Artist Spotlight: The Natvral

    The Natvral is the solo project of Kip Berman, who led the Pains of Being Pure at Heart for more than a decade before the indie-pop band broke up in 2019. Berman started Pains after moving to New York, and their last collection of original material, 2017’s The Echo of Pleasure, came out shortly before he became a father for the first time and moved to Princeton, New Jersey. In October 2018 – the same month Pains released a full-length cover of Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever – Berman released his first EP under the Natvral moniker, Know Me More. Produced by Andy Savours, the EP’s naturalistic, folk rock-inspired approach has carried onto the Natvral’s two albums, 2021’s Tethers and Summer of No Light, which arrived earlier this month. Berman continues to make lively music inspired by the new stage of life he’s settled into, but the isolation of the pandemic led him to explore darker, almost escapist territory, titling the record after the turbulent summer of 1816, when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. The songs are organic, sincere, and infectiously familiar, but contain a hint of fantasy strong enough to keep you lurking around its corners.

    We caught up with Kip Berman for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about the inspirations behind the Natvral, the relationship between his solo records, embracing human sincerity, and more.

    Tethers came out two years ago, which is a much smaller gap of time than the one between that album and the last Pains of Being Pure at Heart record. Does that affect your feelings or expectations around the release?

    That’s a good question. Everything’s so disjointed with time and how Tethers was recording, how this record was recorded. I recorded Tethers in 2018, beginning of 2019 – there was a couple of sessions, just a week and a couple of days somewhere else, and then it was supposed to come out in 2020. And then the pandemic, couldn’t release the record for a long time, so I had to wait till 2021, and by that time I was going into the studio recording this record in the fall of 2021. And the songs were written long before that. These songs were written even before Tethers came out, so they weren’t really in dialogue with how the first record was received or what people thought of it. I just kept on writing songs. And even this record, I recorded it in 2021, and now here we are two years later and it’s actually out. I’ve written a bunch of songs since then, so it almost feels like these recordings sort of exist outside of time, whether they come out this year or next year or two years ago. Because of how my life is at this point, I can record when I can record, but I don’t have that luxury of just being able to prioritize music and getting records out and finishing them and all that goes into that. It’s all a slightly alternate anachronistic world that my music inhabits right now.

    Does it now feel like the songs you’ve put out under this moniker are in dialogue with each other?

    Yeah. This record to me feels like a record that comes in between two other records, but I don’t know if I’ll get to make the next one [laughs]. I’m thinking of those three album trajectories, or when you think about Leonard Cohen, those first three Leonard Cohen records – there are artists that have a stretch of recordings or eras, I think these songs and the ones on the previous album seem like they’re of a single sort of creative moment, and I think my next batch of songs is part of that as well. It’s uncertain how or if I’ll get to record them, but I do feel like this is part of a bigger statement than just this album.

    A lot of that is how and with whom they’re recorded. Pains was very exacting in the studio, or we aimed to make records that sounded ideal. A lot of that involves playing along with a metronome or doing a lot of overdubs or using synthesizers in certain ways, really trying to create records that were more than just us sitting in a room playing the songs. And the attitude for this project is almost entirely opposite. It’s rooted in the humanness of just what it sounds like when people pick up their instruments, don’t use a bunch of effects pedals or any of that, and just play songs and capturing that in the moment, almost entirely live. I think that method of working, you can hear it on these records, and it makes it sound very different than Pains – even if the inspiration for the music wasn’t different, which it is, it would just sound different because of how we went in the studio and made the songs.

    There’s a freedom in that, too, which is something that comes up a lot when an artist embarks on a new project. But I wonder if the second Natvral record felt liberating in a way that felt new or slightly different, or if you had to make changes in your approach to get to that feeling. 

    At every iteration of this project, I’ve worked with an engineer, producer, and mixer, his name is Andy Savours. After the first Natvral record, I was thinking, I want to keep doing something fresh and different and engaging. I was like, “Hey, Andy, maybe for this record we should do it a different way,” just because I thought he would probably want to not keep doing the same thing over and over again. But luckily he was like, “Hey, why don’t we just do it like we did the last record? It sounded good. Let’s do it again like that.” And that was relieving, because this music is such a sonic departure from the music I was making in Pains. It just seemed like, “Let’s just make another record like we made the other one. We’ll show up, we’ll plug in our stuff, we’ll put the microphone in the room and just play.”

