“Expressing things through song is a great way to get to people who want a more poetic version of what’s going on versus just reading the news, which will kill your soul. Sometimes it’s good to have a little bit of a poetic spin on the whole thing, and then you feel more empowered to do something about it.”
Natalie Mering’s Nautical Canon:
The Little Mermaid (1989)
Certain records have the ability to tap into the collective psyche like an emotional divining rod. Titanic Rising, the fourth album from Natalie Mering’s project Weyes Blood, surges with big sounds and big feelings—symphonic strings and synths swell beneath sentimental melodies, in a return to the golden age of songwriting. It also brings to mind another set of golden records—the twin phonographs that were sent into space aboard NASA’s two Voyager spacecrafts under the guidance of Carl Sagan, an intergalactic time capsule designed to represent life on earth to anyone or anything out there that might encounter it. Like Sagan’s sonic “bottle” that was launched into the “cosmic ‘ocean’” in 1977, Titanic Rising captures something of what it feels like to be alive on earth in the present, and its mission is also one of hope.
While Mering’s previous album, Front Row Seat To Earth, was also interested in apocalypse and articulated the anxiety of the present moment (“Now what a great future this is gonna be,” she sang on the track “Generation Why,” and it sounded like an elegy), her latest offering is an earnest desire to make peace with change and find an anchor of meaning amongst the rising tides. If the world is a sinking ship, Natalie Mering is going down singing.
Born in California and raised as the daughter of musician parents who were also deeply religious, Mering has been writing, recording and performing under different variations of the name Weyes Blood since the age of fifteen. In conversation, as in her body of work, she is not afraid to get deep about the age we live in—how the shifts in technology and the constant threat of ecological collapse have changed the way we love, and what we believe in. We met in person ahead of her show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg and spoke about 90s childhood nostalgia, millennial burn out, and why modern dating has the energy of a slasher movie. In other words, we were talking about our generation.
I. Dream Geographies
THE BELIEVER: The new record is called Titanic Rising. I wanted to start by asking you to talk a little about your connection to water and the ocean.
NATALIE MERING: I grew up by the ocean. I would go there as a young kid and, for me, it was soothing to jump in that water and get beat up by the waves, which are very much like the patterns of life. I feel very nautical at heart. I think there is a lot of symbolism that I draw from it. The ocean is this matriarchal, violent, misunderstood force—and it also represents the subconscious, this realm that we can’t quite access but is such a key component of who we are as a species.
BLVR: I wondered if there was a connection to the subconscious, actually, in the recurring imagery of oceans and space that come up across your body of work.
NM: Those two, to me, seem like the most subconscious places. Outer space being like, the deeper, more fractal mathematic version of that, and the ocean being the more emotional version.
BLVR: They’re the two great unknowns. We don’t really know what’s out there.
NM: We don’t really know, but we know that they’re a part of us. We came from the stars, we came from the ocean at some point.
BLVR: Do you think that’s the place your music comes from? The subconscious mind?
NM: I draw a lot of inspiration from that, but I can’t dig in there and find out what’s going on. It just bubbles up. It’s really a luck thing. When I write a great song, it’s like a gift. Something in me widens and I become a vehicle for that—something beyond myself.
I have a lot of really bizarre dreams and they usually put me in my place about how I’m doing emotionally. There was a time when my dreams were so much better than my life, so I would sleep more. I had a dream world, basically, where every city in America had a parallel, with a whole cast of characters and places and houses and things that didn’t exist in real life. My dream world was oppressively developed.
BLVR: Why do you think that was?
NM: I just had something chemically going on. It’s probably why I like writing music. It all draws into this imaginative headspace that I’ve occupied since I was a kid. These days my dreams have become a little less decipherable than they were at that one time. It was almost like a strange consciousness peak in my life, but I do think I’m already developing new dream geographies and they’re just in their rudimentary stages.
II. It’s a Wild Time To Be Alive
BLVR: Going back your new album Titanic Rising, in what ways is this record a response to change on a political, environmental or personal level?
