Weyes Blood Reflects on Life's "Sublime Violence"

Songwriter Natalie Mering talks her new album 'And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow' and why "California is a little bit like the canary in the coal mine"
Weyes Blood Reflects on Life's 'Sublime Violence'
Photo: Neil Krug
Opening the door to Weyes Blood's And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow, you'll encounter the king and queen of loneliness, angels and dueling flames, an Emotional Cowboy looking to kick the moon's ass. It's a wonderland of sorts, a world awash in deep purples and reds so bright they blur white. 

Possessed of a grounded warmth that pulls the cosmic swirl of 2019's Titanic Rising somewhere closer to a slowly burning Earth, Natalie Mering's latest opus dresses modern terrors — climate disaster, digital disconnection, apathy and fear for a future that may not come — in great swathes of velvet, silk and bloodied chainmail. 

"I feel like it's maybe more of an intimate record, and more literal," she says over the phone from Los Angeles. "Accessing some kind of subterranean river of feelings."

She continues, "Titanic Rising was kind of, like, sounding the alarm, and this one's about living within the blare of the alarm." 

The magic of Hearts Aglow is in the sumptuous, violent beauty of that blare. When Mering speaks to these enormous existential pains, she does it in the careful language of the heart. In her music, the hurt of the universe is the hurt of you and me; global disaster and human smallness march hand in hand. 

"I think I try to say things that I feel most people don't really know how to say without sounding angled or preachy or angry," she says. "I think it's consciously political without saying anything deliberately political, because I feel like we've come to this point where a lot of these issues are emotional."

She continues, "It's an emotional experience going through this stuff. It's not just about opinions or delineating what's best for society. It's a sense of abandonment."

It's that rich, individual emotionality that keeps Mering's prickly, on-the-nose observations (in the video for "It's Not Just Me, It's Everybody," she cavorts with a cantankerous, bloodshot cellphone à la Jerry and Gene in Anchors Aweigh) far from the realm of reality-detached Facebook in-laws. Yes, Mering is telling you what you already know — cellphones are dissolving our brains, we're alone and loveless and anxious and sad, the world is slowly burning — but she means it. She just wants you to listen. 

"I just think we're in a weird space. The cat's already out of the bag; you can't ban all this stuff and ban phones. You can't go back in time — you can only really go forward," she says. "I just don't think we're going to evolve to become fully accustomed to this new reality. Evolution moves really slowly."

So what to do? Where to go? Hearts Aglow offers few answers, though Mering often finds herself fantasizing about routes alternative to past and future. On the opalescent, airborne dirge "God Turn Me into a Flower," Mering asks quietly for impossible transformation; over the loping road song "Grapevine," she confesses under cover of nightfall, "You know I would / Go back to the camp / With the kerosene lamps in the woods." 

Does she ever weigh that life in her hands? If not becoming a bloom, then taking off into the woods, never to be heard from again?

"I think a lot of people do. I think my issue is just that, my friends that have done that; they either just kind of go into their own universe and give up on the rest of the world, or they lose it and have to go back to the city or something," she says. "I think it's beautiful, and it would be healthy. But I think the problem is, I guess I'm so concerned about how to initiate change or move the needle on things that I would have to be working from wherever I go."

And anyway, how can you escape from the city when the forests are on fire? 

"My childhood places are all completely over," she says, describing a cabin in the California wilderness that she visited regularly as a kid, the surrounding land now deep in the throes of a rapidly changing climate. "Every time I go there, it's completely shifted and trees are dying."

Though rarely a literal touchstone, California looms large in Mering's music; its mass of twisted spirit and sordid, silver-stained history casts long shadows against her universe. In recent years though, her home state's influence has expanded beyond its violent, cinematic mythos; it's transforming, in great bursts of flame and collapsing cliffsides, before her very eyes. 

"There's a lot of issues in other places that aren't as dramatic, because it's not, like, a drought or a fire. I think I've seen the subtle changes everywhere," she says. "I just feel like California is a little bit like the canary in the coal mine."

She adds, "Things die during the drought and there's a lot of brownouts during the heat waves, which is when the power goes out. You can really feel that kind of ominous feeling, because [California] is so advanced technologically, and it's supposed to be, like, the frontier of social technology. And yet there's this sense of powerlessness."

Crucially, that sense of powerlessness — arguably the driving force behind Hearts Aglow's seasick, anxious majesty — is always tempered by Mering's belief in redemption and her ability to trace new patterns in the ashes. 

On hypnotic late-album highlight "Twin Flame," Mering sings, "We are more than just the pain / And I'm standing here laughing at my shame" atop clicking drum machines and muscular, bruising guitar. 

"I really do like the push and pull. I came up with a term a while ago called 'sublime violence,'" she says. "I think there was some World War II general watching a battle, and it was so insane seeing this battle be so violent that it actually became sublime. It's just this weird thing that happens, where it's like, violence and beauty. And all these things kind of converge in this weird place."

That delicate (though sometimes cataclysmic) convergence of violence and beauty is what Mering says is lacking from so much art that grapples with the possibility that everything might really be coming to an end. Though she sang "I know glory / I love movies" on Titanic Rising's "Movies," she says the medium has largely fumbled in capturing the gentle humanity of the world's end. 

"There's not a lot of great apocalypse movies, to me, that have a great sense of redemption, besides maybe Deep Impact, you know? Stuff that's not considered great," she says. "I don't think there are that many good ones. I mean, I feel like The Road is just, like, awful. It's just a terrible experience, even trying to watch that movie. But it's really good!" 

She continues, "I think what's funny is a lot of people think I like difficult movies, but I actually like really nice, easy-to-watch movies. My level of difficulty and movies does not verge into like horrific apocalypse stuff,. I've always sided a little bit more with benevolence."

That affinity for benevolence — to redeem ourselves in the face of our failures to steward the Earth and each other — is what initially drove Mering to conceptualize Hearts Aglow as the third in an apocalyptic trio. But despite its dewy lushness and searching, desperate hopefulness, she says the record didn't end up as joyous as she'd originally imagined. 

"I wanted to make a more hopeful record after Titanic Rising," she says. "Like, really upbeat — kind of like, 'The future is going to be great!' And it just wasn't going to happen. And I was like, 'Well, this sounds kind of like the middle piece.' I didn't want to make a trite, forced album; I could only do what I was doing at the time. So I figure there's one more [to come] — the hopeful one."

Mering adds, "I don't want to give up on the world just yet."