    I actually felt like I didn’t have to change anything with this record about how we did it. I just felt maybe a little more confident because I’d done it like this before. With the first record, I’d never really had that experience of not overthinking everything or not trying to make everything so exacting. I was like, “Are you sure this is good? Are you sure this is okay?” After Tethers, I was like, “Actually, that turned out in a way I’m really happy with.” And hopefully, if I get a chance to do another one, I’ll be like, “Let’s do it again.” And then maybe after that I’ll think like, “Okay, maybe we have to reevaluate how we’re doing certain stuff.” But sometimes, if you’re feeling good about something, you don’t have to change it. You can keep doing the thing that makes you feel good.

    Was that sense of familiarity also part of the reason you were drawn to that ‘60s, ‘70s folk rock sound in the first place?

    I’ve always loved a lot of these artists, it’s just that the music I was making in Pains was kind of rooted in this idea of a bunch of bands from the ’80s and ‘90s that were really inspirational to me growing up. I grew up in the ‘90s, so the Pains album Belong, I really wanted to make an album that was connected to the music of my childhood, which was, like, not that cool [laughs]. It wasn’t obscure, it was just ‘90s radio rock, the kind of stuff you’d hear at the mall, or driving around with your friends listening to Smashing Pumpkins. Not that that isn’t cool, but it wasn’t about, like, obscure Scottish indie bands from 1989 as much – I think when the first Pains record came out, everyone assumed we were just obsessed with Scottish indie bands from the ‘80s that most people hadn’t heard of. But while that’s definitely true – I love those bands, I love Orange Juice and the Pastels and Vaselines, so much stuff from Sarah Records and Postcard Records and Slumberland Records – there’s this whole other side to us as a band that we’re just suburban American kids growing up, hanging out at the shopping mall. And with Belong, I really wanted to make an album that mirrored that immediacy and that sound of what it was like to listen to music in your mom’s car that you borrowed and drive around with your friends.

    As far as what made this album rooted in something completely other, this album and the one before – I don’t know if it’s a revulsion, but my life changed so dramatically after the last Pains record. I had a child, I left New York. All the energies in my life were just really different, and I just wanted to express myself in a way that was really different and not trying to fit into a costume of a past life. I didn’t want to just keep on playing in Pains, going through – not the motions, but wearing a costume of a past identity. I wanted to make something new that felt connected to what my life was about right now.

    Maybe part of that was, I was at the Princeton Record Exchange – I live in Princeton, New Jersey – and I got this bootleg Bob Dylan record. Or I thought it was a super bootleg. It was a white sleeve with a photocopied cover, and it was just one LP, a live set from 1967 or something. I was like, “Oh man, I found this really obscure, cool live Bob Dylan record,” and I was listening to it all the time. And then I did some research on it, and it was really just one copy of a two-disc set that was one of the most famous – it was the live at the Royal Albert Hall concert, even though that was recorded in Manchester and was mislabeled. I thought I’d found the most obscure thing, and it was the double CD that everyone had. I was like, “Okay, fair enough.” But it was really cool, and it made me really evaluate Dylan’s music differently.

    When I was growing up, I liked Neil Young, I loved singer-songwriters connected to that era. But Dylan was almost overwhelming because of his stature, I didn’t really know how to approach it. It wasn’t so much that Dylan was full of himself or something like that, but I couldn’t get at the actual music itself, because I was always standing face to face with greatness in all caps. But just listening to that live record, some other stuff of his, I was like, “Wait, this is great. It is great, but it’s playful, and it’s funny, and it’s whimsical, and it’s silly.” There’s moments of great severity and seriousness, but there was a humour and a cleverness and wordplay for its own sake. There was something more human that I could relate to just by listening to the music than trying to approach the Legacy of his work, what it all meant in the context of the culture and the unwilling voice of the generation and all that. You listen to those live records, and it’s got a great vibe, but it’s not this exacting reproduction of the records or anything like that.

