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Next wave: in conversation with Weyes Blood

Natalie Mering is the timeless talent behind Weyes Blood, an ever-evolving recording project she began in her teens. Pairing Mering’s melancholic, baroque voice that sounds like a reincarnated blend of the most cultish figures of Laurel Canyon with a rich tapestry of instrumentation that spans sounds from the 60s, 70s and 80s, the Weyes Blood catalogue is an expansive, lush and emotive manifestation of Mering’s beguiling, singular vision.

America is in the midst of a seismic shift as a new president takes office, and when I catch up with Mering she’s in Brisbane, chilling by her hotel pool, feeling unnerved but optimistic so far from the action. “I really wish I was there,” she says. “There’s a part of me that feels like I betrayed somebody by coming out here, but at the same time it’s what I do for my work.” The particular day we speak coincides with the day the women’s marches take place across the US, a particularly buoyant day in the middle of a gloomy few months stateside, and Mering feels encouraged by the reaction of her peers. “I think it’s really beautiful and I love watching on all my friends’ Instagrams and Facebook posts, I’ve never seen such a collective rush of hope.”

Although her parents had creative backgrounds, it was largely left to Mering herself to find her way into music. “My father was a musician in the late 70s, early 80s kind of like a new wave weird guy in L.A. and he ended up denouncing music and becoming Christian before I came on the scene. I had to do some research putting puzzle pieces together to find out about his chequered past. So my parents were ‘born again’ but they were in that world before, so there was an appreciation for art, old art, and I think that I was attracted to bands like Nirvana at a young age, this kind of deconstructionist, pushing the envelope to the next wave,” she says.

Outside of her family, Mering also found herself surrounded by people that nurtured her creativity, in a distinctly explorative direction. “I had a family friend, a babysitter, who went to CalArts. I got to go to one of her birthday parties, and I saw a bunch of art students and saw how weird they were. Me and my brothers were just kind of making fun of them, but I was exposed to some interesting stuff at a very young age and I think that instilled this idea in me that making art isn’t just about being palatable but it’s also about getting out there and pushing the envelope. So when I first started playing guitar I would stick pencils in it, try to do a prepared guitar, and this is like me as a six-year-old, just trying to figure out a new way to play guitar, so innovation and experimentation just came naturally I guess.”

This early exposure to progressive, DIY values meant that Mering started out young. “When I was around 13, I think before that I wanted to be an actress or do some kind of performative thing – it was always about performing for me. There was never a moment where I was like ‘Oh I’m going to be a doctor!’ But at 13 I started playing electric guitar, and I learned how to play four chords, and just became obsessed with music and records and listening to college radio every day and writing down everything they would play.”

“Then I started working at a record store, and I just completely inundated myself in the culture and I felt like that was what I was going to do.”

Falling in with the more experimental end of the Philadelphia music scene she was surrounded by at the time, Mering found herself struggling to be accepted into the boys’ club. “People were pretty fascinated, because I started playing as Weyes Blood when I was 15, people were like ‘wow that’s a lot of ambition you got there’. People were pretty supportive and nice but overall it was a very patriarchal record collecting scene. So depending what I would do, I think at that time more men were encouraging about me playing noise sets and freaking out, harnessing sexual energy onstage, or being a beautiful perfect goddess type, and I did feel pigeonholed a little bit. In Philadelphia at that time there were not a lot of female musicians.”

On the subject of female teachers, Mering is downbeat. “Oh man, I wish I had more. I had one, this woman Elaine Kahn, she’s a poet from the Bay Area, she does music too and we did a tour together when I was 23 years old. At that point I had just been almost exclusively hanging out with men, just because there are not a lot of girls who share the same interests I have. I could meet girls that liked music, everybody loves music, but when it came to like, trying to play it and tour and all those types of things I found there weren’t as many ladies that I could bond with over that. She was cool because she was just doing it, trying to tour it and get out there and she had this really deep feminist perspective that I hadn’t been exposed to yet. She kind of blew the top off my whole life. Because I had been living in this beta-male, misogynistic zone thinking that I was exempt because I dressed boyish or something but realising that was also some strange form of oppression, that I had been downplaying my femininity to blend in. She was really inspiring to me, she opened the door for me.”

Although Weyes Blood started out as a project more rooted in the avant-garde, Mering eventually ventured into the more melodic, song-based shapes that her parents instilled in her, even if unknowingly. “Dad always played guitar, there was always guitars and keyboards around the house, my Mum played piano, so it was very fertile for creativity. Both my parents really value songwriting as an important thing so that was instilled in me at a very young age.”

It’s on her most recent record, Front Row Seat to Earth, that Mering shifts these values into the spotlight. Wonderfully melodic, wistfully analytical and deftly produced, it’s the record Mering could only have made now, after some 15 years of learning her craft, from a place where she had the knowledge and the nous to realise the grand ambitions in her head. “I started off this record completely on my own – I had a manager who quit while I was making it. I directed most of the videos, even booked one of the tours, I was really just going one hundred miles per minute.” Looking back across her three albums to date, Front Row Seat to Earth feels like the truest realisation of Mering’s ambition for Weyes Blood. “It’s like riding a bike, it just takes a while to get everything to balance. My first record, it’s like Goldilocks and the three bears, the porridge was too hot, and the second record, the porridge was too cold, and the third record was the meeting place.”

See Weyes Blood live during her Australian and New Zealand Titanic Rising tour in February / March 2020.