“In some ways, I feel that this record has given me my greatest purpose of all and I’m thankful for that,” reveals musician Natalie Bergman. It was during a period of devastating loss after her father and stepmother were killed by a drunk driver in 2019, that her debut solo record, Mercy, came to her. The news reached Bergman and her brother, Elliot, the night they were set to take the stage at Radio City Music Hall. “The months after my father died, I felt as though I’d just lost my identity,” she shares. This led to time spent at a monastery in the Chama Valley, a place of solitude and removal from the static of the word, a place where she could channel her faith and be receptive to messages of hope and healing. It was at the monastery that the seeds of the album were planted and the songs began their evolution: now fully realised as a highly-personal gospel of resilience and a poignant ode to love and salvation.
Known for having spent the last decade successfully recording as half of brother-sister duo Wild Belle, Bergman wrote her first song on a ukulele and started recording on a 4-track while exploring sound and songwriting at the age of thirteen. Growing up with musical parents who listened to the likes of Bob Dylan, Pharoah Sanders and Etta James, Bergman gained early exposure to numerous dialects of jazz, soul, and rock and roll. Music has always been her path, and Mercy is a sonic roadmap rooted in surrender.
Photography by Robin Laananen
J.L. Sirisuk: I know you come from a very musical family with deep roots in music, what can you share about that?
Natalie Bergman: My parents really gave me the gift of music. They were so supportive growing up. I asked my mother if I could play violin at a very early age and started playing when I was five. I loved playing, I learned from the Suzuki books and that was sort of my beginning of music. Then I moved to the piano and started teaching myself songs. Both of my parents were very creative and musical – my mom played a lot of George Gershwin on the piano and my dad made up his own renditions of Bob Dylan songs, it was always around us. It was always encouraged, which I think is not always the case in houses. You know, a lot of the time parents are like, “Go play your music in the garage,” or something, but it was a free environment to create and express myself.
JLS: What are a few records that you gravitated towards?
NB: Somebody just reminded me yesterday that I sang a Lucinda Williams song in a talent show when I was ten years old, I really love her. My brother was studying jazz when he was young so he turned me onto Coltrane and Miles Davis, of course Pharoah Sanders. That was one side of my musical upbringing and then there was the soul side. Aretha Franklin and Etta James are my number ones, that’s who I sort of learned who to sing from. I mean, of course I can never sing like Aretha Franklin or Etta James, the two queens, but that was the kind of stuff I was moved by.
JLS: I’m going to move to something personal. My father went to a monastery in Asia after his mother passed, and I know that after the passing of your father, you spent time at a monastery in the Chama Valley. Monasteries are such places of solitude and removal, can you share what led to your decision to spend time there?
NB: Well, first of all thanks for sharing about your father’s experience about losing his mother. The months after my father died, I felt as though I’d just lost my identity. I was very close with him and I’d lost my mother when I was sixteen, she had brain cancer. So when I lost my dad I felt completely untethered and had no attachment to anything. I didn’t have any sort of umbrella of a parental figure, so it was impossibly disorienting, and I was like, “Who am I? Am I a musician? Am I an artist?” I wasn’t able to create anything because I was so deeply hurt and heartbroken. I took a few months to just understand my grief, and then I thought: I needed to talk to God. I needed a place where I could go and isolate myself. I wanted to find a safe place and thought maybe that would be surrounded by monks who devote their lives to Christ. It was kind of a scary experience, to be honest. I was the only woman at the monastery and it was a very cold time of year. It was in February, so there was frost on the ground every morning. I went to the chapel seven times a day and the first prayer was at 4am. To walk to the chapel was a ten minute walk on a dirt path in the dark, and I used the moon to navigate me, it illuminated the path. I didn’t have a flashlight and I was sleeping in a tiny cell that had a desk and a twin cot – it was a very lonely experience but I had a lot of questions to ask God and it was a really revealing time. I learned a lot because I had to listen. I asked questions and I received some beautiful answers.
JLS: During your talks, was there anything unexpected that came to you in your spirit and mind?
NB: Well, one of the most important answers that I got from the heavenly father is that heaven is a realm that exists and we have no idea what it is. I did a lot of reading there, and one of the scriptures I read was that, “Everything the eye has seen, and the mouth has tasted, and the heart has felt, that is not what heaven is.” Heaven is such a different realm than anything we’re even capable of experiencing, and it’s this great mystery, which is why it’s so hard and challenging to have such a strong faith because no one is promised this. I really needed to know that it existed because I need my father to be there and I need my mother to be there, whether it’s a physical place or a spiritual one. Whatever this place is, I learned that it indeed exists and that was the greatest comfort to me. That was the biggest thing I took from the monastery.
“…I had this beautiful gift from God and it became my purpose to write these songs.”
JLS: Were the seeds for the album planted while you were there?
