If you happened to be in Colorado in January, you may have seen a bikini-clad Natalie Bergman running through the snow. On tour with Wild Belle, the band she leads with her older brother Elliot, Natalie was bored — so she invented a game. “It was 18 degrees below zero, and we were sitting in the hot tub,” she says. “I decided we each had to race across our friend’s lawn in our bathing suits, shake the snow off of an Aspen tree and run back.” Elliot nods. “Then we tried to see who could stay in the snow the longest making snow angels,” he adds. “Our family is really competitive.”
In moments like these, the Bergmans’ sibling dynamic seems typical — competitive, playful, collaborative — except for one thing: this brother-sister duo is on the brink of musical stardom.
On March 12, Natalie, 24, and Elliot, 31, released their debut LP, “Isles,” which they self-produced in a matter of inspiration-fueled months in 2012. Their first single, “Keep You,” (below) went viral last year before they even found a distributor for the album, landing them a three-record deal with Columbia Records. Soon after, they were performing on “Conan,” signing on for music festivals like Coachella and Sasquatch, playing at parties for fashion labels and gracing the pages of Vogue and T, the New York Times’ style magazine. But even awash in accolades, the Bergmans refuse to buy into their own hype. “Our brains don’t operate that way,” says Natalie. “We’re psyched that people are starting to recognize us, but to us, success is just continuing to be able to write and record music.”
They’ve done just that for as long as they can remember. According to Natalie, forming Wild Belle was nothing short of their destiny. “That’s why we’re here on this Earth,” she says. “To learn music, to create music, to share music.” The pair and their siblings, fashion designer Elise and poet Bennet, were born to a painter and an artistic entrepreneur in Barrington, Ill., both of whom encouraged independence, freethinking and careers in the arts. The Bergmans often held family sing-alongs, where, says Natalie, “we’d all flock to different instruments. My dad would play guitar, sometimes Elliot would play clarinet, and some of us would just use our voices. Music was always big in our family.”
So big, in fact, that Natalie and Elliot spent the majority of their childhoods honing their respective talents: Natalie threw herself into her church’s gospel choir and began penning original songs in high school, while Elliot mastered multiple instruments, including the saxophone, drums, guitar and keyboard, and fronted Michigan-based band NOMO post-college. It’s appropriate, then, that with Wild Belle, their first collaborative effort, the two have created a sound that’s all their own — Natalie “brings the lyrics,” as she puts it, and Elliot creates a multi-instrumental beat around them, or, as he says, “builds the songs from the rhythm up.” The result is a melange of soulful, smoky vocals layered over reggae-inspired beats that’s somehow both melancholy and dance-inducing. “We’ve got so many different influences,” explains Natalie. “Tropicalia music from Brazil, music from all over Africa, like High Life from Zimbabwe. But we also love Etta James, James Brown, Sam Cooke. I could go on forever.”
Lyrically, the album reflects a more singular vision: Throughout, Natalie sings primarily about love — love lost, lovers who’ve done her wrong and love unrequited. On “Keep You,” she addresses a man who’s hurt her repeatedly, crooning, “You wrong me twice, and I keep coming back.” “It’s stories,” she says of the album’s content. “Stories of my love life. From my love life. There’s a lot of heartbreak on the record. But it’s also redemptive. We’ve all lost a little love in our lives, so it’s important to speak about that.”
Despite the rawness of her songwriting, she claims that she doesn’t discuss the men behind the words with Elliot. “I have my own love life, and he has his,” she says. When both are asked if Elliot feels it’s his duty to step in when he doesn’t agree with Natalie’s romantic choices, he nods vehemently as she simultaneously shakes her head, and they both laugh. “I guess sometimes you’re blinded,” she allows. “If he doesn’t think somebody’s right for me, he’s probably right.”
Though Wild Belle’s lyrics attest to what Natalie refers to as their “darkness,” the band’s island rhythms mirror another aspect of their personalities: their playfulness. On their current tour, which has hit cities like Aspen, Colo., and Ann Arbor, Mich., and will soon send them to Brussels, Paris and London, “we’re driving across the country, and they’re just making me laugh so much,” says Natalie of Elliot and their bandmates Kellen Harrison, Erik Hall and Quin Kirchner.
