Creative expression and religious witness abide side by side in Natalie Bergman’s music. Raised in a faithful family of musicians, songwriters, and artists, Bergman and her brother Elliot took to the family trade, forming the rhythmic and varied duo Wild Belle, pulling from Afrobeat, reggae, post-punk, and hip-hop. One October night in 2019, Natalie and Elliot were ready to take the stage together at Radio City when they received a call that their father and stepmother had been killed by a drunk driver.
Bergman turned inward to process the loss. Alone in the Chama Valley of New Mexico, she began working on her solo debut, a self-produced effort called Mercy, out May 7 on Third Man Records. Blending psychedelia and traditional gospel, it’s not an album of laments so much as hopeful psalms. When her mother was dying of brain cancer, Bergman moved the family Wurlitzer into the room to sing her hymns. There’s a sense of that same refuge seeking on Mercy. Gospel music is “about finding salvation and hope in an otherwise hopeless time,” Bergman says. “It’s the good news essentially. ”
Aquarium Drunkard: It’s clear that music has really been at the forefront of your family. You formed Wild Belle with your brother, your dad was a songwriter, and music was a large part of helping your mother during the last stages of her life. How did your background help you with this new album?
Natalie Bergman: I think that naturally when you come from a musical family, you have the opportunity to sort of speak with your music. It was just a constant open dialogue in the music department—we were always encouraged to express ourselves in that way. When you’re going through turmoil or heartache, that was always available to me as an expression. I think naturally, I had to write music to deal with what was happening in my life at the time, that’s what allowed me to make this record.
AD: Spirituality is also a big part of your family and a present theme throughout the album. What is the relationship between creating art and spirituality like for you?
Natalie Bergman: I need both of them. I need my art and I need my faith. Especially right now. The entire world is really hurting this year. Faith has become my greatest consolation and it’s really allowed me to see the light. I think that the relationship between music and faith go hand in hand—one needs the other.
AD: You wrote the album in a monastery in the Chama Valley. Did this new environment change your songwriting process?
Natalie Bergman: It definitely inspired it. I spent almost two weeks in this monastery and I spent all of my time there in silence. There were some songs that were brewing within me, within my soul. It was a really nice platform for me to start on and then build from. I think the way of life of these devoted monks is such a rather solemn life. They have their community, they pray seven times a day, they’re worshipping constantly. It’s a hard life. It was an incredibly challenging experience to live in silence and to sit with my thoughts and with my prayers. There’s a surrendering that happens when you’re in the desert alone.
AD: That makes me think of Georgia O’Keeffe at Ghost Ranch, where she retreated to making art alone. The desert is a really beautiful place to be alone.
Natalie Bergman: Georgia O’Keeffe’s home and studio in Abiquiu is just right outside of where the monastery is. You go on a windy road for about 30 miles and you’re just on a red dirt road and then you get to the church. My band previously did this project [where] we spent some time at Georgia O’Keeffe’s house and we visited her studio. She is definitely one of my favorite artists. There is just so much history when you go and visit somebody’s home. They kind of manicured it, but you just see her collections, she collected stones and she collected shells. She had two dogs and when she started losing her eyesight, she painted all of her floors white so she could see her dogs. She was such a cool woman and there were some of her letters there, love letters. She’s an interesting woman.
AD: The visuals for this album are so beautiful. Did you have any inspiration that led you in that direction?
Natalie Bergman: I have this propensity for building things and for making things with my hands. For the “Talk to the Lord” video I wanted to make sculptures that allude to the sky and the infinite, the heavenly place, the unknown. These vessels…I built some sort of towers, kites, and I really like pairing imagery with my music and so I sort of had a vision for this film to build vessels that lead you to higher places. The banners in the video, which aren’t a prominent feature but they’re in there, I had a fun time making and sewing those.
My mother, when I was growing up, she was a part of this art society at our church. It was called “Liturgical Art Society” and she made all of these gorgeous banners. They were above the pew and they were just hanging down. She used golds and sequins, just beautiful colors. They really filled up the church with this joyful energy. She was an incredible artist and that’s what kind of prompted me to make the banners. I was sort of taking something that I remember from my youth and applying it to my own art. I had a really fun time making that video. You have to get scrappy when you’re just shooting with yourself and one other friend. My friend came up to Chicago with me and we built these things in the woods and it was a fun film to work on.
AD: Were there any records that served as a reference point for creating this new album?
Natalie Bergman: I wasn’t listening to a lot of music when I was writing this. Of course, I have my natural upbringing, my vault of music that I kind of go to, but this was a pretty silent record. I wasn’t taking a lot in besides scriptures. I did a lot of listening when I was making this record…to the above. I wasn’t taking on a lot of sonic noise but I would say one song that I have been listening to a lot of is this song called “Brother” by Jorge Ben. It’s kind of a cool song, it’s a chant that says “Jesus Christ is my Lord/Jesus Christ is my friend. ” The verse is “Brother/prepare one more happy way for my Lord. With many love and flowers, and music, and music.” It’s this beautiful joyful song of praise.
But there’s a woman, Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrous. She’s an Ethiopian nun. She doesn’t have any lyrics in her music. She plays the piano, mostly pentatonic scales, and she’s just incredible. She was one of the people I listened to over the last year. Sometimes when I’m listening to music and I hear other people’s lyrics, it’s a little bit distracting to me, so it’s nice to have her instrumental record. She came from one of the wealthier families in Ethiopia and she was a devoted student of music; she would play for Haile Selassie. For whatever reason, she was going to apply to college in the UK, I believe, and they denied her. She was just heartbroken and she felt like her dreams were crushed and she kind of gave up music for a minute. She was like, “You know what? This is not my path. I’m going to go live on top of a hill and I am going to sleep on a clay bed and I am going to devote my life to God.” So she joined the convent and then pretty soon after that she was like, “I need to bring music here, music is my life.” She was kind of radical because when people heard her music they were like, “This is not church music, this is not the appropriate style of song that we sing here,” but she was actually really supported by her convent and her community. She’s lived in the same room with the same clay bed for fifty years.
AD: You mentioned how this year overall has been isolating for everybody, but in your own way, you were completely isolated creating this music. What was your experience like sitting alone with your art during the lockdowns and pandemic?
Natalie Bergman: The isolation is not new to me. I tend to go inward and I find a place of solitude when I am working. So the schedule of daily life was not that unfamiliar to me, but I think that quietness across the world was unique and it was a special thing because it kind of allowed things to be even quieter.
I think that although there was a lot of chaos and tragedy in the world, it allowed people to re-think what their motives were and are. I think that it helped people pay attention, which this country needs. This country needs some attention, you know? It needs some tidying up and some goodness and love and we need to really see each other and not be looking at our phones all of the time. I think it kind of woke America up, this year, so for that, I’m thankful. People keep saying there is so much work to do and that is of course true. You have to start with yourself, that’s really the bottom line. You need to have a good root, a good core, and that’s how you’re able to make waves in the world.