In 2019, Natalie Bergman’s father and stepmother were killed by a drunk driver. The tragedy unmoored Bergman, sending her on a wild spiritual retreat out to a New Mexico monastery to spend weeks in total silence, grieving her loss, contemplating her new reality and seeking the peace of God.
This led to Mercy, the first album she’s released on her own. Bergman has spent years as one half of the folk pop duo Wild Belle, alongside her brother Elliot. Wild Belle is behind some terrific music, but Mercy is its own thing. This is music steeped in praise and despair, bringing the raw depths of pain and sorrow before God in faith.
As art, it breezes along with fluttery, summery vibes, evoking notes of psychedelia, ’60s folk pop and gospel music. Lyrically, it lands somewhere between Sufjan Stevens, Larry Norman and the Psalms. The simplicity of her prayers — which is what most of the songs end up being — is beguiling, a simplicity that rewards repeat listens with new layers of human emotion. Together, it adds up to an astonishing witness.
When Bergman sings “come on shine your light on me, sweet Jesus,” it sounds as revelatory as anything Paul saw on the road to Damascus. Later, she wails “I have seen so many troubles, all I do is cry!” before turning to God, begging “won’t you lead me out of trouble? Lead me to the light.” It’s a simple plea that, within the context of Bergman’s music, feels elevated by mystical significance.
Bergman sat down with RELEVANT to talk about the tragedy that birthed Mercy and why it was an album that she wrote “out of necessity.”
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
RELEVANT: Have you always had the idea that you would do a solo album someday?
Natalie: Not necessarily. I was very content with my relationship with Elliot. It worked for me. I liked the band dynamic. I like writing with him. But after losing my father, I wrote this album out of necessity. It changed my entire life. For about six months, I felt like I would never go back to music. I completely lost my identity. I felt untethered. And it was a very confusing and lonely time in my life. On top of losing him, I just didn’t know how I was going to exist or function as a normal human being again.
And then finally, as it always does, music found me again. And these songs really, they were gifts. They were gifts. They were given to me. I had to sing these songs. I had a little bit of desperation while I was writing them. I just needed to get through to myself, and I needed to process my grief and my understanding of what death is and what heaven is.
That loss — that sense of “I don’t really know how I can go on living on this planet right now”—
Have you lost somebody like that?
No, not like that. My parents are both alive. I would say I know what it’s like to lose somebody who felt indispensable to my life.
I’m sorry. It’s not like my tragedy is greater than yours or anybody else’s.
No, you can’t rank tragedy. But losing your parents means losing the one thing you’ve absolutely always had in your life.
I sing about it in one of my songs, “Your love is my shelter.” I was reading A Grief Observed, by C. S. Lewis, which is an incredible book about dealing with death. My dad gave it to me after my mother died and I never read it. And when he died, I picked it up and it brought me some comfort to read that book.
One of the things Lewis says is that “death is like an amputation.” If you lose your arm, you’re going to go on with your life eventually, but this is a crucial limb that you need. You need your hands, you need your eyes. We need our bodies. Our bodies are designed in this perfect way, and we need every part of it.
And then suddenly, a major part of your body is removed from you and you get phantom pains, which I do have. I have these urges to call my dad. I just get the desire to tell him good news or bad news.
Why did you take this grief to a monastery?
I was in such an isolated space that I was kind of like, “Where can I be even more isolated and lonely?” I found this monastery, which was in the Chama Valley of New Mexico. It was really beautiful. The canyons are red clay, and the paths, the dirt roads are red and the monastery is made of clay. And it was just beautiful. I was the only person there. It was a bit of a harrowing experience, to be honest with you. It was in the dead of winter.
It was me and I had my little cell, for reflection, prayer, sleeping, writing and reading. And then the abbey where I would go seven times a day, starting at four in the morning. It was a really intense week of my life and I spent it all in silence, which allowed me to reflect on my father’s death.
I asked a lot of questions. I talked to God. I listened. There were some beautiful and comforting answers that were revealed to me.
How do you feel like your understanding of God was different afterwards?
