The LA musician’s most ambitious album to date is a lush meditation on love and looming climate catastrophe
In 1969, Gavin Bryars imagined the sound of the Titanic’s orchestra as it sank beneath the waves. With The Sinking of the Titanic, the young British musician composed an eerie, minimalist work from the Episcopal hymn “Autumn”, which, according to a wireless operator who survived the disaster, the band had been playing as the ship began its long descent to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.
Fifty years on, Bryars’ piece is recognised as a high-point of minimalism to rank with the works of John Cage and Steve Reich. One of its fans is LA songwriter Natalie Mering, who summons the spectre of the tragedy once again with Titanic Rising, her fourth album under the Weyes Blood moniker. Just as Bryars was fascinated with the Titanic as a symbol of dark forces unleashed by the rush towards modernity, Mering was drawn to the story as an allegory for our own uncertain times, using the image to anchor a sublime meditation on love in the age of ecological catastrophe. Pairing a rich, 70s soft-rock palette with rippling undercurrents of dread, it already feels like one of the year’s best records, and a poignant document on what it feels like to inhabit this particular moment in time.
But Titanic Rising is also a record about growing up in the 90s, when the young Mering watched Kate and Leo’s telling of the Titanic myth obsessively in her bedroom. Its surreal sense of longing speaks to a time when millennium bugs were the worst nightmare many of us could conjure, and people who should have known better spoke smugly of “the end of history”. A lost world where no one could see the iceberg coming, and “No good thing could be taken away / if I still believed it,” as Mering sings on “A Lot’s Gonna Change”.
The album turns on this idea of the Titanic brought back from the deep, which seems like such a great, eerie image for the strangeness of the moment we find ourselves in. Where did the idea come from?
Natalie Mering: I’ve (always been) fascinated with the iconic tragedy of the Titanic itself, and how it was made into this big film in the 90s that had a big impact on my life as a child – it’s such a big, beautiful, grandiose story about the hubris of man assuming he could conquer nature, failing miserably, and the third class taking the hit for everybody. To me that was so poignant, and so poignant to what’s going on now, which is that in a lot of ways the third-world countries are taking the biggest hit in terms of radical climate change.
The cover image, with you underwater in your bedroom, reinforces this feeling of the familiar made strange…
Natalie Mering: In terms of the imagery, I’m referencing rising sea levels, but also (the idea of) water being of the subconscious. The bedroom is less of a ‘real’ bedroom and more of a subconscious place, this kind of weird westernised youth altar. The bedroom in western culture is a place of worship where we formulate our ideas about reality and look up to these strange things like movie stars and musicians for guidance. I felt like I wanted to embody that, and have the water embody that subconscious (feeling)...
It looks like it might have been hell to shoot, actually. Was it?
Natalie Mering: (laughs) It was fun, actually. (When you’re underwater) you just gotta stop thinking you might die; you kind of have to ease into it, relax and not think about breathing, because that’s when you start worrying!
It’s funny, I came to your record after listening to Gavin Bryars’ piece, The Sinking of the Titanic. Bryars was interested in the Titanic as a symbol of failed modernity, too – it’s it’s fascinating how the myth just continues to resonate…
Natalie Mering: Honestly, I think (Bryars) was a pretty big influence on me for this record. I was already fascinated with (the Titanic story), and when I found out there was some experimental music attached to that I was so thrilled. That piece is so heavy... I really love (Bryars’) companion piece, “Jesus’s Blood Never Failed Me Yet”, too. It’s devastating. So that song was top on the list of pieces for this album. We played it in the studio while we were recording.
Musically you seem to be referencing a lot of lush 70s soft-rock stuff, like The Carpenters and Carole King, but there’s a sense of unease on the record that tips it over into the surreal. Was that a sense you worked hard to get in the arrangements?
Natalie Mering: Always – I come from an experimental music background so I (naturally) tend towards the surreal side of recording. I do think it’s a very surreal moment (we’re in). I think technology and smartphones created a huge paradigm shift that we can’t fully comprehend, and I think in a lot of ways things are changing faster than we can really process. I think there’s a dissociative feeling (that comes) with that, like being suspended in space.
When did you personally first start feeling this way?
Natalie Mering: I think right around the time Al Gore came out with his documentary (An Inconvenient Truth). As a young girl, politically I was always liberal but I felt in my heart that the Republicans or whoever was on the opposite side at least had some sense of morality and that we would all pull (together) to make sure we didn’t destroy everything. And when I realised that wasn’t the case and that there were people who were living under a completely different concept of morality, I felt such a strange schism from everybody. This was, like, the early 2000s – everyone in America had started getting SUVs, 9/11 had happened, there were so many things happening at that time, it almost prepared me for Trump. I kinda knew that was coming. In the 90s, we had this assumption that we were these intelligent, science-based beings, but now (that idea) has been thoroughly dismantled, so now when crazy shit happens it no longer surprises me. It’s like chaos cowboy country, which is maybe what America has always been – maybe there was, like, a little mask covering it up with a sense of (responsibility) but really it’s always been the Wild West, its always been vulnerable to this kind of parasitic infection. I find Trump to be like a parasite.
At the same time there’s a kind of exhilaration to parts of the record. I mean, there’s a lushness to songs like “Movies” that carries you through even though the lyrics are obviously quite heavy…
Natalie Mering: I don’t wanna make something depressing, I wanna make something sorrowful, because I think in a lot of ways people are mourning these changes that are happening. I think art should stand in its own neutral place, because I think that’s how reality always is – it’s this duality of being both hopeless and also full of hope. Because we’re still sustaining an incredible amount of life, as much as it now looks like that might not be the healthiest thing for the planet – you know, a lot of people are still breathing and the shit has not completely hit the fan. It’s important to acknowledge that and not spend every day in fear and disappointment, but also (there’s this sense of it being) an incredibly fragile thing – like, ‘Here we all are, still!’ I see the squirrels in my neighbourhood and I’m like, ‘Wow, you guys are still here too!’
Weyes Blood’s European tour begins April 22 at Brighton’s The Haunt