Natalie Bergman: „To believe in heaven gives me tremendous strength and comfort“

The nice thing about Zoom interviews is, you get a tiny glimpse into the personal surroundings of the person you are talking to. Natalie Bergman, quite far away in her home in Los Angeles, is sitting in a sunlit room next to a grand piano, while I am in my kitchen, which looks, to be fair, not half as glamorous. Still, Natalie takes the time to appreciate that there is an actual telephone, with a chord and everything, hanging up on the wall behind me. There is a nice kind of mutual acknowledgement going on. 

The premise of this kind of situation is, of course, that I know more about the person I am dealing with than the other way round. I would like to start this off by saying exactly what I said to Natalie Bergman herself: That I have nothing but deep respect for her. Not only has she just released a simply beautiful solo album called „Mercy“, but the story behind this album, the circumstances under which it came to be crafted, are just as heartbreaking as admirable. 

Given her life story and also by the way she appears to me in our conversation, Natalie Bergman very obviously is a family person. Family, faith and music have always been the most important parts of her life. Most of her musical career she spent together with her older brother Elliot, with whom she founded the duo Wild Belle. Together they almost spent the whole past decade performing and releasing music. They lost their mother to cancer when Natalie was 15 years old. In 2019, the day they were to go on stage to perform at Radio City Music Hall, they received the call that their father and stepmother had been killed in a driving accident by a drunk driver. 

At one point, Natalie reveals to me how scared she is of being left all by herself one day. That since loosing her parents, she can’t stop being afraid of loosing all the other people close to her. That makes it even more impressive to me that, for the process of making this album, she went the whole way all by herself. She retreated to a monastery in Chama Valley, Mexico, and spending time in total silence made her realize that this is the way she wanted to go. She wrote, recorded and produced „Mercy“ all by herself and created an album that works as a means to express her grief, the trust in her faith and the light that comes with it. It is a reminiscence to Gospel Music which, by itself, is one of the deepest roots to Rock’n Roll. It is utterly sad and extremely uplifting at the same time. 

Bringing these two worlds together, being able to accept how close darkness and light, gain and loss can be, seems to be a big part of Natalie’s personality. While telling me some of the saddest stories of her life, she sometimes starts to laugh – not at all in a repressing way. More like someone who had to learn that this is exactly how life works: you can’t have the good without the bad. There is no way of denying that, and Natalie Bergman appears to have come to peace with it.

How are you doing?

I’m good! It’s a beautiful morning, very sunny. I had a very nice day yesterday, I performed one of my songs with my friends. We did a video and it was the first time I got to play that song live. I was just listening to the recording this morning and I am very pleased with it. 

That’s lovely! And amazing how healing a bit of sunshine can be these days! These are crazy times right now, aren’t they?

They really are. This is a beautiful platform for us to speak with each other. You’re in Germany, I am in Los Angeles, that’s a beautiful thing. But I have a conflicting relationship with how everybody is becoming dependent on these modern devices, cellphones and computers. I’ve sort of struggled with the fact that we are so fixated on these things that it takes us away from the real world, that it makes us not able to see things clearly and really look at the beautiful things that are going on. I’m sure we all have these moments where we feel this way. I feel like it disconnects people from each other. We are so reliant on these things for some sort of personal affirmation, on social media and such. It’s a confusing time for the world, I think. I try not to participate too much in social media. How do you feel about it?

Oh, I am very torn about it as well. I spend way too much time on it, but I am not too much interested in people posting nothing but their third coffee to go or the new sweater they just got. So much is changing in the world right now, so you should at least in some way use it to get a point across.

Or posting a picture of your butt! (laughs)

That could actually send a message! I posted a picture of my butt, because I like my butt!

(laughs) But it is true. We can use these platforms for goodness. Mr. Rogers was such a good example for that. Are you familiar with him?

I have to admit, not really.

He had a television show called „Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood“. He was kind of a spokesman for equal rights, just rights in general for the people, for children, for all races. He was this beautiful television host, and he would have people come onto the show and make these little playful installations and always have messages of love and kindness and togetherness. He was the only person doing it at the time, in the sixties. He was looking at all of these shows on television, which was slapstick, people would throw pies in each others faces. And he was like: „this is not what I want to be watching. If you have the power to host something on television, you should be promoting… equal rights! The black community, they don’t have rights right now. Let’s talk about divorce! People are not really talking about that. What do kids have to say about it?“ He opened up the dialogue for people across the world. He is such a remarkable person. Sorry to have this long…

No, it’s okay! Go ahead, I love it. 

(laughs) I love talking about Mr. Rogers, because he was such a beautiful human being. Just because we were talking about social media. There are ways that we can use it in political ways, in loving ways. I would hope to use my social media in a similar way. I’m not sure what that will look like yet, it’s just something that I’m thinking about right now. 

And isn’t it the same with music? I feel like it has to be purposeful and thoughtful. 

Of course!

I mean, to dive right into it. Your album, it is such a beautiful, honest and meaningful record. I read what you’ve been going through when you made it. I feel your grief through it. And I share your grief. I lost my dad last year through COVID19. And I deeply admire that still you were able to create something so positive and so uplifting. The light that shines through it is so powerful. 

Well, thank you…

You 100 percent nailed with it what I’m looking for these days.

