Q&A: Wild Belle on familial dynamics, schmoozing, and using loss as inspiration

Wild Belle: IslesWild Belle: Isles (Columbia, 3/12/13)

“Keep You”

Wild Belle: “Keep You”

Though eight years apart in age, siblings Natalie and Elliot Bergman have a long musical history. Whether playing together in church in their youth, hearing James Brown and Neil Young records from their parents, or soaking up influences on trips abroad, the two have a shared musical heritage that has manifested itself in Wild Belle, a multi-cultural pop project that was born from Natalie’s demos and rounded by Elliot’s professional experience in Nomo.

Isles, the group’s debut full-length, is a blend of pre-1980s reggae and rocksteady, dub, R&B, rock, and African influences, all held together by Natalie’s airy vocals and lovelorn lyrics. Here she speaks about familial dynamics, quickly signing to a major, and using loss as inspiration.

When you started writing for Wild Belle, did you have specific musical influences that you wanted to channel?

I love stuff from Jamaica, stuff from Brazil, hip hop — I have a lot of different musical affinities, and so does Elliot. I had been writing music since I was 14 or 15, and I just brought in some of my demos [while Elliot was in the studio], and they developed into something bigger and fuller.

Elliot and I have been playing music together in some capacity for many years…[and he] has always been good about extending his musical influences to me. He has always shared his records with me, turned me onto some great jazz — Sun Ra, [John] Coltrane, Miles Davis — and then he got me this Studio One Women compilation when I was 12 or 13, and it had all of this great rocksteady music on it. He turned me onto a lot of cool stuff, and from that and from my parents, I sort of branched off. I like a lot of West African music; there’s some great stuff from Eastern Africa, like the Éthiopiques [series]. And there’s so much good shit from Zimbabwe.

Tell me about the dynamics of working with Elliot.

Elliot understands me; he gets my vision, and I understand his vision, and we just amplify that in each other. I’m learning a lot from him. It’s been sort of a lighter load than most people experience in their early days of musicianship, because Elliot has been touring with other bands for the past 10 years. He gets how to work the venues; he understands the physically heavy loading. So that makes my job easier, because he’s a very good tour manager.

In the studio, we hear things the same. It must be a blood thing. He’s a brilliant musician, so he turns simple demos into cool orchestrations.

What was it like growing up in such a creative family, and how did that affect you?

My parents have a tremendously positive and creative effect on all of their children’s lives. They’ve allowed us to travel, and that’s very important — that’s what our life is right now. As a touring artist, we’re constantly moving. They had a great record collection — they listened to lots of James Brown and Curtis Mayfield, but also some folksier things, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. It’s had a wonderful effect on me; I have wonderful parents.

Were you surprised by the seemingly quick signing to Columbia?

It was quick, but it also felt like it was taking forever at the same time. Once people started expressing interest in the band, I was like, “Man, I do not have time to travel around to label after label.” I know that sounds bratty, but it felt like, “I just want to know what’s right immediately so I can focus on the artwork again and not be schmoozing.”

It seems that every song, including Elliot’s, is explicitly about a relationship. Is this a very personal album?

Definitely. Some of the lyrics are kind of vague, but they’re all coming from the same place. There’s lots of content about losing love, and not just over a particular man but over our mother. I like to tap into that hollowness that I feel when someone I love has left me, left this world. That hollowness triggers songwriting.

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