When Natalie Mering – aka Weyes Blood – released ‘Titanic Rising’ last April, it already felt like one of the most vital albums of the year. Deemed NME’s ninth greatest album of 2019, it dominated end-of-year best-of lists and big-name fans included Lana Del Rey.
It’s easy to see why: ‘Titanic Rising’ grapples to make sense of the tumult of our modern age. Although it draws from the past with its otherworldly updating of 1970s West Coast pop and Mering’s majestic Karen Carpenter vocals, lyrically it puts its head into the lion’s mouth; tackling the climate emergency, mental health and technology-induced isolation – Mering feels our phones are waging a covert war on our mental health.
Take ‘Everyday’, which deals with app-assisted romance. The song’s Mering-directed accompanying video, in which a bunch of people are picked off in a log cabin, is a nostalgic-hued homage to the slasher films she loves, casting online dating as American Horror Story: Tinder or Last House on the (Swipe) Left.
“I have a lot of friends who benefit greatly from internet dating,” Mering explains, sitting backstage before a spellbinding gig at Club Academy Manchester. “But I think the culture Tinder has accidentally created is like a slasher flick – it’s easy to be like: ‘Next! What’s next? What’s better?’ – and be spoiled for choice. It’s almost as if people’s obsession with finding ‘the one’ makes them less capable of loving.”
The ‘Everyday’ video isn’t the only reference to the silver screen – the album title is a nod to the 1997 James Cameron-helmed disasterpiece she loved as a child. Released when she was nine; Titanic posters adorned her walls. She adored the soundtrack.
“It was basically engineered for little girls like me and I became obsessed,” reflects the now 31-year-old Mering. “I took away its message of ‘the hubris of man, our lack of dominion over nature’. These were big things and I assumed that because there was a big blockbuster film about it that it was considered common sense.”
“Growing up, you realise the condition is just as rampant as ever – if not gnarlier, with more money and less morality behind it. I drew the parallel between climate change and a disaster like the Titanic where, instead of crashing the iceberg, we’re melting them. And instead of sinking the ship, we’re sinking civilisation. And the people that are going to suffer the greatest are the third class of the world – people who don’t have the resources or infostructure to really deal with these things, and all at the hands of white men.”
The album artwork – featuring Mering submerged under water in her childhood bedroom – hammers home the theme. “The pool wasn’t heated on the first night – it was freezing! You can see it in my face!”, she laughs. Meanwhile, tracks such as ‘Wild Time’ try to “reconcile the idea that our nature is destroying nature – this weird kind of self-sabotage and how industrialisation is in its own way wild and unhinged.”
Thanks to Greta Thunberg, the school strikes and Extinction Rebellion action, there’s a tangible sense that people are waking up to the gravity of ecological collapse. “It gives me hope,” she says. “I choose to have a lot of hope.”
Could Mering see herself gluing herself to an airplane in protest? “Yeah, I would love to do more activism,” she replies. “It’s hard with my road schedule. We’ve had the pleasure of stopping at a couple of climate marches. We were in Montreal for one – Greta Thunberg was there. I was like: ‘I’m going to put her on the guestlist’. But she didn’t come.”
Friends have suggested she should tweet Thunberg. “But I feel like Gen Z knows that it’s not music that’s going to save us – it’s activism,” she dismisses. She’s surprised when climate change-denying fans attack her on Twitter. “It always blows my mind that these people like my music and then shit on the message,” she boggles. Playing devil’s advocate, how does she respond to those who claim it’s hypocritical for musicians in an industry where touring leaves a large carbon footprint to use their platforms to speak up about climate change?
“There’s a company called Reverb [a non-profit organisation who advise on ways to reduce concert and tour footprint] who are really good – and these bigger artists who’ve decided to go green like David Matthews Band, John Mayer and Jack Johnson erased their carbon footprint by putting energy back into the system with doing things like building solar panels.”
On ‘Titanic Rising’’s centrepiece, ‘Movies’, Mering laments that: “The meaning of life doesn’t seem to shine like that screen”. Betrayed by the cinematic lies she was sold, as a stubborn teen she refused to watch films for three years. “I just knew they were full of shit and I was trying to cleanse my palette after being raised on them, thinking life was that way. My mom was really into [egregious 2014 Ryan Reynolds-starring weepie] The Notebook and I’d hate it with a passion.” She only rekindled her love affair with film after moving away from popcorn populism and discovering David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and independent releases. “It felt closer to art and less like emotional manipulation.”
Truth is something close to Mering’s heart. ‘Something to Believe’ is a post-truth anthem for an age distorted by an online hall of mirrors. “It’s [about] the negative aspects of the internet with people creating different disinformation campaigns and how everybody has some kind of contrarian perspective and there’s no universal sense of truth,” she elaborates. “And how that universal sense of truth is so important to our psychological wellbeing.”
Suffice to say, she is no fan of Facebook overlord Mark Zuckerberg. “He’s so crazy! He’s just lost his compass for morality – he’s scared and paranoid and operating out of fear just like every other obscenely rich person.”
