Music

The Ascent Of Weyes Blood’s Mystic Pop

I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words. — Maggie Nelson, Bluets

These seven words I say to you / One by one / ‘I love you and you have to know.’ — Weyes Blood, “Seven Words

Love doesn’t understand time very well. Neither do I, anymore. Love is the opposite of time, I think, not a spectrum but a continuum. When I listen to Weyes Blood’s Front Row Seat To Earth, I lose all track of time. All I hear is blue. I don’t hear the record as a collection of songs, only as color. The color is you, and summer, and leaving; my oldest memory or my freshest wound. It sounds white-hot, and blue. I hear the blues as a taxonomy of grief; separation like wind and salt, shore and sea. It goes on and on, far out beyond what I can see. That doesn’t mean it has no end, only, I can’t see it from where I am. It leaves me wanting.

When I talk about desire, I know I’m really talking about New York. New York is the bluest city, it sings the color in despair and decadence. It’s the only city that makes me feel like I’ve ceased to exist when I leave; it sucks the air right out of me on sight or departure. If I breathe wrong, everything cuts sharp like a blue crying jag, but my eyes are dry. Leaving is not death, but in the right heat it feels like it might be. When grief comes as fast and bright as this, I am just a passenger; a spectator of my own heart. There is the grief in death, but leaving hurts more, because the chance — a different life — still exists, even if it’s just in my mind. At least death can’t be argued with. Why did you only come to me when I was leaving? Your arrival was already a loss.

Front Row Seat To Earth came then, too. The record arrived at the end of last October, just over a year ago this week, courtesy of the Brooklyn label Mexican Summer. I’ve listened to it almost every single day since then. Certainly, I’ve listened to this record every day of 2017, the last artifact of a world that no longer feels possible. Released just two weeks before Trump was elected, political chaos dominated every airwave, and when he won, there was little time to dwell on a mystical pop record from a young female artist on a small indie label. So Weyes Blood and Mering didn’t get the fanfare a record this brilliant should’ve received. Her seven words remained, humming, beneath a world undone.

Natalie Mering began to write the songs on Front Row Seat To Earth in New York, while living down in the Rockaways. It’s a wet record, hot and windy and humid, lingering over doubt and desire like a glance down a long, blue shoreline. The Rockaways are where I would go, too, whenever anyone left me; to see the ocean hit the sky, to remind myself there is something bigger than being alone. But space is only part of grief’s bad magic — time is always the other half. Some days, I wish I hadn’t given the record to you, resent you living here, inside it, too. Others, I’m comforted to know you hear it too, one final link between us.

***

Over a year later, I can say with confidence that the best moment in music in 2016 comes at the 2:22 mark on Weyes Blood’s “Seven Words.” It’s the moment when Natalie Mering passes the torch from her own looped, tripled host of wordless harmonies over to a guitar solo so full of yearning the notes sounds like a human ache made louder. Loosed from the confines of words, Mering picks back up a couple seconds later, looping further above and beyond the solo, back into the song’s structure.

Within those moments, I imagine I can trace the entirety of Weyes Blood’s trajectory, all of Mering’s fantastic, fearsome creative force is crammed into that break. It’s not a moment that you can fit into a musical genre, or identify as a chorus or verse, it’s a wild moment of pure musical momentum, the kind of unrehearsed outpouring you can usually only catch in a live show. It’s the kind of moment that makes you want to know the person behind it.

When I finally do get the chance to meet Natalie Mering to talk about her mesmerizing record, we’re both living in LA. I’m still nursing the wound of leaving, and looking for answers. Even after months with the album, I can’t find any new ways in; everything is still blue, and you. We met next to Echo Park Lake, which wasn’t my idea, but the scene is hot and shimmering with lots of blue, a perfect likeness for how the record makes me feel, cruising through LA, longing for other, colder weather.

