Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Landscapes, lo-fi, and the uncanny.
The music made by Natalie Mering adds a sense of unease to the familiar. The Innocents, the second album from her project Weyes Blood, abounds with melodies that hearken back to folk-rock, if not to even earlier forms (sometimes by centuries—the way “Some Winters” unfolds is the definition of timeless). But she also keeps a foot in experimentation: Weyes Blood’s 2011 album The Outside Room featured six sprawling pieces that retained a melodic core but spliced in noisier elements. Her new album, The Innocents, was released by Mexican Summer in late 2014, and is an elaboration and expansion on those same approaches to song. This new record has a new directness and polish, and is even, occasionally, “rocking.”
Regardless of the context, Mering’s voice is a haunting one, channeling personal demons and summoning up landscapes familiar and foreign. Not long after watching Mering play a show with a four-piece band at the Brooklyn venue St. Vitus, I spoke to her about everything from Beat poets to jellyfish, East Coast suburbs to string arrangements. It was a wide-ranging chat, but given the depth and breadth of Mering’s music, that wasn’t at all surprising.
Tobias Carroll How did you first settle on the name Weyes Blood? I assume it’s from the Flannery O’Connor novel, Wise Blood?
Natalie Mering Yep. I haven’t read that book since I was fifteen. I literally just read it, picked the name, and then never thought about it again.
TC What does your taste in books sort of go towards these days?
NM Everything. I read books about sound engineering or books about alchemy. I just finished reading a bunch of Carl Jung books, psychology books. More esoteric stuff. And then the occasional straight basic handbook-style “This is how you do this.” And I always read poetry.
TC Who are your favorites?
NM Some of Philip Lamantia, and Dylan Thomas. Lamantia is king to me. My favorite. He’s kind of a beat poet.
TC When did you first get into sound engineering and recording? Was it working with your own recording, your own music?
NM Yeah. I recorded with a four track when I was thirteen or fourteen. It was my dad’s old four track and I just started experimenting with tape. Even before that, as a little kid I had a tape recorder with a record option and I would do radio shows and make sound effects and record onto tape. It was very exciting to be able to record anything, kind of like magic.
TC Do you have a preference in terms of what you work with now?
NM I still think that tape sounds better than digital. I’m still trying to conquer the digital realm. I just started in the last five years, and it doesn’t resonate with me; it doesn’t make as much sense. Computers have never been easy for me, which is really just a stubbornness because once you get down to it, you can do anything in the world with a computer. You can make it sound like a tape. I’ve gotten into compressors, tube compressors, that kind of recreate the feeling of four-track compression. Part of why tapes sound so good is because compression is tinny.
TC Definitely. I think of listening to stuff like early Sebadoh, where it just has this really unearthly quality to it, or the Mountain Goats stuff that was recorded on a boom box.
NM You can really feel it. Sounds beautiful.
TC Each of your two albums has a very distinct feeling to it. Do you think about the best way to record those songs after you’ve finished writing them, or is that in your mind throughout the process?
NM It’s both. Writing is usually separate because that happens so immediately. The songs just get written immediately, and production is just kind of a longer, more drawn-out ordeal. I think it is actually best to try do them both simultaneously because you kind of capture the initial excitement about it and when you record songs far after the fact they kind of take on their own, like they take on a new life and they can deviate maybe a little from the original energy. It’s good to try to keep the processes as close as possible together, which I actually haven’t really done much in the past. In the past it’s been long and drawn-out.
TC Over the course of how many years or months were the records recorded?
NM The last one took about two years and the one before that, about two years. There were like three years, like a year just figuring it out and two years just tracking and figuring it out. Sometimes scrapping the entire thing and starting from scratch. But that’s not ideal. I travel so much to so many places that that’s what ends up happening.
TC What sort of inspires the travel? Is it work-related? Is it music related?
NM Just finding new places to live that are affordable. New energies, new people.
TC Do you find that those places then have an effect either on the music you write or the lyrics you write?
NM Definitely. Totally.
TC One of the things that I noticed on The Innocents is that you seem to be drawing on seasons a lot and using them to indicate different moods.
TC Being in New York, it’s sort of plummeted into winter, so I’ve definitely got that on the brain a lot right now.
NM (laughter) Definitely. I like to think of life that way. It is kind of cut up into little seasons. On a bigger scale, on a smaller scale, on a micro-scale even down to the day has its own little miniature seasons cycle. The morning and then the late afternoon, the late evening—I feel like that cycle exists on a microscopic level and a macro level.
I also feel like I’m such an emotional person that I’m affected by that stuff. I’m a very sensitive spirit.
TC Does writing help you to get through that or is it something that’s harder to do during certain times?
NM I think I’m always writing, no matter what, no matter how I feel, and it helps and it doesn’t. It’s almost like it’s mutually exclusive. It’s related to redemption but also a part of the process is getting there, just like anything else. There’s relief when you put something out into the world but then the process starts all over again from scratch when you think about the next one. So, it’s just kind of similar to anything else. It’s never the answer; it’s part of the process.
