“Living in the wake of overwhelming changes / We've all become strangers / Even to ourselves” sings Natalie Mering on the first track of her latest album, And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow. It’s a refrain that feels like it cuts to the core of what many of us have been feeling during the dystopia of the last few years, cataclysmic themes of loneliness and disconnect that feel simultaneously universal and affixing. Mering’s album is a lush and orchestral meditation on our intangible connectedness, akin, even, to an elegy for the Earth itself. But her sound is hopeful – a counterweight to the existential dread of her 2019 record, Titanic Rising.
Dialling in from Los Angeles, California, Mering spoke to RUSSH about her latest album and upcoming Australian shows – diverting briefly into the topics of existential dread, intergenerational trauma, her love of Ella Fitzgerald, Paul Schrader films, and the importance of simply knowing one’s self.
I know this is your first set of shows in Australia since the beginning of 2020, so how are you feeling about coming back?
I’m really excited. I always love going there. I love the people. I love the cities and the wildlife. It’s really fun.
Is there anything that you’re excited to do, or any place that you’re excited to visit that maybe you didn’t get to last time?
Well, last time I was there in the summer, so I’m not sure how cold it’ll be, but I love to jump in the ocean and eat a lot of different Chinese food in Melbourne. It’s always the best. So much good food everywhere.
There definitely is. Yeah, it definitely gets a little bit colder here in winter, but not enough that can deter you from a swim. It’s just a refreshing one this time of year.
So I also wanted to talk to you about your most recent album, ‘And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow’. Was there a core theme or message to this album that you really wanted to translate?
Well, yeah. I think it’s about intimacy. It’s about how these big, kind of overarching things that are happening in the world, how they affect our internal dialogue with ourselves, our relationship with ourselves and our close relationships with others. It’s kind of like a subterranean river into like – what’s the word? Retrospection or something.
And what drew you to that idea in particular?
I think just because we were all going through it. The pandemic was like this psychological tunnel that exposed a lot of truths. It was kind of like a truth serum.
How would you describe this album, compared to your last release 'Titanic Rising'? Were there any purposeful changes that you enacted, thematically or sonically?
I think there definitely was a through line with the people. There are a lot of similar people on this album, but we chose a different space and I kind of wanted to make the arrangements less dense so that each ingredient was more maximal.
What kind of music, books or films were you consuming at the time of writing this album?
I was watching a lot of Paul Schrader films, I was reading The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch, and really getting into Adam Curtis – there are so many things. But yeah, generally I was absorbing a lot of things like a sponge, and The Culture of Narcissism was one of the things I read and Christopher Lasch’s interpretation of it definitely inspired God Turn Me Into A Flower.
I find that musicians often have one of two different approaches to creating music: some refrain from listening to other music and some love to consume it and let it influence and inspire their own writing. Do you find that you’re in one camp or the other?
Yeah. I think that I definitely do a little more listening and absorbing of certain music while I’m making it. But I don't listen to a lot of new music. I try not to compare myself to other new music.
Is there a particular period of music history that you do like to draw inspiration from?
I love classical music. I love early songwriting, you know, from Tin Pan Alley into jazz standards. I love doo-wop. I mean, I love jumping around and finding music from all different times and cultures that somehow has a thread that ties it back to what I do.
I love that. Do you have a favourite jazz musician?
I love Ella Fitzgerald.
Do you have a favourite lyric that you wrote for this album? Or is it like picking a favourite child?
Yeah, it is a bit like that but I’ll name a couple that I like. I do like “It’s not just me, it’s everybody” even though it’s so funny because it’s so literal. But when I came up with that I was like, “Okay, cool!”. I love “Emotional cowboy, with no hat and no boots, he stayed up all night trying to beat up the moon.” I love “It’s good to be soft when they push you down” from God Turn Me Into A Flower.
I moved a couple of months ago and found your song 'It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody' was a really impactful soundtrack to that change, and the experience of it being sort of universal and lonely at the same time. Was that something you kind of wanted to get across with that first track? Or was there a particular meaning for you?
It’s kind of like a Buddhist anthem. As much as it is about isolation, it’s also about this kind of unforeseen fabric that connects us all – even to other living creatures. You know, It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody could include other sentient beings and animals, and I think we really lose the plot on our connection to the earth as a creature. This idea that we’re really separate from each other and the earth, I think, is kind of what that song is about. But also it’s about how universal everybody’s experience of suffering is. Nowadays, I feel like we all live in more of an existential dread zone than ever before. We’re all asking more questions, maybe, than our parents were asking. It’s not just about one person’s existential crisis, it’s a whole culture’s.
Do you feel more comfortable in the writing and recording phase of an album, or more at home on stage, performing it?
You know, it’s hard to choose. But I do really love performing – maybe because it got taken away. There’s something about not being able to play shows for three years that has made these tours just transcend it and mean so much to me. Live, there’s an immediacy. It’s a perfect unit of completion because you get on stage and you do your set and then you’re done. With a record, the work is infinite, and very abstract, and kind of archetypal, which is fun in some ways – it’s more intellectually stimulating – but it can get really laborious. But touring can get really exhausting. They both have these pros and cons.
Has your comfort level changed over time in terms of how vulnerable you’re willing to get in your work?
I think that I’ve gotten more vulnerable. I think I’ve just had more life experience, so I actually feel comfortable talking about it. When I was younger, I didn’t have much to say yet, I don’t think.
What’s a piece of advice that’s stuck with you?
Hmm… It’s interesting you say that because I just thought of a piece of advice that I wouldn’t want to tell anybody because I feel like it kind of was the wrong kind of advice to think about. But a good piece of advice? Well, everybody is doing the work right now, kind of investigating the psychological environment of their formative years and their family. And I think that it’s really important to, without demonising your family members or ostracising them or banishing them from your life, acknowledge how that might have psychologically hooked you up for reality.
Like, a lot of people have a lot of different trauma from their childhood. And I think that, now that it’s getting more popular to be open about being in therapy, and people are trying to engage in these intimate relationships and finding there’s all this like, you know, kind of ‘therapy speak’, I think what might be even more effective is just knowing thy self. If you have some stuff you’ve never really wanted to look at, if you can go back in time and trace the roots of the patterns of your feelings, it would do everybody a favour, especially the people you’re intimate with.
What else is coming up for you that you’re really excited about?
I’m so excited to come back to Australia. I’m going to be doing some festivals before then. I’m going to Brazil for the first time. I’m really excited about that! I’m going to Japan. And I think I’m definitely going to get a little travel in there and try to wander the globe a little bit before going back into the studio after all these tours.
Is there anything else you wanted to chat about before we go?
Yeah, one more really cool piece of advice. I love that song Nature Boy that’s written by Eden Ahbez. Nat King Cole does a really incredible version of it. But the last line is: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return.”
That’s a beautiful note to finish on [both laugh].