Universe nudges Natalie Mering from noise-rock scene
When it's time to make a life change, Natalie Mering rarely has to search for some obscure sign. Rather, the universe has a way of signaling to the musician in all caps.
Before pivoting to a more stately, manicured sound, Mering, who records and performs as Weyes Blood, was a fixture on the noise-rock scene. Or at least she was until she was performing at the International Noise Conference in Philadelphia and a pair of speakers caught fire, overtaxed by the excessive volume.
“It felt like a real sign I wasn't doing the right thing,” she said, and laughed.
A second cosmic prodding occurred during a DIY show in Baltimore when Mering, at the urging of friends, disrupted a poker game that had broken out in the middle of the venue. “There was a show, and then there were four people gambling at a poker table in the middle of it,” she explained. In retaliation, the gamers sabotaged Mering's evening set, playing a recording of The Velvet Underground & Nico until the volume completely drowned out her performance.
“That was such a blow for me at the time because the number one comparison I'd get was to Nico. It was like a big slap in the face, and nobody had my back. My friends were too scared to do anything about it … so for the most part I was like, ‘Wow. I'm pretty sure no one gives a fuck,'” said Mering, who, following the 2014 incident, left Baltimore for New York City. “I decided it was maybe time to leave the DIY/noise scene where there are a lot of pranksters and people who are kind of spiteful and weird and where the hierarchies were very pronounced and go to a maybe less-interesting but more-diffuse indie-rock scene where people play out of real PA systems and try to get signed to labels.”
Now, Mering does both. The musician's latest, Front Row Seat to Earth, from 2016, was released on Brooklyn-based Mexican Summer, and she's currently touring theaters opening for Father John Misty. (The two visit Palace Theatre for a concert on Saturday, Sept. 23.)
Rather than a reinvention, however, Mering describes Front Row Seat and its 2014 predecessor, The Innocents, as a return to her musical roots, having started in high school as a folk-leaning singer-songwriter, emulating the likes of Devendra Banhart and Cat Power. “After a bout with noise music and making more powerful, aggressive statements, I felt like I could return to that with my own voice,” Mering said.
While more at home in her current guise, Mering's music remains deeply unsettled, with songs centered on unrequited love, the feeling of being torn between wanting independence and craving human connection and growing fears for an increasingly uncertain future. “Going to see end of days,” she sings at the onset of the delicate “Generation Why,” sounding like a woman at peace with the coming apocalypse.
“I think people are scared about climate change. I think people are scared about the political environment. I think people are scared about how different it's getting for millennials and how much times have changed,” Mering said. “We're still living under the baby boomers' ideologies as they're kind of dying out, and I think that's a freaky thing because what they've left behind is pretty insane for a lot of people to comprehend, especially in America.”
This comprehension, Mering believes, informed the rise of the millennial-approved saying, “YOLO” (you only live once), which she recites throughout “Generation Why,” elongating each letter until the abbreviation sounds like some gorgeous, Gothic chant.
“I think the meaning of ‘you only live once' is we've seen none of these things are permanent. Mortgages fail. Marriages fail. Truth has failed during this presidency. The idea of people being held accountable for their actions has failed,” Mering said. “Then it was like, ‘Yeah, we might as well make the most of whatever this is.' That's why I think so many millennials get dogs. They're maybe scared to have children. There are a lot of things we're dealing with.”
This includes smartphone technology, which has managed to connect the world while somehow furthering the divide (see the common site of two people in a room, each staring at a small screen) — a development Mering still wrestles with, citing both an uber-productive month she spent living without a phone in 2016 (she finally caved when her label purchased her a phone after having difficulty reaching her) and the day-to-day necessity of a device she described as part of “the fabric of society.”
“Talking about it is important because it's changing the way we think and it's changing the way we function,” Mering said. “Ultimately, it's a pretty dangerous tool for self-abuse. You can indulge narcissistic tendencies on Instagram — not that everybody does, but some might — and it feeds the non-existence of boredom, which I think is so essential for art and coming up with creative ideas. Long-form concentration is what you need to really get things done, and that's constantly broken apart by notifications or this desire to get on there and see what everybody is talking about.”
At this point in the conversation, Mering's phone dropped out — another sign from the universe? — and after reconnecting, she conceded that abandoning the tech altogether was unlikely. “We're stuck with it, and I wouldn't want to be a source of frustration for other people constantly asking to borrow a phone,” she said.
But that doesn't mean she'll hesitate to set it aside from time to time, giving herself at least a little space to consider life's big questions, such as humankind's finite nature.
“A lot of love songs now are about the apocalypse, like, (sings) ‘It's our last chance to dance!'” Mering said. “I don't even think that's a real song, but it's in the air, and I think we all need to be processing this concept that our time is sensitive. It's a fragile existence.”