INTERVIEW

Natalie Mering never wanted to be a solo artist, but sometimes boys can be dicks, and so she was forced to go it alone. Fortunately, it’s given us Weyes Blood, Mering’s bewitching pastoral psych project

weyes-blood

“Come on, I’m harmless.” The deep voice reassures me over a crackling transatlantic telephone line. “It’s not my goal in life to be intimidating.”

Perhaps the aura of a brooding spiritual force just comes naturally to Natalie Mering, the 26 year-old Pennsylvanian behind Weyes Blood. After all, she’s already spent the best part of a decade producing music variously described as “a series of haunting singular atmospheres filled with disquieting beauty,” “dark interludes of spectral psychedelic folk” and “a rhythm of destruction that portends something ominous.” Even her stage name references Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor.

We’re here to talk about ‘The Innocents’, Mering’s new, second LP, out now on Mexican Summer. In my own (very positive) review of the record a couple of months ago, I wrote that the really scary thing about the album is Mering’s voice – a deep, full-bodied moan that sounds far closer to the androgyny of Nico than it does to any folksy songstress. Now here she is, trying to reassure me with that same scary voice. “My personality, it’s not like my music,” she laughs. We’ll see.

Mering is a Los Angelino by birth but spent her early years just outside of Philadelphia. She learned piano from her mother in her childhood and also started on guitar thanks to her musician dad, who had previously played in a locally popular band around LA. “He was a new waver! They opened up for the Knack, Oingo Boingo, people like that,” Mering laughs. I suggest that you can’t hear much in the way of gated drums and keytars in the sounds of Weyes Blood. “Yeah,” she says, “although I guess he might have related more to my music when he was playing in garage bands, like in high school in the late ’60s.”

With such a solid musical grounding, Mering hoped to find kindred spirits at school to play with and was dead set against the idea of going solo. “There were a group of guys and I wanted to be in their band so bad,” she recalls, with a bitter laugh. “They would invite me to play so they could use my amp and then they wouldn’t let me be in their band. The vibe was ‘No girls allowed’ pretty much across the board in my town so I couldn’t find a band to be in.”

In the end, we’ve probably got Mering’s small-minded school pals to thank, at least in part, for her distinctive sound. Instead of joining a band (“they all just wanted to play grindcore, scream, hardcore anyway”), Mering channelled her energy inwards, buying herself an eight-track and recording from around the age of 15. It was a cathartic process, she says. “All that resentment, oh wow, yeah… I definitely didn’t want to be a solo artist but it became another necessity, like the only thing that I had going on.”

Having found her musical footing, she headed to Portland, Oregon to study, where she soon crossed paths with Tom Greenwood and his offbeat psychedelic collective, Jackie-O Motherfucker. Mering briefly joined the band before dropping out of university and heading to Baltimore for the city’s music scene, where she met a boyfriend who ran a farm. Dovetailing nicely with a lifelong fascination with nature, she decided up sticks once more to rural Kentucky to help with the farm, before moving on yet again to New Mexico to harvest wild herbs for tinctures. Having heard Mering’s darkly pastoral music, it’s not too great a stretch of the imagination to picture her roaming fields and forests amidst the morning dew.

Mering eventually ended up in New York through a combination of circumstance and creative restlessness, preordained by breaking up with her boyfriend right about the time she’d grown tired of her adopted rural habitat. “I guess I realised that, full-time, that life wasn’t for me because I know I’m supposed to be making music. I realised I had to be urbanised to produce the kind of music that I wanted to. I couldn’t go back to Baltimore because it’s too small, although I daydream about moving back there all the time. I also think I was seeking, you know, more extreme experiences and I just wanted to be near people; kind of the classic New York thing.”

After years of hawking cassettes and EPs, Mering released her first bona fide album, ‘The Outside Room’, on Not Not Fun in 2011. It’s a record that’s as fascinating as it is challenging, awash with organs, tape delays, offbeat tunings and of course Mering’s forlorn vibrato quiver. It’s less a collection of songs and more a series of distorted psychedelic folk soundscapes, drifting in and out of focus. She describes the record as a “steering of sonic happenings,” which sounds about right.

