“A lot’s gonna change…” sang Natalie Mering – better known by her stage name, Weyes Blood – on ‘Titanic Rising’, the 2019 album that took her from the experimental underground to chamber pop critics’ darling. A lot certainly has changed since then, for Mering as much as anyone. Her upcoming album ‘And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow’ tackles these changes head-on: in Mering’s words, “where ‘Titanic’ was an observation of doom to come, ‘And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow’ is about being in the thick of it”.
The album evolves the themes that pervade ‘Titanic Rising’, combining intimate reflections on lockdown and love with broader observations on the human psyche, loneliness, and the shared experiences that bring us together. We caught up with Mering on the quietest day in London, exchanging thoughts on music and mutability in an empty hotel restaurant, as Elizabeth II’s funeral rolled onwards across two enormous screens above our heads.
So what have you been up to in the last few years?
I think the last few years have been like everyone else – just dealing with all the irrevocable changes, and feeling this hope that maybe we would all come out of the lockdown and be more communal and together IRL. But I think that people actually ended up leaning into their phones even more, so we’re all in that state right now of thinking: “Huh! We didn’t do what we said we were going to do!”
In your new album you talk explicitly about lockdown: “It’s been a long, strange year… I should have stayed with my family.” How did you spend lockdown?
In my apartment in LA. I was in denial about it, so I kept just trying to work through it: I’d say to myself, “Oh, in a month it’ll be okay,” and I didn’t realise how long it was going to be. If I’d known, I would have just left LA. There are cool things that happened because I stayed – I don’t have any regrets – but it probably would have been easier to stay with family.
Let’s talk about the new album. The lead single, ‘It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody’, speaks to this paradox of loneliness being the thing that brings us together. Do you think that you’ve found an answer to those questions of what brings us together and what separates us?
I think that technology – as much as it’s supposed to be more interconnected – does disconnect people more from each other. Our modern disillusionment has so many different facets to it – whether that’s uncertainty about the apocalypse or climate change, or the disintegration of social fabric, or class stratification being more dramatic than ever before – that the solution is to have a nuanced conversation. As opposed to saying “This is the solution!”, I think we need to talk about what’s going wrong.
People are still blissfully unaware of how carceral the system is, in terms of the fact that we’re all willingly participating in the disintegration of our world. It feels like we’re gridlocked: you need your phone, and email, and technology to function in society. In a lot of ways, it gives you so much abstract information about what’s happening in the world that it prevents people from having real, tangible action.
That’s true. You’ve talked about climate change and politics in the past as well – and these things are obviously interconnected. In this country, at least, it feels like everything’s going downhill at once. Do you think that musicians can play a serious role in trying to counter that?
I think we can provide a salve for how depressing it is. But I don’t know if musicians necessarily have the same political weight that they might have in the past. I feel like celebrities can only do what they can do: we’re past the point of there being some celebrity that whoops everybody into shape. If anything, it’s more about the billionaires: it’s about people who can make really big, fast moves, and I don’t know if musicians are those people. But that’s pretty pessimistic.
It’s hard not to be pessimistic.
But it’s good to be realistic. We definitely have that myth of music having this huge, overarching sway over the culture, but I think that’s a 1960s thing. Most of the biggest pop stars in the world are environmentalists trying to do the best they can – it’s just a matter of that collective energy getting blocked at the highest level.
It’s interesting to think about that difference from musicians in the 60s. Your music invites a lot of comparisons to older musicians: you’ve talked about how you’re influenced by Nat King Cole, and Karen Carpenter gets brought up a lot. What about new musicians? Who’s new that you’re excited about?
I’ll be honest with you. I don’t listen to new music – I’ll just admit it. I try, though, and when I hear something I like I’ll remember it. I really like Spellling. But in the last few months I’ve been listening to a lot of classical music. Schumann. Olivier Messaien. There’s this French guy I really like – Gabriel Fauré.
You described ‘It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody’ as a “Buddhist anthem”. You grew up in quite a religious Christian household – what’s your relationship with that side of life now?