On that warm January day in Los Angeles, Natalie strode around the lake toward me wearing the sort of long, off-cream jacket that immediately made me wish I’d brought a photographer. But when she comes closer, her aura is sweetly goofy, a departure from the record’s stoic elegance. We talk for over an hour, almost accidentally, as I try to get the often meandering, sometimes whimsical story of her musical career down. Earth is ancient and sophisticated, but in conversation she’s wryly funny and casually sweet, disarmingly so after the sweeping poise of her music.

Mering wouldn’t call herself a mystic, though she most certainly is one. Born in California, her recent move back to LA is something of a return. Mering grew up in rural Pennsylvania when her family moved for her father’s job when she was very young. Raised Christian, but more faithful to music than religion, she worked in a record store and dipped her toe in and out of various hardcore, screamo, and post-punk scenes that bubbled up around the outskirts of Philly.

At the age of twelve she began playing guitar diligently; she’d already begun copying soundtracks like Legends Of The Fall and Braveheart on the piano. An early teacher helped her write her own sheet music. “I was inspired by Kurt Cobain, I was inspired by Picasso and Van Gogh,” she said, remembering her early gestures were more toward art in general than music, specifically. “I didn’t think I would be a musician though. I kind of thought I was going to be an actress or an artist or a personality or something.”

Fascinated by drone music, and performing herself at an early age, a version of the title of one of Flannery O’Connor’s epic novels, Wise Blood, housed her musical personality since about 15. First, as Wise Blood, then, Weyes Bludh, and finally, Weyes Blood, eventually the spelling was copyright protection, but the concept of wisdom in physical form stuck.

“The book Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor struck a chord with me,” Mering told me of her attraction to the phrase. “Just the title: Wise Blood. Like, wisdom could exist separate from the body. I’d never looked at blood that way; it’s like you could have the same blood as somebody from 300 years ago. The same thing runs through our veins. I’d never thought about it like that. Once I did, I was like ‘This is deep.’ It was conceptually interesting to me.”

That’s the kind of logic that frames a song on Earth called “Generation Why,” where Mering strings out gossamer pronunciations of each letter in Drake’s “YOLO” cry. Pop culture is just as philosophical as anything else, given the chance. Yes, her music sounds like the mystical ’70s folk that was the bedrock for Laurel Canyon and early ‘60s soft rock, but it also sounds like an imaginary 2018 pop music, loping, dreamy drones that cloak the sarcastic in the earnest, and vice versa. This is the sound she slowly built over the last decade or so.

Now 29, Mering spent the course of her twenties living in a handful of different states before settling in her current home of Los Angeles. Initially pursuing a degree in music at Portland, Oregon’s Lewis and Clark, she dropped out after a single year to tour with the experimental folk collective Jackie-O Motherfucker, and later moved to Kentucky for a relationship with an herbalist, and concurrently, the study of herbalism itself. During that time, she all but abandoned music.

“When you live on the farm you’ve got to plant the seeds at 8 AM,” she explained. “It’s definitely not for making art. You can’t really have both, which is kind of cool. But, then I moved to New York and said goodbye to my nature life since then.”

After her Kentucky relationship was over, Mering transplanted to Brooklyn — specifically the Rockaways — to begin honing and refining the musical project she’d carried with her since adolescence. Though it came to fruition in New York, the story of Earth began long before Brooklyn, and only finished after she left. Most good stories from that city do, no matter what the New York’s creation myth might whisper in your ear. In order to process the emotions that inspired the record, and finish it, Mering needed to leave Brooklyn.

“I miss Rockaway, when I lived there it was almost like therapeutic,” she said. “It’s like long-form sleeping. For me, there, I had dignity, I was living in paradise. Even Jamaica Bay, it’s so fucked up and nasty, and gnarly but at least it’s like a bay. A little bubble of artists happened to move there, and was super special. I started writing in Rockaway, and then I moved to Georgia for a little bit, to write and hide.”

