“SOFT rock with an apocalyptic edge was never my intent,” muses Natalie Mering. “But it is what happened.”
As Weyes Blood, she fashions achingly gorgeous songs with dark and disturbing undercurrents.
That startling duality has made the buzz around the 34-year-old American singer-songwriter build to a deafening roar.
“I see it as a marriage of opposites,” she says. “Beautiful music with a message that’s a bit more intense.
“Sugar to help the medicine go down if you like.”
Mering’s velvety alto allied to richly melodic arrangements evoke the smooth, jazz-inflected sounds coming out of Los Angeles neighbourhood Laurel Canyon in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
But despite echoes of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Harry Nilsson and Carole King, her lyrics tell a very different story.
The uncertain world of the 21st Century is on Mering’s mind from the start of her captivating fifth studio album And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow.
Opening track It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody sets the tone . . . if we’re standing on the brink of climate catastrophe in a technology overloaded world of pandemic-induced fear and isolation, at least we’re ALL connected in our plight.
‘I try to be vulnerable, like an open book’
Speaking from her home in LA, Mering says: “People compare themselves to others on social media and might think, ‘Oh my god, I’m such an alien, how did I turn out this way?’
“Or they go, ‘Nobody seems to care about what’s happening to the planet’.”
Though she’s talking in the third person, I’m certain this is how SHE feels at times.
Mering continues: “But there are forces at work that people don’t really understand.
“I believe we all have a connection to the planet and animals and everything around us that we’re in denial about.”
We’ll delve further back into Mering’s fascinating career path later but first we need to discuss her previous album Titanic Rising, the first part of a trilogy and also her breakthrough.
Though released in early 2019, a full year before Covid upended our lives, her exquisitely crafted songs conjured an atmosphere of impending doom. The striking album cover image of her bedroom submerged in water suggested planet Earth’s perilous situation infiltrating even the most private spaces.
“I could sense that things were getting unhinged and were going to be bad,” admits Mering. “But I just didn’t know how bad.”
She says: “I always assumed we would be continuously drumming up awareness about climate change but we don’t need to argue about that any more. It has become part of the normal lexicon to assume it’s real.
“The most bizarre, psychedelic thing for me is that we all know it’s real and still do very little about it.”
In early 2020, Mering, under her stage name Weyes Blood, was still touring Titanic Rising when Covid lockdowns started.
“We were abruptly cut off,” she recalls before describing how her enforced isolation prompted a change of direction.
“I’d always assumed that post-Titanic Rising, I’d make an upbeat, uplifting record. But when I sat down to write it, what came out was more like emotional excavating.”
Mering suggests that the resulting And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow, part two of her trilogy, finds her “in the thick of it”, trying to make sense of the universal and personal.
“The record is a more subterranean, more internal and intimate because of the time I spent in lockdown writing it,” she says. One new song, the wistful Grapevine, brings intimacy into vivid focus as it alludes to a painful break-up.
“Now we’re just two cars passing by on the grapevine,” she intones as the song closes with ethereal waves of strings and heavenly backing vocals.
“I try to be really vulnerable, like an open book,” affirms Mering without going into detail about the relationship.
There’s a passage in the title track, Hearts Aglow, which suggests that forging a career in music comes with a price for this beguiling singer. It goes: “I’ve been without friends/Oh, I’ve just been working for years and I stopped having fun.”
She says: “There were moments in the studio when I was trying to write that bit out.
“I thought, ‘I can’t say this, I’m going to make it obvious that I’m entering my thirties and this is not what kids in their early twenties are thinking.”
Those lines, she decides, are “definitely for the older audience!”
Mering adds: “When you start hustling and getting a little success, especially if you’re freelance, you get into a cycle where work becomes the only thing you do.
“There’s no other option, especially in a place like America where it is so competitive, and no structure to ensure you’ll have enough money for practical survival.
“It took me until my late twenties to afford such basic stuff as health insurance.
“So yeah,” she concludes. “I was heavily into work and definitely stopped having as much fun.”
In the end, however, Mering knows you just have to say, “F*** it!” at some point. Later in Hearts Aglow, she sings, “The whole world is crumbling/Oh baby, let’s dance in the sand.”
She harks back to dark days of the pandemic “when it was obvious that vaccines weren’t 1,000 per cent perfect.