The primary source of entertainment? A series of made-up games that Elliot refers to as “The Tournament of Champions.” One game involves a bandmate singing a line from a Disney film, then waiting for the others to identify both the movie and the character that sings it. Another is simply called “10 Minutes of Rough Housing.” “But it usually just turns into five minutes of rough-housing,” laughs Elliot. During the last round, “there were chairs on the hotel bed. There were no sheets or pillows left,” says Natalie. Elliot counters: “One of us gets a bruised ego, and it’s like, OK, good night, but tomorrow, we’ll start round 65 in the Tournament.”
Both put a similar (if less competitive) amount of effort into their wardrobes — they have a bohemian, ’70s-inspired style that evokes Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. “To us, fashion is just another way of expressing ourselves,” says Elliot. When in Chicago, they frequent vintage shops like Kokorokoko (1323 N. Milwaukee) and Alcala’s Western Wear (1733 W. Chicago). “It’s fun to find a good hat, or a cool vintage suit, or to shop in my mom’s closet,” says Natalie. “But at the heart of it all, it’s still about the music. “
And while the music is what will likely propel Wild Belle to new heights in the years to come, Natalie and Elliot’s close relationship is what will keep them grounded. “We’ve grown a lot together over the last few years,” says Elliot. “And we do fight,” admits Natalie, before Elliot finishes the thought with, “but it’s because we have no filter. People think we’re mad at each other, and we’ll be screaming at each other, and then two seconds later we’re fine.”
In fact, on set with Splash for a photo shoot at RM Champagne Salon, the two playfully spar over their evening plans — Elliot wants to go to their manager’s house for a meeting; Natalie wants to meet up with friends. But after a quick back-and-forth, Elliot acquiesces to Natalie. “Our strength is that we can navigate all of these situations together,” he says. “We come from the same root.”
We caught up with Natalie and Elliot again at their album launch party at The Hideout (1354 W. Wabansia) on March 11. The siblings performed to a sold-out audience of friends and family for more than an hour, pausing between songs to swap spots — Natalie ran back and forth from the keyboard to the mic, and Elliot transitioned seamlessly from the keys to the saxophone. Here’s what they had to say after debuting the record in their hometown:
Why’d you pick The Hideout for the release party?
E: I remember when I was a kid, my parents were like, ‘We’ve discovered the coolest place in Chicago. Our sculptor friend took us to this place, it’s really hard to find, it’s in this industrial zone, it’s on Wabansia.’ I remember my mom saying, ‘Maybe you’ll play there someday.’
N: It’s so nice to have a community of people that can abandon any sort of negativity and embrace our new project wholeheartedly and entirely — it doesn’t matter what we sound like, they support us. There’s no judgment.
Did you perform better or worse knowing your friends and family were out there?
N: This is our home. This is where our people are. We know everybody in the room. It’s a little nerve-racking sometimes to perform in front of an audience comprised totally of people you know. But I’m so glad we did it and that we had it here. And that it’s over [laughs].
E: You look out and see all these people you grew up with.
N: That’s so emotional. Our dad was here, and he came up to us afterward and just said, ‘I’m so proud of you.’
What are you guys doing post-show?
E: Going to sleep. We have to rehearse tomorrow all day, and then we’re going to Austin, then Europe for three weeks, then Coachella, then Brazil. Then we come back to Chicago. Actually, there’s no point in resting, really.
N: We’re gonna go hang out with our friends.
Story by Rachel Handler | Photos by Maria Ponce
Hair: Anthony Cristiano; Makeup: Jenny Patinkin for Amazing Cosmetics; Stylist: Elise Bergman; Venue: RM Champagne Salon (116 N. Green); Shoot Coordinator: Katerina Bizios
On Natalie: Leather jacket, Mackage, $695; vintage blouse, Roslyn, Natalie’s own; Joe’s wax-coated jeans, $165, Joe’s Jeans Boutique; Boots: vintage Dior, stylist’s own; Necklace: Pamela Love; Ring: custom Elise Bergman
On Elliot: Waxed-cotton belted jacket, Burberry Brit, $1,295; dot print button-down, John Varvatos, Elliot’s own; jeans, Levi’s, Elliot’s own; Belt and jewelry: vintage, Elliot’s own; Boots: Billy Reid, Elliot’s own