I feel like I have a patchwork cosmology of things from different religions that I find useful. I’m a big fan of Joseph Campbell: he was a scholar who studied myths from different cultures, and the relationships with all the archetypes in these religions. And I just feel like Buddhism is so elemental – it’s a really great place to start in terms of understanding how to cope with tragedy and dystopian reality. I think Christianity has the salvation and the grace and the redemption, and those themes have their own sadness to them. But Buddhism is very neutral, which I think helps in a time like this – to be able to experience neutrality. It can be so emotional to have everything change so fast.
Is that something that you find difficult – that change?
It’s really a perspective thing. Somebody could say: “I don’t think anything is changing at all.” And you could see that with culture: if you look at the 00s versus now, they’re not that different. So one is true, but the other is true too: we’ve stagnated in a lot of ways, culturally, but things are also changing faster than we can totally keep up with.
And that comes back to the togetherness/apartness thing: all of these things can exist within the same space, even if they seem mutually contradictory.
I feel like we’ve become more chlorinated as a culture. It’s like nothing can die. The estate of Led Zeppelin is going to keep on making money for all of eternity. Fleetwood Mac is still the biggest band. Everything is so stuck, because capitalism has benefited so much from not being risky. Neoliberalism says, “Let’s not take any big risks, and just make money on what we’re going to make money on,” which is nostalgia, because everybody’s nostalgic because things have changed so fast. That’s the safe bet.
And because nothing has died, nothing can truly live. When I was coming up, we would make albums out of the junk of the thrift store – use karaoke machines, and so on. There was something of a birth out of that death. But once this phone you’re recording our conversation on dies, it’s dead. You can’t reappropriate it. You can’t spin it. So it just creates more death. It’s a culture of death!
Do you think that reappropriation, thrift-store approach still informs how you make music?
Oh yeah – it’ll always be my origin story! But things are different: I don’t think kids have the same experience from old stuff. There’s a lot of artistic freedom in recycling old stuff. Nowadays, I think that with computers and technology it’s not quite the same.
You’ve said that the new album is part two of a trilogy. Was that your intention when you started making ‘Titanic Rising’?
No – it was when I started making this album [‘And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow’]. I just felt like ‘Titanic Rising’ was sounding the alarm about things to come, but living in this liminal space where it’s not here yet. And this record, it’s here, and the next record will hopefully be about what comes next.
Have you got plans for what that will look like?
I know what it’s going to be called. And I have some songs that I’ve been working on. It’s slowly starting – but I’ve got to tour this one before I can record it.
How soon after finishing this album did you start working on the new one?
Pretty much right away. I’m always writing music.
Do you have a lot of songs that you discard? Is that a difficult process?
Definitely. Most of them. But I feel like you know when you have a song that needs to be out there, and you know when you have a song that’s just for you. Sometimes if I’ve worked on a song for too long, I think: this is not going to be done ever. Or if a song comes really fast, it feels like lightning in a bottle.
You worked with Oneohtrix Point Never on this album. How did you find that?
Daniel and I are old friends from back in the day. We spent a lot of time together, because we come from the experimental noise scene. He jams on ‘God, Turn Me into a Flower’ – he plays synth on that.
It’s a really nice song. And I like the mythology behind it.
This book called The Culture of Narcissism actually clued me into the real meaning of the Narcissus myth. I was under the impression – like most people – that he was just obsessed with himself, but the real crux of the story is that he didn’t recognise himself in the reflection. Which I think is very symbolic for the way our culture’s played out, where we’re obsessed with this frontier, with getting somewhere as we get further and further from ourselves. What we’re striving for might just be internal.
You’ve got a busy schedule now – there’s lots of people who want to talk to you. Your last album was your fourth album – how have you found the change now that album was so talked-about and so successful?
The lockdown started right as that was happening. When I played Primavera, though, I had an idea that it must have done really well – because a lot of people came out for that. But I still haven’t experienced the touring from that or the victory lap, because everything got shut down.
Is it weird having that delayed response to the album?
It’s definitely strange. But it’s probably good for me – it keeps me humble, to just not know. It’s better that I don’t know.
Are you nervous about going out on tour now?
No, I think it’ll be really rewarding to finally get to tour. And with the shows that I have played since the pandemic, I noticed that the screams got more bloodcurdling – the crowd was younger. And that was a new experience, hearing “Eeeeeeee!!” – these crazy, loud child’s screams. So that’ll be fun!
‘And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow’ will be released on November 18th.
Words: Tom Kingsley
Photography: Rachel Lipsitz