NM: We experience these paradigm shifts—whether it be through the technology or through what’s going on in our society—on a macro level, but we also experience them on a micro, personal level, and I’m always balancing those two things when I’m writing a song. I’m writing about something very personal, but it is affected by these big, cosmic, colossal changes. The only song that is explicitly about climate change on the album is “Wild Time”. It’s about overpopulation, and that’s very macro. All the other ones are a bit more personal, but sharing the theme from one small person’s perspective.
BLVR: When did you become interested in the Titanic as a metaphor?
NM: When I was a child I noticed the tragedy of the event. I was really fascinated by it. Our lack of dominion over nature, the hubris of man, and the hubris of industrialization, was so perfectly encapsulated in that event. For me it was like a very poignant, meaningful fable-slash true-reality thing that we could learn from with the kind of problems that we’re dealing with now. As opposed to a ship crashing into an iceberg, sinking and completely screwing over the third class, we’re now melting the icebergs, sinking civilization, and once again, completely screwing over the third world. We made this huge blockbuster movie about it and the message still couldn’t drill home.
BLVR: There is an undercurrent of anxiety to the theme of change and transition in Titanic Rising, but I read that you also wanted the songs to give people a sense of hope. Why did that message feel important right now?
NM: I think in general millennials are kind of burned out. We were positioned and set up to believe that the world was going to be a certain way and then it completely shifted. We haven’t fully caught up to how our attention spans, our needs, biological things, have changed. The amount of expenses that we’ve accumulated in our technological society has made it increasingly difficult for anybody to lead a life of quality. Not just comfort, I mean peace of mind.
BLVR: How do you balance that as an artist when there is such a demand for accessibility or being present online?
NM: It’s very easy for me to go off the deep end by accident because I’m so obsessed with my work. Waiting for my album to come out was really hard, and now that it’s out I can play shows and have something to do and a reason to get out of bed. It’s way more purposeful. I think that’s what most people want—a purpose.
BLVR: Do you think of your music as a political vehicle?
NM: Yeah, I hope so. I mean, it is within a little bit of an echo chamber and I don’t have the biggest reach. But I find that expressing things through song is a great way to get to people who want a more poetic version of what’s going on versus just reading the news, which will kill your soul. Sometimes it’s good to have a little bit of a poetic spin on the whole thing, and then you feel more empowered to do something about it or you feel more at peace about it. Like, at least there’s a good song about it.
BLVR: We still need poetry.
NM: Always. The people who lack hope and who claim to be realists, I don’t think they realize how malleable reality is. You manifest a reality based on your outlook, and people can manifest with belief and with hope and with, to a certain extent faith—not in the religious sense—but in the sense that I believe that we’re going to get somewhere with this. Some people get bogged down based on how modern our world is—that, “Oh, this is just how it is,”— but this is still some medieval shit in a lot of ways and we can continue to revolutionize. There’s some colossally bad changes and some good changes and you have to ride it like the ocean, like waves.
BLVR: Speaking of change, Titanic Rising opens with the song “A Lot’s Going to Change” and I read that this was the first one you wrote for the album. In what ways did that set the tone for the record?
NM: I was trying to reconcile with the oppressive amount of fetishization I have for the past. I am a very nostalgic person. I miss so much. I miss going to the video store and renting a video. I miss calling a friend on the landline. I miss when people couldn’t break a plan because they had no way to get in touch with you, so they couldn’t leave you hanging and just send you a bullshit text. I know there’s been a lot of Luddites and nostalgic people throughout time that have looked bad, but I think in my case, the world changed so much from being a little girl to now—because we kind of remember pre-internet, pre-cell phone. It’s a big shift. And a lot changed with my expectations as a woman believing, “Oh yeah, feminism happened. We’re liberated, this is great!”
There were so many learning curves for me that I had to write a song about it as if I was talking to myself as a little girl, because that little girl was hurt. I wanted to tell her, “Hey, it’s going to be okay. A lot changed, a lot’s going to change, and that’s just the way it is.”
BLVR: Do you think there’s a reason you’re looking back your childhood and wanting to return to that time at this particular moment?
NM: I’m at that point where it’s like, Should I be settling down? Should I be having a long-term monogamous relationship? Should I have a five-year plan? Should I be having the best time of my life? Should I have a core-sense of morality? Should I be A Woman, at this point. I’m finding that I’m still completely scattered, and miles away from any kind of stable, personal headspace, so inevitably I feel nostalgic for what I thought life was going to be like, because I was preparing for it to be one way and then it became something totally different.
