weyes blood is searching for meaning in the chaos of modern life
On her new album 'Titanic Rising' she reclaims the famous disaster as a metaphor for environmental destruction.
Photography Brett Stanley
That Natalie Mering chose to name herself Weyes Blood after the tale of a Christian fundamentalist war veteran turned nihilist zealot in the American South who burns his own eyes out with lye (a strong alkali used to dissolve dead bodies) and wraps his bare skin in barbed wire is, perhaps, key to understanding the postmodern melodrama of her music. “I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders,” she says when we meet on the final day of her week-long European press tour. Dressed casually in jeans and a cosy jumper, she sits across from me on a tasteful grey sofa in a smart London hotel room. Behind her, a floor-to-ceiling window frames the dark sky and wet rooftops of Shoreditch on a rainy February afternoon.
On her brilliant new record, Titanic Rising (out 5 April on Sub Pop), Mering channels a full bandwidth of modern existential anxiety. From climate change and overpopulation, to gender inequality, tech burnout, opiate addiction, and the chaos of modern dating — “This macro-social backdrop of impending doom,” as she puts it. The songs are as personal as anything she’s ever made, especially about her own romantic life, but she was also trying to write for everybody at this strange moment in human history. “It’s constantly in the back of my mind when I'm writing,” she says. “I just feel what other people are feeling. I can feel the pain of the world.”
Despite such a heavy burden, the album is far from gloomy. Mering has a mercurial talent for imbuing even her most sincere lyrics with a sense of cosmic comedy. Consider the video for recent single, Everyday — a song ostensibly about loneliness and the pains of love. Directed by Mering herself, the film depicts a group of friends staying at a ski chalet. They drink and dance and smoke, and begin to peel off in couples to more secluded rooms. But the party transforms into a gory horror show as they are each murdered in bloody, increasingly cartoonish ways. All while the peppy, almost Slade-like, chorus plays, and lyrics flash up on the screen like a campy singalong track.
Mering learned to play piano and guitar, and began to write songs, when she was still a little kid. She sings me the first one she wrote, aged four, and it’s a lovelorn tale that shares real continuity with her later songwriting. There was always music in her house: her mum played Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder and Jeff Buckley, her dad’s favourite band was XTC, and her brothers were into Dr Dre and a band called Wayne. The soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adaptation of Romeo + Juliet — featuring Garbage, The Cardigans, Butthole Surfers and Radiohead — “was, like, a big deal,” she says. But Nirvana was the revolution. The gateway drug.
“I got into more underground, experimental music around the time that popular music was starting to get really bad,” Mering says. “It started with Spice Girls and Hanson. I was like, what is this shit all about? It's so safe and not interesting to me at all,” she says. Not only were they “so polished, so squeaky clean”, their careers seemed to be less about “emotions and expression” and the art of making music, and “more about hitting your mark,” she says, “like a competitive sport.” Her family’s move to Pennsylvania in the late 90s couldn’t have come at a better time. Aged 10, Mering found what she was looking for via local college radio.
After grunge, Mering was convinced that the strange sounds of the Philadelphia noise scene would become the next big thing. “No song, just noise. I thought it would become mainstream eventually,” she says, sounding disappointed still. But this was the early 00s, “the Golden Age of the Internet,” as Mering puts it, and enough people were getting into weird new music that small DIY scenes could thrive. “I knew people who made a living selling tapes on eBay,” she says. “It was all about alternative spaces and a revolutionary way of existing. We made our own CDRs and cassettes, our own merch. It was it was like a philosophy, like a revolution. It was like, ‘Fuck you, The Man!’”
Naming herself Wise Blood (after Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 novel, in which heathen preacher Hazel Motes burns his eyes out to achieve salvation), Mering took the train into Philly to play her first shows, to art students at house parties, backed by two saw players and a tape deck. “I played at the Cake Shop in New York once, but got kicked out when they realised I was underage,” she says. “It was pretty humiliating.” Mering’s start in the noise scene (as bass player for the experimental group Jackie O-Motherfucker, and as the more medieval-sounding Weyes Bluhd) seems jarring when you consider her more recent reputation as a “millennial Joni Mitchell”. The comparison isn’t entirely wrong, but it’s hard to think of any other mini-Joni who shares as much in common with drone violinist Axolotl and bedroom-pop pioneer Ariel Pink (Mering’s collaborator on the brilliant 2017 EP Myths 002).