It brought me closer to God. I’ve had a strong faith my entire life. It’s been my compass. I’ve always had God at the center of my core. Of course, I’ve abandoned God and paid attention to things that were harmful to me. But it was very easy for me to go directly to God because it was my only option.
By the way, sometimes the language around this record …I never want to come across as if I’m some self-pitying victim character. I understand that I went through something incredibly dark, but I also want to talk about the hopefulness that I found even through the sadness.
I think that’s something you do well on the album actually. A lot of music along these lines focuses either on the tragedy or the hope. These songs do both at the same time.
Thank you for saying that.
Do you think you got what you expected out of your visit to the monastery?
I didn’t really have expectations. My expectation was to find some sort of comfort in a holy place where people have devoted their lives to Christ. This was a Catholic monastery, and I’m not Catholic. That was a little bit educational for me. There were some things that I didn’t really understand about their prayer and their traditions, but that was cool.
Sorry if I’m not making sense right now. It was a really special time in my life. I feel like nobody will understand unless they go and take this vow of silence. It was extreme work for me. The first day I wanted to leave, I was like, “I made a horrible mistake and now I’m 80 miles down a dirt road and no one will pick me up. I have no cell service.”
I just went into the wilderness and it was scary at first. I was the only woman there and these monks don’t look at you. I just felt so alone. And then ultimately, the message was, we are alone here on earth and we have to trust in God, because that’s the only presence that will be in our lives, eternally and forever.
Is it hard to release music this personal to the world? Like, to strangers?
Not for this record. I felt supported by God while I was making this record. On previous albums, my entire career, I was very critical. I’m very judgmental. I hate my music. I abandon it. That was not the process at all. I just wanted to work, and I wanted to sing, and I wanted to create. I wanted to honor my dad and my mother. And it became my mission and my purpose to write these songs. There was no room for any self-hatred in the process.
Why do you think it came so easily to you?
I think one of the main things is I was sober when I was writing the record. I made a decision to cut alcohol out of my life because it stole my father’s life. He was killed by a drunk driver so, I thought, that’s not what I want to put. I don’t want to be drunk while I’m writing this album, which is how I’ve written my other albums. That was a major shift in my life. With sobriety, you have clarity.
And then I think that the heavenly creator is really the source of my writing on this album. And I think when you praise His name, He helps you out. And so He helped me.
I think it’s very difficult to write about God in ways that don’t sound cliche or trite.
I think that some of the great songwriters, like Bob Dylan, he’s mysterious. One of the reasons why he’s such a great songwriter is because there’s the mystery in the song. He’s a storyteller, and then you pair it with a little bit of mystery. And that’s just a perfect combination.
Now on my album, I would say there’s not a lot of mystery. It’s very explicit. It’s very literal. I just was not afraid to say what I wanted to say on this album and speak from my heart, and reference the Psalms, which are so poetic and beautiful. I wasn’t afraid to speak. I wasn’t afraid to say what I wanted to say. I wasn’t afraid to sing about Jesus either.
I sometimes think a lot of Christian songwriters are sort of making apologies for singing about Jesus, which makes it comes across pretty poorly. But the fearlessness serves songs like yours very well.
I do think it’s a unique body of work. I don’t think anybody’s making Christian music right now that sounds like this. And I don’t think you have to be a Christian to listen to this music. I didn’t write it for Christians. I wrote it for myself and now it’s for everyone.
One last question. You said you had to write this album. Do you feel like you got what you were looking for out of the process?
Absolutely. This feels like exactly what I’m supposed to be doing here on earth. Unfortunately, I lost the greatest love I’ve ever had, but through this horrible event, I have found a purpose unlike I’ve ever had. I feel like I’m myself for the first time. And I’m thankful for that.
I’m thankful that I got to deeply think about my dad and his love for me here on earth. It was a healing thing. Music is a healing thing. It has always acted as a healing agent for me during any heartache I’ve had, and it’s working more than ever before. And I think that it’s also working through others, and that’s the power of music. It’s doing its job right now.
Natalie Bergman’s Mercy is available now.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.