December 1, 2023

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Weyes Blood Gives Soft Rock an Apocalyptic Edge

For a while, Mering found this scene very heady and inspiring. She told me that, at the time, she was convinced she was hearing the sound of the future: “It’s going to be noise—it’s going to move past the structure of music as we know it to something ecstatic and improvisational and on the cutting edge of sound design and expression.” Mering observed, “Instead of feeling like a regular singer-songwriter, I felt more like an explorer—exploring realms of sound for my generation.”

Mering went to study music at Lewis & Clark College, in Portland, Oregon, but she left after a year to make songs on her own, and to play with an experimental noise band called Jackie-O Motherfucker. She soon ended up back on the East Coast, bouncing between Baltimore and Philadelphia. In Baltimore, she lived for a time in a three-story abandoned warehouse that had been converted into a communal art-and-living space called Tarantula Hill. Twig Harper, the musician who ran it, let artists live there for next to nothing. It had a library, screen-printing equipment, a music studio, and a sensory-deprivation tank, but no central heating. Mering loved it there. She had started to write songs that anchored experimental noises with more traditional melodic structures. The results sounded a bit like Gregorian chants produced by Brian Eno. She said of the warehouse, “I made my first album there, and I could be loud and use the space and run around. Warehouses are to me so expansive—it’s kind of unlimited what you can do there. It’s, like, this alternative, liminal creative space.” In the winter, Mering sewed hot-water bottles into her sweaters; on the coldest days, everybody huddled around a wood-burning stove on the second floor. Mering said, “It was actually very cool, because we had a roommate community based on ‘We’ve got to build the fire and sit next to it.’ And we’d talk about things—talk about ideas.”

In 2011, Weyes Blood released her first album, “The Outside Room,” on a tiny label, Not Not Fun Records, playing all the instruments herself. It sounded lo-fi, spooky, and out-there—there was no call to release a single. Around this time, she used the entire modest advance that she received from a record label to get her wisdom teeth taken out. She recalled bursting into tears when she found a parking ticket on her car, wondering how she could possibly pay it. Before the success of her next two albums, she was admired by other musicians, but she “didn’t have a leg up or a patron,” and she got by with a string of day jobs, from census-taker to “dog-hiker,” which involved bringing packs of dogs into the woods to let them run around.

These impecunious years, she says, shaped her artistic outlook. “I felt like it was my responsibility to be excited about things that might not have the most capitalistic value but might have value for our psychology and be valuable in terms of expression,” she said. “It’s almost like that replaced the faith I grew up with as a kid in some ways. It didn’t replace God, but there was this idea of How do I help people? I’ve got to believe in the frontiers of art and music.” She went on, “It was always really important to me to make sure my generation didn’t get completely swallowed up by capitalism. Because it seemed to me that this was what was happening to millennials—and our music was really boring.” She recalls being a teen-ager and “asking my dad, because he was a musician, ‘When are we going to have the next wave? When is someone going to come and reinvent music again?’ Because we were getting ’NSync and Britney Spears and Hanson and the Spice Girls, and it was bad.” (She has lately grown more admiring of Spears.)

Men dominated the indie-music scene Mering was in, though she was a more technically proficient musician than most of them. Elaine Kahn, a poet who first met her in Philadelphia in 2007 and has stayed friends with her since, recalls getting emotional when she saw Mering perform the songs from “Titanic Rising” at a record-release party: “Though there were definitely people in that noise scene who fostered her talent, I was also thinking about all the dudes over the years who had tried to steal her light a little bit. Here she was, this beautiful young woman, who could play way better than most of them could. And they would try to make her their girlfriend, or their muse.”

“You’re not thinking frog thoughts, Maurice, I can tell.”

Cartoon by Victoria Roberts

I asked Mering about those gender politics. “Oh, I’ve been on tour with people where they’re, like, ‘If you don’t sleep with me on this tour, it’s gonna be the tour from living hell,’ ” she said. “Threatening me. Or somebody wants to work with you creatively but also wants to sleep with you a little bit.” We were driving to her house after a fitting for a music-video shoot—she had tried on white sailor pants, a jaunty sailor’s beret, and a striped T-shirt, for a scenario in which she would dance with a cartoon, like Gene Kelly in “Anchors Aweigh.” Instead of being paired up with a cartoon mouse, Mering would dance with a malevolent animated cell phone. (She talks often about how drained and exploited we are by self-obsolescing modern technology.) In the car, she had put on a nineteen-forties playlist—the Ink Spots, Frank Sinatra singing “I’ll Never Smile Again.” Perhaps the velvety vocals helped, but Mering turned out to be one of the calmest drivers I’ve ever shared a car with in L.A. traffic.

“I think I used to mute my sexuality and my femininity so that I could be considered a peer and a bro,” Mering observed. “And that has its own pitfalls. Learning how to basically turn my pheromones off in a situation and make it really, explicitly, subconsciously clear that nothing was going to happen. It’s a good skill to have, but it’s also a strange skill.”

In early 2016, Mering moved to Los Angeles, where she gravitated more strongly toward the singer-songwriter mode burnished by such seventies forbears as Harry Nilsson and Laura Nyro. Though she was still incorporating “weird sounds and tape loops,” she said, her music had been “morphing toward what I do now.” She noted, “As the songs got better, the noises got quieter, because they didn’t need the atmospheric support anymore.” It struck her that the truly “nonconformist thing to do” was to make music that was “as beautiful as possible.” Guys in noise music had liked it when she got loud and dissonant and crazy onstage. “They’d be, like”—she assumed a gruff dude voice—“ ‘You looked really good doing that.’ ” But Mering wanted to hone her songcraft, creating music replete with grace.

