Natalie Mering, aka Weyes Blood, the well-traveled, Pennsylvania-bred, and now Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter, sings like a '60s American folk poet or medieval bard who has seen the 21st century. "What can you do when you're sedated and proved a failure in some man's world?" she laments in 'The Land of Broken Dreams,' the opening track on her latest and second full-length record, "The Innocents." Filled with delicate mandolin- and guitar-plucking, sweeping piano, subtle distortion, raw soprano intonations, and deep layers of choir-like vocals, her crushing ballads and gothic folk songs embody the dread, confusion, and regret of coming into adulthood in the present American dysfunction. We talked over the phone about Tarantula Hill, Flannery O'Connor, and early 20s disillusionment ahead of Mering's Jan. 11 show at The Crown with Fountain of Youth, Nerftoss, and Amanda Schmidt.
City Paper: You spent some time in Baltimore. How was your experience living and working here?
Natalie Mering: I think Baltimore is a wonderful artistic community with a lot of great musicians. It's kind of like a little secret for musicians. I lived in [a] really special fun warehouse, Tarantula Hill, that had a sauna and now has a sensory deprivation tank. I got to do a lot of fun stuff. Prettyboy Reservoir is the most beautiful reservoir I've ever seen; it was pretty influential. I loved Blacks in Wax; it's one of my favorite wax museums of all time. Baltimore is wonderful. Super-weird city.
CP: Can you talk more about living in Tarantula Hill?
NM: I just worked on creative projects all day long. And then I worked for the census too during that time, enumerating West Baltimore, which is really interesting, and at times super intense. I did a tour with Twig [Harper] and Carly [Ptak], who also lived there and had a band called Nautical Almanac. We did a tour; we would do saunas. Twig was doing psychedelic research with salvia, and during that time Johns Hopkins University was doing a salvia study too. So we experimented with salvia. And they have an esoteric library, also, so I read a lot of crazy books.
CP: You've performed with Jackie-O-Motherfucker and Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti. How and when did Weyes Blood come about as a solo project?
NM: When I was about 15 I had already been recording on my four track in my room, but I couldn't find anyone in my town to be in a band with me. I was in a band very briefly with a bunch of guys and they kicked me out because they wanted to play grindcore. I think they didn't think I could tread hard enough or something. So I started playing solo. I worked at a record store, but I had to quit because I had too many extracurricular activities like choir and theater and all this different stuff. After I quit the record store, I kind of lost this "cool" musical identity, being the girl that worked at the record store. So I was like, I should just play shows and get over being scared of being solo. So when I was 15 I read Flannery O'Connor's novel "Wise Blood" and chose that as my moniker and started playing shows. I gave up on the idea of being in a band, which was really my biggest dream.
CP: After being in a band and working on your own, do you prefer performing solo or working with a group?
NM: Depends on the group. Sometimes you can get really high energy with a group and it can be really elating and wonderful. The amount of control you can have over a performance when it's just yourself is pretty great. And because I've honed in on that and that's what I've done the most over the years, I'm a little better at that. I have a backup band that's going on this tour and I'm still kind of learning how to wrangle them all together under the same umbrella. It's really fun and super great. But as a solo artist I feel like I have poise or something.
CP: How does your music align with Flannery O'Connor's novel? This album in particular has a Southern Gothic sound, and that's what she is identified with.
NM: Just really the name. There are some things about the book that are pretty existential and super deep, but it's way more general than that . . . I'd say the Southern Gothic, slightly outcast isolation; a lot of characters in that novel are pretty isolated, so I can relate to that.
CP: What else influenced the sound and lyrical content of "The Innocents"?
NM: I lived in a lot of different places. It was kind of an accumulative [process] . . . because I was doing a lot of experimental music. I had written songs as a teenager and I switched over to doing more experimental music, so I had all these songs locked up about my late teenhood and early 20s. And that's really what the album is about. First experiences and disenchantment and all the wild stuff and all the learning curves that go down as a young person. You're at the end of your first relationship; things like that.
CP: Do you have a favorite song from the album?