After writing most of the album holed up in Athens, Georgia, working alone on the songs that would become Earth, she then moved to LA on New Year’s Eve of 2015, and almost immediately began recording her songs with producer Chris Cohen (who also plays drums and guitar on the record). “Before I moved to the farm to Kentucky I was like ‘I’m going to move to LA…’ and then I just got sidetracked on this crazy journey,” she laughed. “So it was a long time coming.”

Certainly, it was during her 2016 stint in Los Angeles that this project grew up, unfolded and blossomed into its fullest potential, even if 2017 and beyond will see Weyes Blood growing even further. About a month ago, the storied Seattle indie label Sub Pop announced her signing, and a new Weyes Blood album will be coming in 2018. But, looking backward a bit helps understand how her music evolved into the mystical folk and baroque pop found on Earth. It’s also worth noting she co-produced every track on the album.

Though she recorded and released plenty of music during her early Pennsylvania years, listening to her first two officially released Weyes Blood albums — 2011’s six-song release The Outside Room and her 2014 Mexican Summer full-length debut, The Innocents (along with the 2015 EP Cardamom Times, which was written during her time in New York) — reveals all the shades of her latest record are there, too, muted or shadowy, but emerging.

“I think there’s still a lot of influences that I’m reconciling,” Mering explained. “In some ways my early work was like an improvisatory thing where I could just kind of capture the magic. On Front Row Seat To Earth I’m making tighter music that’s a little more accessible in terms of just like everyday people that don’t know about experimental drone music, but also have those elements creeping in from below.” Her old label, Mexican Summer called it “folk music of the near future,” a phrase that stuck with prophetic assurance. It’s an apocalypse, but there is power in the blast. The Weather Station’s Tamara Lindeman might call it a “personal eclipse.”

There is evocative imagery in her work, too, it’s not just sounds, but whole scenes and backdrops, reminiscent of her fascination with those those early soundtracks. I tell Natalie the album reminds me of Tree Of Life, and she understands the comparison immediately. “That is such a huge compliment, that movie made me cry,” she said. “It’s not so much about my father — I think there’s a big parental presence in ‘Tree Of Life’. There is a lot of biographical content on the record, and I feel like for me it’s a little more about romantic relationships.”

I laughed at this. The music is old, now, for her; I am still living inside it. “But that stuff is just as familial and spiraling,” she added gently. On the drive home, I consider that I might be spiraling. I turn up the music to clear the thought: Used to be the one, that knew me, saw through me. I don’t know who the tears are for, but the line makes me cry.

***

I see communication as an act of intimacy, you see it as an act of logic. Logically, we stop talking, but it’s harder to stop intimacy cold. It keeps bubbling out of me like a long, blue song. I write letters to you every day and send exactly none of them. Instead, I read them over and over, like listening to a song for comfort. I am trying to see when the (seven) words will stop feeling true. I am trying to see if I’m writing them to you, or to me. I finally give up the letter-writing, but keep listening to Weyes Blood. There’s no logic inside the record’s bright, raw blue emptiness, but there is intimacy. Perhaps more than any record that came out last year.

I’ve never seen Weyes Blood live, and that feels important. For the story, or, for exorcising you, I decide to go to a festival in Calgary, Alberta to see her perform in an old church. Maybe going back to Canada will shake something loose. In a now-signature silk blue suit, similar to the one on her album cover, though all of those photos were shot at the Salton Sea back in California. Mering flits around the church stage setting up a tape player, and candelabra with three prongs and battery operated candles. The summer heat makes the preparation seem even more momentous.

Old opera music blasts through the analogue tape machine, filling the church with strange and beautiful howls, while she stands flanked by a triptych stained glass window behind her. She sings old song on acoustic guitar, with the analogue organ music droning behind her like a worn-out VHS of an old, beloved horror film. The performance is fascinating, but she does almost nothing from Earth. I listen to the album on the flight back, settling this time on “Do You Need My Love.” Do you need someone? Do you need my love? she sings. I understand, now, that they are two very different questions.

