Natalie Mering has a theory about last year’s Great Kate Bush Revival. “It’s the feminine factor,” says Mering, the Californian singer-songwriter who records apocalyptic retro pop under the stage name Weyes Blood. “She’s so feminine. Female music is more to the forefront than ever.”
Mering (34) is too modest to say so out loud but she, too, is part of 21st-century pop’s feminine awakening. Across five studio albums, and especially on her last two projects – 2019′s Titanic Rising and her new LP, And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow – she has followed in the gossamer footsteps of Bush (who has topped the charts with help from sci-fi saga Stranger Things). And of her other great musical heroes, Joni Mitchell (whom her father briefly dated) and Enya.
“The thing about Enya is that she is pre-industrial. But her music is also extremely modern,” she says. As with Bush, opines Mering, it is the matriarchal aspect of the Donegal artist’s music that, in 2023, gives it a contemporary zing.
“The biggest thing with Enya is how feminine she is. There’s no masculine energy in there,” says Mering. “It’s a very pure thing. In terms of femininity and music, there’s more women in music now than probably since the Doo-wop days, when it was pretty equal. Rock’n’roll was this very male-dominated situation. Enya has had a resurgence based almost on those feminine ambient qualities.”
[ Weyes Blood: And in the Darkness - Second instalment of ambitious concept ]
There’s a lot of feminine ambience in Mering’s music, also. Irish fans will have a chance to experience those qualities up close when she brings And in the Darkness to Vicar Street in Dublin for a show on February 12th. It’s a lap of honour for a performer whose songs interweave anxiety about climate change with tectonic shifts in her personal life.
She does so with dazzling melodies and striking imagery. Recent single Grapevine, for instance, juxtaposes romantic angst and environmental devastation in her home state. “California’s my body,” she croons. “And your fire runs over me.”
Mering isn’t the only contemporary artist evoking the climate crisis in her music. Billie Eilish’s All The Good Girls Go To Hell likewise taps into the anxiety sweeping the Golden State as it battles eco-Armageddon (“Hills burn in California/My turn to ignore ya”). And Canadian singer Tamara Lindeman, aka The Weather Station, has poured her environmental distress into two stunning records, Ignorance and How Is it That I Should Look at the Stars?
It was interesting to play my first show after the pandemic and feel that the lyrics were too true. That was a new experience
Those albums are beautiful – but also pessimistic and even doom-laden. Mering, by contrast, is eager to find light in the darkness. Hence the “Hearts Aglow” reference in her new LP – which she wrote explicitly as a reaction to its predecessor.
Titanic Rising was a warning that society was headed towards an iceberg (and was acclaimed as the dulcet sound of a canary in the pop-culture coal mine). With the follow-up, she was eager not to repeat herself. Enough misery and dejection. It was time to look to the positives.
“That was kind of the point,” she says. “That it wouldn’t be completely dead inside. That it would be music that was the sound of a blaring alarm – but not giving up.”
Titanic Rising was released in January 2019. It didn’t predict the pandemic or the Black Lives Matter protests – that history-making hinge point in which the United States finally faced up to its legacy of racism.
The album nonetheless argued that momentous upheavals were hurtling down the track and that there was no turning away. As she sings on the opening track, “A lot’s gonna change in your lifetime”. When the pandemic hit, Mering was proved right to an extent: a lot did change. How did it feel to be vindicated, albeit in the most disastrous way possible?
“I guess in some ways I felt slightly validated,” she says. “I wasn’t being overly doomsday. I sensed we were on the verge of something. It was interesting to play my first show after the pandemic and feel that the lyrics were too true. That was a new experience. Feeling the lyrics had seasoned with age and become more of a reality. The tides totally shifted. A lot is gonna change, to reference my song.”
If Titanic Rising foreshadowed Covid, then And in the Darkness is a record forged in the depths of the great shutdown. Mering was finishing a tour in New Zealand when the world began to close. She caught a flight back to LA and spent the next several months cut off from her family.
She did what we all did: watched too much cable news, doom-scrolled, and gawped at her device until it was the frame through which she engaged with reality. Out of that malaise came a new song, It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody – a portrait of a world hooked on digital escapism.
