FORT WAYNE, Indiana — The Bergamot, the husband and wife musical duo of Nathaniel Hoff and Jillian Speece, took root at Marian High School in the early 2000s.
The two met at the Mishawaka, Indiana, high school when Speece was 15 and Hoff was 17. Their art teacher had encouraged them to write a song that represented Marian as part of a statewide arts competition.
“And I was kind of into Jillian,” Hoff recalled, “but didn’t really think the feelings were reciprocated. So we wrote the song together, and the music kind of brought us together in a way that we were able to start working with each other, and through that blossomed a relationship.”
Speece noted that Hoff “was really quiet in high school,” and that she was “not sure what to do with him.”
“But then, when we started writing the song together, I would go to his house, and then we’d be talking for hours. I’m like, ‘Oh, he’s actually really funny. And he was just shy.’ Then the music brought us together. We were writing and performing together, and we had a lot of chemistry on stage, which helped a lot.”
Hoff’s musical journey began at St. Jude School in South Bend, Indiana. One of his art teachers lent him a guitar, and he used a penny as a guitar pick to learn how to play the instrument.
Speece developed her talent when she would come home from school at Corpus Christi in South Bend and play cassettes of Norah Jones and the Beatles and learn how to sing the songs while she did her homework.
“I loved singing. I loved performing. I would practice every single day and I was enthralled by music. I started writing songs shortly after,” she told Today’s Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.
After graduation, Hoff left Mishawaka for Indiana-Purdue University Fort Wayne on a golf scholarship as did Speece.
The two of them followed the same daily routine in college. They completed workouts in the early morning, attended classes, then practiced with the golf team. After practice, they wrote songs together.
At that point, they realized they needed a name.
They remembered how Hoff found a bergamot essential oil at a co-op and found its aroma “uplifting.” He showed Speece and they realized that they could name their duo after the oil. “The whole vibe of bergamot is uplifting one’s spirit,” she said, “and that’s what we want to do with our music.”
From there they began touring. At one point, The Bergamot was invited to open a show for One Republic, but the performance was canceled when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
“It was a moment where we found ourselves at probably our closest breakdown point because we lost all of our income for two years,” Speece said, “and that’s never happened to us before. And COVID shut down the music industry so hard. We had to come and grieve this.”
She says that they had to “lean into” their faith and pray because they didn’t know where to go.
“And then within 12 hours, a patron of the arts who loves our music called us and said, ‘Hey, get in your van and drive to Sedona (Arizona). We’ve got a second house that you guys can live in for free. Nobody knows what’s happening. We want to make sure you’re safe.'”
Now based in Brooklyn, New York, the two have a particularly close and unique tie to the Catholic community in South Bend. Hoff’s great-uncle was Father Leonard Chrobot, a priest who served several South Bend-area parishes and was a professor at the University of Notre Dame.
“I was able to work with him on a lot of things growing up when I had a lot of questions about religion,” Hoff remembered, “questions about faith and understanding and when I was doubting certain parts of my own faith, my own journey. He was just such a very soft-spoken but also well-versed person.”
Hoff and Speece went through marriage preparation courses with Chrobot, who ultimately married the couple in South Bend.
“It was just so amazing getting to do our course with a family member who was a priest,” Speece said, “because we could talk in depth and ask questions … and he would just smile and he’d say, ‘Well, let’s talk about it.'”
She remembered Chrobot would come to Hoff’s family members’ homes to celebrate Mass on Christmas and other special holidays.
“It was just so special because, like, who gets to do that? It’s really cool, and it made me feel really connected with Jesus’ actual journey. Because, if you think about it, they were traveling in and out of people’s houses, all throughout Jerusalem and Galilee and Nazareth, and it was very intimate and very raw.”
Hoff said that, overall, his experience with The Bergamot changed his life and helped him understand more about his life and faith.
“I think about Jesus’ journey. And I think about his connection with people from all parts of society, and how he was kind of an outcasted individual. I think about the journey that we’ve been on as musicians, like I said jokingly — taking that vow of poverty that we’ve had over the last 10 years.”
He added a lot of what he learned in his time in Catholic schools gave him the tools to deal with the problems that he encountered throughout his time with The Bergamot and in his life.
“I feel like my faith has guided me to this point and keeps the art alive: keeps what we’re doing alive. There’s a lot of really cool miracles that have happened in our life constantly. And I would say, especially over the last two years, I just feel really grateful to God for all of those.”
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Schipper is a staff writer for Today’s Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana.