There Will Be Weyes Blood
Singer Natalie Mering Speaks to Personal Mythology, Her Noise Roots, and the Pressing Need for Music That Connects People
- Interview: Laura Snapes
- Photography: Sam Muller
With her mystical aesthetic and near-hymnal music, Weyes Blood seems barely earthbound to our present moment. Singer Natalie Mering chose her moniker from Flannery O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood, the darkly comedic story of a hustling war veteran in a perpetual crisis of faith. Mering names songs after Greek myths and stars, and produces a lushly baroque sound that seems to have time-travelled from the turn of the 70s, where the futurist Space Oddity and the Carpenters’ domestic reveries shared radio airtime. It is plush in texture and bold in sentiment, arriving in a present day that is mostly concerned with musical sparseness and ironic understatement.
On the cover of her 2019 album Titanic Rising—named for the 1998 blockbuster—Mering floats in an otherworldly underwater replica of a 90s teenage bedroom. If the songs from her latest feel deeper, and more weighted than her past releases, perhaps that is because this music is the product of her Saturn Return—the time where Saturn returns to its position at the moment of one’s birth, thought to coincide with a period of spiritual upheaval. Despite all this, to talk to Mering, calling from the Los Angeles home she shares with her rescue Pomeranian, is to find a staunch pragmatist regarding the technological and environmental crises facing humanity, albeit one who remains open to beauty—her self-proclaimed Dionysian impulse.
Mering, now 31, didn’t let herself lean into that beauty proclivity until her mid-20s: in her teenage years and young adulthood, she played challenging noise music. When she started to suspect that the men in the experimental scene only valorized her because she lived up to masculine ideals of aggression and intensity, she bolted. Adam Curtis’ documentary on the psychology of advertising and its mass manipulation, The Century of the Self, reaffirmed the nobility in making music that invited connection, and she began to see the potential in clarity, accessibility. As she often puts it, making music that sounded like the 70s classics became its own form of rebellion—when the so-called avant-garde calcifies, it must turn on its head.
And it was more than just a defiant throwback: Mering found in 70s studio techniques an apposite sense of surreality to distil the uncanny feeling of our contemporary paradigm shifts. On Titanic Rising, she is both sanguine and pointed about the climate crisis, technological overwhelm, and disconnection—the allusion to James Cameron’s film isn’t 90s nostalgia, but an indictment of how a film about man’s hubris was missold as a love story to little girls. “A lot’s gonna change in your lifetime,” she sings on “A Lot’s Gonna Change.” “Try to leave it all behind.” It’s the distinction between making music that is depressing and sorrowful, wallowing and figuring out a way forward, says Mering, who is admirably unabashed about her desire to write songs that have a lasting impact for humanity.
There’s a striking lyrical shift between the two albums. On 2016’s Front Row Seat to Earth, you're often waiting for somebody to give you an answer. But on Titanic Rising, you have that innate power. What changed?
When I was making Front Row Seat to Earth, I was still pretty young. The world changed right around the time Trump got elected. I started going through my Saturn Return. I knew that whatever I would sing was something I'd have to sing every night, so I wanted to make sure that I never had to fake it. Getting more comfortable with talking about more abstract ideas and less about unrequited love—that takes some time. A lot of the songs went through many different evolutions. I was changing words right up to the last minute.
You’ve said you hope the record might help somebody understand their feelings, and act as a guide for how to feel differently about isolation. How did you do that for yourself?
I used to be obsessed with trying to undo things. At a certain point, you learn to let go and ride what is. Since the late 90s we might have shifted in a way, thanks to technology, that we're not completely aware of. Instead of being depressed about that—which gives technology and capitalism an opportunity to prey on your weakness—if you really want to be strong and fight that tide, you have to accept the elasticity of your humanity and accept that things are gonna get rough, and that things will change. At least we're all still here. I still get depressed, but it's nowhere near as debilitating from building that muscle.
How recent is this turnaround?
It’s recent. I was pretty bummed for many years. It comes from knowing that people need people to stay sane and to stay clear on what we need to focus on. It takes a lot of work to keep the hope when, after many years of class struggle, [now] because of technology, we're dealing with people becoming obsolete, relationships becoming obsolete. I don't think it'll ever fully manifest, but you can feel the fringe effects.
Why do you say relationships are becoming obsolete?
