Named after Southern Gothic novelist Flannery O’Connor’s book Wise Blood, Weyes Blood (aka Los Angeles musician Natalie Mering) plays anti-Americana that feels all too appropriate in this age of uncertainty.
“Land of Broken Dreams,” the opening track of Mering’s 2014 record The Innocents, is a perfect introduction to her brand of doomsday folk. “My family, my country, and my school have all left me dry,” she sings, “To wonder why we are just born to buy then die/And change nothing.” As Weyes Blood, Mering writes songs about resisting the urge to self-sedate when you’re constantly “put through the failure of some man’s world.”
This theme is fleshed out on last year’s bewitching Front Row Seat to Earth. The entire album reflects the theatrical nature of observing our world collapse—it’s like bringing camping chairs to watch monolithic glaciers crumble and crash into the sea.
“It’s kind of referencing our perception,” Mering says, “how we perceive the world around us, and how that might be the biggest flaw in human suffering—our perception being somewhat limited in understanding the magnanimity and the full scope of existence. Being a first world country, technically, we’re kind of the first row to witnessing what’s happening on a global scale. But at the same time, we end up witnessing what’s happening around us like theater because it’s so colossal, it’s so big and beyond our control.”
Mering thinks this is exacerbated since we’re so often “witnessing the world through a screen,” completely detached from physical reality. With smart phones, tablets, and talking watches, we’re able to learn more about the world beyond our own lives, but we’re also given the ability to distract ourselves from society’s ills whenever we get scared, angry, or complacent.
“It’s been easier for people to detach, the way consumerism has played out and the way the pursuit of happiness is viewed as the be-all, end-all on an individualistic level,” she says. “I don’t think it’s any fault of our own—I think things got so bad and weird that people just wanted to go inward and do things for themselves and escape the chaos of being involved in society.”
This cycle of self-sedation is explored on “Generation Why,” the centerpiece of Front Row Seat to Earth. It’s an electro-folk hymn about checking your phone before “the end of days,” because “YOLO,” right? In the chorus, Mering sings each letter of that acronym with softly thundering vibrato against the inviting twinkle of phone notifications, a gently winding acoustic guitar melody, and a choir of her own processed vocals.
“Generation Why” sounds like it could be an Enya song, if Enya read a lot of dystopian science fiction or watched Contact too many times. Mering’s voice bears an undeniable resemblance to that of the Irish musician, but she doesn’t mind the comparison. Considering Enya’s reign in the ’90s, Mering says, “Here was this new-age lady playing synthesizer music in churches and recording these huge, lush, pastoral records, and the whole world was just stunned. I know a lot of people think she’s cheesy or associate her with [their] parents... But I think she’s a really deep, feminine presence—kind of like Madonna, but just like the other side of the coin.”
With Front Row Seat to Earth, Mering is an alchemist delicately balancing classical elements and spacy electronic production. It sounds both ancient and alien, a time capsule of medieval folk from light years away.
“For this record I tried to stay true to the song itself but add more ethereal and also electronic elements, like using my voice through an electronic device to layer it in a synthesizer way,” she says. “Kind of accessing the most modern sensibilities with the oldest sensibilities—folk-style piano, organ base, then a little extra something on top. It would’ve been cool to have live strings, but we were also limited in this beautiful way in this really tiny garage studio with what sounds we could create.”
Not all of the tracks on Front Row Seat are preoccupied with global collapse and decay. Mering says that “Seven Words” (the album’s standout) is about “being a specific creature that might need to break free and no longer be held back in a domestic-type situation.” Put simply, it’s a breakup song, one that sounds like it time-traveled half a century to reach our ears. Golden organ tones evoke ’70s California folk, while gorgeous guitar riffs melt into the sunset of the song’s bittersweet farewell. Again Mering channels Enya, this time as she bravely repeats the mantra, “Now I face tomorrow.”
Weyes Blood’s music videos typically play out like fucked-up fairytales—visual narratives that bring even more theatricality to the songs of Front Row Seat. In the video for the Judy Collins-esque number “Used to Be,” Mering traipses around the desolate Salton Sea in an aqua pantsuit. In “Seven Words,” she’s a mermaid secretly living on land who’s kidnapped, force-fed raw squid by her captor, thrown back into the sea, beached again, and used for selfies before she kisses her love goodbye and dives back into the Southern Californian surf. For the shoot, Mering sported a custom mermaid tail, which she says made swimming quite the challenge.
“It was so dangerous!” she laughs. “Oh, the tail would get caught in the rip currents and it would get ripped off my feet, so I could no longer control it. I’d just be in the water restricted, getting dragged around by this fin like a boat.”
After seven years of moving around, Mering recently settled down with her new piano in LA’s Echo Park neighborhood. When she isn’t making music as Weyes Blood, she collaborates with her musical friends, like weirdo pop veteran Ariel Pink. Together they just released a bizarre but great new EP, Myths 002. Its opening track, “Tears on Fire,” is something I can only describe as renaissance metal.
Meanwhile, Front Row Seat to Earth closes with an orchestra of chaos: the disquieting trill of strings, opera singing, fluttering pianos, a woman’s bloodcurdling scream, and finally, rapturous horns, before the theater’s red velvet curtain rushes to obscure our uncertain fate. As Weyes Blood, Mering doesn’t offer any clear answers about what we should do right now, other than continue to wake up and face tomorrow.