Natalie Mering releases her gorgeous Front Row Seat To Earth this Friday, and she’s finally accepted that listeners are holding the record up as something special.
Its juxtaposition of the ’60s-’70s era chamber pop, soft rock and folk that might have come from Topanga Canyon stands apart from the countless other throwback artists of our day because Mering uses those sounds with purpose. Combining her earnest perspectives and sardonic wit, Mering takes pieces of the past to form the most affecting type of music—that which both regales you with its simple beauty, but still manages to sound deeply unsettling.
Performing as Weyes Blood, Mering has known how to sound both timeless and modern for years, but Front Row Seat To Earth channels that gift into pointed ruminations on the waves of nature, how we threaten them and how they persevere still. Such heavy environmental subtext would come off as preachy in lesser hands, but it’s a testament to Mering’s command of song that she’s able to use a juxtaposition between the now and the then to show us they are, in fact, part of the same trajectory.
“We’re still riding that wave, and modernity is a long, drawn-out thing.”
Her sense of humor makes much of this possible, whether it finds Mering dressing up as a mermaid or a mustachioed man in her videos, or opening her favorite song on the album with an auto-tuned choir chanting “YOLO,” repurposing the phrase to reflect the grim surrender of personal responsibility.
Our conversation taught me a lot about how this extreme empath rides her own waves, too. Though we talked about everything from the cultural factors informing astrology to the joy of growing up by the ocean, the connecting thread between all of it turned out to be same thread running through Mering’s work—an investigation of what it truly means to be present with things, to see them for what they truly are, and then use that power to hold a mirror to the world.
Last fall at Basilica Hudson was a wonderful weekend, and you played a special set. I remember you closed with a Harry Nilsson cover. Are you still doing that?
These days I do a different cover, Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”. A real slow burner.
Well, let’s talk about the new record, because it’s really a remarkable achievement and defining album in your disco so far. Are you excited, stressed out?
I was maybe a little stressed before because I didn’t think it was that remarkable. When you’re working on a thing it’s really difficult to see it for what it is, because it could always be better in your mind. It wasn’t until we started putting stuff out that I realized people really liked it, and I could take a second to appreciate.
I thought of you when that last Kurt Vile record came out as he has this lyric, “you got Wise Blood.” He told Entertainment Weekly that it was based on the Flannery O’Connor book. Is that where you get your name from too?
So what’s the deal with this book?
It’s a Southern Gothic novel, a classic, it’s really existential and very strange. There’s a fool and a really intelligent guy, so there’s all these archetypes woven in together, and each one is relatable in their own separate ways. One of them has a really staunch Christian, religious, tortured kind of vibe and the other is just a total fool, a complete idiot. The dynamic between those two characters is something that I feel is just poetry. It’s a novel, but the whole thing reads like poetry.
She’s a master of the short story, too, which makes her able to cram a lot into a little. That’s hard for some writers.
Well that’s what you do when you’re writing a song, trying to get as much narrative in there while making it still conversational is kind of like songwriting, too.
“Presence to me is not wandering into the future, into the past, wishing you were somewhere else. It’s tuning into what’s going on, even if it’s heavy and dark.”
This juxtaposition between characters that you’re describing is interesting to me, too, because your parents became very religious but still kept the West Coast hippie vibe, as you explained it in the past. Then some years later you go and join Jackie-O-Motherfucker, which is funny to me because I remember getting Flags of the Sacred Harp in college and just listening to that record day in and day out. Have you learned anything from communal relationships?
I’ll be honest with you, I’ve kind of always been a loner. My time in Jackie-O was very short, and I was never really jazzed or satisfied with how the band went down. By the time I joined it was kind of a different season for the band, and we did improvisatory music that was fun, but I actually quit in the middle of the tour. I always wanted musical communal relationships, but it never happened.
And through that not working out you discovered more about yourself and your own music?
Yeah, definitely. In high school I really wanted to be in band, but I couldn’t. So I started jamming with myself on a four track, and that was the beginning of Weyes Blood.
What does it mean to be present for you? You have such a strong sense of self in your songs, and now we’re talking about O’Connor’s knack for being able to pack a lot into a little. What does being present with another person, or even with yourself, mean to you?
I feel like I struggle with the opposite problem, where it’s hard for me to not be present with something. I’m constantly thinking about what’s going on underneath the surface or somebody else’s feelings, or my feelings, to the point where it’s kind of like every moment is a heavy moment. So when I’m performing I always feel very in tune with what I’m about to say, what it means or what I’m implying. Presence to me is not wandering into the future, into the past, wishing you were somewhere else. It’s tuning into what’s going on, even if it’s heavy and dark.
Is that where some of the themes on the record come from? These are beautiful songs about heavy shit, for lack of a better word.