There’s a part of me that finds myself disillusioned with people my age. I hung out with older people most of my life, which was a bit of a mistake maybe—only in that I feel like a Gen Xer. I get around with people twelve-plus years older than me, and immediately feel at peace and feel like myself.
Around people my own age, I’m nervous, and I don’t know if we speak the same language. I can’t really relate to the unabashed obsession with popular music at the expense of interesting music. I find that a lot of interesting music is kind of drowning in a sea of obscurity because people are keen on keeping everything as basic as possible—which has its benefits, obviously. There is something fun about millennials lack of hatred, in that we’re all “Everything’s great! Put Britney Spears on!” Yeah, that’s fun, but when your soul is hungry for some depth, it’s not that fun. You kind of want something a little bit more to chew on in an intellectual, spiritual sense.
I think my nostalgia really came from feeling that we were in a spiritual wasteland, where everybody has to make a fucking advertisement about themselves to get a date. You can’t just meet somebody and have it all naturally work out. I find that it drains me—and that could be my fuddy-duddy, still hanging on to the past thing, but I don’t see anyone truly thriving in that space.
BLVR: What were you like as a child?
NM: I was the happiest kid in the world. I mean, I was very dramatic and I’d get really emotional, so I went through phases of having a lot of trouble at school. I was in detention a lot. There was a calendar in the principal’s office and if I could be good a certain number of days, I would get McDonald’s. I never got McDonald’s. I was never good enough in a row. I had some kind of strange anti-authority thing that I think might have stemmed from something in my past life—if past lives exist—because I had no reason to be as troubled as I was. I was picked on a lot for being so extra.
BLVR: Extra in what way?
NM: Extra emotional, extra funny, extra weird. Just out there, super hyper, so much energy. ADD to a T, but my parents didn’t believe in putting me on speed—thankfully. So, I was just unhinged.
I also think that I was way more in touch with my femininity as a little girl, because I hadn’t yet had to hide it. Something happens to a woman when you go through puberty and you’re kind of navigating your space—especially as a musician—where, at a certain point, I had to try to dampen my femininity to be taken seriously.
I felt more like a woman as a child than I do now because I am so used to having to be the boss, and having to prove to that I am capable, that I should be the one who’s deferred to and not somebody who’s just submissive. Those dynamics in the music industry are very subtle, but it’s really noticeable. As a teenager I cut all my hair off and started dressing like a man because I wanted to be accepted as a peer, as a friend in music—and not as a potential girlfriend, or a one-night stand, or a groupie.
BLVR: Do you think of the music you make now as having a feminine energy?
NM: Yeah, and I’m getting more comfortable expressing my femininity. I do think that’s kind of my own personal struggle. I know plenty of women who are taken seriously and are boss ladies, but they don’t erase the feminine spot. That was maybe a mistake that I made based on not knowing it was possible. So, I’m working on that.
BLVR: I’m interested in whether you think there has been a resistance to that kind of extra feminine or extra emotional energy in music, historically. I often think about the rumor that when Kris Kristofferson first heard Joni Mitchell’s Blue, he was like, “Ugh. Joni, keep something to yourself.”
NM: I think Joni made the first emo record, you know? Nobody had been that vulnerable, and I think with men they were definitely like, “Fuck. That’s embarrassing.” People were embarrassed for her, they didn’t realize she was just doing something incredibly intimate. But time will tell. That record stands apart from all those records from that time because it’s that personal. A lot of people were like “Oh, this is too vulnerable,” but she was just doing the right thing.
BLVR: Is that something you’ve had to deal with in response to your own music?
NM: In the past. Now I think women are running the show. No question!
BLVR: It seems to me that in recent times the mode, particularly in indie music, has been irony. I wonder if you think we’re coming back around to a place of sincerity and emotion?
NM: Oh, one-thousand percent. I think women helped that single-handedly. They just came out said some really vulnerable stuff that most people would get flack for, but nowadays the kids are like, “That’s what I want to hear because I’m hurting. I don’t want to hear some ironic bullshit.” [Laughs.]
