Natalie Mering’s work as Weyes Blood is, on its surface, a shimmering throwback to the singer songwriters of the 1970s. But there’s a stormy undercurrent beneath those classic sounds.
On the cover of her 2019 album, Titanic Rising, we find Mering literally adrift, floating in an underwater facsimile of her childhood bedroom. “I wanted it to be submerged as a comment on the rising sea levels, and all these places that will be underwater soon,” Mering explains. “But also how water can represent a subconscious realm.
“I kind of felt like the bedroom was a really formative space for young, westernised youth; this is where you formulate your ideology, what you think life is really about. In some ways it’s this weird initiation into adulthood, but it doesn’t really prepare you for reality, and disappointment.”
The title and cover are also a quite literal callback to James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic, which for Mering speaks both to her childhood cultural obsessions and the current climate crisis. “I felt like the movie was such a huge hit, it was such a big deal [particularly] among little girls, but the message that I took home was the hubris of man, and our lack of dominion over nature. But I don’t think anybody got that message, even though it was one of the biggest films of all time. People just didn’t get it!
“Our generation is one of the more cinematically saturated generation with VHS, then streaming,” she says. “Movies play a pretty big role in our psychological life, but we don’t really talk about how they can distort reality, but also transcend it and become our stories.”
On opening track A Lot’s Gonna Change, Mering offers counsel to her younger, Titanic-watching self. “I had a lot of dreams and ideas of how my life was going to be, and then adulthood and my 20s were about having all those hopes beaten out of me in some way. So I wanted to write a song about me talking to that little girl who had to grow up and go through all these harsh reality checks.”
The sound of Weyes Blood also has its roots in that childhood home. “My parents were into some interesting music; my mom loved Joni Mitchell, and my dad loved XTC and Stevie Wonder and Weather Report.” At school, Mering’s involvement in choirs inspired a love of choral harmony, while the VCR at home drew her to film scores. “I feel like movie soundtracks are some of the only ways those experimental sounds have leaked into our mainstream culture, horror movies especially with those weird kooky sounds.”
Titanic Rising certainly sits at the juncture of those influences; for every cathartic Carole King piano chord, or sweeping George Harrison slide guitar, there’s something more curious bubbling away. On Movies, an arpeggiating synthesiser recalls any number of 1980s Spielbergian sci fi flicks, before abruptly changing gear to a violin-led Philip Glass panic spiral, Mering sings, “I wanna be in my own movie”.
“I wanted it to be a little nostalgic but also innovative. I wanted it to feel like what the subject matter would sound like: flooding orchestral arrangements, strange tape sounds, and liquid, kind of moaning guitar lines – I think of music texturally in that way, and this record’s pretty dense with information. I spent a lot of time in the studio doing ambient experimentation along with classical arrangements and just straight rock and roll stuff.”
Like much of Titanic Rising and its 2016 predecessor Front Row Seat to Earth, a song like Movies taps into that sense of unease increasingly common among Mering’s generation, as post-GFC economic inequalities, environmental collapse, and ‘millennial burnout’ have left many feeling like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack: handcuffed to the lower decks of a ship that’s drifting towards an iceberg.
“A lot of kids coming of age now don’t remember the 90s, they glorify it but they don’t remember it. That malaise, basically, that all the succeeding generations after baby boomers have had, because we’re all under the weight of them.
“I think in some ways the nihilism comes from a place of spiritual exhaustion – I think it’s no coincidence that the climate change movement is now fronted by teenagers. These people haven’t had to go into the world and make a living and find out how things really work. Most millennials I know aren’t just disconnected, they’re exhausted, kind of wrapped in treadmills trying to figure out how to recreate this middle-class life they thought they should have.”
Which, shipwrecks notwithstanding, is rarely how things played out in the movies.