Before she became the experimental rock musician known as Weyes Blood, Natalie Mering was a teenage misogynist. Growing up in Santa Monica, California, she would read books by male authors, hang out with her guy friends, and perform in hardcore bands with men. “I was misled,” she says. “I was thinking about women the way Hemingway and Bukowski would think about women, because those were the people I was looking up to. I was literally just like, ‘Women are weak, and that’s why I’m gonna pretend to be a man.’ I was 1,000 per cent a misogynist.”
It was an outlook that affected her early musical path. That, and the fact that the only shows happening in her town “were based on really intense, aggressive male energy, so if you wanted to be involved in a musical community, that was it”. She became the singer of a math-metal band called Satanized, and would mix bananas with fake blood, shove the red mulch up her shirt and rip it open onstage. If you were a woman, she says, displays of intense aggression were what gained you respect. “So, screaming and writhing around on the floor was really praised.”
It didn’t last long. “All of a sudden, I was like, ‘This is so boring,’” says the 31-year-old now, sitting in a London hotel room in a rust-coloured turtle-neck, elegant and eloquent despite her professed jet lag. “‘This scene is too loud, everybody is self-congratulating, it’s not going anywhere. All these guys are so hateful, and so bitter, and so dark, and I will never be a woman who doesn’t know how to play an instrument, who’s just gonna go in a band and scream.’ It wasn’t who I was.” So she reverted to the kind of music – and the name, Weyes Blood (pronounced Wise Blood) – that she dreamt up as a 15-year-old. “It was easy,” she says, “because it’s actually what I do best.”
Not that Mering reverted to something safe. Her music remains unsettling and quietly confrontational, combining Sixties folk, Seventies psych-rock, Karen Carpenter-like singing, and eerie, esoteric instrumentals. She released her debut album, The Outside Room, in 2011, and her second, The Innocents, in 2014 – but it was 2016’s mellifluous, soul-searching Front Row Seat to Earth that earned her the most critical acclaim. “The Kinks meet the Second World War, or Bob Seger meets Enya” is how she describes her fourth album, Titanic Rising, which is rife with radical ideas, peculiar instruments and luscious melodies. On it, atop slide guitars, violas and fairground organs, she attempts to reconcile the trauma of a radically changing world – one where technology is evolving as fast as the climate is collapsing.
On album opener “A Lot’s Gonna Change”, she longs to return “to a time when I was just a girl/ When I had the whole world gently wrapped around me/ And no good thing could be taken away”. It was around the turn of the century, says Mering, when she realised that the world was an unsafe, unstable place, and that climate change couldn’t be stopped by simply tidying our streets and shorelines.
“As a little girl, I really thought we just needed to clean things up,” she says. The kids TV channel Nickelodeon had a scheme called “The Big Help”, and Mering would volunteer hours to go on to the freeway to pick up trash. “It just felt like the whole world was on that tip,” she says. “And I was genuinely shocked around the year 2000 when I realised that environmentalism wasn’t cleaning things up, that we don’t have the technology to suck all the carbon out of the air, and that nobody really cared.”
The second trauma she experienced was “the paradigm shift from the cell phones”. Too quickly, the world transformed “from a culture where things had a certain, intrinsic value, like found photos of funny pictures, to one of disposability. I think people lost some of their personal value, too, from the isolation of constantly comparing themselves to other people through social media, and the disposability of it all.”
Does she want to go back to the way things were? “I just don’t think it’s possible,” she sighs. “I feel for the Luddites, and I identify with them, but they failed. The idea of smashing the technology and reverting to how things used to be has failed over and over again. So I wish that there was a deeper evolution to make the technology serve a greater biological purpose for humans, as opposed to draining them, distracting them, killing their attention spans. But it’s a baby technology. We’re all rooting for it to act less like a parasite and more like the tool that everyone hopes it could be. But I do want to go back in terms of environmentalism.”
She blames the baby boomers, many of whom are still clinging to power, for the state of the world that young people have inherited. Donald Trump – “a crook who could manipulate the next election and make it even less possible for things to change” – is a baby boomer, after all. “I think boomers are the most spoilt generation of all time,” she says. “They got to ride the biggest wave of natural resources, and they seem so stuck up and completely oblivious. And they were really spoilt by their parents, because their parents grew up in the depression and were so traumatised they just spoiled those kids so much.”
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“The truth is,” she continues, “birth control and abortion wiped out thousands and thousands of people that would have been born. So the baby boomers are actually just physically bigger as a generation. Next generations are smaller because of birth control and abortion. And I’m totally pro-choice,” she adds, “I’m just saying, factually, they’re outnumbered.”
But surely that’s a good thing? The world is overpopulated as it is. “I dunno, man. What if Gen X was bigger than the boomers? What would they have done? What would they have changed? What would our reality be if we had a Gen X president? It might be cooler. S’all I’m saying.”
If it seems like there’s a misanthropic edge to Mering, she would disagree. “I really do believe in the benevolence of the universe,” she says – though that didn’t exactly come from her Christian upbringing. In the Seventies, her parents were both hippie musicians – her father even went on a few dates with Joni Mitchell before meeting her mother – but by the time Mering came along, they were born-again Christians. She was raised in a Bible Belt household in which the Smurfs were too homosexual and the Care Bears were too communist.
By the age of 14, Mering found herself questioning the doctrine she was being offered. “I could feel the puzzle pieces not fitting,” she says, “and I was just really blown away that Christians could convince themselves that they were living as a reflection of Jesus’s philosophies, yet they were capitalist pigs. I know what Jesus was. He was a hippie. He was a socialist. And if you’re gonna act like he was anything else, then it’s a scapegoat.” Feeling the holes in her faith growing, she looked to those around her to convince her that Christianity was worthwhile. “And nobody could,” she shrugs, “so I was like, ‘OK, I’m good. This is trash.’”
Still, she understands the desire for faith. “We all need something. There’s an impenetrable darkness within everybody. However you decide to escape that, it’s really hard for me to judge. Christianity really did save my parents, and it brings them a lot of joy. I would never want to take that away from them.”
So how does she escape that impenetrable darkness? She laughs. “I think through new age-y stuff. There’s a whole realm of things that we don’t understand and we don’t see, and in that realm, there is something connecting everybody. It’s not just all chaos and an accident. I believe the best for people.”
Weyes Blood plays at Electric Brixton tonight
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