Natalie Mering has spent the last decade establishing herself as one of America’s most adventurous contemporary songwriters, and new album And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow might just be her most impressive collection yet. On the day of the Queen’s funeral, she meets Gemma Samways in East London to discuss the role of the artist, her friendship with Adam Curtis and why it’s so important to stay earnest and hopeful as society continues to deteriorate
Natalie Mering is fascinated by polarities. A former noise musician now famed for a velvety croon that could rival Karen Carpenter, the Californian singer-songwriter better known as Weyes Blood is responsible for some of the most wildly beautiful records of the last decade. Look beyond the plush vocal harmonies and sumptuous arrangements, however, and you’ll usually find a needling sense of unease, communicated in lyrics contemplating issues as dense as the climate crisis and social media-induced anxiety. In a strange piece of synergy, this morning she’s wearing jeans that work as a physical manifestation of that inner duality, with one black leg and one white.
Mering is in London to promote And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow, her fifth studio album and the second part of a trilogy that she began with 2019’s universally adored Titanic Rising. She describes this new record as a “dystopian romance novel”, examining human connections, or the lack thereof. Sonically, the album was inspired by Scott Walker’s late ’60s output – specifically Scott 3 and Scott 4 – but predictably the results are much more complex. Extending from celestial soft-rock (‘It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everyone’) to Vangelis-esque soundscapes (the Daniel Lopatin-assisted ‘God Turn Me Into A Flower’), the record is rich with ambitious sonic tapestries, variously combining strings, harps, choirs, galactic synths and the hopeful chirrup of birds.
In a piece of particularly surreal timing, when we sit down to talk today – in the restaurant of a swanky East London hotel in mid-September – Queen Elizabeth II’s state funeral is being relayed live in the background. Already a slightly unsettling interviewee by virtue of her inscrutability, Mering’s low murmurs are given a weird gravitas by the sombre sounds of the Westminster Abbey Choir bleeding from a nearby TV. In some respects, it feels like the perfect first impression.
Gemma Samways: It’s definitely a strange time to be in the UK. What do you make of all the pageantry?
Natalie Mering: Well, I thought about going and looking at the coffin, but it was a 16-hour line so I didn’t do it. Do you know the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis?
GS: Of course.
NM: So I was supposed to meet up with him later and he was like, “Oh yeah, it’s the Queen’s funeral but we could meet up.” And I was like, that is the biggest flex for me, an American, to be like, “During the Queen’s funeral I was just hanging with Adam Curtis.”
GS: Why are you hanging out with Adam Curtis?
NM: I’m just such a huge fan of his work. He came to one of my shows and we’ve just been, like, loosely in touch for some years now.
GS: I find his films such a mindfuck. The way he shows that the smallest actions in the past cause ripples in history that impact our daily reality…
NM: That’s what we talk about. Like, what happened in 1999? Why did culture just suddenly plummet into the ground? Because the boomers were afraid of death. We just jam. I’m just really into history. I think if I hadn’t been a songwriter, I probably would have been somebody like that who’s just constantly mining for clues.
But yeah, the funeral. As an American, we get so gaga about pageantry because we don’t have anything like that. So it’s easy to be fascinated by it. And also the British Empire was just so massive. She’s kind of the last big reigning monarch.
GS: Which feels a neat way to segue into your new album, And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow, and the song ‘Children Of The Empire’.
NM: Yeah, I mean, it’s inspired by being an extension of the British Empire, for sure. Just the idea of an empire being an influential thing that changes and kind of flatlines the culture globally – you know, a lot of technology and things are all the same. But the empire could refer to children of the western empire, or anywhere.
GS: The album artwork feels very nostalgic.
NM: Like Blade Runner meets Pride and Prejudice. I wrote the song ‘Hearts Aglow’ and when I was thinking about the album artwork, I was like, well, you know, what I’ve never done is built a prosthetic. So I found somebody that could build a prosthetic, glow-in-the-dark chest plate. I just thought that would be so fun to take pictures of and make videos with. So we just went for it. And the dress was actually a Halloween costume that I just happened to put on for one of the shoots.
