Photo by Katie Miller
Something feels a little bit off about the cover of Weyes Blood’s new album, Front Row Seat to Earth. The first thing to notice is Natalie Mering, the sole member of Weyes Blood, reclining in a shiny blue suit and a pair of dirty white sneakers. But step back a bit and scan the landscape behind her and the cheekily glamorous look of it seems a bit more unsettling. It’s a vast, open expanse of mountains and water, pools surrounding the narrow bank where she’s positioned. One way to look at it is as a peaceful, natural setting. But viewed another way, it might be seen as a barren wasteland: The end of civilization.
It’s not the first time that Weyes Blood (pronounced “wise blood”) has nodded to dystopia. In fact, one track on Front Row Seat—released in 2016 via Mexican Summer—explicitly deals with a rapidly deteriorating society (like the one we’re experiencing now) as viewed through screens. There’s some humor to it—the chorus goes “y-o-l-o-why,” making a palindromic pun—but through a gentle folk arrangement reminiscent of early ‘70s Joni Mitchell, Mering seeks solace through a period of uncomfortable transition: “Used to think it was bad/That we were all going mad/But now it’s fine to leave... Carry me through the waves of change.” It’s both terrifying and comforting.
In a phone interview from her home in Los Angeles, Mering says that she’s always been fascinated by ideas of apocalypse and dystopia.
“I think it’s happening in our lifetime,” she says. “And it’s always been happening. It’s part of human experience, human civilization. There’s always a dark underbelly. Humans are founded on cataclysm, I think.”
When asked if she’s a pessimist, however, Mering argues that seeing darkness on the horizon doesn’t necessarily mean that she assumes the worst.
“No,” she says, pausing to sort out her perspective. “Maybe a realist? I don’t know. I try not to be too pessimistic, but I think it’s important to embrace the themes of dystopia, because it might be an inevitability. As elastic, evolutionary beings we can shift our perspectives and not see something dystopian as the end.”
If Weyes Blood’s music is infused with darkness, pessimistic or not, it’s delivered through beautifully elaborate vessels. While everything that Mering writes is beautiful, sometimes it’s stark in arrangement and sometimes it’s expansive and intricately composed. And sure, she goes to some uncomfortable places, whether it’s the black-screen view of the apocalypse in “Generation Why” or the breakup narrative of “Seven Words,” complete with a somewhat disturbing video featuring a physical altercation in the ocean. But whatever complex emotions Mering aims to convey through her music, she does so via songs that evoke a wide spectrum of classic pop, from Judee Sill to Fleetwood Mac.
To hear the production on Front Row Seat to Earth, it’s hard not to come away from it thinking it’s the kind of record that took years to make. And while Mering did spend a few months refining half of the songs on tour before recording them, she says that most of the songs came to her in spontaneous bursts.
“A lot of them were sort of like lightning strikes,” she says. “I was having very specific emotions and I sat down to write something and they came out fully formed. Others I wrote in pieces, but mostly it’s kind of like a weird moment where it happens all at once. The words kind of trickle in later. A lot of the record I had been touring before I recorded it. It’s a key point in the process I think. When you go in and record it, you want to know it like the back of your hand.”
Weyes Blood is a solo project, with each song written by Mering herself. Yet the album features production and drums from Chris Cohen, formerly of Deerhoof, and of late she’s collaborated with other artists. Last year she made an appearance on Drugdealer’s The End of Comedy, and in January she released a collaborative EP with psychedelic pop weirdo Ariel Pink titled Tears on Fire. Mering says that she has a system for how she likes to make her own records, but working with other artists gives her an opportunity to see a different approach.
“I think because I’ve been a solo musician for so long I do enjoy a collaboration,” she says. “When I get a chance to work with someone else, I embrace the opportunity. It’s fun. Doing everything by yourself takes a lot of existential strength. You carry all this weight by yourself. But when you collaborate, you can lean on each other.
“I’m pretty set in my ways of what I like, but occasionally I’ll learn to have more of an attitude shift,” she says of the collaborative process. “Generally, I do what I do. But I appreciate seeing another perspective. There’s lots of elements to making a record, so seeing how other people do it is interesting to me.”
Weyes Blood’s songs might have listeners thinking about the world’s end, or they might help nurse a broken heart. Or maybe they’ll inspire some deep, critical thought. But more than anything, Mering just hopes they inspire some kind of emotional reaction.
“I guess if I make somebody cry at a performance or something and they say, ‘I cried it was so beautiful,’ it’s good, it’s a nice release. So yeahhhh,” she says, affecting a wry tone. “I like making people cry.
Weyes Blood plays Feb 16 at Soda Bar