“A lot of people went, ‘F*** it, we’re going on vacation anyway. We’ll still have fun’,” she says.
“Everybody was hanging on to the last semblance of normal life. The idea of not giving Covid to anybody got cast aside.”
As for the final part of the trilogy, her next album, Mering is planning to focus on the thing we all have to cling on to — hope.
“I’m working on that,” she reveals. “I’m already in the headspace of how it might feel and sound.”
Mering has been writing and performing since she was 15 under various spellings of Weyes (pronounced wise) Blood. “I always loved singing and had a natural propensity for music,” she says.
“My dad played guitar and I looked up to him. There was also a piano in the house which my mum would play.”
“When I was six, I started out with a little guitar. I also heard the eclectic music my parents would listen to.”
Her father’s favourite band was XTC, whose deliciously skewed take on the punk era produced the hits Making Plans For Nigel, Sgt Rock (Is Going To Help Me) and Senses Working Overtime.
Mering says: “He also loved Stevie Wonder and Weather Report while my mum liked Joni Mitchell and (virtuoso guitarists) Django Reinhardt and Segovia.
“My brothers were into rap so I grew up with an odd mixture but I took music pretty seriously.”
As a teenager, she expanded her sonic ambitions by “playing a little bass and a little drums” and now she “can play bit of everything”.
‘I made an impulsive decision at 15’
At 15, American novelist Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood had a profound effect on Mering, inspiring her stage name.
She says: “I had my four-track recordings and my strange songs so I had to come up with a band name.”
In her book, O’Connor reveals that “blood is the only thing passed on from a mother to a child”.
Mering was awestruck: “I find it so beautiful that blood comes from our ancestors and stays alive.”
She adds: “I changed the spelling (eventually settling on Weyes) because I wanted to make it my own thing and not just a Flannery O’Connor homage.”
So has the name served her well these past two decades? “Yeah! I think so,” she replies.
“I mean a lot of people mispronounce it and there are moments when I’m like, ‘Man, if I was just called something easier!
“But I made an impulsive decision at 15 and I’m sticking with it.”
Mering’s first forays in music were a far cry from lush, retro-styled sounds she produces today. She was even involved in the underground noise rock scene.
She likens her early days to “a sculptor who spends the first three years of their career smashing marble just to see how it crumbles.”
Everything changed in 2008 when the world shifted on its axis because of the financial crash.
“Around that time, the pendulum really swung away from experimental stuff to nostalgic and beautiful music,” says Mering.
She realised that nostalgia could serve as a salve to “soothe the chaos” and so embraced the throwback vibe on recent albums.
That said, she needed to come to terms with comparisons to Karen Carpenter.
“It made me insecure because I thought people might think I was like The Carpenters,” she says.
“I found the idea embarrassing but I did go back and watch videos of Karen playing the drums and singing. She was amazing, just not very cool to me!”
Next, Mering considers the acts that have made a real impact on her. “As a kid, I thought of Joni as my mom’s music but now I love all her albums and I definitely feel influenced by her,” she says.
“The same with XTC. Now I read about Andy Partridge and his bizarre ahead-of-its -time band.” Although not fashionable, Mering is also a huge fan of The Doors.
“I really love them,” she says. “But I come up against people who want to s**t on them all the time.
“Jim Morrison was such a great convergence. He was the godfather of punk, who showed how much he didn’t care by doing risqué stuff.
“But he also claimed to be a poet like William Blake and a crooner like Frank Sinatra.
“He drew the line between generations. It was very Los Angeles and I just love it.”
Living on the West Coast, Mering has immersed herself in hippie bands but she’s also enamoured with the era’s defining East Coast act, The Velvet Underground, altogether darker and more edgy.
Before Covid, she recorded a song, Story Of Blood, with one of the band’s survivors, John Cale, for his upcoming solo album.
She explains how the collaboration happened. “I did an interview with Cale and my questions were so specific that he could tell I was obsessed with that scene.
“Then he heard my music, liked it and invited me to come by and sing.”
And, guess what, Cale wanted Mering to sound like The Velvet Underground’s German chanteuse Nico. “He tried to draw the low notes out of me,” she smiles.
Like Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison and John Cale, it’s clear that Natalie Mering is a fiercely independent spirit.
“I don’t feel like an underdog,” she says. “But, as an alternative musician, this is a long game and you’ve got to keep at it.”