    Then there’s probably contemporary bands that will feel that way. Like Neutral Milk Hotel, they’re so “important” that I’m afraid it’s sometimes hard to just put on their records and listen to them because they have such a mystique. I think My Bloody Valentine was like this for a while before they reformed; Loveless is almost too important to actually just be enjoyed as a record. But it’s good to remember these records that we all hold up as the touchstones of the cannon or whatever were literally just people going into studio, trying to get their ideas out in whatever way they could, and try to retain the humanity of these people, no matter how great their artistry is. Just remember these were just people who told weird jokes and worried about how they looked in their photos and had a lot of the same insecurities and anxieties as anyone else.

    At the end of the day, that’s part of what makes them great. I was talking to someone who had never listened to Loveless or heard the story behind it, and I thought about how thrilling it must be to enjoy it without any of the mythos around it.

    I remember that feeling. I remember being at my friend’s apartment in college, and he had – I don’t think he even had Loveless, I think it was Isn’t Anything. At the time, there wasn’t really music being made that sounded like that. It was before – My Bloody Valentine was always legendary, but they hadn’t quite been remembered as legendary yet. He’s like, “These guys are cool, they don’t really sing that loud, they just kind of mumble. But the guitar sound is really cool.” I remember listening to it and being like, “Wow, this is really cool.” It really opened up the idea of the vocals just being one part of an overall thing. With Pains, even though the lyrics were really important to me, I never wanted the vocals to be above the music. I think people thought of us as a shoegaze band for that reason, even though it was just because our vocals weren’t very forward.

    Part of the immediacy and simplicity of your approach on Summer of No Light is that it calls attention not just to the vocals and the lyrics, but the elements of your songwriting that are less straightforward or conventional. Lyrically, there are moments here that are ghostly and imaginative, like ‘Summer of Hell’ and ‘Lucifer’s Glory’, even though the music is pretty grounded and exuberant. How did you find yourself slipping into that territory?

    That’s a good point. I think when I was writing this record, the world was ending so it didn’t really matter what I said or did. It was kind of liberating. It was this sense of, there are far bigger problems in the world at that moment. I was still locked down, I was home all day with my kids – my son was one and a half, my daughter was barely four – just trying to get from day to day, keeping everyone kind of sane and feeling pretty normal, even though we couldn’t even go to the playgrounds, they were all taped off. There was nothing to do with the kids except for, like, let them jump on me a lot. After they went to bed and I went down to the basement and played music, I just really – I don’t know if I mourned to the world, but my mind went off into a world that I just didn’t think really existed anymore. It just felt like the connection between people had just somehow vanished, and the way that life had been organized, for better or worse, for hundreds of years, suddenly stopped, and we were living in weird autonomous pods.

    I just felt like I yearned for any kind of human connection – the bad, the good, any of it, it didn’t really matter. There was songs that I wrote that weren’t even on this record that got left off that were just  – not gruesome, but sort of reveled in the ugly side of humanity and sex and desire. It didn’t really matter what I said or it did. It just felt like I was kind of like going off into my own mind. I think there was something, maybe not fatalistic or apocalyptic thinking, but being so cut off from life and just wanting to feel life in all its messiness and fucked-upness and goodness and badness, the whole thing, and just yearning for that connection, and not really worrying about what people said or thought as maybe I once did, and maybe I will again. Maybe it was a moment of vulnerability that I won’t be able to get back to again, because now your guard’s up again, and you’re like, “As a father of two, I probably shouldn’t say this or that.” I do think it opened up ways of expressing myself that were far less concerned about how they appeared to others than anything I had done up to that point.

    Even though the writing on Summer of No Light doesn’t always feel autobiographical, you also don’t always paint its characters and the way they approach love and relationships in the most clear or flattering light.

    There’s so much convention of pop songwriting where you’re supposed to be pure and good, and the other person just needs to see it and recognize it. The reality of life is, people are complex and not one specific way, behaving badly or good. There are realities to what it means to be a human being that aren’t always captured and top 40 pop, but I think when they are, it makes for songs that actually do connect. I’m thinking of that Icona Pop song, ‘I Love It’. Those ideas of not reacting the way you’re supposed to react, kind of, actually makes you stop and listen to the song more. We listen to music all the time that represents lives and moralities that we don’t always want to actually replicate in our life. A lot of music gets criticized wrongly for this, but these artists need to be able to express the fullness of human feeling. If you want a moral art form, that doesn’t make for the best music or the most interesting music. There’s great songs that are just, “I feel nothing but pure thoughts when I think about you. I don’t want to tell people they shouldn’t write songs that have ugly bits in them, because that’s kind of what it means to grapple with your humanity.

