The world is hard enough already. With her song ‘It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody’, Weyes Blood makes a warm case for more compassion and attention for others. Rising from a period of overwhelming developments, we have become strangers to each other, she sings. “People are hurting, it’s not just me.”
A tearjerker? Only if you also consider the complete works of Carole King and The Carpenters as tearjerkers. Weyes Blood’s new album And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow is of a timeless beauty.
Weyes Blood, stage name of Natalie Mering (34), sounds like Karen Carpenter’s artistic heir, soothing and yet so urgent. She grew up in California in a musical family. Father Sumner Mering released an album of pointy power pop in 1980, produced by legendary Phil Spector sidekick Jack Nitszche.
Natalie studied music for a year after high school at the University of Portland, Oregon. Her first band was called Satanized, far removed from the Pentecostal ideas she received in her youth. In 2008 she briefly played bass with the Portland noise group Jackie-O Motherfucker.
The heavy punk noise of the past seems difficult to reconcile with the melodic, carefully arranged music she makes now. But at the age of fifteen she recognized her life path in the novel Wise Blood from 1952 by Flannery O’Connor and wrote songs under the names Wise Blood and Weyes Bluhd and released them independently. In O’Connor’s book, a war veteran returns to his family home to find it abandoned, only to disown his pious background by founding an anti-religious cult. The “wise blood” in the book title refers to the idea that everyone should seek wisdom within himself and does not need spiritual guidance.
If Titanic Rising was the first, dystopian part of a trilogy, the hopeful third comes next.”
Noise was the future, thought Natalie Mering when she toured the world with Jackie-O Motherfucker at the age of twenty. “I believed in the power of experimental music and improvisation. The performances were great, but the music could not be sold as a desirable product for the radio or the record store. The public asked for more manageable music.”
As a soloist, Natalie Mering immersed herself in her love for the classic pop of the 1940s and 1950s, when the Tin Pan Alley song factory was still an important factor. “Through those influences I ended up with Harry Nilsson and Joni Mitchell, celebrities from the seventies who were also inspired by that older music. I only got to know The Carpenters when people pointed out the similarities between my voice and Karen Carpenter’s. What we have in common is that we both sing quite low. I absorbed all that music, including from the lesser-known singer Judee Sill.”
She’s an old soul, she thinks. “I like to sing, not to shout. In California I had learned about the surf culture and the music of the Beach Boys. I was a lifeguard for a while.
“Hollywood entered my life through old black-and-white films with stars like Judy Garland. The safe choice, my mother thought, because there were no nude scenes and swear words. The orchestral music from those films made a big impression; you can hear that in my music. To The Simpsons or a horror movie, I crawled out the window to watch TV at a friend’s house. That ‘forbidden’ horror gave me a lifelong obsession with the dark sides of life.”
Fear and loneliness
On her penultimate album Titanic Rising (2019) Natalie Mering predicted the doom of the world. On her new album, she finds herself in the middle of the doom-laden predictions she made back then. Fear and loneliness reign supreme in her lyrics. The pandemic, the lockdown and being unable to perform gave her time to think. “Many of the problems we face now, racism, the political malaise in the US and global warming, have a long history. The pandemic was an alarm bell. My lyrics became more realistic, as I felt the effects of the limitations we all had to live with. if Titanic Rising was the first, dystopian part of a trilogy, I am now marking time. The hopeful third part comes next.”
Prominent contributors to the new album include Jonathan Rado of Foxygen, brothers Michael and Brian D’Addario of The Lemon Twigs, and minimal producer Oneohtrix Point Never (Daniel Lopatin) with whom she wrote the song “God Turn Me Into A Flower.” With Lana Del Ray she sang the Joni Mitchell cover ‘For Free’ on Del Ray’s album Chemtrails Over The Country Club. “I have to cherish that collaboration. Everyone leads such a busy life that we rarely have time for that. It’s a lonely profession, pop musician. My ideal is to make music without ego. I channel the information that comes to me to distill beauty from it.”
She likes contrasts, says Mering. “Orchestral music with an electronic twist, or a beautiful melody that is disturbed by a thunderstorm. The trick is to make those seemingly irreconcilable forces point in the same direction. The recording studio is the laboratory, but the job isn’t done until I can play the songs live. The lockdown has been a terribly frustrating time. That the music couldn’t breathe kept gnawing at me. The real challenge, if there is an audience, will only come now.”
And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow appears November 18 at Sub Pop. Weyes Blood plays February 6 in Paradiso, Amsterdam. Inc: weyesblood.com