‘I had nothing else to lose’: Wild Belle’s Natalie Bergman on seeking grace from tragedy on solo debut ‘Mercy’

Written by Ariana Morgenstern

Natalie Bergman finds light in tragedy on her self-titled solo debut. Photo by Elliot Bergman.

I didn’t expect Natalie Bergman, one half of the indie sibling duo Wild Belle, to make a gospel record. Nor did I expect it would move me so deeply. Since receiving a preview copy of Bergman’s solo debut “Mercy” earlier this year, I wake up each morning hearing its songs in my head. I hear the lush, lofi yearning of “Paint the Rain” most of all. 

The record, one of KCRW’s Best Albums of 2021 (So Far), marks a striking departure from the work with her brother Elliot as Wild Belle. I was instantly drawn in, and spent the next couple of months playing the album on repeat at home. The music brought me comfort while the world was in lockdown and we braced for the worst of the pandemic to pass by. 

Each song addresses a broken heart and spirit seeking the grace of God or a supreme being for spiritual guidance. The tragedy leading to this release was enormous: While waiting to go on stage for their debut at Radio City Music Hall, Elliot and Natalie received a phone call that their father and stepmother had been killed in a car crash in Southern California. I spent many hours dissecting the songs, singing along, and thinking about the turn of events that created them — and what it takes to find healing. And, I had a lot of questions. 

On the heels of Bergman’s just-released pair of collaborations and remixes with Beck, we discussed her spiritual practice, composing her debut, and excavating lightness from tragedy. 

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KCRW: Do you have a spiritual practice? 

Natalie Bergman: “I always begin my day with prayer. I can’t really function without it. I pray for the ability to love, because if I can love, then I will be free.”

Take us into the world you inhabited while writing these songs.

“I began writing these songs on the floor of my boyfriend's living room. It was my writer's nest. I had a typewriter, graph paper, a Japanese knock-off dove guitar and a Wurlitzer. Most of these songs were written in Los Angeles, and at the tail end of my recording, I journeyed back to Chicago to write two more songs, “I’m Going Home,” which my brother Elliot produced, and “Paint The Rain.” 

Do you listen to much gospel? Or Christian music? What do you like to listen to?

“I can’t say I’m very familiar with any contemporary Christian music, nor do I like what I’ve heard. But yes, gospel music has found its way into my life in various forms. One of my early childhood teachers, Mr. Bell, was very well-versed in gospel music, and he taught me how to play piano and I sang in his gospel choir.”

Where is the intersection between the spiritual world and music? 

“As T Bone Burnett puts it, ‘There are two kinds of songs you can write. You can write songs about the light, or you can write songs about what you can see from the light.’ I believe my music exists because of the light. Similarly, C.S. Lewis writes, ‘I believe in God like I believe in the sun. Not just because I can see Him, but because by Him I can see everything else.’” 

Do you think of your solo debut as a departure from your work with Wild Belle? 

“Definitely. Wild Belle is a collaborative, and this record is such an introspective body of work. Of course, I still have the musical roots that have been growing my whole life, so there are similar sonic qualities, but this is the first time I’ve spoken so explicitly about my faith and about death. 

I wasn’t afraid to explore. When I began writing, I had already lost the greatest love I’ve ever had, so I had nothing else to lose. I went for it. I sang from the depths of my sorrow and I witnessed a little light while doing so.”

Your brother Elliot is a visual/conceptual artist that works in metal, transforming guns into singing bowls, among other things. Do you create art that is not music? 

“I love my brother's work. He makes incredible sculptures even beyond his bells. He recently started working with wood that he milled from seven of the dead oak trees at our family’s home. I am also a very visual person. I love to make films of all sorts, stop-motion included. I was recently invited to make a stop-motion for a non-profit in Chicago called Arts of Life. 

The organization works with individuals with developmental disabilities and provides a work environment of equality and love. I’ve also been making colorful, child-like flags recently. Some of them have hands, some have musical instruments, like a trumpet, saxophone, or drum. Several have doves. There are bible verses on a few of them.”

Does Elliot appear on the record?

“I tried to get him to play saxophone, but the few takes he recorded didn’t end up on the album. Maybe I'll save those sessions for a KCRW release.”

I hear African highlife-style guitars in a couple of songs, like “I Will Praise You” and “I'm Going Home.” How did they sneak in? 

“I have a widespread collection of influences. I’ve always loved highlife guitars and the joyfulness they bring. I thought it was important to let a little light shine through these songs.”