Weyes Blood songs often sound as though they were made in another time, but she is legitimately frustrated when people lazily describe her work as ‘retro’ or ‘vintage’. Influenced by everything from medieval chamber music and Phil Spector-produced 60s girl groups, to 70s psychedelic rock and protest folk, and the late-90s, early-00s 4-track outsider pop of Pink and John Maus, her music resists categorisation. She finds a lot of modern music “pedestrian and shoe-gazey” (“It doesn't, like, rock my boat emotionally,” she says), and describes her work as being more influenced by jazz and classical. And by ‘older music’ she doesn’t just mean early 20th century.
Mering talks about the stylistic shift precipitated by Johann Sebastian Bach in a way that others might describe Dylan going electric. Except, of course, she’s a folk singer, so she actually prefers the stuff that came before. “A lot of music before Bach came on the scene has its own special sound,” she says, “Bach got into temper tuning, which is where you hop from key to key, but before that it was all modal, like one key, and perfect fifths. I love early music because of how droney it is; it's very similar to experimental noise music in some ways,” she says. “There’s a weird continuation, and the most modern music I can possibly think of, is actually ancient music – people sitting in a circle with didgeridoos.”
The concept of ancient and ancestral wisdom fascinates Mering, and she has come to see the made-up word ‘Weyes’ (paired with Blood) as evoking menstrual blood, and a mystic feminine power. “It’s the concept of blood being this generative thing that never fully dies; it's passed on from mother to child. I have the blood of my ancestors, going back thousands of years, and the idea of wisdom or memories inside the blood, I found it to be very poetic,” she says. Having lived in her “feminine body for 30 years”, Mering says she becomes more fiercely feminist all the time.
On the emotional first track of Titanic Rising, Mering speaks to herself as a little girl. Titled A Lot’s Going To Change, the song addresses her naivety, and warns of the patriarchy and pain yet to come. It was like the whole world was gently wrapped around me,” she says. “I went in to the world like, 'Yeah, men and women are equal. I'm just going to be one of the boys and nobody's going to give me shit’, you know?” When the world failed to live up to these ideals, it was a major blow. “Beaten down by the world,” is how she puts it. The song wasn’t written as a response to the Me Too movement, but it speaks to the same issues – and at a time when the music industry abusers are finally facing consequences for their actions.
In fact, Mering had a strange reaction to the Me Too accusations. When women first started speaking out, rather than applaud them, Mering felt weirdly affronted: her whole career she’d faced abuse from men, and had been taken advantage of — including by some of the men being named. She’d swallowed her feelings “to keep the peace, to not make a scene”. “Music is such a male-dominated industry,” she says. “You have to be such a ‘good sport’; so when women were coming out and saying, 'That guy pushed me up against a wall' or like, 'He smacked my ass’, I was actually really angry. Like, 'Hey! You can't do that! I shut up about it!'.” Mering puts this strange, knee-jerk response down to the unraveling of her own trauma.
I wonder how that has affected her relationships. She certainly writes a lot of lovelorn music. Though Mering says she’s “an open book” on the topic, she doesn’t seem to want to talk about it. The romantic lyrics on Titanic Rising are already pretty specific, she thinks, and anyway, she prizes the sense of mystery: “I like when people come up with their own interpretations,” she says. She does, however, have some thoughts on the machinations of modern dating. “I can't use dating apps,” she sighs. “I'm too intense for that shit. I'm so picky, and even if there is a guy who’s actually cute, if he doesn’t message me back soon enough, I'm like, 'Heartbreaker! I can't text with him!’,” she says. “My friends who do it, they do it like it's a job. It's like they're harvesting souls.”
In naming the record Titanic Rising, Mering reclaims the famous disaster as a metaphor for environmental destruction, and our essential powerlessness against the forces of nature (our own base desires included). “The most iconic tragedy of the 20th century, was basically, like, our error in assuming that technology had conquered nature,” she says. It’s ‘rising’ from the depths “like a phoenix from the ashes — to teach us a lesson.” It’s existential art for an age that feels increasingly like the end of the world; the last 12 years before climate catastrophe and inevitable human extinction.
To deal with some of her more personal anguish, Mering has embraced the physical and emotional trials of touring. In the three years since her breakout 2016 album, Front Row Seat To Earth (and determined not to cave to pressure and spew out ‘Front Row Seat.. Part 2’), she has learned to absorb the passion of her fans. “When you're at home, trying to write a song, and nobody hears it, it’s like, ‘I don't know what I'm doing! Is this even good?’,” she says. “But on tour, I'm getting a nightly dose of, 'You should keep going!', and there's a wonderful sense of purpose. It makes me feel like I'm doing what I should be doing.” She may have been beaten down, but Natalie Mering picked herself up, and is about to release her best album yet — on the label that signed Nirvana, no less. Wise Blood knows exactly what she’s doing, and the only way is up.
Weyes Blood's Titanic Rising is out 5 April on Sub Pop