She recalled a distinct turning point. “I went to this international noise conference,” she said. “And I was playing in a basement and the amps caught on fire—I was playing so crazy and loud. I honestly felt like the Devil had showed up to my gig and said, ‘Don’t do this anymore.’ I mean, this was a basement full of people and the amps were on fire. And this was before the Ghost Ship fire.” (In December, 2016, a conflagration broke out during a show at the Ghost Ship, an alternative art-and-living space in Oakland that didn’t meet building codes; it killed thirty-six people, casting a shadow over the D.I.Y. scene.)

Mering decided that her new music would emphasize more accessible sounds—most notably her voice, which was honeyed and languid, but with a kind of dignified force that made her lyrics sound composed and oracular. The resulting album, “The Innocents,” which she released in 2014, had a cover reminiscent of a vintage folk LP: a simple black-and-white photograph of a ponytailed Mering in profile. Tracks such as “Land of Broken Dreams” and “Summer” harkened back to the mystical medievalism of sixties folk revivalists like Fairport Convention. In 2016 came “Front Row Seat to Earth,” an album that showcased a lyrical turn toward generational angst and pushed Mering’s vocals into a more ethereal register. But 2019’s “Titanic Rising,” which came out on the prominent indie label Sub Pop, represented a big musical leap, and it turned up on many album-of-the-year lists. There was less gloomy grandiosity and more hummable swing—a more knowing incorporation of soft-rock charm. The Guardian described it as “beauty deep enough to drown in” and “gorgeously smart.” Pitchfork noted that the “songs are more stoic and elegant even when Mering sings of apocalyptic imagery like a ‘million people burnin’.”

As Mering’s career has taken off, she has participated in buzzy collaborations that highlight her limpid vocals and “Licorice Pizza” style. She turned up on Lana Del Rey’s 2021 album, “Chemtrails Over the Country Club,” where she and the singer Zella Day harmonized with Del Rey on a gauzy cover of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free.” For the soundtrack to the recent “Minions” prequel, a compilation of seventies covers produced by the hitmaker Jack Antonoff, Mering channelled Linda Ronstadt with a crisp version of “You’re No Good.” She conjured Carole King on “Suddenly,” a groovy, psychedelic homage written by one of her friends from Baltimore, Michael Collins, who has also found indie success in L.A., recording as Drugdealer. That track has become one of Mering’s biggest hits on Spotify, with thirty-two million plays. (Her top song as Weyes Blood, the country-tinged “Andromeda,” from “Titanic Rising,” has received nearly forty million plays.) Collins, remembering their youthful immersion in Baltimore’s experimental milieu, said of Mering, “You know, she could have gone out and tried to have the career she has now from a younger age. But she’s so much more of an odd bird. She was interested in gravitating toward the freak zones.”

Some of the confrontational, theatrical verve of her youth is visible in her more recent videos and album-cover concepts. The drowned-bedroom image on the cover of “Titanic Rising,” for example, could easily have been realized with Photoshop. Instead, she worked with an underwater photographer, holding her breath in the back-yard pool for longer and longer as night fell and the particleboard furniture began to dissolve. In the video for “It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody”—a title for our times, if ever there was one—Mering scampers around a bombed-out cityscape constructed on the stage of the Ace Theatre, a concert space in downtown L.A. that still looks like the Spanish Gothic movie palace it originally was.

Mering told me she is grateful that she started her career on the margins. It allowed her to try strange stuff and to practice among like-minded friends—not, say, on TikTok or in some other contemporary platform where she would have felt immediate pressure to brand her music and her style. When she made the move toward less transgressive music, she said, “it wasn’t about money—I just wanted to reach people.” With the kind of noise music she had initially been creating, “you could maybe go the art-museum route, or get real academic. I liked people. I wanted to play big shows with people.” She feels that her years spent “doing something that was very ecstatic and free” organically led her to consider other approaches—“to do something that was very orchestrated and planned.”

Mering’s two styles of music-making continue to “feed into each other,” she added. “I now know that, as much as I bang my head against the wall sometimes—it’s gotta be perfect, or it’s gotta be like this, or this melody has to feel like this—at the end of the day the rawest form of emotion is more of an impulse, an improvisatory thing. I learned a lot about improvisation from noise music, and I default to that if I’m overthinking it. You can’t be too self-aware and calculating.”

One of the rewards of a Weyes Blood album is the sense that, beneath the transistor-radio prettiness, something stranger lurks. On the new record, the song “Children of the Empire” pairs a bouncy and captivating melodic line with almost comically grim lyrics: “So much blood on our hands”; “We’re all lost.” Originally, the song had finished on a bright musical note—a fun, vamping outro recorded at EastWest. But Rado told me that, at his studio, he and Mering decided instead to fade out the song with a moody swirl of strings, and to make the finger snaps that punctuate the song sound “colder, louder, more metallic.” These touches, he said, were “so much more Weyes Blood.” So was Mering’s decision to include, on both “Titanic Rising” and “And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow,” an ambient instrumental track that deconstructs an earlier song on the album. On the new record, the instrumental piece is “In Holy Flux,” which takes the vocal loop from “It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody,” and, in Rado’s words, “runs it through a lot of effects to morph it into something sonically different.”