WEYES BLOOD: WHEN IT HITS HOME
illustration by elza burkart
Natalie Mering cut her musical teeth in the turn-of-the-century noise scene, playing bass in Jackie-O Motherfucker and collaborating with Ariel Pink, among others. But it’s her solo work under the name Weyes Blood where Mering’s sonic identity has come into sharp focus. On her breakthrough 2014 album The Innocents, Mering delivered gorgeous melodies with her arresting alto, then draped them across folk songs imbued with noise and electronic elements. More than anything, The Innocents hinted at greatness. On her new album Front Row Seat to Earth, Mering delivers on that promise, presenting a near-perfect set of searching, reverberant psych-folk-pop that feels both timeless and forward-thinking at the same time. Born in L.A. but having lived elsewhere for many years, Mering moved back to make her new album, and L.A. RECORD caught up with her on Election Day, just before everything went to hell. She performs tonight—Thurs., Dec. 15—at the Echo. This interview by Ben Salmon.
The title of your album, Front Row Seat to Earth, feels strangely resonant at this weird and scary time in the world. Can you tell me about it?
Natalie Mering: I think that we are kind of watching the globalized community unfold in front of us on the internet, safely protected and pacified constantly. Even though these things are happening in front of us, it feels like there’s a separation or protection from them, and I feel that a lot in a first-world country like America, where you’re kind of safeguarded by the opiate of consumerism. A lot of people are feeling helpless, like they can’t do anything, and they’re becoming desensitized to these events. I can remember when school shootings used to make me cry. And now because they’ve happened more frequently, I don’t cry about them anymore. And it’s not like we should cry, because humans are very elastic and we adapt to everything that happens. But it’s a meaningful point in history when we become desensitized to these things that used to make my heart beat so fast it would beat in my throat and I felt like I had to go run out in the streets and do something about it.
The idea that humans are elastic and adaptable within the context of school shootings indicates to me that you may have a sort of broader perspective on the world than many people do. Do you feel like that’s true?
Natalie Mering: I actually do. I feel like I was born with it because I always felt an extra amount of empathy, more than most people around me. And in order to deal with that empathy — because it’s emotionally overwhelming — you kind of have to take a lot of big-picture glances all the time to kind of keep your feelings in check.
Do you see that quality in either or both of your parents?
Natalie Mering: My parents are born-again Christians. They were born again in the ‘70s. And on my mom’s side of the family, there’s some mental illness, and I think mental illness and genius and perception are all related in this weird way where you’re given an extra amount of, like, some kind of mental capacity that doesn’t fit into a society. So I think that definitely runs in my family.
When you started becoming interested in rock music, what did you parents think?
Natalie Mering: They were really secular before they were born again, and they had some stuff left over from that time. My dad’s favorite band was XTC, and they’re a weird band. My mom loved Joni Mitchell. There was always secular music around. I remember being obsessed with Nirvana, and I remember my dad being fascinated by them, as a musician and as someone who was always looking for the next wave. So I listened to a lot of Nirvana and some weirder bands like Ween and Combustible Edison. There was a lot of darkness in the underbelly of that music.
But your parents didn’t try to shield you from it?
Natalie Mering: Anything with a parental advisory sticker had to be hidden, of course, and we couldn’t openly watch MTV because as soon as something weird would happen, my mom would change it. When Kurt Cobain died, she let me watch all that stuff. But I think that culturally, they still wanted to feel relevant and they didn’t want to be part of the stereotypical Christian thing, so they were a little more lenient. But as an early teen when I was really starting to listen to weirder, more experimental stuff, that was when my mom was like, ‘This is going to mess you up! It’s bad! Don’t feed your spirit this music!’ And it did mess me up!
What led you to experimental music at such a young age?
Natalie Mering: When I was a little girl, I really looked up to one of my brothers who was 11 years older than me. And I would see the way he and his friends dressed and interacted, and I’d say, ‘I can’t wait to become a teenager!’ And then I got older and that was when like Hanson and the Spice Girls came out, and I was like, ‘Something’s not right. This shit is not good.’ And then once Backstreet Boys, N*Sync and Britney Spears were around, I was just, like, holy shit, I totally got cheated out of my grunge-teenhood. So here I am feeling like culture has gone to shit, and I started digging further back and listening to classic rock and discovering the record store in my town and then finding the college radio station and hearing this unearthly music that was really interesting and strange. It was very much an organic process.
