Mercy is Natalie Bergman‘s debut, a self-produced solo album recorded in the strangest of times, during a personal period of profound sadness and reinvention. It's startling, and often beautiful - a rush to the edge of the cliff, with an unflinching look below.
We would never begin a press release by saying "you've never heard anything like this before," because some clichés manage to be both condescending and worn; to use them hurts us both. But we will say that if you have heard anything that sounds like Mercy, let us know - we really want to hear that, too!
The music itself found its way to us via Third Man Records Detroit's mastering engineer and His Name Is Alive sonic genius Warren Defever. " I met Warren through my brother Elliot playing in His Name Is Alive," Bergman says. "Warren's always been so supportive.
Of course there is strength in simplicity, and songs like "Your Love Is My Shelter" rival Young Marble Giants in the Minimalism Olympics (which is totally a thing). "This is the best writing I have done in my life," Bergman says. "I started writing music when I was very young; I've always had a child-like, nursery rhyme approach to my music," she says. Recorded at her brother's home studio in Los Angeles, CA, she emphatically states that "the album is my testament." Bergman has already had a lengthy, successful career as one half of the brother-sister duo Wild Belle, but this is the first time she wrote and played all the material.
This record absolutely pulses with redemptive power; it is replenishing and original, and deeply cathartic. And before we go any further, you should know that this is kind of a gospel record.
Bergman comes to this material naturally. Her first musical loves were church songs, especially the sing-song-y, repetitive hymns. "I've always written songs about Jesus," she says. "I'm not afraid of it; this album is my take on gospel music." Her voice really works the upper registers in a manner occasionally similar to 1930s blues vocalists, or perhaps Badu. But there's nothing retro about the way she multi-tracks her voice and self-harmonises in sweet, lofty chords.
"I was raised by musical parents who encouraged their children's artistry. My mother would recite George Gershwin on the piano; she taught me how to play my favourite standards. My father loved to sing his own renditions of Dylan and Mavis Staples. He met Mavis on several occasions, and she asked him to marry her, twice. He was drawn to music with a moral compass, a backbone. My father was a student of the Bible, and had a passion for great songwriting. He valued the importance of song itself. I often found myself in discussion with him about my own music. He liked to wrestle with words. He was a master of language. He taught me a great deal about mercy."
Natalie made this record because she absolutely had to.
The music of Mercy began to germinate a few months after she lost her father in a wrong-way, head-on collision. He and her step-mother were killed by a drunk driver. Shortly after, Natalie visited a monastery in the southwestern desert, and there she began to embark on this album. "When you're in the wilderness you pay attention to how you hear," she says. I was granted some clarity and given some relief."
Bergman credits much of her musical influence to input from her brother Elliot. "He is a visionary, a vault of wisdom and gold; he is a serious artist, yet he has maintained a child-like curiosity in all that he does," she says. "Music has always been at the forefront of my family. In the darkest times of our life it is what allowed us to go on. My faith and my music are crucial to my existence. When my mother was sick we moved the Wurlitzer into her room and we would sing to her. She had cancer in her brain and she lost her ability to speak. Although the music did not heal her, it was a language we could all understand."
Loosely, we can draw parallels to the more avant garde Christian expressions which sprung up in the wake of the Jesus movement - particularly with 1973's otherworldly record of original devotional songs, Fire of God's Love (reissued in 2018 by Wyrd War) by the ethereal-voiced Sister Irene O'Connor. But Bergman is no nun, and her music is far more sensual than O'Connor's. Detroit's electronic crooner Otis G Johnson's Everything God Is Love '78 (reissued by Numero Group in 2012) hits some similar Arthur Russell-ish glide-vibes, and also consists of original material. But Johnson made seriously laconic, cough-syrup gospel, and even Bergman's few dirges, like "You Make My World Go Round," have such a smart and light production, and a sense that things will work out in the end, despite trials and tribulations.
Just as Bergman's earlier music was far closer to contemporary R&B party music (they were the first artists outside of the Marley family signed to Tuff Gong if you're seeking bona fides), the phenomenon of soul singers cutting gospel records is probably the easiest comparison. Oh, and if you've never heard The Gospel According to Ike and Tina (United Artists) from 1974, it's so deeply good, and funky. But none of those songs were originals. And we've not forgotten this is a press release for Mercy, a 2021 record on Third Man; we're just trying to help with a bit of context, as gospel may be the root of much modern American sound, it's certainly not as well-known as it should be.
"The first song I wrote on Mercy was ‘Home At Last,'" she says. "It is the best song I have ever written. I sing a lot about home on this record. Believing in that place has been my greatest consolation. I had an urgency and desperation to know that my father was there. His sudden death was a whirling chaos that assaulted my mind. This album provided me with my only hope for coming back to life myself. Gospel music brings hope. It is the good news; it's exemplary. It can bring you truth. It can keep you alive. These songs have kind of written themselves, and they rely on me to sing them."
Natalie Bergman made one of the first great albums of 2021.