GS: What was the Halloween costume?
NM: Just a sexy, dead, 17th-century hottie. I was walking down the street and I just walked into a vintage shop and saw the dress and was like, “There’s my costume|.” But the album’s visual concept is definitely cohesive, and that artwork appears in some of the videos. But this video I’m about to put out for ‘It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody’ is kind of a different universe.
GS: A different universe in what sense?
NM: Have you ever seen [1945 film] Anchors Aweigh with Gene Kelly, where he dances with Jerry the Mouse? It’s loosely based on that dance, but with an animated cell phone. Like a Technicolor musical apocalypse stage thing.
GS: Were you a theatre kid growing up?
NM: Kind of. Not totally, but I was definitely into it. I played Rizzo in Grease twice: once in middle school and once in high school. But I’m a big fan of the Technicolor musicals, the MGM musicals. There’s very little plot, it doesn’t totally make sense: it’s just these huge visual displays with practical effects and lighting and things like that. So it’s fun to experiment with that. In this video I’m dressed like a sailor.
GS: I’m imagining On The Town.
NM: Totally like that.
GS: And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow is the second part in a trilogy you began with Titanic Rising. At what stage did you decide this was going to be a trilogy?
NM: I mean, I definitely felt like Titanic Rising was sounding the alarm of things to come. And I knew the record after that was going to be a continuation, because it’s almost as if everything happened that I thought was going to happen. So it was at the start of this record that I was like, “Oh this is definitely a trilogy,” because I knew it wasn’t going to be the [record] about hope, because there weren’t many solutions in sight yet. It was like, alright, this album is about being in the thick of it – about everything actually happening for real. Titanic Rising is about the external and observing things, whereas this one’s more about feeling. And so I figured the next one would be about hope. Then I could go do something else.
GS: Introducing the album, you described the current state of the world as “a fully functional shit show.” What would you pinpoint as the specific causes for that?
NM: I think there’s a hyper-isolation situation going on where technology has created this environment where people are expected to be completely self-sustainable and not interdependent on other people. There’s this idea that you should be this unit that functions independently of needing anybody and I think that that is a falsehood. It makes people deranged. And I think that it’s getting worse.
GS: Do you lay the blame for that squarely at social media?
NM: I think social media is definitely very isolating. But I do think it’s also late-stage capitalism. And the technology itself is just so carceral, where it’s like once you buy into it you can’t necessarily buy out. It’s like we’re all gridlocked into using it and there’s really no way back. We can’t reverse it and be like, “Oh we’re all going to quit our phones,” like people quit smoking in the ’80s. I just don’t think that’s going to happen.
Social media aside, look at the concept of emails. You write one email, it makes 25 more and before you know it you’re like sitting at a computer for six hours doing work that might have been completed with an hour of phone calls. That technology itself perpetuates a lack of real-life interactions.
GS: How do you think we repair those human connections?
NM: I mean, at this point, it feels like it’ll be something like a movement of people that consciously make an effort to artificially create that space. But I think we’re kind of down the rabbit hole at this point. The younger generation is so raised on that technology that that’s just their new norm. I used to feel a little bit more like a Luddite. Like, let’s smash the phones! Let’s go back! But you can’t really go back.
I would hope that we can create some kind of system to keep the technology from invading everybody’s personal privacy, because at this stage it’s just a mass surveillance project. But it seems like if it were up to the younger people, this is just their new normal. [Complaining about it] is like being somebody hanging out in the 1950s going “television is bad.” Like, this is obviously going to ruin politics, because it’s going to prioritise politicians who look like JFK and are good on television versus, like, William Taft, who was a 300-pound, balding president but who probably knew how to do political discourse. Television probably single-handedly destroyed political discourse. And maybe cell phones single handedly destroyed something else. But what are people going to do about it?
GS: You could blame social media for dividing society in terms of the political discourse, particularly because there’s no space for nuance anymore. Do you make the effort to engage with people outside of your own echo chamber?
