New York musician and vocalist Natalie Mering explores the depths of songwriting
Natalie Mering is the type of person who’s not afraid to delve into the more mysterious and esoteric sides of humanity – from herbalism and Jungian psychology to Native American legends and the novels of Flannery O‘Connor.
The 27-year-old resident of Queens is also not adverse to explore the realms of experimental music, going to lengths of making her own musical instruments and building her vocal range to create a memorable and haunting sound of psychedelic rock, pop and folk.
Going by the moniker Weyes Blood, Mering has been creating music since the mid-2000s under her band name, garnering critical acclaim for her DIY albums of avant-garde sounds of guitar, synthesizers, keyboards and dissonant harmonies that culminated in her 2011 release, The Outside Room.
Music has been a lifelong pursuit for the Doylestown, Bucks County native who grew up in a fairly conservative Pentecostal family. She started singing and writing songs around the age of 5 or 6 after her father taught her how to play E minor chord on the guitar and later learning piano. She devoted herself to music in high school, building her own vinyl collection, joining the band and performing in every choral group offered.
It was Mering’s voice that cemented her musical prowess – a distinct, lower-range alto full of vibrancy and longing. She says a few years ago she decided to hone in on using her whole vocal range and “kind of be a powerhouse,” not hiding the fact that her voice is on the deeper end of the spectrum.
Mering’s musings on vocal experimentation led to her latest release – 2014’s The Innocents on Mexican Summer records (Best Coast, Marissa Nadler, Quilt). Mering says she wanted to emphasize her vocals more distinctly, moving away from the instrumental exploration on The Outside Room.
The Innocents, which made several critics end-of-year best-of 2014 lists, is made up of intricate, beautiful harmonies with Mering’s introspective lyrics. There’s the ecclesiastical-like dirge “Requiem for Forgiveness,” and the album’s first single “Hang On,” featuring lyrics like, “I will hang on/When the rains come/And wash away/All I’ve come from.”
Weyes Blood comes to the region for several shows this month, touring in support of her newest EP – the October 9 release, Cardamom Times. She’s on the road with California Central Coast rockers Little Wings. I caught up with Mering at her home in New York where we discussed everything from her appreciation for outsider composer and instrument innovator Harry Partch to her love of scary movies.
Michael Yoder: How excited were you to get “Hang On” out for people to hear?
Natalie Mering: I was really excited. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve put out music. My last record came out in 2011, and I had a split in 2012. That song had been ready to go for a while, so it’s great to finally get it out there. Everything is behind schedule on the cosmic timeline of what I write. I have albums worth of music that are already written and ready to go. But the way things work, it kind of takes a long time for me to finish recording. Also, this one I didn’t have a label until the second half of the record. I finished the first half and came to a label with it, and they helped me finish the last half.
MY: How did you link up with Mexican Summer?
NM: Through the band Quilt, actually. I’m buddies with Quilt, and they’re on Mexican Summer (read my interview with Quilt vocalist and guitarist Anna Fox Rochinski). I was just handing out my demos – the half completed record – to people, and Shane Butler gave it to an A&R guy at Mexican Summer. He was into it, and it was meant to be. I had heard about [Mexican Summer] before, but I didn’t know that much about them. I like them more the more I get to know them.
MY: Did you feel like you needed to go with a label instead of the DIY route for The Innocents?
NM: Yeah, I don’t really care about DIY only in as much as I don’t want to raise $2,000 every time I want to put out an album. I don’t have any other vocation than music, so it’s not like I have another job that can fund me self-releasing things. I’ve put out CD-R’s – my first album was a CD-R. I’ve done that life and it’s fun, but I really like vinyl, and it’s nice to work with other people and to have more people on board and be a part of a musical community. I mean, it’s cool when people do things by themselves – it’s empowering and great. I’d just love to be an artist and a musician, and I don’t always want to be a businessperson, I don’t want to be a publicist. I don’t want to have to be every single step of the process. I’d rather just focus on the music.
MY: When did recording for The Innocents start?
NM: Oh man, 2012 is when we really got the first takes that ended up on the record. It was with friends of mine in Pennsylvania, actually – in Narberth, Pennsylvania, which is this weird suburb outside of Philly. We recorded it in this big, spooky house in the wintertime with no heat. [laughs] We were all wearing parkas and gloves with the fingers cut out. We were really cold getting these takes. They were really old friends of mine, and we had just been jamming for six months, putting together parts for the songs. I had been recording and writing on my own, too. There are some songs on the album that have no band – the songs with the band were recorded in 2012. A couple of them were re-recorded in a studio situation just because the takes in the mansion were a little too wonky.
MY: What songs were recorded in the mansion?
NM: “Hang On” and “Ashes.” Then “February Skies” was re-recorded. Everything else was recorded in all different places.
MY: Do you have a favorite setting to record music?
NM: I love recording in a house with friends – in a home-like situation. I think you can get studio magic, but it’s a perfect storm. You just need the right combination of people to keep it really fresh, but most of the time the studio has a way of pressuring people to not approach the music as creatively. It kind of makes people be like, “Are we recording this right? Is this clean enough or perfect enough?” That’s really not the point at all. I feel like studios have that effect on people, and you have to override that with powerful creativity to make it as magical as getting together with friends one night in a house with a microphone. It’s pretty special.
