American Eagle Stage
Natalie Bergman has had her picture taken on countless occasions -- hundreds of studio portraits and live shots and backstage festival snaps. But the simple, gorgeous black & white photo of Bergman on the cover of Wild Belle’s Dreamland that she describes as “just me and this sort of abyss”? That one was lensed by the person who best knows how to capture her essence on celluloid: Her older brother and bandmate, Elliot Bergman. Besides being Wild Belle’s multi-instrumentalist extraordinaire, Elliot has an equally impressive flair for visual arts, from painting and sculpture to bronze-making and photography. An avid collector of vintage cameras, Elliot brought along a recently acquired Polaroid Land Camera to a show Wild Belle played in Denver this summer: The duo grabbed a quick moment at their hotel to take the portraits of each other that grace the front and back of their new record. “The pictures Elliot takes of me are always really beautiful and it’s because he knows me better than anyone else on this Earth,” says Natalie. Adds Elliot: “I like that it’s a photo of Natalie just being Natalie. And the stark contrast of her in the foreground with the dark background really fit with these collages she has been doing. Natalie is in the light but the shadows are pretty heavy and you can’t really tell where she is or what’s back there.”
Recorded at studios in their native Chicago, Natalie’s new home of Los Angeles, Nashville and Toronto, Dreamland -- Wild Belle’s bold, evolutionary new album -- derives from an era in the singer’s life when she was struggling to get control of what she describes as the “anger and deep sorrow” that plagued her at the end of her most recent romantic relationship. For a woman whose music has always been inspired by her desire to translate her complicated feelings into immediately relatable songs, there was certainly plenty of grist for the mill. Dreamland tracks such as “Losing You” and “It Was You (Baby Come Back)” offer glimpses of the darkness that Natalie battled during the early months writing for the duo’s sophomore full-length. But there are also genuine moments of lightness and ecstatic triumph, like “Giving Up On You” -- an irresistibly kinetic, punk number Wild Belle recorded with TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek producing.
“I was very heated when we were making this record. My body, my heart and my soul were filled with a flame, which sounds very dramatic but it’s the truth,” says Natalie. “I had a healing moment when I moved to LA earlier this year, because I was far away from my ex and I felt like I was getting rid of a lot of baggage. That was the redemptive, triumphant time for my lyrics. On ‘Giving Up On You,’ I sing: ‘Now I smile so bright, you can see me from outer space, look at me shine. Baby it’s about time, I was so miserable and now I feel so alive.’ All the songs I wrote near the end of making the album have that sentiment: ‘Now look at where I am, after all the turmoil that was inside of me, I’m here and I’m happy and I’m ready for whatever comes my way.’”
The follow-up to 2013’s Isles, Dreamland expands the band’s ambitions in every way. ”It’s deeper, it’s more fun, it’s more haunting, it’s got more grooves,” Elliot says. “There’s sorrow and pain but there’s also hope and joy -- all those things can coexist in the songs because they coexist in life.” He continues: “Dreamland, that’s not some kind of idealized notion of where we live and I hope people hear that as a question: “What is the Dreamland? What is our dream here?” The album doesn’t get overtly political, but we’re dealing with a lot of the things that are dark about what’s happening now. ‘Throw Down Your Guns’ is about a relationship but is also kind of about the messed up situation that we’re in right now.
The chorus, ‘Throw down your guns / In the name of love, I put my hands up,’ to me can be heard in a number of ways, including as a prayer for peace or a cry out against violence.”
Importantly, the album also shares its name with one of the first songs Natalie remembers Elliot introducing her to: Bunny Wailer’s 1970 reggae classic, “Dreamland.” One year for Christmas, he gave her a compilation of female artists who recorded at Jamaica’s legendary Studio One, and it included Della Humphrey’s version of the song. Natalie listened to it over and over and over again. “I was so in love with it,” she says. “From there, I started my exploration of rocksteady and ska and lovers rock and anything that had to do with Jamaican music from the Fifties onward.”
The duo started writing music together several years ago, after Elliot took a sixteen year-old Natalie on tour to play percussion with his acclaimed Afrobeat ensemble, NOMO. “I can present a song to Elliot and he has this foresight -- he can see things further than I see them, and he helps me realize things,” she says. “I’d been writing very simple melodic love songs since I was fifteen years old. I definitely have a pop sensibility in my style, and that’s a great platform for Elliot to work from, because it’s fun for him to have a cool little pop song and combine it with more eccentric sounds and make it into a weird, unique percussive jam. Sometimes he’ll bring the jam to me and because we’ve got this routine together, we can write a song together wherever we are.”
Work on the album began in early 2014, in Chicago. The song that opens Dreamland -- “Mississippi River” -- was also the first one to come together in the studio. It was sparked by a moment of musical serendipity: “The record starts with this pulsing ARP drone,” says Elliot, “which is a very expensive esoteric nerdy synthesizer that’s complicated to program. Natalie and I had this weird, symbiotic thing where I was playing three chords off the ARP and she started playing different three chords on this out- of-tune autoharp she brought over. They were both completely in the wrong key, and yet perfectly in tune with each other. That was like the new bar for the record. It was like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to put synthesizers and saxophone and kalimbas on these songs, and we’re going to have lavish string arrangements if we want to. We were getting comfortable with all of the materials that we love, and being like, ‘I love this, so let’s do it.”
They tracked several songs at home in Chicago last year, and then at the start of 2015, Natalie packed all of her belongings into the Wild Belle van and drove from Chicago to Venice, California. She rented a house where Elliot joined her a couple weeks later. “When I had my place in Venice, Elliot would wake up earlier than I would and start making dope beats,” says Natalie. “One day he made this ridiculous song, ‘The One That Got Away,’ and the beat and underlying track were so exciting that it didn’t take very long to write. Our friends came over and were jumping on the tabletops, dancing, getting naked because they loved the song so much.”
“Playing the new songs at Lollapalooza for the first time with an eight-piece band,” says Elliot, “I had a feeling onstage that I’d never had before with Wild Belle, where you’re part of a sound that’s much bigger than you could make on your own. It’s this charged-up badass feeling. It’s about a groove and rhythmic energy and force and momentum and making a big, dark, deep sound -- something that moves people and makes you want to dance and makes you want to shout. It’s tapping into a deeper musicality that I’ve always been looking for.”