NM: Definitely. I have to because my family is all different, so I don’t have the privilege of thinking that the world is just one note. I have a lot of different people in my life with different experiences – and not viewpoints I necessarily agree with. I think the pandemic was hard in America because there’s so much polarity and it was really easy for families to really argue about the vaccine. At a certain point, I had to decide that I wanted a relationship with my family more than I wanted us to agree on everything.
GS: To go back to ‘Children Of The Empire’, you rail against inaction in the line, “We don’t have time anymore to be afraid.” The climate crisis is something you discussed extensively on Titanic Rising. Do you think there’s hope for humanity to reverse the damage we’ve caused?
NM: Well the billionaire CEO of Patagonia just gave his company away to fight the climate crisis. So yeah, I think it would take some billionaires dipping into their pockets… I mean, the idea of pushing deeper into the frontier of technology to solve the climate crisis is – I think – kind of a bad idea. I don’t think that we’re going to create carbon sucking vacuums that just magically get rid of the carbon in the atmosphere. I think it’s just going to evolve into something where geoengineering is going to become more of a thing, which would probably destroy the delicate balance of the system even more. I mean, I think it would take something so radical at this point [to reverse the damage].
To me, it seems like everybody’s just trying to get the last bit of the dream that they can. We gotta go on vacation, we’ve got to start the family. Everybody’s locking down and trying to have some semblance of normalcy, versus doing radical activism to try to change the future.
GS: Preparing for the apocalypse.
NM: Like I said before, I think people feel like we’re gridlocked into this situation and there’s so much abstract information it’s so hard to turn it into tangible action.
GS: As a musician, what influence do you think that you can have? I mean, you’re having these conversations publicly – maybe you’re helping people engage with those ideas? Do you see you have a role to play in changing perceptions?
NM: I don’t think so at all. I stand with Adam Curtis on this: I think that I made the choice to be an artist. In my own way, I do live within an echo chamber of preaching to the choir. I think, at this point, I focus more on being the salve for the anxiety and the depression that comes from living in such an unstable world. I hope I can shed light on the disillusionment and make it clear for people to understand where their disillusionment might come from. Because the more you let go, the more you can find peace.
We’re kind of entering this dark time of uncertainty but we are beings of light and we can let go and experience reality and have things exceed our expectations, even. For example, the first time I went to a party after Covid, it was a transcendent experience and people were so sincere. So I think that in times of destruction and change, as well as disillusionment and depression, the contrast will be very soft, sincere, open people.
GS: That reminds me of the line you announced your album with: “My heart is a glow stick that’s been cracked, lighting up my chest in an explosion of earnestness.”
NM: Well, you have to crack a glowstick to make it work. So if your heart’s been cracked, you glow more… To use a raver metaphor.
GS: The term ‘earnest’ has become something of a pejorative. Do you see it as a wholly positive thing?
NM: Yeah, definitely. I mean, it’s definitely something that certain cultures have looked down upon as being cheesy, but I think that it’s actually a pretty noble and honour-filled mission to stay earnest and not get, you know, bitter and jaded.
GS: What other missions do you have at this stage in your career?
NM: I hope to accomplish sonically the stuff that I hear in my head. And I’ve never been able to totally do that. It’s a real struggle. Whatever I create is always like a fraction of what I think it could be. But that’s the really beautiful part of being an artist. Your masterpiece is in your mind and then you have to kill it, serve it on a plate and be like, “Ok, here you go world.” But when it’s alive and running around, it could be anything.
So I do feel like my biggest ambition is to make a record that sonically marries all of my phases, like the experimental noise phase, the songwriting phase, the crooner phase… I want to make a completely futuristic record where you can’t tell that it’s futuristic because it feels like home. I’m really into polarities.
GS: The trousers!
NM: The trousers.
Stylist: Lucy Upton-Prowse
Stylist Assistant: Olivia Moore
Makeup & Hair Stylist: Lydia Warhurst using Lumene, Elf Cosmetics & Moroccan Oil