Wild Belle – built on the brother-sister duo of Elliot and Natalie Bergman -- has had quite a year so far. The band released a breezily enchanting single, "Keep You"; shopped a self-financed, self-produced album that attracted interest from countless labels; finally signed a three-album deal with Columbia Records; and now is on tour in anticipation of its debut album's release early next year.
The previous year didn’t start out nearly as well. If there was a low point in the long, shared musical history of the Bergman siblings who grew up in
Formed when Elliot, 31, was attending the University of Michigan a decade ago, Nomo has a well-deserved reputation for packing dancefloors with its buoyant stew of global rhythms. Natalie, 23, had been touring with the band off and on while developing her own songs as an aspiring singer-songwriter. In late 2010, she added vocals to a kalimba-flavored song Elliot had written in collaboration with London-based multi-instrumentalist Shawn Lee, "Upside Down." The song marked a shift in direction for the group, more atmospheric and sultry than its previous material.
"It was really the first 'official' release with the two of us," Elliot says. "She came on tour with us doing vocals on a couple of tunes and we started working on a Nomo record with her. But when we played a show at the Empty Bottle with our new stuff, it threw people for a loop. People stopped dancing and we got a lot of baffled expressions. The band was dismayed. So Natalie got fired from Nomo. It was basically, 'We love your sister, but she's fired.' "
For Natalie, the moment still stings. "Now they all want to be in Wild Belle. I'm like, 'Remember when you fired me?'"
But that day also marked a turning point for the duo's fortunes. Within days, Elliot and Natalie began working together as Wild Belle, combining her words and chords with his multi-instrumental arrangements and textures. Later in a Michigan recording studio, the arrangements were fleshed out by multi-instrumentalist (and Nomo member) Erik Hall (live the band expands to a quintet with Nomo drummer Quin Kirchner and bassist Kellen Harrison).
The clean slate was freeing. There were no preconceptions about where the sound had to go. But Natalie and Elliot's shared history offered some clues. At heart, they're music geeks. While sitting at a Logan Square café, they reminisce about their recent trip to Jamaica to shoot a video for the forthcoming Wild Belle album. But they're just as excited to recount their visit to some personal shrines – namely the famed Studio One where countless reggae greats got started – and how they scored a bunch of classic vinyl albums by the likes of Alton Ellis and Ken Boothe for four bucks apiece.
For Natalie, her fascination with vinyl that was pretty far outside the listening range of the typical pre-teen started more than a decade ago.
"Elliot gave me a cool, little Califone record player and he exposed me to a lot of African music, jazz and reggae," she says. "I was 10 years old, upstairs in my bedroom listening to Sun Ra."
The siblings were part of a musically inclined family; their father, Judson, and late mother, author Susan Bergman, encouraged all four of their children to play an instrument. Susan Bergman gave Elliot a
"I started writing songs on the piano, and Elliot was always my backboard," she says. "He invited me to tour with him in Nomo when I was 15, 16."
The chance to work with her brother one-on-one in Wild Belle led her back to the reggae and soul records that first inspired her. "There are so many people doing the retro thing, and even our ears our drawn to it," she says. "I like soul, Motown, because those are great, easy, simple love songs, and the beat is a little sexier with reggae. But that can't be the only reference (for a band making a record in 2012). There's music from Zimbabwe in there, too, which is a little more complicated, and synthesizers and electronic music."
That hybrid of classic sounds and experimental studio-as-instrument textures – Elliot's beloved thumb pianos disguised as steel drums, orchestral chimes and synthesizers, for example – distinguishes Wild Belle's forthcoming album, "Isles." Natalie's lyrics put a few twists on the you-done-me-wrong love-song vocabulary. Her melancholy narrators have gotten past the anger stage, and they're slow-dancing with their regrets.
"The lyrics make me more vulnerable than I am in real life," she says. "The songs are a way to express the hurt I'm feeling that I may not have been able to express to these guys. It's liberating in a way."
Evidence that she's moved on comes a few minutes later. On the stereo in their pick-up truck, they play a newly minted track, "Backslider," that sounds like their most tough-minded song yet. With any luck, they'll find a way to squeeze on it on the album, which isn't due out till February.
"Putting off the record makes sense," Elliot says, trying to be diplomatic about record-company marketing agendas.
"But we're already moving on," Natalie says. "We're writing more songs."