There is this soft togetherness that isn't actually together. You could be talking to people all day, but you might not see somebody. Everything is setting everybody up to not need anybody. Everybody's pushing you to be a careerist and to figure it all out yourself and not burden anybody with that responsibility. The unfortunate side effect of that is a lack of strength in bonding.
You've moved around a lot this past decade. It seems like finding community has been important.
Yeah. I watched the DIY world slowly die. It's still hanging on, barely. After the Ghost Ship fire—the big fire at a warehouse in Oakland, California where a lot of people died—the amount of spaces that got shut down and the amount of people not participating anymore was very noticeable. I'm really glad I got to see what it was back when it was big. Now, things are a little more corporate.
From the outside, it looks like you’ve found a great community in LA. What is it really like?
There's a lot of wonderful musicians here, but it's not necessarily like we have this great place we go hang out. Underground music has lost a little bit of its sheen. More people want to go straight to playing a real venue and having a booking agent and a manager. More people want to get straight into the machinery and skip that [DIY] level because that level is not thriving.
Tell me about your formative DIY experiences. You built this noisy six-string instrument as a teenager.
It's called a harmonics guitar, and I made it in high school out of two blocks of wood and some string. It's based on an instrument that Glenn Branca developed—it's like a slide guitar, but you play the harmonics on the strings. It has a very particular sound, it's not like hitting a solid note.
What were your performances like?
I did some noise shows, house shows, basement shows, bookstores, bars. You could email one guy, and he would know a guy in Columbus, and he would know a guy in Michigan. I booked a tour in Europe by emailing people.
How old were you?
I started Weyes Blood when I was 15 and I went through a lot of different phases. When I first started, I was freak-folk, and I would play acoustic guitar and sing without a mic at house parties. Then I got into the harmonics guitar and noise. I didn't become the Weyes Blood you hear now until I was 22 or 23. I got rid of the harmonics guitar and the free-form noise and got back into songwriting, because I realized I did that better.
I love melodies. I love complexity. I love lyrics. I have a Dionysian impulse and a desire to transcend, which I think a lot of that [noise] stuff comes from. But what I was noticing in the world of people improvising and freaking out, is that, most of the time, it's because they didn't have anything else going on. No offense.
That phase feels like a classic teenage rejection of beauty and femininity.
Yeah. I felt like I might've been pressured away from writing beautiful music because men were so much more in favor of a woman freaking out. Especially when I entered that noise scene, I would get more compliments based on how aggressive I could be. Once I realized that’s what men wanted to see out of women in that scene, I was like, I'm gonna give them exactly what they don't want and write myself out of it. But knowing that raw state really helps when you're sculpting something very intricate.
What drew you towards DIY?
I was starting middle school. I wasn't fitting in. I felt really weird. It was 2000: Mainstream culture had gotten so raunchy and bad. I knew that as a little 12-year-old—I was like, this fucking *NSYNC shit sucks. I noticed there were kids that wore all black who had decided to separate themselves from how shitty everything was. I immediately jumped on board. One of the first bands I saw was called Satan's Anus. This guy drank a gallon of milk and puked while playing drums. I was 12, like: "Oh, wow!"
You seemed unusually savvy about how culture manipulates kids. How did you develop that awareness?
My mom was obsessed with rom-coms. Watching a movie, I could sense it was preying on me, especially once I started puberty. It's really easy to pick out the emotional manipulation of films when everything that happens to the characters would never happen to you. So I got into John Waters, David Lynch. Going from watching Mulholland Drive to The Notebook, it's pretty obvious which one is surrealist and weird and which is just emotionally manipulative. Maybe Lynch manipulates emotions, too. I think you have to as a director. But I got fed up with the narrative.
How connected do you feel to your teenage self?
It's almost like I knew exactly what I wanted to do really young. Stuff has changed—you accumulate your experiences and your relationships, you learn how the world works. But at my core, I'm still that girl who's obsessed with music and art, and transmitting a message through innovative means.
And yet Weyes Blood has changed a lot over its 15-year existence. Now that people know this version of it, do you feel beholden to it?
Sometimes I feel beholden, because there is such a weird sense of scarcity. It's easy to feel imposter syndrome: there's so many people playing music right now. How in the world could anybody be listening to mine? But I try to put the artistry first and not let insecurity influence my songwriting. I haven't really tried to write for my audience, but I do try to write for humanity in general.
- Interview: Laura Snapes
- Photography: Sam Muller
- Styling: Rita Zebdi
- Hair and Makeup: Hayley Farrington
- Date: February 11, 2020