That’s wonderful news for me (laughs). I’m so sorry you lost your father. Did you get to have a gathering to say goodbye to him?

Yes, we did. Weirdly I thought about my dad’s funeral when I listened to your album. I feel like your kind of belief is so different to the one I grew up with. Religion was a big part of my youth in the place where I grew up, but the way it was practiced always felt so detached from reality to me.

I understand that. Sometimes religion can scare me. Or intimidate me, push me away. I mean really, historically, it has done terrible things. I never understood when people start war in the name of God. It’s always been a message of love to me. My own personal faith, it’s been about God’s love. I don’t want this album to be preaching to anybody or be putting my believes on anyone. It is such a personal testimony really. It’s how I got through the death and it’s how I got through my grief. But I will say, I did grow up in a religious household. You know, the same notion of „love your neighbor“. My family, we didn’t have these sort of rules like „if you sin, you will be condemned“ and „if you do this, then you will be punished“. It really wasn’t like that. It was just about the basic moral laws of goodness. They could be Biblical laws, but I like to see them more like, where is your moral compass? Where is your heart and how are you a good person? My parents raised their children to be hopefully good people. We were a charitable family. We gave, we participated in the community, we invited people in who needed help. So many people need help in this world. If somebody comes to you and needs help, you don’t have an option. You must help them! I expect that from people when I need help too. So religion didn’t really scare me when I was growing up. To me religion was about music and community. I had such a different upbringing than most people in the church. And then also… it’s not that I abandoned the church, but in my early adult years I kind of went off and wasn’t participating in any kind of community of religion. But I always had really strong faith. And when I lost my dad I sort of went back to God. It was an opportunity to me to reopen my thoughts about faith and what that means to me. 

Are you scared of death? 

Death is terrifying. It’s kind of inhabited me and lived with me. I lost my mother when I was 15 and I always felt this fear of losing my Dad. I didn’t want to be untethered. I’m 32 now, I’m not a child. But I do feel like a child having lost both of my parents. I need them. When my dad died I was so afraid. I had never experienced fear like that in my life. For months I was afraid of losing my brothers, my sister, anybody that I love. I just prayed for them so hard and so deeply. I was constantly praying, please do not take these people away from me. I need my people here. Also I want to live. Life has become so much more precious to me, in a way where I feel kind of an urgency to create, an urgency to live. I’ve been archiving some of my artworks and my writings, because you just don’t know. I would like my things to be organized so when I die, you’ll be able to see my art in a beautiful way (laughs). So, I fear death. But I also have gained an understanding that I believe, that this place here on earth is not our true home. I believe that there is a heavenly realm that we will access after we die. To believe in heaven gives me tremendous strength and comfort. That probably looks different to me than it does to you or to anybody. But it gives me comfort.

I find it so impressive, that you found a way to deal with your grief through being creative. I feel grief can be devastatingly numbing. 

I must say, grief was paralysing. It took me some time to get there. It took me months. I mean, I’m still going through it. Sometimes the wave of paralysis washes over me and I’m like: I can’t leave my home today, I can’t do anything, I’m not motivated. It took me four months of the darkest thoughts I ever had. I was desperate. I was completely lost. I couldn’t create anything. I actually thought I wouldn’t be able to play music ever again. I didn’t even believe that I was a musician. I had absolutely no identity. I went through that. How was it for you when your dad died? How was your experience with your own identity? 

My dad and I always had a good, mutual accepting relationship, but we never were really close. The last two years before he passed away, he suffered of very fast progressing dementia. It might sound weird, but while he was fighting against his speech deteriorating and hardly being able to utter himself, we somehow became closer than ever before. 

Wow. That is something to be thankful for. 

But I mean, I don’t have to tell you, I am still processing. Every day. I think what came out of it concerning my identity is that I can’t do superficial anymore. I can’t go and ask you: „So tell me, when did you start making music?“

(Natalie laughs)

Anyway, it is so lovely to be talking with you on such eye level. And I really love your record. I also love that it’s out on Third Man Records, that you found a home there. 

It’s interesting that you say that I found a home there. Because that is truly how I feel about the team there. They are just a wonderful group of artists and intelligent people. I never had the support of a small community like that. I was with Columbia Records, which I love the legacy of, I loved working with them. But it was such a different beast, you know, to be in a major label system. That was kind of challenging to navigate for me sometimes. I’ve never really compromised on myself as an artist, and there was a little push and pull there sometimes. With Third Man Records, they are just so happy with what I give them. They offered me just a safe place to express myself. I really love that and I have found a home with them. 

And you know what I also find so impressive? You’ve been making music with your brother for such a long time now. But this album, this super personal experience, you went there all by yourself. Discovering who you truly are as an artist. That is so brave.

I’m gonna cry now. 

No, don’t, please! Or I’m gonna cry too.

(Natalie laughs)

But now I will give us both the last blow. Do you know that today it’s been five years since Prince died?

Wow. We’ve already been emotional and now we’re even more emotional (laughs). It just happens! I am a very emotional person. I can access my emotions very easily. It’s hard for me to put a shield up. I definitely do wear my heart on my sleeve as they say. I think that’s what I search for in people also. I like to take my time with people and get to know them, but I also like when they bare their hearts. I mean, there is no other way here!