Writing for The Guardian when the album came out last fall, Michael Hann pinpointed the record’s uncanny power. “There’s a theme running through the songs, and it is that of someone declaring their love in a slightly terrifying way,” Hann wrote. “It’s beautiful, unsettling and wholly compelling.” He’s right — the record assumes an intimacy that might surprise listeners, particularly those not versed in folk music’s long tradition of immediate, emotional oversharing.

Perhaps better than any other track, “Seven Words” encapsulates what he means. It’s a declaration of love, and yes, some might find it terrifying. But it’s the truest kind of terrifying: “I love you, and you have to know.” The chance doesn’t exist if you don’t know. There’s no risk without that declaration, but there’s no resolution either. Maybe the only logical extension of intimacy is always terrifying, whether the other party feels the same way or not. After all, they usually don’t.

When we met, you and I were living different versions of what it feels like to love someone we’ll never have. The deep, ancient ache of it escapes my memory when I’ve been complacent or content for too long, but Earth commemorates that feeling, sealing it in amber. It’s an album about the empty spaces someone else used to fill, and how to reclaim them, or, how to let them be sand the sea washes over, erases and reshapes. As I try to smooth over my heart and erase the shape of you, “Seven Words” still feels like the closest thing to a key.

“I wrote that song on guitar, and it was actually Chris’ idea that I try it on the organ,” Natalie remembered of the track, when we spoke back in January. “That song was written in a really interesting time in my life. I had just gone through a really big breakup, and it was kind of right before feeling really bummed out about it. Like, feeling more like, kind of a relief, a bittersweet resolve, or ‘oh I’m free.’ That was dark. It was like right before the chemicals and the pain and missing him. So in that moment of clarity, that song was written. It was a beautiful moment, a real moment.”

***

Finally, I get to see a real Weyes Blood show. Opening for Father John Misty at the Greek Theatre, Mering and her band play to a nearly empty amphitheater with all the dignity of an act performing a sold-out show at the Hollywood Bowl. There’s almost no one here so early, but a murmur runs through those who are present like an electric current. Who is that? echoes in the empty grey stands, but onstage, everything is blue, muted magic.

Mering plays all songs off Earth, save a rare George Harrison cover called “Run Of The Mill” from his record All Things Must Pass. “Tomorrow when you rise, another day for you to realize me, or send me down again,” she sang, echoing George’s old words, aimed at this fellow Beatles right before their break up. Part of what fueled that infamous dissolution, of course, was Harrison’s own growth as an artist.

After launching into “Generation Why,” her YOLO-gone-Enya anthem, I’m struck new by the line I’ve heard a thousand times by now. “It’s not the past that scares me,” she declares. “Now, what a great future this is going to be.” Earth is only the beginning for her, really, I think. Later, Josh Tillman plays the folk rockstar to a roaring crowd, but I’m distracted, still fixated on Weyes Blood’s set. Seeing the songs live did change them, shape them, somehow, in my heart — and it helped me let them go.

This record is about participating in something you love and watching it crumble to dust in front of your eyes. It’s also about what to do with the dust, after the necessary destruction is over. Earth is an album that is in many ways, about centering yourself in the universe, despite the massive forces that move all around you. Most of the loss we experience is other people’s choice — or maybe that’s me, shifting the blame again. Whatever world that felt lost is all still here, we keep going, as we must, with or without the things it felt impossible to leave behind.

I am trying to breath air without blue in it. It took me thousands of miles to get to that. I’m still waiting to see how much more time it will take. I want you more because of how impossible it is, I want you more because it’s already over. I want you mostly in the morning, when my soul is weak from dreaming. I don’t know a love that’s not like that, not yet. But I believe time will teach it to me. I wanted something big enough to eclipse the wanting. I wanted to write something I’d rather have than you. With this sentence, I realize I have. Seven words, promising a near future freedom.

Front Row Seat To Earth is out now via Mexican Summer. Get it here.

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