The pandemic exacerbated that sense of us all living on our own little islands, she feels. But it didn’t cause it. Long before the lockdown, technology was chipping at the ties that hold us together.
“The reason the lyrics turned out the way they are is because I felt we were already pretty isolated from one another culturally,” she explains. “Even prior to the pandemic, that was starting to become a trend as everything moves online. A lot of interaction started to happen on social media. We were already dealing with some isolationism. The pandemic was gasoline that got poured on that fire.”
One side effect of Covid, she continues, is that in the moment it led people to reconsider their direction in life. That sense of confusion is also reflected in the new album through lyrics such as “Sitting at this party/Wondering if anyone knows me/Really sees who I am” – the opening stanza to It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody.
“It made a lot of people question the rat wheel they had been running in. And be like, ‘Well, what is actually the point of what are we doing?’ It was a time of existential excavation. That’s kind of why this record is more intimate and more internal. I couldn’t go out and externally seek some kind of inspiration. It had to come from within because I was writing in lockdown.”
Mering was born in Santa Monica and spent her teenage years in Doylestown, Pennsylvania – population 8,000 – after her father took a job there. Her parents were Pentecostal Christians – but her childhood wasn’t particularly strict.
Her father had a fascinating past life as a musician. In the late 1970s, he’d hung around the Laurel Canyon scene and even stepped out with Joni Mitchell and, later, Anjelica Huston. We speak the day after another of Mitchell’s beaux, David Crosby, passed away. Mering says her father was too young to have known him. By the time her dad’s band, Sumner, came along, Crosby was already an icon.
“He was more of a new-waver. He was a little younger than those. He had met Graham Nash at a party. Musically, he was in his own weird new wave realm. He’s a good 10 years behind that group.”
She grew up surrounded by music. Her father, of course, adored Joni Mitchell. The family also listened to Stevie Wonder. Nor did their Christianity extend to banning rap music: as a teen, she was hooked on Tupac and Doctor Dre.
Doylestown was close enough to Philadelphia for Mering to discover the indie scene there. Dropping out of college, she threw herself into local bands. But even as she discovered the excitement of collaboration she was embarking on musical adventures of her own. She’d begun to write solo material as “Weyes Blood” – named after the Flannery O’Connor novel Wise Blood – when she was 15 and still at school.
In person, Mering is sharp and questioning. Her lyrics can be spiky too: on new track God Turn Me Into a Flower, for instance, she argues the internet is making narcissists of us all (“You see the reflection/And you want it more than the truth”). Yet she has a sentimental, even earnest side. The wonder in her songwriting flows from that juxtaposition of unflinching lyrics and music of stunning poise and beauty.
This has brought ever more florid praise. And in the Darkness has been acclaimed as one of the great records of the past 12 months. Uncut hailed its “gorgeous, sleek torment”; Pitchfork noted how the “lushly orchestral” arrangements “proceeded at the unhurried pace of guided meditations”. “Weyes Blood Gives Beautiful Voice to Global Pain,” swooned the New York Times.
None of this was achieved by accident. Weyes Blood was became a vehicle for making beautiful music. By her mid-20s, Mering had started to recognise that lush, richly produced soundscapes could have a subversive power.
Presented in the right way, it could even be transgressive. That was a revolutionary idea. Alternative culture has nursed a decades-long suspicion of music that is easy on the ears. Anyone growing up in the 1990s or earlier will know that in popular culture authenticity has traditionally been associated with ugliness and brutality.
Mering encountered that belief herself in her early 20s. This was when she played in the noise-rock band Jackie-O Motherf**ker.
Their songs landed like blasts of carefully tweaked outrage. And their gigs were visceral circuses – Mering would perform caked in fake blood or wearing breast implants that she would pop before the audience. At the time, the thought of working with an orchestra, as she does on her new record, or singing in a Carole King-style croon, would have struck her as heretical. That isn’t how real artists did things. She has since revised that opinion.
