It’s amazing what the posters on our childhood bedroom walls can tell us about what we become.
“Yeah, that was my future right there,” says Natalie Mering, who is now 31 and lives in the Los Feliz neighbourhood of Los Angeles.
Before becoming a Christian, her father dated Joni Mitchell and Anjelica Houston and was in a ’70s band called Sumner that recorded one album produced by Jack Nitzsche, who was Phil Spector’s right-hand man in the studio and worked on classic albums by Neil Young and The Rolling Stones. Her mother played piano and also had musical ambitions, which she only realised in her fifties when she recorded an album that her daughter says sounds like Rickie Lee Jones.
Mering found an escape hatch as a teenager by working in a local record store called Sirens Records, becoming a goth and then a punk and playing in bands with names such as Nautical Almanac and Jackie-O Motherfucker. She eventually went out on her own under the moniker Weyes Blood, a reference to Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 debut novel Wise Blood, about a World War II veteran in the deep south who has a crisis of faith, sets up an anti-religious ministry and blinds himself to prove his commitment.
Weyes Blood songs have always been haunting and emotive, but have developed into something much deeper on fourth record Titanic Rising, one of the best albums of 2019.
The title is telling, as Mering used the story of the Titanic as a touchstone and a totem. The movie Titanic was released in 1997.
“December 19, 1997,” says Mering, who, to put it mildly, was a big fan. “I was born June 11, 1988, so I was nine years old. It’s like that film was specifically engineered for little girls.”
To me, the Titanic embodied the hubris of man thinking that he could dominate nature by creating this unsinkable ship.
But Mering’s interest went way beyond Leonardo DiCaprio’s cheekbones. She devoured books about the tragedy.
“To me, the Titanic embodied the hubris of man thinking that he could dominate nature by creating this unsinkable ship,” she says. “As a little girl in the late ’90s, environmentalism seemed really popular and I was really hopeful. It seemed like we had learned our lesson. But I think over the course of the 21st century, it’s been like, ‘Wow, we really have no grasp over this hubris and things are completely out of control in terms of things like climate change.’ I just felt like we didn’t learn. The story of the Titanic is now symbolic of the strange futility of modern man.”
While recording Titanic Rising, Mering and producer Jonathan Rado, who is a member of LA retro-futurists Foxygen and refuses to use computers in recording, created a mood board that featured a picture of the Titanic with Bryan Ferry sitting at one end and Brian Eno at the other. That sense of slow-burn emotion under a cool exterior (Ferry) combined with a willingness to experiment with ambience and sonic textures (Eno) permeates Titanic Rising.
On opening track A Lot’s Gonna Change, in a voice as pure and crystalline as Karen Carpenter’s, over an arrangement that could have come from ’70s singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson, she addresses her 10-year-old self.
“That song is my message to the little girl who was stoked back in the ’90s,” she says.
“I wanted to tell her a lot is going to change and whole paradigms are about to shift in her lifetime and that she should hang in there. The song came from the disappointment I felt as an adult, but it’s for the little girl that still lives in me who’s asking, ‘What happened?’”
Although Mering is no longer a Christian, she refuses to make judgements about her parents’ faith and still visits churches and cathedrals while on tour, “because of the majestic architecture people have created for an eternal, non-existent person – plus I love pipe organs and the incredible reverb in those places”.
And as for catching up on The Smurfs and Care Bears since the childhood ban of her Pentecostal upbringing, she let the pendulum swing much further, immersing herself in the occult and horror movies.
“They attracted me because they were off-limits and spooky. But I also think that beyond that, there’s a place for them in mainstream culture because they’re about the subconscious and the shadow realms and heavier psychological things. And let’s face it, the real world can be a horrifying place.”
In the video for her song Everyday, which is about the off-hand pick-up-and-jettison nature of modern online dating, she made a mini slasher-film, finding a narrative connection with that genre’s rapid execution of characters and the way we divorce ourselves from feeling any deep connection with them – slice, slice, slice equates with swipe, swipe, swipe.
She then asks her interviewer if he’s seen Midsommar, 2019’s most talked-about horror film, which she really enjoyed and found “horrifying, disturbing and all about things like grief and jealousy”.
She doesn’t frighten easily, then?
“Oh, I get frightened very easily,” she says. “But I like it. I’m pretty good at walking in the dark.”
Weyes Blood plays Melbourne Recital Centre on February 26, Melbourne Zoo Twilights on February 28 and The Factory in Sydney on March 3.
Writer and author Barry Divola – who specialises in music, popular culture, food and travel – lives in Sydney, but his heart lives in New York.