Natalie Mering’s voice is at once comforting and unique, dramatic but never overbearing. There is an elegant lilt to her delivery, evocative of a different era of popular music altogether. As Weyes Blood, she crafts emotional epics that masquerade as psych-folk ballads, subtly symphonic songs that are informed by yesterday but live and breathe right now.
The cover of her forthcoming album, Front Row Seat to Earth, finds her surrounded by a vast landscape straight out of Star Trek, wearing a polished aquamarine suit. And yet, if you look closely, you’ll notice that her luxurious outfit is accented by lovingly worn sneakers—a touch of coziness in an alien atmosphere.
The shoes might double as something of a visual gag. “I am a ham, I like to joke around,” Mering says with a laugh over Skype, “which is a little bit of the opposite of the implications of my music—it’s so heavy, I guess.”
Front Row Seat to Earth offers exactly what it says on the box. The album’s love songs feel directed to the planet as a whole as opposed to any singular person. It’s protest music that punches at elements of the human condition with lines like “Let the world carve at your heart/Don’t need a home if you come apart.” There’s more specific conceptual commentary too. On the brilliant anti-anthem “Generation Why,” Mering sings of an impending apocalypse playing out beyond our screens: “Goin’ to see the end of days/I’ve been hanging on my phone all day/And the fear goes away.”
Talking about those lines, she explains how she initially rejected the social media ubiquity that feels necessary for artists in the modern age. But when she finally did get a smartphone, she found herself instantly succumbing to its narcotic appeal. “I started taking mad pics and texting with people all day long every day,” she says. “We are emotionally predisposed to our connectivity—we’re just acting out this opiate for the masses.” She goes on to draw parallels between onetime millennial mantra YOLO, which is co-opted for the chorus of “Generation Why,” and the impending consequences of environmental destruction. “The reason the ‘you only live once’ philosophy exists is because our situation is pretty desperate,” she says. “The cataclysm of climate change and all that is very physical and it affects our ability to survive on the planet. It’s like learning how to accept the apocalypse without fear.”
Mering entered this planet by way of Santa Monica, California, to parents who both wrote and performed music. Her father Sumer once fronted a strutting new wave band (also called Sumner) that issued one album (also called Sumner) in 1980 that was produced by famed Rolling Stones collaborator Jack Nitzsche. But by the time Natalie was born, her mom and dad had left the secular life behind and converted to born-again Christians. “But they retained some of their hipness and still played Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell in the house,” she remembers. Mering honed her singing abilities through performing in church and school choir, and eventually went through an underwhelming stint at Lewis & Clark College in the Pacific Northwest before dropping out and immersing herself in the Philadelphia noise scene.
From there, she performed alongside Portland experimentalists Jackie-O Motherfucker and Baltimore weirdos Nautical Almanac when she wasn’t spending isolated days in Kentucky and New Mexico. I ask her where she considers home. “I’m from nowhere,” she replies, before breaking into laughter. She eventually moved to Rockaway Beach, Queens, where she recorded her last release, Cardamom Times. Today, the nomadic singer claims residence closer to her birthplace in Southern California, where she created Front Row.
By some metrics of the music industry, Mering is a seasoned pro—she’s been active in underground music for a decade and issued her first self-released album in 2007. But now, on the cusp of a national tour, she says she’s uninterested in finding recognition for her music. More than ever before, she’s absorbed with perfecting her technique, learning from the greats, and singing the soul from her body.
Pitchfork: How would you define “authenticity” as an artist?
Natalie Mering: In the beginning, I was convinced by patriarchal, white males that authenticity was a certain level of rawness and unsophisticated expression. But then I realized that that’s not true at all—authenticity is not somebody who is ignorant of things. I finally had to come to terms with the fact that I sang well, in an “old-school” way, and that was just as authentic, because it was coming from my soul. Authenticity is a scapegoat for a deeper form of judgment. It’s bias and it also comes from guilt, from a real civilized, structured sort of reality. People might look at something that’s raw and unhinged and be like, “Wow, that’s so much more real than my cubicle life”—but that doesn’t mean the person in the cubicle is any less authentic, does it?
When you were coming up and developing your singing voice, did anyone ever say, “You shouldn’t sing that way?”
I’ve had men be like, “That’s a little too girly. I could see you downplaying that.” Or people would say, “Oh, vibrato, that’s a bit much.” But my voice has developed a lot, and I’ve honed in on masking “being trained” a little bit. Good singing is learning how to transmit learning musical information with your voice in a way that everybody can relate to. But as a woman you just get a lot of criticism because everyone sees you like a raw lump of clay that needs some help. I’m sure men get that too, but I feel like I’ve definitely gotten a lot of people telling me what they think I need.
Do you see yourself getting to a point where you want to be self-producing your records?
What kind of singers did you listen to when you were younger?
As a teenager, I really loved Catherine Ribeiro—extremely powerful, wild, improvisatory voice. I loved old psych-rock bands, and Michael Hurley, and Harry Nilsson. And then later on I discovered the famous European singer Demis Roussos, who used to be in Aphrodite’s Child. In Europe, you can sing like a crazy opera singer and people are down. In America, we don’t have that old-world influence. Looking into European music, I always found people that were more like my singing style, because I sang so much European music as a teenager. These days I practice with the early doo-wop singers—the Platters, the Righteous Brothers—I just sing standards. Elvis’ last performance of “Unchained Melody” from right before he died is one of the most insane things I’ve ever seen. You can just see him pulling his voice out and using his entire soul. That’s been my vibe as of late.
You’ve spoken about not wanting to be stuck under the “folk” banner. Do you still think about whether or not something you write is considered “folky?”
Things are a little bit more like the ’70s now, in a weird way, where you can make a record like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, with these insane folk jams, but then also have all these rock anthems on it too. It’s important to me to not stay too confined to any specific sonic space. There is something really magical about straight folk music—it’s not that I don’t like it, it’s just that I like so much music, I hear so many different things, and I want to try more. I don’t want to be confined.