Titanic Rising, the latest album from Natalie Mering, AKA Weyes Blood, can be defined by its lush, orchestral melodies counterbalanced with moments of spare, wrenching introspection. But, from a greater perspective, these touches are indicative of the encompassing ethos with which Mering makes her music. Her strength is in finding moments of delicacy within grand settings of reflective musing.
It’s not surprising that Mering’s production feels like sitting in a celestial cathedral. Coming from a conservative, Christian background, Mering spent many hours connected to beautiful, contrapuntal hymnals and traditional non-secular song structures. Her albums, decidedly secular, bathe listeners in gentle chording and reverential, soaring vocal lines full of existential lyricism; it is a match both in style and substance.
While Mering’s compositions range from the truly dramatic to the personally touching, she has trained her message on the greater state of things. Climate change takes a prominent place on Titanic Rising. She raises questions about how we relate to each other and the world, tacitly imploring fellow humans to reconsider the individualistic, ephemeral approach to existence that has resulted in truly negative impacts across the globe. Still, as serious as Mering is about her message, her skill as a composer means listeners can easily slip into comfortable (albeit emotionally intense) space, while waves of sound wash over.
ELEVEN talked with Mering about her origins, why she chooses to make music with such a powerful message, and how Titanic Rising mirrors the state of the world today.
Eleven: You’re supporting the Titanic Rising album, and I wanted to talk a little bit about some of the influences that you’ve discussed publicly. I know that this has kind of been tabbed as a climate change kind of activism-based album. What is one of the most impactful things that you’ve seen so far arise out of the work that you’ve done with the album?
Natalie Mering: I don’t think anybody knows what to do. If you’re not already an environmentalist involved in the activism, I don’t see any crossover from my generation. I find my generation is generally kind of drowning in their own confusion about what it is they could do. I think people have commented about it, maybe emotionally kind of helping them feel a little better about just using conceptual terms to express the kind of sorrow that this kind of existential stuff brings. I also don’t go online and kind of look at what my fans are doing. You know?
11: Sure, sure.
NM: So, I can’t say that anything has happened, but I do get to meet people. I’ve met people who run environmentalist organizations, personally, who have heard the record. So, in some way, that is the beginning of a connection, and like a seed for me to do stuff and kind of get more involved in the activism portion of it. I think my fans just think it’s beautiful music. I’m not trying to talk down on them. I don’t blame them. I don’t know how I would find out about what they were doing, you know?
11: Are you sort of rooted in activism music or socially conscious art?
NM: No. I’m peripheral to that. I have a conservative Republican family, so I am the only liberal. Well, I mean my brother is too, but no. I come from the other side of the tracks where I kind of am navigating that territory for the first time and exploring it. I did Occupy Wall Street. I’ve done some protests and things like that, but I’m always trying to navigate what we can do to change the people [who are] middle of the road and really change the hearts of the people like my family: more conservative people who are kind of being brainwashed. So, yeah, I don’t have a history with this at all, I’m way more interested in not trying to speak for a bunch of people.
11: What were your goals in making the album, artistically, creatively, and from an audience perspective?
NM: Yeah, I do think that I was trying to provide some kind of emotional nourishment and comfort amidst the existential crisis that we face. I spend so much of my time writing songs and singing and playing music, I would say it is a call to action in terms of making people aware of what’s going on.
But also, I think it was more to kind of soothe people’s fear and anxiety over the whole debacle. I just don’t want to overstep my boundaries in terms of what I do best, which is writing songs. The goal was more of an emotional goal.
11: Do you feel like in the current state of affairs that maybe art has a bigger role than it’s had in a long time, in terms of providing that peace of mind or that opportunity to really find something positive and not just be disenfranchised?
NM: Yeah. No, I think that right now we kind of need poetry and that kind of interpretive force more than ever. I really think that mythology and different things throughout our history can provide a psychological guide map on how we can experience being human without suffering tremendously. Ultimately, even if it is a form of escapism, music aspires to transcend the mundane, the everyday, and into something a little bit more meaningful and universal. I do think it becomes really important in times like these where people are trying to find truth and meaning in a constantly shifting world where there’s a lot of changes that we haven’t really caught up to yet. So yeah, I think that religions, in their own right, are kind of on their way out and we’ve created a religion even if it is kind of painted by capitalism of music and movies and TV and things to help us escape.
