10:30am Wednesday 3rd April 2013
By Dominic Smith
Wild Belle’s debut record has roots in Jamaican rocksteady, Studio One, West African funk, doo-wop and Deep South blues.
Yet the authors of Isles – a record which will be filed under indie – are a brother and sister from Chicago.
The source of such musical variety is Encore Recordings in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It’s one of the great used record stores in the US. Elder sibling Elliot Bergman worked there in his college days.
“It was a way to travel with your mind and ears,” he says, speaking from Germany where the duo have played sold-out shows despite doing no promo and having no material released there.
“I was always the youngest at a store with all these lifer record store guys. That was an important part of my education. It was a school education by record store employees.
“They would say you need this Fela record; you need this Ebenezer Obey record; you need this Gamalon record; you need this King Crimson record.
“And so you just start to explore things that way. You start to move through the world in your mind and through these records. That’s something that has always been very captivating to me.”
Elliot, a sax and keys player, worked in the shop when his sister, Wild Belle singer Natalie, was still in school.
She is eight years younger and loved the records he brought home.
“One of the first records I bought for Natalie was this Studio One Women record because I really love that Soul Jazz label out of the UK.
“She’d be sitting at home with her portable record player and listening to Della Humphrey or these really beautiful songs from Jamaica instead of doing her homework.
“She has continued to explore that stuff and far surpass my knowledge of that music.”
At college Elliot formed an afrobeat collective called Nomo. He kept them together when he left college and toured the world with other bands for 12 years (including a stint in Iron And Wine) and Natalie grew up.
Over the years the siblings have developed different musical interests which complement each other.
“It’s nice to have people hear the record and understand the full spectrum of what Wild Belle does. There is definitely some island-influenced stuff, some rocksteady, but also stuff on the blues end and stuff that is a bit darker.
“We tried to push every song till it fitted somewhere in that spectrum between a tropical and bluesy sound, and somehow it all makes sense to us. I don’t know if it is going to make sense to everyone else in the world but to us it all hangs together.”
There is a certain Beach House vibe to the Bergmans: a male/female duo who look good and whose left-of-centre influences come with an accessible indie feel.
“We’re not trying to recreate anything. We are trying to be inspired by things in the past we love and point forwards.”
The pair’s ancestors from four generations ago moved from Sweden to Minnesota.
The Scandinavian looks haven’t been diluted. Vogue ran a feature on Wild Belle recently and they were invited to perform at Art Basel Miami Beach, where they hung out with Damien Hirst.
Their paths have crossed with Hollywood A-listers – “someone from Zero Dark Thirty I was convinced I’d met until I realised it was that I’d seen him in a movie” – and Rolling Stone premiered the video for Keep You, the debut single about unrequited love over a dancehall reggae beat.
It’s a far cry from Keyclub studios in Benton Harbour, Michigan, where Isles was recorded with Bill Skibbe.
“It’s an amazing studio. They have Sly Stone’s old mixing console in this funky place with incredible old gear and every great pre-amp and compressor.
“The town is a shell of what it once was. There were race riots there in the 1960s. It’s a weird little sister city to Detroit. There’s not a lot there any more, though it is starting to come back downtown a little bit.
“But it is really a desolate place, so you can go there, hunker down and focus.”
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