Elliot Bergman and his younger sister, Natalie (Belle) Bergman, have recently put the finishing touches on Isles, the first full-length album of music written and performed by the siblings under their collective band name Wild Belle. Recorded with fellow electronics wizard Bill Skibbe at Keyclub Recordings in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Isles premieres, across ten spellbinding new songs, Wild Belle's fully-realized dream-pop-dance music, the combination, says Elliot, "of elemental things and electricity."
When making Isles, Elliot felt a "push for a blend of organic and electronic elements and everything had to be sort of both. We wanted real instruments, things made of wood and metal, and then the modern sensibility of drum machines and synthesizers, balancing those two worlds. Rhythm comes first on all of these songs. Things get written to a rhythmic backing. Natalie writes catchy memorable pop hooks. My job is to find sounds that twist people's ears a little bit."
In early 2012, Elliot and Natalie began a little bit of ear-twisting with "Keep You" (b/w "Take Me Away"), the 12" single which introduced Wild Belle to the world. Released on the group's own Sandhill Sound label, "Keep You" projected a steamy seductive sound, full of heartbreaking mystery both tropical and noir. "Our plan was to put out a series of singles. We liked the idea of being a singles band," Elliot recalls before revealing another inspiration. "Sandhill Sound is named after the sandhill cranes that fly over our house every fall. They make this crazy kind of sound and they fly really high, they fly these exhausting circles upward until they catch thermal winds and coast for miles as they migrate from Northern Canada to Mexico."
Musical tastemakers, on both sides of the Atlantic, heard that mysterious high-flying crazy kind of sound in "Keep You." BBC radio 1 latched on to the sound and the song became a surprise favorite on their playlists. Vogue gave the band its vaunted "Band of the Week" props on their site, and The Chicago Tribune claimed "Wild Belle rules at SXSW" with Greg Kot featuring the band before a hometown show at the Hideout Block party.
Wild Belle's aesthetic roots and aspirations may be found in the Bergman family household, a musical place where Elliot, Natalie and their two other siblings (one now a fashion designer, the other a writer) would sit and "play old-timey songs, hymns and Dylan tunes." Both Natalie and Elliot remember hearing their mother play Joni Mitchell songs during family sing-a-longs. "That was how I became attracted to the guitar. She showed us open tunings and it made me excited to play," says Natalie while Elliot recalls growing up "playing jazz standards with our mom."
Eight years older than Natalie, Elliot was the family trailblazer when it came to Bergmans in bands, first playing in high school outfits with names like The Creepers before heading off to Ann Arbor, where, while attending the University of Michigan, he founded and fronted NOMO, an Afro-beat-inspired funky instrumental party band that's built a ten-year touring history, a four album catalog and its own loyal fanbase.
From the time she was 16, Natalie, who'd been writing her own songs for years, would travel with NOMO, playing percussion, twirling a tambourine, singing backup, selling merch. One of the instrumental tracks, a kalimba loop Elliot had created for NOMO, was so appealing to Natalie that she ran the sounds through Garageband, added lyrics and a vocal of her own and made the audio bed for the first Wild Belle recording.
"Natalie is a very strong presence and she kept coming in, churning out these lyrics," Elliot recalls. "It tilted the band's focus." Natalie was taking spotlight turns at NOMO shows with her solo material, which proved popular with audiences, but it soon became apparent that the songs she was writing needed a band all their own. "The songs that I write are not for NOMO," she says simply.
Natalie's songs are candid expressions of her character and experiences. "I started writing songs in high school," she says, "and, in college, I realized I had a knack for that kind of thing. Sometimes, I release emotions onto the paper that I didn't express directly to a person's face. Thankfully songwriting is good therapy. It alleviates so much tension and anything that's not feeling good within yourself. It's a good way to get over somebody."
According to Natalie, some of the songs on Isles were written "three or four years ago" while others were written during the album's recording and production process. When writing, she simmers in the myriad of musical influences of her upbringing--"Bill Withers, Sam Cooke, James Brown, Paul Simon's Graceland, a wide array of musician that were played in the house and in the car on trips to church... I got turned on to reggae at a young age by Bob Marley, his pre-Rock Steady stuff, doo-wop from Jamaica was on a different level."
When Elliot went off to college, he passed along his musical tastes and collection to seventh grade Natalie, who got an early taste for jazz, Pharaoh Sanders, Miles Davis and John Coltrane before tapping into the African music--Fela Kuti, Ebenezer Obey, Green Arrow Band and Hallelujah Chicken Run--that the siblings found so inspiring. "I had access to a lot of music growing up between my parents and Elliot and then myself exploring," says Natalie. "I am heavily influenced by many different types of music."
