For a band that still hasn’t even released its debut album, Wild Belle has accumulated a remarkable amount of public adoration. The band has been highlighted in gushing features in Rolling Stone, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and Vogue (which crowned it “Band of the Week” back in June). Not bad for a group that made its debut little more than a year ago, at the Blind Pig. But even then, it was clear that Wild Belle had something special.
The band’s core players are siblings Elliot and Natalie Bergman, who had previously collaborated occasionally in Elliot’s Afrobeat band, Nomo. Although both Bergmans are now based in New York, Elliot has a strong Ann Arbor connection, having formed Nomo here as a U-M student. Their age difference (Natalie is eight years younger) and varying locations made their full-fledged musical collaboration difficult for some time. But last year the Bergmans began writing moody, sensual, Caribbean-flavored pop tunes together, featuring Natalie on vocals and Elliot on keyboards and horns.
Wild Belle shares Nomo’s world-music sensibilities and African-inspired beats, but swaps out its electronic textures for laconic reggae guitar and–in striking contrast to Elliot’s previous all-instrumental work–adds the key element of Natalie’s voice. It’s almost impossible to overestimate the younger Bergman’s importance. Her seductive, expressive, often plaintive croon is crucial to the band’s unique sound. And she’s a striking stage presence, tall and blonde with a keen fashion sense. Swaying to the music with gentle confidence, she is the defining face of the band.
Of course, that’s no discredit to the other players who make up Wild Belle in a live setting. Elliot’s sparse, sultry application of saxophone and keyboard stabs lends the band its essential world-music flavor. And while the Bergmans write the band’s songs and are generally regarded as a duo, they’re supplemented onstage by a drummer, a rhythm guitarist, and occasional backing vocalists.
Wild Belle had its national coming-out party last spring at SXSW, with a set that appeared on numerous best-of-the-fest lists. The group has since had a whirlwind year that’s included major media attention, a headlining tour, a string of dates opening for the indie-pop trio Tennis, and a record deal with Sony. Their debut album, Isles, is due next month. After all the buzz, Isles might seem to be at risk of not living up to its hype. But that concern is countered by the three singles already released, which display the same seductive, hooky, slow-jam magic that’s drawn so much attention ever since the band’s unassuming debut at the Pig.
Wild Belle returns to the Blind Pig on February 19.