Back, when Natalie Mering was a teenager and Blockbuster still existed, she was in the store with her uncle choosing a DVD. “He was a really tough guy,” recalls the singer-songwriter. Mering was against renting anything apocalypse-themed; she had just seen it An uncomfortable truth and the last thing she wanted to see was a Michael Bay disaster movie. Her uncle teased her about this childish blindness to the changing world. Since then, Mering has faced her apocalyptic worries head-on, echoing the end of days in haunting, shimmering songs released under the Weyes Blood moniker. “I was like, ‘Damn, he’s right.'”
Mering, 34, is known for making music about a world that sounds like it came from another. Since her debut in 2011, she has written songs that oscillate between chamber pop, late ’60s folk, ’70s AM radio, offbeat rock and classical, with vocals more reminiscent of baroque opera than modern pop. The result, Everyone agrees, is ethereal – a descriptor that inevitably pops up in every review. But even in their early material, something lurks in the mist, more sinister than the gentle fingerpicking suggests. Titanic rises (2019) cleared the haze and revealed his center’s existential angst. On the album, she addressed a number of contemporary issues, namely the climate crisis. Their previous albums had built a world. Now Mering lit it and flooded it with water. (For the album cover, Mering submerged a replica of her childhood bedroom in a swimming pool. Teddy bear and all.) The record was critically acclaimed and put Mering on many lists of the best albums of the year. Collaborations with Perfume Genius and Lana Del Rey followed.
And in the dark hearts glow will be released this week. It’s their fifth record and the second in a trilogy of them Titanic rises was the first. If its forerunner was the siren, this is the dirge. “The alarm has been sounding in full swing for some time and there is no more disagreement; Everyone knows the climate is changing,” she tells me over a hot cup of English breakfast tea. In a few hours she will be on the Eurostar to Paris before heading back across the pond. Mering used to have fans who didn’t believe in climate change, an odd concept for a musician who cares so much. She assures me that those fans have now come to their senses. “The Christians, the conservatives, everyone knows it,” she says. “These last few ailments of pretending were short-lived.”
Mering’s speaking voice is quiet like her singing voice. She is pale and has straight brown hair that falls heavily on either side of her face. The tips of their ears stick out like tiny glaciers interrupting a stream. People often comment on her elven looks, but as easy as it is to picture Mering stepping off the pages of a Tolkien novel, you can also picture her standing on stage in a sweaty basement club, hair in her face and fake blood gushing from her chest. But more on that later.
Dealing with the reality of our climate crisis felt a bit like a breakup for Mering. “It’s heartbreaking to realize that what you expected for your future is clearly not going to happen. It’s like the jig is up.” At the time Mering wrote the record, she was indeed dealing with an actual breakup. She was also in lockdown like the rest of us. “I was alone and functioning in a more internal headspace.” The result is her most open music yet. “It’s hard to be so vulnerable; People may know that a song is about them. It’s embarrassing.” Mering knows it’s cooler these days to be shocking or ironic. “But I don’t want to be cool anymore,” she beams. Silky and heady, “Grapevine” is a break-up song, but in Mering’s hands it also becomes a brooding on earth.”California’s my body/ And your fire runnings over me,” her voice calls out, as if coming across the empty street for which the song is named.
If Mering sounds pessimistic, she doesn’t want that. In fact, she already knows that her trilogy will end on a hopeful note. Mering’s music has always had a consolation. Even as she sings about themes of collapse and technological malaise, her warm alto tone is soothing, like the feeling of someone running nails down your back. Their music, to borrow a therapy term, makes you feel like you’re being held. “If there’s a really bad situation, you should go limp, and I know that sounds weak, but it’s not. It’s really hard, and I don’t think it necessarily means giving up.” She paraphrases a quote from Adrian Lyne’s 1990 psychological horror Jacob’s ladder. “It’s like, ‘Hell is when you can’t let go of your life; Heaven is when you decide to let go.’ There is something very Buddhist about it.”