    It’s funny you mention Icona Pop, because I think they released their first album in a while the day your record came out.

    Actually, Slowdive released a record the same day as me. My friend sent me a text about it, and he’s like, “It’s good, it’s not what I expected. Kind of like Pygmalion, but warmer.” So even if I’m making folk rock music, I still am definitely in conversation with my friends about cool shoegaze music and other stuff too [laughs]. I’m not like, “This is the only way to express yourself artistically.” It’s just the way that feels right for me right now.

    Given what we just talked about, it’s interesting that you close out the record with ‘Wintergreen’, because I think it’s the purest and most uncomplicated expression of love on the album.

    It’s the underpinning of: life is filled with complexity and conflict, but the reason you’re with someone is for sometimes the very simple reason that you just love them. Even though a relationship can take a lot of turns, and the dynamic can be uncomfortable in a lot of ways, I wanted to end the record with saying something sincere and very simple. The thing that animates you to get through the hard times sometimes can just be the very simple reality that you love a person, and you wouldn’t want to get through the hard times if you didn’t. A lot of times you’re just like, Oh my goodness, this is really painful and uncomfortable and not what I want to be doing right now. But you reflect that you it is what you want to be doing, because you feel this connection that’s deeper than all the bullshit.

    ‘Wintergreen’, you’re right, it is a very simple song. In fact, the imagery is taken in part from a children’s book I used to read to my daughter, a couple of them kind of woven together. One was called The Flowers’ Festival by Elsa Beskow. She was an early 20th-century Swedish author, and it’s about a girl falling asleep in midsummer and a fairy giving her the power to see all the flowers coming together for a summer ball from all the flowers, and the house plants come out, but one flower is left behind. There’s a shy Pyrola, which is wintergreen, and she doesn’t come to the ball, but the other flowers call for her repeatedly and say, “Please come, summer is short, this is your only time to do this.” And eventually, she does come.

    There’s something in that story – I read it so much to my daughter when she was little – but it was this melancholy or this idea that wasn’t quite in line with the typical children’s stories that are just happy and playful. I just found something about being reluctant but realizing that the time is now, this is the time to be together. It sort of was the underpinning of that song, and even the chorus is, “All I want is to be a friend to you.” It sounds almost naive or overly simple, but it’s not because what it means to be a friend to someone can take on so many forms and so many permutations. It is a simple song, but I think it gives strength to a lot of the the complexities that are on the rest of the record and how it relates to love and ambivalence and desire.

    Is that simplicity almost more vulnerable than showing the ugly parts?

    Yeah. With the first Pains record, I just felt that was too much the hero of my own story, or kind of always portraying myself with clever wordplay and kind of above the fray. Even though that’s fine, I wanted to find ways to engage sincerely with very direct ideas, no matter how uncomfortable, that can be. It’s easy to write a song that’s just making jokes about library sets or whatever – it’s harder to just say very basic things clearly and succinctly and not relying on funny turns of phrase or witticisms. To do that is not an easy task.

    There’s some artists I really love, like the band Girls, Christopher Owens. They were sort of contemporaries of Pains, and I also thought his songs were simple and direct, but they were never naive; they felt informed by complexity, but not cynical. There’s a real wide-eyed sincerity to what he sang about, but you knew it was earned. He had had to fight for that, I know – maybe you just have to kind of know some stuff about his background, where he’s gone through some hard stuff growing up. But it always felt like as strong enough to say very direct and simple things, and it was all the more powerful for that. That’s not something that’s come too easy for me, but on that song, I’m basically saying, “All I want is to be a friend to you, all I want is to see you tomorrow.” It’s very basic in pop songs, but for some reason it seems very hard for me to get to that place.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    The Natvral’s Summer of No Light is out now via Dirty Bingo.

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