Totally, yeah. I think there’s a lot of humor in tragedy, and I try to straddle the two.
That goes with something else you’ve said before, that you consider yourself very light and funny in person, but your music is very serious, and there’s a dichotomy there. Do you find yourself having to switch on into “serious mode”? When is it time to joke around and when is it time to deliver prophecy?
[Laughs] That’s a good way to put it. I find when I perform, just opening up and beginning to sing, the way my voice sounds just tunes people into that. But I also usually say a terrible joke, somewhere in the set when everything’s gotten so heavy, and I can tell that there’s probably someone in the audience crying or something. Then I’ll just break everybody’s concentration with the terrible joke and go back into some sad music. I’m a naturally emotional person so I never have to ‘get sad’ or something, it’s already naturally there.
Maybe you’re a Pisces like me.
I’m not a Pisces, but I love Pisces. Lou Reed was a Pisces.
I don’t know how much of that shit to believe.
I certainly believe that when we’re born culturally affects our mood as we grow up. When we celebrate our birthday. So the December babies are often very jovial and happy, full of mirth.
Well, Aries are born in the school year where they’re naturally the older kids in the school, so they’re naturally more intellectually developed, hanging out with kids that are younger. So that’s why Aries have that reputation for being more fastidious.
Maybe I’m onto something with this theory that astrology is more cultural than we give it credit for.
Oh yeah, totally. There’s a lot of Gemini singers or people that use their voice. I couldn’t give you a cultural explanation, only an astrological explanation.
Hmm, so maybe some are more cultural and some more astrological. But I’d love to hear it.
The astrological explanation is that in the progression of the zodiac, Gemini is the communication. You’re born and you’re nothing, you realize you’re something, and then you communicate. That’s what Gemini is, the twins.
Ah, the twins are talking to each other. They have that ESP.
Mmmhm, and also a polarity, stuck between two things.
That sounds like Pisces though.
Well they’re all part of the same thing. [Laughs]
“I could go out during El Niño and knew how to dive beneath the waves, hang on and not get swept out. I knew how to play with the tide, let it toss me around and not get messed up. I could just really read the waves.”
Where do beaches enter into your life? I know you’re from Santa Monica, you lived out on Rockaway…being from Miami I’ve always lived on coasts, but never understood why. But I noticed that both in your biography and in the videos for the new record, beaches are important. You become the mermaid, too, and I’m wondering if that’s a deliberate stylistic decision on your part or just something you’ve always been into.
I grew up going to the ocean, and as a child I kind of conquered it. I could go out during El Niño and knew how to dive beneath the waves, hang on and not get swept out. I knew how to play with the tide, let it toss me around and not get messed up. I could just really read the waves. And I did a little bit of surfing and junior lifeguard. When you have that kind of relationship with the ocean it becomes part of your blood, part of what keeps you alive, you know?
That would explain why you like Pisces so much too.
Oh yeah…I love water.
Do you feel weird traveling away from it, when you’re landlocked for a while? Does it wane on you?
I don’t know. We moved to Pennsylvania at a certain point in my upbringing, when I was 11 years old. I kinda of had to suffer from getting the beach out of my system, so I know what’ it’s like to be landlocked. We would swim in rivers, which is way more dangerous and insane, and I don’t have a handle on that. Rivers and creeks and lakes and things like that. So I’ve always kept water close to me, but it wasn’t until living in Rockaway that I really got to investigate my obsession with the ocean again.
Awesome. Positive reactions aside, what are you hoping people unearth while listening to your record? I’ve listened through a few times but feel like I’m still sitting with it. It doesn’t seem to show its hand right away.
I hope they see the timelessness and universality of the issues that we’re facing as human beings. How the macrocosm of some of these big, globalized problems that are really hard for us to grasp with our mind are very symbolically related to the microcosmic, personal issues that we face with each other and within our selves.
It’s almost like you’re playing music from when these problems first started, from when industry started to reveal its fangs. The ’50s and early ’60s were so idyllic in America, but all the fallout from TV dinners and big industry was starting to create complexes that are destroying our planet. I think it’s cool that you’re going back to the music of the ’70s, but the messages are just as firmly rooted in the present.
Yeah, we’re still riding that wave, and modernity is a long, drawn-out thing.
That seems to be what the best art students will always struggle with. When does modernity stop and post-modern start? What movement are we in now?
Well, how many times can you say “post”? Eventually you’re going to have to come up with a new word.
That loops around to your ability to sit with the present, too, which is a skill we could all probably use a little bit more of.
Yeah, let’s call it “Present Modern,” which has a little tinge of nostalgia to it, because that’s the way that everybody’s feeling right now. [Laughs]