With last year’s And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow, Weyes Blood’s West Coast AM goth-folk reveries hit a career high. In this extract from MOJO’s exclusive interview, Natalie Mering recalls growing up in a family of musicians-turned born again Christians and her early, noise rock baby steps…
Born in Santa Monica in 1988, Natalie Mering moved with her family between Southern and Northern California before resettling in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Her parents, both musicians, had left their former lives behind and become devout members of the Pentecostal faith. “It was a little more than that,” adjusts Mering. “They were born again, so it was kind of New Age-y.”
Regardless, it was a far cry from the Hollywood glamour that Sumner Mering had once basked in. As the frontman of the titular band Sumner, he was a charismatic figure who’d once dated Joni Mitchell. In 1979, his group signed to Asylum/Elektra, and recorded their debut with Jack Nitzsche. The album, Sumner, came out in 1980 and disappeared soon after. His conversion, a career in medical publishing and the move east would follow.
From the start, music seemed part of his daughter’s DNA. She picked up piano and guitar by ear, wrote songs. In school, she dove deep into Radiohead and Ween – “weird” bands for Doylestown. “I’d read Our Band Could Be Your Life, and wanted to start a Sonic Youth-type band,” she says. “But nobody wanted me in their band.”
Experimenting with her father’s old 4-track, she ploughed a lonelier furrow. “Eventually, I heard Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs, especially that track Terrapin, with the lazy acoustic guitar,” she says. “I got a nylon-string and went full-on folk weird and gave up on the whole idea of being in rock band.”
Working at a record store in Doylestown and making regular trips to nearby Philadelphia to catch underground concerts offered a period of accelerated development. “There was a certain turning point where I just decided, I’m gonna do this,” she says. “If there was any place where my family’s religious background came in, it was the fervour of pursuing my passion for music – as if it was the meaning of life or some weird spiritual practice.”
Graduating high school early, she moved to Philly, where she began the first iteration of Weyes Blood – pronounced as per Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor’s Southern gothic novel.
“I would just play my nylon-string and had two friends who would do tape sounds and play duelling saws,” says Mering. “It was a really great way for me to grow as an artist, but it wasn’t like I was exhibiting signs of creating high quality pop material.”
Mering’s gnarly muse decreed a move to the North-west – home of music she loved on labels like Sub Pop and K – where she attended Lewis & Clark College in Portland. But the welcome was not what she’d hoped. “I was just one of a thousand people making that kind of music,” she says. “No one was impressed with me at all.”
Mering’s immediate response: double down on gnarl. She toured on bass with improv experimentalists Jackie-O Motherfucker and played keyboards for theatrical throb-rockers Satanized.
“Noise was the zone where it felt like a lot of the energy was at,” says Mering. “In a way, it was like, OK, I’m going to make even less accessible music.”
Over the next few years, Mering flitted between cities and music scenes, mostly along the East Coast – Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York – though her travels would also find her tapping maple trees for syrup in rural Kentucky and studying herbalism in the New Mexico desert. “I was a wandering minstrel, basically,” says Mering. “Any time a place got weird I could very easily leave. My life was so small it fit in my car.”
So far, the practical reality of a music career was eluding her. “My generation got emptied into a recession economy where you couldn’t work at a coffee shop and have a decent place to live and do art,” she notes. “The generation before could, so we all thought we could. I was wandering because I had no money. I was constantly looking for some way to make it all magically work.”
Meanwhile, Mering had come to the end of her romance with the largely male-dominated underground rock subculture.
“The scene I was in had become the most conformist circle jerk of all time,” she says. “It was so political and there was so many weird vibes.” The turning point for Mering came during a warehouse gig in Baltimore, where she got into a contretemps with a group of scenesters who’d set up a poker table in the middle of the floor. Mering upended their game by jumping on the table: “I was like, This is over. I don’t need to be here any more...”
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