11: One of the things that I saw listening to this album is it kind of sounds like, in a way, it’s an existential breakup album, almost in terms of lyrical content and the way that the instrumentals unfold. There’s a lot of ethereal aspects, but then there’s a lot of really well grounded, dominant chording. Did you have an intended outcome as you were making this or was there something that clicked along the way?
Natalie: I think I wanted to try to make something that was very much specific to my generation and people around my age range, and also universally, people from all different ages. But I just think that we live in such an interesting time with such an interesting set of circumstances, it’d be a shame to make music that doesn’t try to incorporate all the new paradigm shifts; whether it be cell phone technology or the fact that we were basically raised on movies, and that they are a point of initiation into society as basically having our own bedrooms, hanging up posters on our wall and coming up with very naive imaginary ideas about what the world is like. I wanted that all to come out, that relationship with history and how there’s nothing really new under the sun even though it feels so specific and so different from millennials trying to weave it back into other time periods where similarly, the hubris of man was making a confused reality for a lot of people.
11: Do you see parallels between what’s happening right now and what was happening back in the ‘60s in terms of feeling like the country or the people are being pushed toward this more individualistic viewpoint? I’ve read some comparisons with you, a little bit to Joni Mitchell – I don’t know if you like that or not, but she’s in a similar vein. Are these things that you think about actively?
NM: Yeah, I do think about the parallels. I think that we’re still living in that; I mean the Boomers, they’re still alive. Like they’re old, but I think they still kind of are ruling the roost in terms of being the biggest generation and kind of the generation that rode maybe on the biggest wave of natural resources also. These days, I tend to focus more on the differences. I think we don’t really have, as musicians, the same kind of careers that people then had. I think we might be living in a time where the artist is somewhat disposable and the machinery itself is kind of the longstanding legendary thing. Well, I think back then it was more based on personalities and there was a little bit more of an innovation and kind of like chaos, wild west style to the music industry because everything was new.
We’ve really settled into our ways and you can kind of see it, like some of the biggest labels also tend to be the most conservative. Theywill only promote something that ticks off the five capitalistic check boxes that they assume will make them more money, which wasn’t the case in the ‘60s. I think in the ‘60s there were record executives who didn’t understand young people who are like, “Well, I guess if they like this then we should put it out.”
So, I think there’s been a lot of things that have shifted and changed that would make recreating something like the ‘60s impossible. But inevitably, I think we’re still trying to do what the Baby Boomers might’ve done unsuccessfully, which is really eradicate once and for all the part of America that is really vile and racist. Just, it’s kind of like nothing’s really changed. Well, nothing’s really changed in terms of that. I think a lot of things have changed in terms of our lifestyles. You know?
11: You mentioned some of the conservativism of record labels and you’ve said before that you believed in the ethos of Sub Pop. I’m wondering, as your musical career has kind of progressed and as you’ve grown as an artist, is that something that you feel like you have the luxury to be more attuned to? Or was this just kind of like a happenstance, like right place, right time, right fit kind of opportunity?
NM: I’ve always been a big fan of Sub Pop since I was like 14 and it was definitely a big dream of mine to be on their label, but I’ve never reached out to them. I kind of just had to do my own thing and put out three records before they reached out to me. Once they did, I felt extremely… full circle. Very, very excited. Humbled.
11: I’m curious about the musicality and the instrumentals on the album. They sound really lush and beautiful – they’re not ethereal without having a point. As you were making this album, did you feel like there were any kind of chances that you wanted to take, musically?
NM: Yeah, I think I wanted to make it kind of match my emotions towards reality, which is pretty grandiose and kind of larger than life. I wanted to use strings and other symphonic elements that I haven’t been able to use before, to make it feel like the soundtrack to the times or whatever. And I think, yeah, I definitely had ambitions for some of the more ambient sound effects to try to make it fit into the kind of “underwater, last night on the Titanic” feel.
There was another composer named Gavin Briars who actually wrote a piece called “The Sinking of the Titanic,” which was very inspirational. We would play it in the studio sometimes to – it’s like a two-and-a-half-hour ambient piece. In real time, to how long it took the Titanic to sink. There’s just something so, so moody about it. I still like using ingredients like that. Like, something that doesn’t have words and is a little bit more abstract to kind of paint the picture with the songs and the words.
11: Do you enjoy the challenge of having to add more layered instrumentation when you’re composing and putting your songs together? Is that something that you’ve looked forward to doing and growing?
NM: Yeah, always. But, you can go the wrong direction. Sometimes less is more. It’s really an outcome and you’re kind of constantly being like, “Well, does it need that?” Or, “Is it fine or should it…” There’s always this desire to add too much, so you’ve got to keep yourself in check.
