talk to us about your subjects; who are they?

The Yackety Yack Girls came from my father’s 1969 yearbook. I fell in love with the photographs of the sorority girls, each smiling and posing awkwardly. Body language, hand gestures and props distinguish each girl’s unique talents and traits, as well as represent each sorority distinctly. The discrepancy between these images and historical images of the time (Vietnam, Woodstock, the first moon landing) cast these girls in a different light. This discrepancy is what motivated me to paint them. Over the years I have collected yearbooks from all different eras and places, as well as studio portraits, glamour photographs and school photographs. I have catalogs and family photo albums, and have staged models to create my own scenes as well. In my studio I have thousands of photographs of people I draw from for my work. (Sorority girls are just one of many groups I have painted.

Is there a common thread that your female subjects share?

The women I paint are linked because they are each part of a particular group. I look at each group rather unscientifically, but still through a sociological lens. I research the time period I am working with and collect an archive of photographic images and drawings. Then I find specific details in the fashion, makeup, hairstyles and postures of the time to reconstruct in a series of portraits. Together, the many women present an archetype of sorts, a surrogate for a type of women I see in the world today. I am ambivalent about portraying specific details from my source material, but I am deeply invested in the psychology of the subjects. Besides sorority girls, other groups I have painted include stand-up comediennes and brides. All investigate cliché, expectation and the unfolding of time spent with an individual.

What are you currently working on?

I am working on a series of paintings of women who reenact and role-play historical and fantasy events. LARPers is another name for this social group. I am interested in women who create their own realities through fashion and gesture. With the sorority girls, it was more about subtle body gestures and fashion choices; with the role-play women, these gestures are much more theatrical. Many make their own costumes, combining components from completely different time periods. For example, one may have Roman armor over a medieval dress with a generic pirate sword. Others are completely true to historical detail. I am interested in both the flexibility and the novelty of this world.

Where are your favorite places, both in LA and elsewhere, to see art?

LA has always been a great place to see art, but a lot is changing right now, in a very exciting way. The artist Laura Owens put on an incredible show of her new paintings at Mission Road, a new space she opened in partnership with Gavin Brown in the Boyle Heights neighborhood. And one of my favorite stores, Ooga Booga, is doing a pop-up shop as well. Also in the Boyle Heights area are Night Gallery and Control Room, two other galleries opened by young artists. And in Chinatown there is Tif’s Desk, a project space in Thomas Solomon Gallery.

Would you say you have a favorite artist?

I love artists whose work has humor, some of my favorites being Cindy Sherman, Martin Kippenberger, Philip Guston and James Ensor. 

If you weren’t a painter you’d be…

A Sears portrait photographer in the 1950s.