MY: So is it looking for a more “in the moment” kind of feel for recording?
NM: Yeah, I think that’s what makes music good – the mistakes that work and the feeling and the vibe. If things are polished and technically right, it helps for a small population of listeners for sure because they can relate to it more because it’s perfect. But that should never become the point of what you’re doing.
MY: The title of the album – The Innocents – does it come from the 1961 British gothic horror movie?
NM: You know, there is a movie called The Innocents that I love. But I was actually borrowing it from the movie, unrelated to the movie. [laughs] It’s really just plural. It’s about the idea of innocent as an object and it being a collection of people being innocent – the innocence. The movie is really great, though.
MY: I was watching clips of The Innocents. It reminded me of one of my favorite scary movies – the original of The Haunting.
NM: Oh yeah, it’s totally like that – real spooky. It’s kind of psychological, which I prefer way more than the gory, intense movies. I guess now they call it “torture porn.” [laughs] I can’t take that stuff.
MY: Do you have a favorite spooky movie?
NM: Yes. My favorite spooky movie of all time is Rebecca by Alfred Hitchcock. I also love Gaslight, which is another similar psychological female main character. I really like old classic black and white films. I think they do the spooky justice. And, well, the scariest movie of all time is The Shining, in my opinion. That movie has had a huge impact on my life – both good and bad throughout the years.
MY: How so?
NM: [laughs] I accidentally saw it as a child, and it scared me so much that I had echoing nightmares about a couple scenes I watched with my older brothers for years. And then I tried to watch it again as a 14 year old hanging out with a bunch of teenagers thinking, “Oh, I can take it.” And I just started crying, and I couldn’t get through it. I finally watched the whole thing when I was 16, and now I just watch it like it was candy – it’s like popping popcorn. It does not have the same impact on me. For a while it was my deepest psychological nightmare – to me, the scariest film ever made.
MY: Was it the scenes with the twins?
NM: The twins scenes, yeah. That was what I think I saw as a little girl that really messed with me. The old woman in the bathtub really messed with me. And I didn’t see the entirety of that scene until I was 16. But more than anything else, it’s the patterned carpet and him just going through those hallways and that eerie music. It was really the music, I think, because as a little girl I didn’t see any of the super-intense gory scenes. It was just the vibe that terrified me so much. [laughs]
MY: Have you ever thought about trying to do a film score to a scary movie?
NM: Oh, I’d love to. That would be my favorite thing to do. Before my music sounded the way it does now, I used to make more experimental noise music. A lot of family members and people who knew me that I would play it for would say, “Oh, it’s like a horror film soundtrack.” I think culturally that’s the only mainstream doorway for some of the experimental synthesizer music to creep into the mainstream listening pool. Therefore it only gets associated with horror films, while it’s kind of its own thing that can stand on its own and can also be spiritual and have these different vibes.
MY: When do you think someone like Harry Partch will become mainstream?
NM: [laughs] Never. He was just a renegade dude, and renegade dudes don’t really become mainstream.
MY: When did you first discover Harry Partch’s music?
NM: It was on WPRB in Princeton, which is a college radio station. I had heard about him because I used to build instruments in high school, and I had heard about his tuning systems – some of the instruments he built, and I was really intrigued. I had heard his song – I think it‘s called “Hitchhiker in Barstow” – and it was a performance which he did, which is really rare because it’s difficult to find these recordings of him doing the live performance of the pieces. It was incredible – like a total, crazy almost four-track sounding deconstructionist folk.
MY: What kind of instruments did you build?
NM: I built a harmonic’s guitar, which is kind of based off a similar thing Glenn Branca did in the ’80s. It was a six-foot long stick with harpsichord strings on it and a movable bridge in the middle and a pickup in the right side of the bridge. You would play the strings like the guitar on the left side of the bridge, and it would only play the harmonics on the strings.
MY: Do you still have that instrument?
NM: Yeah, I still play it. It’s on my records. It didn’t make in on the last one, though, which I felt was symbolic that the times were changing. But I’m going to bust her back out soon – she’s pretty cool. I call her my “squid in space.”
MY: Do you have a favorite folk tale or a story that has inspired you in your life?
NM: I like real-life stories. I really like the Titanic. I think the hubris of man is a huge thing – that we will be learning over and over and over again. It’s a really deep, intense lesson that’s just as heinous as it was then but now in a more slower, subliminal way. It’s setting up people for a disadvantage at the expense of thinking that we’ve conquered nature and that we really understand our technology. I’m sure there’s more personal folky tales I could get down with. I do love Western mythical stuff like King Arthur and Lancelot, Excalibur. That stuff is interesting to me – and Native American folk tales. But the Titanic is something that’s resonated with me since I was a kid – even the pre-Leonardo DiCaprio movie.
MY: What’s the most valuable thing that you possess?
NM: Probably empathy. I possess empathy for the universe, and that’s more valuable to me than anything else.
Weyes Blood (aka Natalie Mering) has several shows coming up, including a performance at The Crown in Baltimore on September 12, the Herr Street Stage in Harrisburg on September 14, Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia on September 15 and The Ottobar in Baltimore on October 11.