NM: It depends on the day. I do really like 'Bad Magic.' It’s the most raw, the most stripped down. It was all done in one take, one fell swoop. I like the song 'Land of Broken Dreams,' because it's about America, and I like the song 'Bound to Earth' because it's about how people have neglected environmentalism in the last five years. It's just become such a dire state of hopelessness that people just choose not to really think about it. And the closest we come to that is buying organic food and trying to take better care of ourselves. Do you know what I mean? It's pretty rare for people to be like, "Let's clean up under the bridge!" like in the '90s. Nickelodeon had "The Big Help" and all these things that were set into place to make people inspired to clean up their neighborhood, and now it's more like, let's just clean up our bodies and hope for the best.
CP: Can you talk more about 'The Land of Broken Dreams'? I feel like it's the most striking in the concept behind the song.
NM: Greil Marcus is a wonderful music writer, he had written something in a book of his ["Mystery Train"], about how the American Dream is kind of this myth that's just building up to let everybody down. Being like, "you're special, you're above the rest, and you deserve this exponential level of comfort and wealth and security." That's just not sustainable in our society. The education system doesn't really prep anybody for that kind of thing, so it's just a let-down for a lot of people. An existential let-down. Just a bunch of fantasy and media.
CP: Is that something you've personally experienced in your own career?
NM: In my own life, yeah: meeting Europeans, having close friends that went to private school and seeing just the difference, like how a lot of my other friends grew up in the normal public school system who didn't come from money. There's kind of this sense of ineptitude when it came to striving for bigger things, and it was something that was kind of built into the kids who went to private school. They had this built-in one-up on everything, in college—just in anything they want to do. I just noticed at a certain age, there are people that came from money that could do what they wanted to do, and then there's everybody else. And it seemed like the people that suffered more worked harder . . . That's kind of where I am. I don't necessarily come from money, but I do come from a loving family. I was always encouraged to dream and do whatever I wanted to do. But it's a little more difficult without a patron or a built-in knowledge of needing a real job. I had to learn the hard way, working at a restaurant and trying to pay rent for five years and do music and whatever else. It's not as wonderful as people make it out to be. I've worked a lot of really intense, crappy jobs. Because I don't have skills. I kind of didn't think I needed skills . . . You go to school with all these people and you think that you're all at the same level but you realize that there's kids in AP classes that started AP in middle school and that if you missed the boat then, you're going to miss the boat into your 20s, basically. It'll take you until you’re like 23 to realize, oh, I see where I missed the boat; that was a long time ago. I wasn't even a person then . . . It would be wonderful if they taught kids about how money really works and how taxes really work and how credit cards really work, as opposed to just figuring it out in your early 20s and being in debt and being confused as to what's going on.
CP: Can you talk about how you approached this record differently from your previous album ["The Outside Room" from Not Not Fun]?
NM: I worked in the studio. I worked with some other people; first time I ever worked with other musicians, other producers. It was kind of a patchwork effort. I got signed to Mexican Summer midway through the record, so I had already been doing it on my own with other people. The main difference is the influence of other audiophile types. It's a little more higher-definition. I had someone else mix it, which ultimately I think it's up to the artist to mix it. I don't think I'll ever have other people work on it like they did on this one. But it was a wonderful learning experience; I learned a lot working with real engineers.
CP: Are you just touring the album now? I know that Baltimore will be your second date. You're starting in Philly, right?
NM: Yeah. Now it's just touring and trying to establish a road presence. I love touring; if it were up to me I'd be touring all the time. I've already written my next album. I'm ready to fire that one out as soon as I can.
CP: The video for 'Some Winters' is very beautiful, with those long linear shots and the woodland setting, but also has slightly funny elements like the Roomba humming about and the Shiba Inu, which at first looks like this mystical wolf-like creature until you realize it's the ultimate meme dog.
NM: Yeah the Roomba is a source of entertainment and contention for a lot of people. The point of the Roomba is to kind of break apart the seriousness of what's going on and take it to this more abstract kind of fairytale level. The dog was sweet.
CP: Are you going to do any more videos for this record?
NM: Yeah, I have a new video coming out hopefully later this month for 'Bad Magic.' I'd like to do as many videos as I can. For the next record I'd like to try to make a video for every song, Beyonce-style.