“The Gen X ethos and all that stuff unfortunately became so commodified it was almost conformist,” she says. “I left the experimental noise scene because it had become the least interesting thing in the world. It became more challenging to write beautiful songs that were well produced versus doing what everybody else was doing in the name of style. It [alternative culture] was highly stylised.”
In the end, she recognised the quest for “authenticity” had itself become deeply inauthentic.
“To me, being highly stylised was not authentic. I heard a painter say that the new avant-garde is painting trees and making sandwiches for your kids. Inevitably the pendulum tends to swing back and forth. Punk and the aggressive, angsty attitude had been so commodified. So played out. The thing that I thought would be interesting is earnestness, vulnerability, and actually trying.”
Nowadays, she rarely listens to new music. She goes back to the classical world, jazz and early rock’n roll.
Rich people, for the most part, are probably trying to get a piece of the dream before it’s too late
“It’s so phoned in,’ she says of contemporary pop. “It doesn’t take you anywhere. The narrative is weird and lost. People are less afraid to say really whack things and have terrible lyrics. The standard is so low in terms of what young people are used to hearing, it all gets a pass. Sometimes I hear things that are new that are brilliant. But then I hear things and I’m like, ‘how did that even pass? How did somebody in the studio let that happen?’ That blows my mind.”
On her new record, she expresses the hope that we can free ourselves from the tyranny of the internet – and of the algorithms that have come to control our lives. Whether it’s search engines or social media, the apparatus of the web has been weaponised to turn us into addicts. It feeds us outrage and anxiety – calculating we’ll get hooked and come back for more. Mering doesn’t have any answers. But she asks the question as to whether there is a better way. Her goal is to communicate to her audience the idea that we don’t have to be shackled by technology.
“It’s hard for me to make any clear statement about stuff like that. It’s at the point where we are so gridlocked by the system. It’s no longer controlled by humans at this point – algorithms and technology and computers have so much more to do with the dissemination of information. People know about the climate crisis. You don’t need to argue with people any more. Nobody is saying it’s not real. Even in that, there’s still not a lot being done. And I think that says a lot what people are willing to do because they I think people feel pretty helpless and immobilised.”
Where do we even start at tackling something as big and existential as climate change she wonders? “Do you do Extinction Rebellion – throw paint at some famous paintings? To me, that’s just spectacle.”
But if direct action isn’t the answer what is? She’s not sure.
“Nobody can get down to the course that is needed to lead to any kind of tangible change. I would argue that [the goal to strive towards] is having a space for public discourse. That’s nuanced because I think politicians and the internet have created a public discourse that is a form of entertainment. Politicians function more as entertainers than they ever have. So how can we expect entertainers to solve this problem? How can we expect people who are so distracted by this need for baseline survival [ie to keep their approving ratings ticking over] to do anything about it?
One thing she has noticed is that post-pandemic, many people have become more self-centred The togetherness we felt as we all huddled in the dark is gone.
“Rich people, for the most part, are probably trying to get a piece of the dream before it’s too late,” she says. “After the pandemic, I noticed there wasn’t much of, ‘I’m gonna get political – the world’s f**ked. I’m going to change this, I’m going to become an activist’.”
She shakes her head: “The sentiment was way more like, ‘I’m going to Greece, I’m going on vacation. I’m gonna get my good feeling before it’s too late …’ That was everybody’s response. It’s human nature. When people feel helpless and that they can’t do anything, they try to make the best of it. Getting around that is going to be the biggest obstacle. Trying to find a way to make people care about this abstract problem so that we can figure a way out of the maze.”
Put it like that and the outlook looks bleak. But Mering isn’t ready to give up. And when she visits Vicar Street in February it will be to spread the message that none of us is alone and that, together, we can still work wonders.
“I would hope to lead people to question and to shed light on how nuanced everything is,” she says. “Rather than being black and white about everything. I think that people make a big mistake being like ‘this is the answer – everybody else is dumb and deserves to die’. Nobody says that – but that’s the attitude. It’s so polarising and divisive. We stay in the gridlock. I would hope to shed some light.”
And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow is out now. Weyes Blood headlines Vicar Street, February 12th