III. True Love Is Making a Comeback
BLVR: The first two singles off the new record were “Andromeda” and “Everyday”. Can you talk about the different way these two songs are grappling with the idea of “true love”?
NM: True love in “Andromeda” is kind of like this abstract thing to a woman who has accumulated a lot of negative experiences, and maybe not had a lot of support otherwise—which is kind of like me, navigating in a predominately male world for most of my twenties, without a lot of escape routes and not a lot of powerful female friends to be like “Hey, that’s not right.”
There are a lot of wounds that a woman accumulates—especially maybe somebody like me, who was raised Christian by a father who married my mom when she had a kid and was like, the Knight in Shining Armor, and took great care of our family, and was very much a man of love and integrity. He made me feel very safe, so I wasn’t really prepared for the reality of the world, and men. I was taken advantage of, and manipulated, and had to walk around with some baggage.
That’s really hard to bring into a relationship—that is a total relationship killer. It’s a lot to ask somebody, of a man especially, to be like, can you please draw me out of my hardened shell and make me soft again? “Andromeda” is a bit like that. The Greek myth is that she’s tied to a rock and she’s going to get ravaged by this sea monster and this guy has to come save her. There’s this hope to be saved, and it’s just a little too much to ask of people. Especially of men now, who I think are experiencing their own masculinity crisis, so everybody’s kind of swimming around in a different kind of scenario. Ultimately, at the end of the song, it’s like, you eventually just have to believe it’s real to make it real. It’s a lot to ask of the universe for something to just show up and blow your mind. It’s almost like you just have to build it a bedroom, and put out some milk and cookies every night, and it might come out.
BLVR: Like, some kind of altar?
NM: Totally. It really is like an intention thing. If you’re bitter and holding wounds and harboring angst and pain, you’re just going to trap more of that.
BLVR: “Andromeda” feels more like a classic love song in its message of longing, but “Everyday” seems to have a different energy and point of view.
NM: “Everyday” is more carnal. It’s like the slasher films of the 1970s where people are dying like da-dada-da *gestures over and over* and it doesn’t even matter anymore. I feel in a lot of ways that’s how sex is for people. Not so much with me—I don’t do Tinder or anything like that—but the people I’m surrounded by, it’s a bit like “Oh my god, I love this person”—CUT! And then next week, “Fuck that person.” All these people living in this state of confusion about what love is.
BLVR: I did want to ask you, what’s the connection between slasher movies and love songs, or modern relationships? In the film clip for “Everyday,” as people start coupling up they get killed off, like in a kitschy horror movie.
NM: In a slasher film, you’re not like “Oh, that person died”, you’re like, “There goes another one!” It’s kind of the same with romantic love. Death and love are both these serious, big picture, incredibly meaningful things, but as soon as you diminish them, people are not really feeling it as much, or they’re just having a super sped-up, heightened kind of cycle of it.
BLVR: Do you think of your songs as love songs?
NM: Some of them. I don’t know if there’s a real proper love song on the album. “Picture Me Better” is close because it’s about my friend that died, but it’s not about romantic love. “Everyday” is kind of a love song. It’s a modern love song in that it doesn’t involve a person. It’s just like, some ideas that movies gave you about what it should be like.
BLVR: Yeah, that’s an interesting idea—can a song that is about that disenchantment with love still be a love song.
NM: I can’t wait to write a song about somebody. It’s been a long time. It’s frustrating for me, being this whole, “I’m a true love, monogamous person,” but I’m also not. I’m probably clouded in my mind about what love is, and I’m married to my independence. I’m truly in love with my lack of attachment. For me, pursuing love—I don’t know to explain it. It’s almost like, needing an intimacy, needing a sense of love, but knowing that no one person is ever going to fulfill that blown out ideal that you’ve positioned yourself to believe in. Movie love. But I do think that there’s things that you can do if you want the movie love. Building the bedroom, making the milk and cookies or whatever. You can manifest it. But I think I want to play show and go on tour more. So, that’s what I’m doing. [Laughs.]