TC Are there places in the country or in the world you’ve been and you know this is going to inspire something?
NM Like writing about geography?
TC Or writing about a city or a part of a city.
NM I wrote about America. That’s the only place I’ve ever written about, and that’s a really big general place. I used to idolize locations but now I kind of believe in the mediocrity principle, and that no place is better than any other place necessarily. But I do really like the desert and I do really like the ocean.
TC Do you have a preference as far as oceans go?
NM No, actually. I used to prefer the West Coast because I grew up near there but recently I’ve been spending a lot of time in Far Rockaway, which is a total East Coast brackish industrial city beach, and I love it for what it is. It’s very psychedelic and strange. The water is totally different, the way that it feels, the waves. It’s got its own brackish, harsh, quality that highlights just as much as the paradise beaches do.
TC I’ve still haven’t been out there. I grew up near the Jersey shore so that kind of was my first exposure to the ocean, for good and for bad.
NM It’s funny. My family moved from the West Coast to the East Coast and we hadn’t been to the beach up until that point and I think we made one family trip to the Jersey shore and my parents didn’t go back for thirteen years because they were just like, “Oh. Weird.” They didn’t really understand it. But I love the Jersey shore. I have a lot of fond memories. Medical waste washing up on the sand. (laughter)
I recently went to the beach in Georgia and was totally shocked. I got attacked by jellyfish. I’d never experienced that: kind of a weird, flat beach, no waves, it looked like a lake full of stinging translucent creatures.
The beaches are really special, too, in the Pacific Northwest. There’s something just prehistoric going on. The animals, the starfish, and the barnacles all just seem bigger.
TC You were talking about the country before and I’m wondering—in the song “Land of Broken Dreams,” there’s the line about being sedated. Do you see that as more of a sense of self-medication? Or do you sense that as more of something that society puts on people?
NM I think that most people are being sedated in modern life by television and food. I just think it’s more of a sedate culture.
TC It definitely seems easier to go that route and not be aware.
NM And I do think there is a sedated quality—an unhealthy lifestyle makes you more sedate.
TC When, for you, did you think, Ok, this is not how I want to live my life.
NM I guess puberty. I started reading more about the truth. I was raised really Christian. That was like a coming out of the Christian closet. Even when I was a little person, I was—I knew what was wrong and about society right off the bat.
TC You said that when you were young you moved to the East Coast. What was the contrast like there?
NM Well, there’s not a lot of crazy history on the West Coast. Everybody is transplanted, so most people are from somewhere else. My family happens to be from California. My dad’s family goes way, way back to the pioneers. But it’s more entrepreneurial there. People might be super open and warm with you right off the bat and end up biting you in the ass later. On the East Coast, everybody is extremely standoffish. It took my parents something like thirteen years to make friends in Pennsylvania because everyone was already hooked into their family and their own tradition.
There is so much more architecture and history here that California just doesn’t have. Everything there, the house I lived in, the elementary school I went to, the shopping center I went to, was all brand new. It looks different because you can’t just have this huge plot of land and put this shopping center that’s supposed to look like Italy or something in the middle of nowhere. Everything was pink and orange adobe, my school, my house, the shopping center. It was crazy. (laughter)
TC I saw your set at the Pitchfork Review event the other week. How long has your band been playing together?
NM Just a couple months. About two months. We just formed.
TC How did you start working with everyone in it?
NM I met half of them through this band Arp that they used to be in, which is another Mexican Summer band. I met my friend Sean, who plays keyboard, just as a friend. And we were all mutual friends.
TC What is the process like as far as taking these songs that have existed in one form and then figuring out how they’re going to translate into a live setting?
NM Usually I dish everything out in my head and kind of lightly direct everybody. Occasionally we’ll jam it out, but for this record I already had a band, which was made up of some really, really old friends of mine. But they don’t leave their house. They’re very hermetic artist people and they don’t really tour, so I had to get a band of people who were willing to go out there. They were learning parts that already existed, from the record. It depends on the relationship though. There are people you can jam with, and there are people that you can’t because their vision conflicts with yours. But that’s obviously the best way for a group of people to make music: for everybody to do what they feel like doing.
TC Do you find that this experience is having any effect on the way that you see music and playing with different musicians?
NM Yeah. I didn’t grow up playing in bands, so I was always a solo musician.
TC When did you start playing songs in front of an audience?
NM Around age fifteen. I’d get kicked out of venues a lot when they found out how old I was.
TC You’ve spent some time playing in other groups as well. How have you balanced those two things been in terms of your own music?
NM I was only in Jackie-O Motherfucker for a tour, and that was just a fun, cool one-off thing. It didn’t really change my perspective that much. Now I know what I don’t want to end up being. I felt like, I’m a young person and I like this person but I want to have my own young-people band and I don’t want to just subscribe to or bow down to the older heads. There are so many people looking up to other people. It was nice to kind of break away from that and be like, I don’t need them to make music.
TC Listening to the two albums, The Innocents has a little bit more of a folk feel to it, and you’ve mentioned that your parents are musicians. Did that have any influence on you or the sort of the music that you started to make?