Raised in a Pennsylvania Bible belt household, for the young Mering, her something to believe was God. Her parents had been hippy musicians before becoming born-again Christians. “I think it made me a little bit more diabolical,” says Mering of her upbringing. “I denounced religion itself when I was 14 and going through puberty and I couldn’t reconcile all of the contradictions.” She rebelled by forming a punk band Satanized, and playing in various outfits in the noise rock scene.
It’s quite a handbrake turn to go from noise-rock to garnering comparisons to Karen Carpenter. “I was so excited by how innovative it [the underground noise rock scene] was, ‘cos it felt like it was just this completely new thing,” she remembers. “And it was so post-modern like ‘We’re finally at that point now where instead of making music, we’re going to deconstruct music’. I felt that was really cutting edge.”
“But ultimately it was destined to fail for being so ambiguous and non-commodifiable. And I think there’s a big question of how you can make a qualitative judgement on noise music, and I also realised I was better at writing beautiful music – where I wasn’t screaming and going crazy.”
Mering’s taken the slow-burn scenic route to success. She’s contributed her sumptuous vocals to the likes of Perfume Genius, Ariel Pink and Father John Misty, and cut her touring teeth as bassist in far-out Oregon punk rabble Jackie O-Motherfucker. “We’d always get into trouble,” she recalls. “When I was 19, we were turned away at the UK border for not having the right work papers, and I was intimidated and given so much grief by the UK border for nine years after that. They’d stop me and detain me for 25 minutes each time. They’d look up my music on MySpace and say ‘What’s this crap?!’ They were so pissed and angry.”
Before the release of her 2016 breakthrough album ‘Front Row Seat to Earth’ – her third under the Weyes Blood guise, which saw her lean into ecological themes – well-meaning acquaintances were suggesting she succumb to getting a ‘proper’ job. “When ‘Front Row Seat to Earth’ came out, I was working part-time at a peanut brittle packaging factory – and my boss was a 16 year old high school student,” she laughs. “So I was feelin’ it!”
But the hustle paid off. She supported Lana Del Rey on the West Coast leg of her ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell’ tour, duetting with her on a cover version of Joni Mitchell’s ‘For Free’ (alongside Zella Day). “When we played the Hollywood Bowl, it was so fun because there was a little pool we could put our feet in – it felt like we were definitely cult sisters or something!”
“Lana Del Rey is the least like what people would imagine her to be,” she continues. “Any time I hear people talking shit about her, like going off about something she did, it’s so shocking ‘cos she is actually so genuine and non-calculated. And I think a lot of people don’t realise that. They think she’s incredibly calculating, like ‘I’ve figured out the perfect potion!’, but she’s a total chaos artist. She’s so loose, she’s so open, she’s so free – and she is so nice.”
“Everything she does comes from a place of sincerity. And I think ‘cos she’s a woman, she gets a lot of flack and people like to pin their hates on that. She definitely gets an extra dose of misogyny and people assuming the worst of her.”
Have you encountered a similar toxic sexism?
“Yeah. I’m sure people misinterpret me but I think I keep things so neutral when it comes to my femininity because I have a more masculine background – I grew up with brothers and always sided on that side as a defence mechanism to be taken more seriously. And expressing extreme femininity and being delicate and fragile or whatever has always been a real fear of mine – and something I’m realising more. I’ve noticed I don’t get crucified as much because I don’t put as much of my femininity out there.”
Sharing a musical kindship (a sense of doomy, born-out-of-their time grandeur), is there any chance of a Lana/Weyes Blood collaboration?
“Yeah, we’ve talked about it a lot. We think it would ideally sound like The Roaches [the trio of singing sisters]. But we’re both on the road for a while, so it’s matter of when it would happen.”
On ‘Titanic Rising’’s stall-setting opening track, ‘A Lot’s Gonna Change’, Mering yearns to return to a pre-online childhood, where the world seemed ablaze with possibilities. Sometimes the album feels like a friend delivering a hard-to-to-swallow home truth, such as on ‘Mirror Forever’ where she notes: “No one’s ever gonna give you a trophy/For all the pain and things you’ve been through/No one knows but you” – although, ironically, someone did present her with a trophy a recent gig.
But most of all, ‘Titanic Rising’ feels like a beautiful battle-cry for a generation betrayed by boomers, amid a backdrop of a US president who has repeatedly dismissed the existence of human-caused climate change as a “hoax”.
“Trump knows it’s real,” shrugs Mering. “He really does. He’s just putting on a performance to drum up support from his base so that he can keep letting the oil companies do whatever they want.”
Unsurprisingly, she tentatively plans to cover similar themes on her next record. “It’s like you’re mining for diamonds or gold – and I found my treasure on this album,” she muses. “So I’m going to continue to mine in those areas and see what else I find.” And, despite the gloomy portents of ‘Titanic Rising’ “ultimately, it should feel like an optimistic album – because I have a lot of hope,” she explains.
“When the generation that’s going to be most impacted [by climate change] reaches a certain age, they’re going to be like ‘Enough!’. They’re going to be dangerous and unstoppable.”
Titanic Rising is out now.