Natalie Mering was born in Santa Monica, California – a tidbit of biographical trivia that for reasons she can’t quite explain has been repeated again and again in profiles and reviews of her long-running project Weyes Blood.
“It’s just something that people on the internet have randomly latched onto,” the singer-songwriter says bemusedly.
When she was still a small child, her family left Santa Monica, bounced between a few other L.A. neighborhoods (Woodland Hills, Thousand Oaks), and finally relocated in Philadelphia. Since then, she’s called Baltimore, New York City, and New Mexico home.
But not long ago, she settled down in Los Angeles once more – a not insignificant development in the life of the seventh-generation Californian.
“I’ve been trying to get back to California for a long time,” Mering admits. “I really feel from here. It’s pretty deep how far my California roots go, which is pretty rare for this state.”
She’s come full circle, and you can hear it in her latest Weyes Blood record, the incredible Front Row Seat to Earth. It drips with Southern California vibes of yesteryear – the ethereal, floating folk music of the late ’60s and early ’70s, more specifically
Written entirely by Mering, Front Row Seat to Earth drew on a supporting cast of local musicians, too, notably venerated producer (and drummer) Chris Cohen and Ariel Pink bassist Kenny Gillmore. Additionally, there were more limited contributions from slide guitarist Meg Duffy (who plays with Kevin Morby) and “synth wizard” Shags Chamberlain.
“I can play every instrument, and on some of the tracks I do everything, but it’s nice to have somebody who specializes in something step up and shred,” shares Mering, a veteran of noise projects like Jackie-O Motherfucker.
It was also hard to turn down the talent in her backyard.
“L.A. is a really music-saturated place, with a lot of heavy players who work on music but don’t expect an exorbitant amount of money for it,” she continues. “A city like New York is full of amazing musicians, but everyone is hustling; it’s a little less open and free. In L.A., people kind of have to hustle, but they’re more open to just have fun. There’s a history of incredible session players in this city, and I feel like that’s still alive.”
At the outset of Front Row Seat To Earth, did you have a clear idea what kind of record you wanted to make?
I knew I wanted to make a record that incorporated more of the things that I was interested in – in, like, a subtle way, so it didn’t sound too all over the place. I wanted it to venture off into newer territory, but make it feel like it was all in the same space.
I wanted to get a lot of live recordings, and kind of capture moments and spontaneity. At the outset, it was like, “How can we do that in three months?” [Laughs] Waiting for spontaneity and the perfect thing to happen can take years. Luckily, just from all three of us playing together – Kenny [Gilmore], Chris [Cohen], and I – we were able to record some of the songs live, which I think gave it a nice, spontaneous, all-in-one-room feel, kind of like cathedral pop. That’s what I was really going for.
What were the things you were trying to incorporate?
A vocal harmonizer is used on a lot of the tracks. I wanted more synthesizers, and I wanted to mix them a little bit louder. I wanted to use experimental orchestral elements. I wanted to make the sonic sphere a little wider and less singer-songwritery.
Do you think there’s a thread between the noise-rock you’ve made in the past and an album like Front Row Seat To Earth? Or do they come from different sides of the brain?
I think there are lots of similarities. Noise music is actually melodic in its own sense.
Sound effects as instruments is the ultimate goal for me. For my next record, I want to subtly incorporate more experimental elements to bring it to another level. I’ve been trying to integrate the two worlds for a long time now, but I was really just focusing on becoming a real songwriter, first and foremost. I’ve always been a sonic explorer. That stuff is cool and interesting to me, but I think putting it in the context and archetype of a well-written song is the best way for it to be experienced and accessible to other people.
The avant-garde and experimental noise world is cool, but it’s also very elite and kind of isolating. It isolates people, and that wasn’t my interest.
You’ve commented in the past that your personality isn’t not fully captured in your music. How do you make sense of that split?
I’m a real ham. I really like making jokes, and I like absurdity. I’ve always been very goofy. But I also have this really slow, deep, emotive side. If anything, it’s like the two masks – the happy and the sad faces. I am that. I am a very theatrical, dramatic human being. Tragedy and comedy are two very philosophical experiences, and I like to play with those two archetypes when I’m writing songs.
I have been sad, and I’ve had to find an outlet for that, because I’m naturally more of an easy going ham. Music is my little secret world where I get to be honest, and not sarcastic or something. When I was a little kid, I wanted to be an actress and a comedian, and I would pursue that stuff, but then I realized that there was something darker under the surface of music, and that was something that felt deeper to pursue.
What’s the story behind [the recent Drugdealer collaboration] “Suddenly”?
Mike Collins from Drugdealer is a really good friend of mine. We used to be roommates in Baltimore, and we would always talk music and the idea of collaborating.
When it was time for him to make that record, he would just be like, “Hey, come on over and we’ll do a little jam.” We recorded “Suddenly” with a really crappy handheld mic on his unmade bed with clothes everywhere. There were people in the room hanging out and smoking weed and chilling while we were recording. It was pretty low key, which is cool, because I think it has that magic.
It was kind of an organic thing because he was getting into the Carol King pop vibes and I was honing in on my voice in that way, too. We both were like, “Let’s do this. It makes so much sense!”
A profile from earlier this year noted that you were uninterested in finding recognition for your music – or at least characterized your feelings that way. Why is that?
That was actually kind of a misquote, which happens a lot. I never said that I didn’t want recognition. What I said is that I don’t have high expectations. I’ve been doing this for eleven or more years, and I’m so used to being told, “You’re going to explode in a couple of years!” I’ve heard that since I was 18. After a couple of years, you’re like, “That’s not what this is about.”
It’s not about waiting for a moment; it’s about doing the work, and doing the work better each time. It’s not that I don’t want recognition; it’s that it’s not the end goal. I don’t focus on it because inevitably I’d rather be pleasantly surprised than disappointed.
Have you been pleasantly surprised by the reception thus far to Front Row Seat To Earth?
You know, I am pleasantly surprised. But there’s no real way to measure what’s going on except to go on tour and see who’s coming to the shows and really feel it. Press is cool, and I appreciate it, but I think music these days is actually a lot more grassroots than we realize because there’s so much of it. You can get a lot of great press, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a great audience.
Playing fun shows and having great experiences is the real measure of success. I don’t see press as a signifier that I’ve entered a new real. I have buddies that don’t get good press, but they have they have these wonderful grassroots fanbases, and they play really great shows. That’s kind of the jam.