NM My dad taught me how to play some guitar chords when I was little and I always looked up to him because he was in a crazy band, and he always liked weird music. He really liked the band XTC. He was in a weird New Wave band with an electric viola player, so I was always attracted to the weirder aspects of the music world. My older brothers were into Ween, and XTC and Ween are pretty weird bands, and my mom was obsessed with Joni Mitchell. I grew up hearing a lot of Joni, but I didn’t really get it as a kid. I thought it was cool, and I liked some of her songs for sure, but I didn’t try to emulate her at any point. Now I kind of feel like I’m ready to do that. She’s kind of a beast. In some ways I feel like she kicked so much ass it’s really intimidating to try to emulate her as well.
TC Are there any other musicians whose work you encountered early in life and didn’t necessarily find yourself gravitating towards but now you see that you can draw from them?
NM Yeah, all the big archetype people, I didn’t like Bob Dylan right off the bat, I didn’t like David Bowie so much until later. The Grateful Dead, Bob Marley—all the more stereotypical stuff. At first I thought, That’s stereotypical stuff, and then later I thought, Oh that’s why it’s become a stereotype because it’s the beginning of an archetype.
That’s how I felt about the 13th Floor Elevators too. I used to listen to them and think, I can’t hear anything. This just sounds like clanging, boring rock and roll. And having the 13th Floor Elevators open up to me was like a totally mind-blowing experience. I was around eighteen, and simultaneously the Stooges and all the other bands that I thought were boring because they just sounded like rock, I all of a sudden understood what it meant. It took on a new meaning, and it was about listening to music differently. Before, I might have listened to something that was a little bit more interesting in terms of chords, as opposed to just the most basic chords you could think of. It’s more something you feel as opposed to something that your mind kind of turns and thinks about. That was a new way of listening to music and it opened the doors to a lot of bands that I couldn’t hear before. I couldn’t hear what they were doing. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of soul and R&B from the ’70s. That’s a whole new zone for me.
TC It’s such a deep well of music that it’s like sometimes it can be really intimidating.
NM I feel like that’s why I waited because I was like, Wow this is the best music ever. I had to get my shit together before I could listen to it. (laughter)
To return to what I was saying though, it actually took getting into experimental music for me to understand rock ‘n’ roll. Learning about La Monte Young and his relationship with John Cale and the Velvet Underground, I was able to hear what was going on. And I mean, I loved ’90s rock ‘n’ roll and Nirvana and indie rock but in terms of the real archetypical stuff, it took understanding the concept of the drone and all these things that are kind of high-art territory. But once you get up into that territory it’s almost like the same as authenticity or basic principles of expression.
TC Are you starting to write for the next album already?
NM I already have the next album written, yeah.
TC How would you describe it compared to The Innocents? Is it in the same vein or is it going to a different place?
NM I’ve been listening to Harry Nilsson, so there’s a little bit more of the power-punk ballad. The songs are more intricate and interesting to me, kind of like going from writing songs that were really basic and hopefully to trying to write something more interesting.
TC Earlier, you were talking about how important certain arrangements are to you and I feel like Nilsson is someone who almost embodies that. There is the sense that the song is one thing but then the way that it comes to you is just this whole added dimension to it.
NM Oh yeah, that’s the alchemy of music. You could take anything and make it into something amazing with the right sonic elements. I think one of the best examples is Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”: incredibly simple, maybe three things going on, but it’s mind blowing.
TC Do you do any work recording work with other people that isn’t necessarily your own music?
NM Not recently but I’m into that, I love collaborating. I sang on Ariel Pink’s last record, Mature Themes. And I sang with him live, and I’ve done some stuff in studios for people, just providing my voice. I’m really into it. I’m always down. I like collaborating. If it’s something that I really don’t like, then I won’t get down. In terms of starting a new project with somebody else, I’d love to do it but it takes somebody as serious as I am. It’s easier to talk about it.
TC You talked about having a background in listening to more experimental music and playing stuff that’s considered more experimental as well. Is that something that you still keep up with as well?
NM I do. Whenever I do that I always get this crazy feeling like, Oh my gosh! Just as much as I have a good voice I’m also very good at making feedback and doing other stuff that most of society doesn’t get into. There’s still a piece of that in my heart. I do have secret hopes to produce more records in that vein at some point. Whenever I do it, it’s magical. I love that stuff.
TC I feel like the labels you’ve worked with are labels that have a pretty wide-ranging aesthetic. You can’t peg what an artist is going to sound like.
NM Yeah. The culture now is a total grab-bag, lots of elements represented.
TC Is there anything that you’re looking forward to doing in the next couple months in terms of experimenting with arrangements?
NM Yeah. I started playing piano live and playing organ and I’d love to play with a cellist. I love obscure instrumentation. I’m trying to figure out if I want to steer away from guitar and bass and stuff and focus on other instrumentation that’s really interesting and recording in different spaces and kind of using the space as an enrichment.
Weyes Blood’s The Innocents, is available now from Mexican Summer.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.