Natalie admits that "when we started recording the record, that's when we really started trying to write the music together." "Love Like This," the last track written for the album features an organ part written in the studio while the group was mixing "Keep You." "I took a break and recorded that on my phone," Elliot says. "We wrote down some lyrics and recorded that in a night, basically."
Elliot is an obsessive keyboard enthusiast and "huge Harry Partch fan" who builds his own instruments, among them the "metal tongues," all-electric variants on the African thumb-piano constructed from "reclaimed industrial materials." Elliot's kalimbas may be heard across Isles, making subtle appearances in "It's Too Late," "Twisted," "Happy Home," and "Take Me Away," intimating chimes or ethereal loops. "There's a collection of half-broken Casios that lives in our van," Elliot admits, but finds support this preoccupation, "Natalie is always tucking another one in before each tour."
According to Natalie, "Elliot is the master of bringing IT to life. Beyond his phenomenal musicianship skills, his role in the studio is being a great producer."
"Natalie and I have an interesting collaborative," Elliot observes. "We are so close and we grew up together working on music in all these different ways. It's funny we are on the same page about almost everything, from sounds to phrasing to instruments we're drawn to. We don't even really have to talk about most things. We know how each other would like something."
"I'm just so excited to release the record," Natalie, inviting everyone to visit Isles, an irresistible destination album. "It's a fun record. We're proud of it."
Caught a Ghost
Jesse Nolan describes the name of his band ‘Caught A Ghost’ as referring to the sensation of being filled with the spirit of the past. “It’s an old expression,” he says, “musicians used to say you caught a ghost if you gave a good performance. Like you were possessed.”
As the songwriter, producer and lead singer of the band, Nolan is a devotee of music from bygone eras. But he eagerly expounds upon his affection for vintage soul, delta blues, and 90s rap alike. As Nolan explains, “It’s definitely like being possessed. It’s an obsession. What’s not to be obsessed about? I don’t think it makes me unique, it makes me human.”
What does make Nolan unique is his musical dexterity (he plays all of the instruments on his recordings except horns and some of the drums) combined with the effortlessness with which he seems to pull from many different genres. His music recalls influences from the soul and rock n’ roll traditions (Stax, Motown, Sam Cooke, the Rolling Stones) yet still feel distinctly modern with references to hip-hop and electronic recordings from the 90s to contemporary tracks. The diversity of influences in Caught a Ghost that spawned from Jesse Nolan’s mad scientist approach to composition has sparked several comparisons to another Los Angeles native, Beck.
“I had a very rich musical upbringing.” Nolan says. “My dad, who is a musician himself, exposed me to a lot of great music. He’s a stax/Motown fanatic, and obsessed with seeing live concerts. I also grew up in the 90’s watching MTV and listening to rap, so I’m into tracks that hit hard.”
The result: Caught a Ghost produces a sound and aesthetic that separates them from the rest of their neo-soul contemporaries. Of course there are threads of classic influence that are apparent, but, for example, the hypnotic synth line on “Time Go” as well as the use of dubstep wobble bass with a full Motown horn section on “Sleeping at Night,” quickly sets the band apart from others that have tried to directly revive the Motown sound.
Every song feels on some level like a great remix. “I love the aesthetic of taking something old and repurposing it.” Nolan says. “But another difference with my music is that I don’t tend to use samples- I’m just sampling my musical memory. It’s a very imprecise process really, like a Jackson Pollock painting. I’m just splashing sounds around. I’m an imperfectionist.”
“Caught a Ghost is ultimately about a collective experience.” Nolan says. “It may have genesis in my weird brain, but it’s ultimately about creating community.” That spirit is reflected in the makeup of the band, which includes Stephen Edelstein on drums, who was Jesse’s kindergarten classmate.
Anyone who has seen Caught a Ghost play live can also testify to that notion. In addition to playing high energy shows with as many as nine musicians and various dancers onstage, the group often makes use of projections and performance art as a means of shaking people out of their comfort zones.
Part of that approach comes from Nolan’s desire to stay active. He describes his last label experience as a disaster. Early on in his career, Nolan found himself in another band that was signed to a relatively big record contract that ultimately fell apart just before the release of the first record, ending in the dissolution of that band. The experience left him with the desire to completely re-imagine his approach to music. “I was crushed,” He says. “But like anything else, often the best work comes from the darkest turmoil. For me, Caught a Ghost was truly a self-reinvention, on a musical, personal and spiritual level.
Caught a Ghost has signed to +1 Records (The Heavy, The Morning Benders, The Postelles), and their debut EP “Nightworks” will be released on February 12th, 2013. When asked about the title, Nolan says wryly, “I stay up late. It’s what Franz Kafka said about writing- that it was nightwork. The night offers peacefulness and the opportunity to go deep into your own head.”
With their debut EP forthcoming, and their full-length album to follow soon thereafter, try and catch this ghost while you can.
In the Showroom!
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