“It’s kind of like a daydream,” Mering elaborates. “There’s a song about dreams on it and a lot of the material around that time was kind of inspired by dreams I was having. I was having really intense dreams all the time, so I was kind of like building a dream geography in my mind, like a simple picture of the actual planet. And I was so fascinated by that and I just couldn’t believe that reality couldn’t be as rich and amazing as your dream.”

Since then, the focus has been less on soundscapes and more on song craft. FM radio apparently played a role in shaping the new record, although it’s hard to imagine a track like ‘Some Winters’ getting much airtime from Steve Wright on a Sunday. All the same, there’s certainly a much greater sense of structure and focus on ‘The Innocents’. “You also become a better musician though,” Mering adds. “I figure I’ve got a lot better at structure and composition and just kind of playing things straight but having the interesting elements be subtle, which I think is the best way the interesting elements can be. Like a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, you know, and the sugar here is the song structure.”

If Mering is at ease talking about the song-writing process, influences – or even tangential references – are something of a challenge. In fairness, her music seems impervious to the changing of time and the seasons, as though existing in a permanent state of transition between autumn and the winter. In previous interviews she’s mentioned pre-Bach classical music but I wonder if there are any more contemporary touch points. Silence. “It’s not easy,” she eventually concedes. “I don’t really have any. I like Ariel Pink, even though my music doesn’t sound anything like him. Oh and I really like [experimental singer-songwriter] John Maus. He went to college with Ariel Pink and he makes music that’s very dark and brooding, kind of Renaissance-y and baroque-sounding. If you heard his music you’d be like ‘Oh yeah right, now I get it’ He’s fabulous!” Mering implores me to check him out.

I eventually find out that Sonic Youth were another formative influence and it’s not difficult to see why. The New York alternative trailblazers themselves strived beyond musical archetypes and opened the doors to a world of unconventional tunings and song structures for Mering in the same way they have for generations of alternative musicians. “I think what was so appealing about Sonic Youth was their background in experimental music, classical, free jazz and all that stuff,” she says, animatedly. “Like you get into them and then you get into a bunch of other stuff.”

Being a huge fan of the band myself, I’m glad to have found some common ground between the two of us and start quizzing Mering on supporting front man Thurston Moore’s side project, Chelsea Light Moving. “Yeah I feel bad but… I don’t like him anymore,” she interrupts, stopping me dead in my tracks. Oh dear.

I suggest this might be down to Moore’s well-documented marital infidelity (his marriage with bandmate Kim Gordon broke down in 2011 following a long-term affair). “No, it was before that actually,” Mering corrects me. “When I met him I just didn’t like him as a person anymore and it sort of tainted my experience of being in music. I had looked up to him so, so much and I think at that point I decided to be like, ‘Okay, you’re just a dude and I actually don’t need to look up to you so much.’ But I love Kim – she’s my favourite aspect of the whole band – and I like [guitarist] Lee Ranaldo. I don’t want to talk trash, though.” She stifles an awkward laugh.

If it’s clear Mering doesn’t want to dwell on the subject, it’s equally obvious that the experience made quite an impression and warrants further discussion. She lets out a sigh as the sound of a train rumbles away in the background. “I think what I didn’t like about the whole situation was that being a girl playing in underground music, the first thing people would say to me is: ‘Oh, Thurston’s gonna love your music, he’s gonna want to put out your record and you’re gonna be buddies.’ It just felt like, damn, it’s so sad that as a woman in music you have to be ‘saved’ by some dude that likes to horndog on young women.” Cue more nervous laughter.

I get the feeling there’s a lot more to this than Mering is willing to let on but in the interests of closing the interview on a positive note (and avoiding any libel suits for Loud And Quiet), we move on. In any case, there are better things to talk about. For one thing, Mering is heading back to the UK in February on tour. For another, a new record is already in the works. “I have it actually written,” she reveals. “I’m going to be promoting this one and touring extensively but then hopefully getting straight back to the studio. I don’t know how much I should talk about it yet. It’s going to be like the porridge in Goldilocks. The first one was like mama’s porridge, the second one is papa’s porridge and the next one will be the perfect porridge for me.”

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