NB: Yes, the seeds were planted there. I started getting some language around the songs just because I was reading the Bible and there are so many beautiful words in the Psalms. They’re poems, so when I was taking all of these poems in, I was like, “I have my own poems that I want to sing about God and about my father.” That was kind of the early stages of the record, and then when I got back to Los Angeles, the songs really started coming out. They were my own Psalms, and in some ways this album was written a lot faster than some of my previous work. It was a really fruitful time for me. I was so afraid I wasn’t going to be able to get back to music in those early months after losing him, but then I had this beautiful gift from God and it became my purpose to write these songs.
JLS: Why did you want to make this a gospel record – what’s your relationship with gospel music?
NB: Well, lets see. I don’t even know if it’s appropriate to call the music gospel because gospel traditionally comes from black churches, but I do think that it was inspired by traditional gospel music and also Christian music. I’m not that into Christian radio – some of the music is a little cheesy, but I just wanted to have my own interpretation of the gospels. I wasn’t afraid to sing about Jesus, but it is a hard time to be a Christian in America right now, or anywhere really because religion has such a bad name. Historically some people have done some horrible things in the name of God, and I don’t know where it went wrong but I would say I’m a Christian fighting the good fight and I want that to be the message. I want the message to be love and the goodness of the creator and why we were created. I think the message got a little bit skewed somewhere along the lines and people are just taking religion and corrupting it. I thought that singing gospel music was the appropriate thing to do.
JLS: Going back to when you were writing, did you see yourself almost as a conduit of hope to help others during difficult times or was it about your own expression?
NB: It sort of takes a different shape throughout the process of recording. At first it’s an introspective experience and I’m going inward and pouring out. Then once I start to finish the songs, it becomes about how other people are going to internalise this, how I can uplift people. This is what uplifted me in my darkest time and right now just having interviews and learning my language around the album and around my faith, I really want this music to reach people and do what it’s supposed to do in the world. I don’t want to say I’m some sort of messenger – that’s too grandiose, but I think that God has given me this platform to praise his name in a loving way. I would love this music to work through people and become a sort of healing agent for others.
Photography by Robin Laananen
“I started getting some language around the songs just because I was reading the Bible and there are so many beautiful words in the Psalms.”
JLS: You have supporting vocals from Elsa Harris and the Larry Landfair Singers. Can you tell me about your connection with them and why you felt they should join you on this record?
NB: Well, I figured if I started saying this was a gospel record, I should actually get some gospel people on my record. Elsa is just tremendously talented, she can wail on the piano, she’s like ragtime gospel queen. I needed to bring in the true musicians who know this music, love it and grew up with it. I sang Amazing Grace with her at my father’s funeral, they stood behind me and they uplifted me.
JLS: You can hear their love for you and the music come together in their chorus of voices.
NB: Thank you. I’m happy to have them on the album. They’re singing on the song Shine Your Light On Me. I feel like that song most specifically resembles soul and Motown the closest on my album. I came up with the 60s television performance concept where maybe it’s like I’m performing on The Ed Sullivan Show or something. I wanted it to be kind of like a girl group similar to Diana Ross and the Supremes. I built this stage and put all of these mirrors on it, and I was wearing a mirrored dress so it would reflect the light. It’s a sweet kind of doo-wop performance and I’m really excited about the visuals and the song.
JLS: You’ve have been hands-on with creating all of the vibrant art around this project – what are the inspiration points behind the visuals?
NB: Yes, I have some inspirations for the banners. I have a couple of the banners hanging up in my apartment. I’m inspired by a nun named Sister Corita. She’s from Los Angeles and was an artist. She made silkscreen prints, she made banners, she made all sorts of gorgeous work and it was colorful and playful and had a youthful spirit to it. She was also political and controversial in the church because she spoke up for Black rights and all communities of minorities. She was a voice of peace and love. People get persecuted for being that voice. I really love her work, and then my mother also designed banners for our church. She was the head of the ‘liturgical art society’ – that’s what she called it, so she hung banners from the church ceilings and they’re still in one of the churches we grew up going to.
“I want the message to be love and the goodness of the creator and why we were created. I think the message got a little bit skewed somewhere along the lines and people are just taking religion and corrupting it.”
JLS: You’ve gone through quite an intimate journey of the self – now that you’ve finished this project and you listen back, has your relationship to the music and songs changed at all?
NB: I will say that it took me a very long time to be able to talk about my dad without panicking and crying. The sorrow is still there, but I’m able to see through it a little bit clearer and I’m thankful for that because I don’t want to live in a perpetual state of sadness. It’s not fun. It hurts. So I’m thankful that I can listen to the music, play the music. I’ve just managed to remove myself from it a little bit. Not in a jaded way, but in a healthy way – so that feels good right now.
JLS: There is a lot of strength in this record and in you. What do you hope people like me take from it?
NB: I appreciate your tears and your emotions. That’s what I want, to touch people, and it’s not that I want people to cry, I want people to feel. I would like people to feel the love that I put into this, and a lot of the love that was put into this was given to me from my father. He was such a loving human and I hope people can feel that.
Natalie Bergman’s Mercy is out 7th May via Third Man Records.