You’ve lived in several different cities as an adult. Why?
Natalie Mering: We moved quite a bit when I was a kid, and I think that instilled in me a restlessness to where I am kind of constantly trying to see where I fit in. So I gave the East Coast a big honest try and finally realized that it’s really not where I’m from. Coming back to L.A. has been like a homecoming. My grandparents on both sides are from California.
It’s a cliche, but is there a part of you that moved back to L.A. to try to get back to your roots?
Natalie Mering: Totally. I always found the East Coast really traumatic. I always felt like I just didn’t really jive or fit in. I always felt like I was peripherally relating to all my friends there. A lot of my friends there are like old money, Ivy League intellectual types, and my parents are the opposite of that. No books in the house except the Bible. The West Coast’s culture and spirit is very entrepreneurial and weird and kind of trendy.
How did your relocation time with the making of Front Row Seat to Earth? Is it an L.A. record?
Natalie Mering: I think it’s an L.A. record. A lot of it was written on the East Coast but it was all recorded and finished and polished as soon as I moved to L.A. I basically moved here to make it.
Do you think it has any kind of L.A. vibe in the music?
Natalie Mering: I think people want to read that into it! There’s a weird trend right now to kind of be like, ‘oh this is very ‘70s’ or ‘this is very West Coast,’ but what does that even mean? Every genre of music exists on the West Coast. If I was a little bit more like the Grateful Dead versus the Velvet Underground I could see it, but I’m kind of neither. I feel like what L.A. did influence was a sense of coming home and thinking about wonderful records that have been made here. And my father was a musician in L.A. so I got to connect with some of his friends, and that was inspiring. My dad played on the Doobie Brothers’ Minute By Minute record and played a lot of L.A. clubs in the early ‘80s and late ‘70s, so I feel like that affected me and just made me more comfortable with what I was doing, as opposed to making a record on the East Coast and feeling like ‘How is this ever going to make me able to afford New York?’
Lyrically, Front Row Seat to Earth feels very somber to me. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
Natalie Mering: Like I said, I gave the East Coast an honest try and it just really didn’t make sense for me, so a lot of the songs on the record are about feeling out of place and struggling to maintain myself and my friendships there. When I got to L.A. it almost immediately made sense and I felt support, especially from my people that are from here. But then there’s also just being young and feeling out of place. I don’t want to chalk it up completely to place.
You’ve lived here for nearly a year. Do you feel happier personally?
Natalie Mering: I do. I do. New York was cool but my friends in L.A., it’s just so deep. I can’t explain it. I feel really blessed to have entered a sphere of people that i really relate to.
On all your records, you pair a sort of magical, cosmic sound with fairly straightforward, relatable lyrics. Is that something you make a point to do or does it just come out that way?
Natalie Mering: I think that’s a happy accident. I do love juxtaposition, and I try to bring opposites that normally wouldn’t go together together all the time because I think that’s the most exciting thing, especially sonically, trying to bring a little harshness into something more beautiful, like adding strange modern electronics over folk. I like the juxtaposition. And I think having conversational, meaningful lyrics, it’s kind of like the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. I love abstract lyrics and I love poetry but the most meaningful thing about poetry to me is when it hits home, when you read it and you’re like, ‘oh, I feel that’ versus ‘ooooh, strange.’
In 2014, you told Interview magazine that your second record The Innocents felt like ‘the momma porridge’—not the perfect temperature, but not extremely hot. Does Front Row Seat to Earth feel closer to the ‘just right’ porridge?
Natalie Mering: I think it’s pretty close. There’s maybe a couple things that I think could be embellished upon. I think this record is maybe a little straighter than my ideal record. But yeah, I think it’s very close, and it’s a very good combination of the first two, for sure. It is the porridge that Goldilocks chose. Whether or not she’s going to eat that for the rest of her life remains to be seen.
WEYES BLOOD WITH TASSEOMANCY ON THURS., DEC. 15, AT THE ECHO, 1822 SUNSET BLVD., ECHO PARK. 8:30 PM / $8-$10 / 18+. THEECHO.COM. FRONT ROW SEAT TO EARTH OUT NOW ON MEXICAN SUMMER. VISIT WEYES BLOOD AT WEYESBLOOD.BANDCAMP.COM.