Mering was born in Santa Monica but moved around until her family settled in Pennsylvania when she was eleven. “There was a weird, funky, new wave vibe in my house.” Her parents were musicians and born-again Christians (Mering is no longer religious, but still has a “little indoor space” for spirituality). The stereo played a heavy rotation of Stevie Wonder, Tower of Power, Tupac, Dr. Dre and Joni Mitchell. Her father, Sumner Mering of the band Sumner, had dated Mitchell – and Anjelica Huston – in the ’70s. Mering sang in choirs and played the piano and guitar. At 13, she got a job in a record store and started looking for “weird” music. “I became a bit of a completist. I just wanted to know everything about everything.” Today, Mering has an encyclopedic knowledge of music and culture, which she uses in conversation with ease. It was around this time that she discovered the 1997 broadcast album work and non-work on eBay. “I bought this CD and the rest is history. As soon as I heard broadcast, I realized it’s okay to make wacky, weird, nostalgic music that’s totally relevant.” Radiohead sparked a similar awakening.
Mering has always been a happy outsider. “My high school was full of post-rock jocks who took a lot of Oxycontin.” Her interests and those of her peers seemed to exist in two separate circles of a Venn diagram. “I remember feeling so betrayed when I finally turned a teenager and popular music was Britney Spears and NSYNC. I was like, ‘Damn!’” She bangs her fist on the table theatrically. “I’ve always been very alternative. Sometimes that seemed cooler to me than others.” But eventually she found her audience in the city. “I would take the train to Philadelphia, where I met people who really made me realize I was cool.” She says it in a self-deprecating drawl that makes it sound like Kewl. In Philadelphia, she discovered the avant-garde noise music that boomed out of dank basement clubs. After briefly studying music in college, she dropped out and began taking part in this scene herself.
Leaving college was an easy decision. “I knew right away that it was going to be too expensive, and I didn’t want to have all that debt,” she explains. In hindsight, Mering thinks she probably could have held out a little longer. “I could have gone to college for four years and still been a kid, but at the time I thought I had to figure everything out before I was 22. If I had known I wouldn’t find out until I was 28 then I could have just ripped through a school and been a little bit more behaved,” She smiles.
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The years that played out in lieu of college were “wild.” She performed in the noise bands Satanized and Jackie-O Motherf***er and toured Europe with the latter. The performances were crazy. Mering mixed mashed bananas and fake blood in a plastic bag, which she ripped open on stage to make it look like her guts were about to explode from her chest. Other times she wore lime green breast implants, which she popped in front of the crowd. She remembers all of this with wistful nostalgia. “This is no longer possible with smartphones today. Nobody had to be hot back then; nobody had to be cool. They were just the nerdiest people having the time of their lives.”
Mering was living an artist’s life on the east coast at the time. She wrote her first album while living in a three-story warehouse that became a communal art and living space. There was no central heating, but there was a music studio and a sensory deprivation tank. “I was living on rice and beans and dumpster bread and I was young enough that it wasn’t a health issue.” Her parents were middle-class. There was no vacation home or fancy trips abroad, but her mother bought her organic strawberries and tea tree lotion. When she left home to make music, Mering was convinced she could make it. “I thought I could pay insanely low rent, work in a coffee shop, and sell my tapes.” After all, she’d seen her parents’ generation do it. “But in my time you couldn’t do that anymore. “The rent went up, so did the monthly expenses.
“Plus, I wasn’t very worthwhile,” she says. “You had to be kind of brilliant to get a decent job; you had to be pretty good looking to work in a coffee shop or have a really happy disposition to be a nanny.” Mering was fired from her nanny job because she only had one pair of shoes. “I really wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t have connections or family money to make that a worthy experience, so I lived in the underbelly of society for a while, and that has huge health and psychological implications, especially in a place like America.” She laughs a little at the thought of how her Gen X friends were once able to buy their homes by selling CDs, and raises her eyebrows as if to say, “Can you imagine that?”
That’s the biggest benefit of her recent success. And in the dark has received excellent early reviews and is playing in ever larger venues. “Now I can pay rent – and afford a dog!” Mering has a spitz named Luigi at home. But she doesn’t care that much about the rest. “I’m not saying it’s all bad, but most people I know have reached a level of success,” she explains. “Usually that goes hand in hand with a major existential crisis.”
And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow is out November 18th via Sub Pop
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/weyes-blood-interview-natalie-mering-b2225667.html Weyes Blood: “I wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t have the money or family connections”