11: Do you have an example in mind of when that happened on the album as you were working on it where you had something big and then you decided, “Ah, it just needs kind of like a lighter touch here”?
NM: Yeah, I’m trying to think of the song that needed the lightest touch. What did we end up muting the most of? I think in the song “Movies” there was so much sculpting going on because it is such a kind of amorphous, ambient song that we spent a lot of time muting certain things to make it minimal but effective. So, finding the things that were absolutely essential and kind of cutting out anything that made it too dense. That one was probably the most combed over, but we added more. There was more on that song and it didn’t make it to the record.
11: Are there any songs on the album that maybe while you were creating and laying out the album you liked but you didn’t really love, and then as you’ve gone back to it they’ve become your favorite?
NM: You know what? Not exactly. I cut like two songs off the album so those were the sleeper songs and they’re gonna maybe come out as bonus material. But I did feel maybe like “Mirror Forever” was the least fun to record, but one of the more fun ones to play live. That song has kind of a new life of its own now that I play it live. But recording, it was hard for me because it was an older song and about things I didn’t want to think about anymore. It’s hard to explain your emotions to your own songs, but I felt like that one has a new life of its own now that I’m playing it live.
11: As you are performing the new album live, do you feel like it’s something that needs to be performed in its entirety because it is a little bit of a concept album or when you’re performing, do you find that there are other songs from your catalog that fit in? What’s your process like for putting together your live performances?
NM: I like to mix them. I do a little bit from my last record. I don’t do anything before Front Row Seat To Earth because it’s just too throw back or something. But I occasionally play “Bad Magic” as an encore, an older song which still fits into the whole new thing. There’s not so many songs on Titanic Rising. All the songs are really long, so we just usually do that and usually some cover song. I really like doing a cover song, too.
11: What’s your favorite song to cover and what’s the one that you really want to cover but you haven’t quite figured out how to make it your own yet?
NM: Right now we’re doing “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys. It’s been such an emotional song. It’s been great to cover. My ultimate cover dream would be ”A Whiter Shade of Pale” by Procol Harum, but it’s actually incredibly difficult. It’s such a subtle, deep vocal performance, but someday I’d love to cover that one.
11: If there’s one thing that you would like to leave people with after they’ve gone through the new album, maybe from a musical perspective and then from a larger conversation perspective, what do you want people to walk away thinking about?
NM: Well, I would hope that the people could get swept up in the drama of the music and that the music could fulfill its purpose of recontextualizing emotions and our experiences of modern reality into something very universal and beautiful. Also, I think generally, I hope the album would provide some kind of semblance of hope that we can make art and we can have something to say about the existential landscape that we face. Then, hopefully, those things are going to motivate us to get out of bed and keep trying to change things, and not lose hope and become too wrapped up in the dystopian doomsday views, you know?
I do think that there are things that I am working on that are a little bit more directly linked to climate activism, but I can’t really talk solely about them yet. It’s like I’m just meeting with certain people and starting to get some collaborations with people that are more politically involved, because as a musician I kind of tour and operate on such an artistic musical level that I’m still learning about that side of things. But yeah, I look forward to that being more part of the future.
There is a ground swelling, even if it is an emotional one to kind of look in the mirror and be like, “Wow, we really have an inconceivable amount of existential work to do to keep from getting too depressed by the news that we read.” And that’s a great challenge, I think that a lot of people are kind of stepping up to the plate more than ever before and paying attention.
11: There was something that you had mentioned before, which is there is still sort of a generational divide and maybe the older generation aren’t the people that are going to be immediately activated, but some of the younger people and the younger generation, as they become a little bit more empowered. You know, the kind of art that they’re growing up with that is potentially going to push them in the direction to be a little bit more bought in, even if it’s not just immediately, “Okay, put down your headphones and go out and start a nonprofit.”
NM: Yeah, yeah. I think Greta Thunberg is the all-star of this movement. That’s why I said the people that are doing the most for this are teenagers in Europe, and it’s true. You know? I think that’s no surprise because I think that they kind of have this level of energy that a lot of millennials who are just kind of in the rat race, kind of scraping to survive, can’t really have. So, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that teenagers are on fire and doing stuff. I think it’s just a matter of hope and kind of healing, getting the older generation to step out of their rat race and their rat wheels. Because literally, I think a lot of people are functioning on that level right now. Just kind of scraping by.
All live photos by Pierre Dauwe