Elliot Bergman remembers his sister Natalie running around their family's kitchen in cowboy boots, belting out Mariah Carey tunes. She was 4. Nowadays they're known as the brother-sister duo Wild Belle, and their just-released first single, "Keep You," is a deliriously catchy confluence of organic electro and reggae, with Natalie's voice floating just above the drum beat. She possesses understated beauty: deep, quiet eyes and a tangled mane of slouching blond hair. Her brother, eight years her senior, is a scruffy Alex Ebert look-alike, quietly brooding and affable.
The Bergmans grew up Chicago churchgoing folk with Midwest accents, and by 16 Natalie was out on the road with her brother's band Nomo, driving the van and selling merchandise. In a moment of inspiration she laid down vocals atop their instrumental track "Upside Down." Elliot loved it and sensed an immediate chemistry, and thus was born their duo.
To record their first album as Wild Belle this past summer, they crossed Lake Michigan to the town of Benton Harbor, Mich., mastering their songs on Sly and the Family Stone's old mixing console. "It was surreal," Elliot says.
Benton Harbor offered a distraction-free environment to hunker down, but it also was a daily reminder of the recession's impact. Something of a mini-Detroit, the once-picturesque port town has become a no man's land, they say, with a plummeting population and shrinking average income. About a decade ago race riots broke out, triggered by a police shooting and rampant unemployment.
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After each recording session the siblings would drive around, listening to their work, taking in scenes of urban decay. "There were empty, beautiful old houses everywhere selling for almost nothing," Natalie remembers.
After a break in New York City, the Bergmans are back in Benton Harbor, putting the final touches on their as-yet-untitled debut, due out later this year. It seems clear that their surroundings have influenced their work: "Keep You" possesses bitter melancholy beneath the surface, as if one must dance to keep from crying.
Wild Belle play the Echoplex Thursday, March 1.