IV. Doing Fake Judy
BLVR: Musically, Titanic Rising recalls the pop music that was coming out of California in the 1960s and 1970s—artists like The Carpenters, Genre Clarke, Judee Sill. What have you drawn from that era of songwriting and why do you think the music from that time still resonates with people all these years later?
NM: I think because the music that was being made in the 60s and 70s was directly influenced by classical, early jazz, folk music. All these more ancient, more established forms of music were finding their ways into a new format for the radio. And I think that people in the 70s particularly had a grab-bag of really interesting stuff to draw from and I use that same grab-bag. I really love Procul Harum, and they’re grabbing from Bach and doing weird stuff in their music that reflects that, Harry Nilsson is kind of like another vaudevillian type, and The Carpenters were basically symphonic, Frank Sinatra-esque songwriting put into a more chill 70s perspective.
So, to me, it’s all drawing from some of the greatest eras of music. Back in the days of Gershwin or Nat King Cole, popular songwriting was like Beethoven—it was classical, arranged, extremely well-written, extremely dramatic, and that’s why those songs became standards. So, if that is the golden standard for music and songwriting, then we’re all just kind of taking from that. I never try to emulate the 70s specifically, but I think I’m drawing from similar things that they were drawing from. And occasionally like, with the case of Harry Nilsson, I am just trying to be him a little bit.
BLVR: I did actually think of Frank Sinatra when I first heard this record.
NM: Thank you!
BLVR: Have you heard that record Watertown?
NM: No, I haven’t but I should because water is really my thing! I also like The Beach Boys for that. They sing about water a lot, and ocean stuff.
BLVR: And they have that eerie quality.
NM: Yeah, eerie California bros.
BLVR: You also incorporate a kind of choral vocal layering into your songs, like The Beach Boys did, and have an incredible range and timbre. How did you figure out how to use your voice?
NM: It took a long time. When I was a kid, I knew I had something going on. My mom would make me sing to Judy Garland, so I was like *warbles*. You know, kind of doing fake Judy, and then I was really involved in choirs. My voice was good, but nobody ever gave me a big pat on the head, which I think is cool because I just kept growing and getting better. And my voice, to this day, continues to grow and get better. It’s really just a matter of exercising your vocal muscles and singing and honing in on your style.
BLVR: Who inspired you to start experimenting with your voice?
Nico was a big inspiration when I was younger because I always had such a low voice and I was like, “Here’s a woman with a ridiculously low voice who is not always on pitch—like me—and she’s just ripping it.” I really appreciated that. I never related to Joni Mitchell’s voice because she has a soprano voice. I always gravitated towards lower singers, and I never tried to emulate black singers because I thought, as a white person, that was really lame, to borrow some kind of gospel affectation for no reason.
As I got better with my tone, I realized that Harry Nilsson was my spirit animal in terms of phrasing and just being soulful. He definitely goes off the deep end a couple of times in terms of like appropriating black culture in a bad way, and I don’t try to emulate that aspect of Nilsson. But I do think he manages to be soulful and himself. And that was always my goal: bring the soul, but don’t try to copy what somebody else has done.
BLVR: What’s your first memory of music?
NM: Oh man… Nirvana? Kurt Cobain dying? Definitely listening to that stuff on the radio. Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, XTC, The Beatles. Just the greats, the canon of popular tunes. But the Beatles were big, for sure.
BLVR: Were you drawn to a particular Beatle?
NM: I think I had a big crush on Paul, but my favorite songs were by George, and then later in life I realized that John is my God, or whatever, because I also love Yoko Ono and she continues to be a great inspiration for me. I love them all, but now John’s my favorite. So, it started Paul, then George, and then John.
BLVR: Never Ringo?
NM: I always thought Ringo was cute and he has a great voice, but he’s just a different kind of guy. He’s not the songwriter that those other guys are. My mom liked Ringo. She thought he was the cutest.
BLVR: Did growing up in a musical family influence your own path?
NM: Definitely. It was encouraged—but not perusing a career in music. My parents were like, “You need to get a real job, don’t do that.”
BLVR: How do they feel about it now?
NM: Now they’re like, “Oh, interesting, we didn’t know there was an audience for this kind of thing!” And I was like, yes, there is.