"The New Avant Garde Is Being Conservative": An Interview with Weyes Blood
We spoke to Natalie Mering about writing folk songs with industrial instruments.
Photo by Laura Lynn Petrick
There’s a moment in Natalie Mering a.k.a. Weyes Blood’s video for the song “In the Beginning” where she’s paused on a train track. Her long hair is split squarely down the middle as she stands at the intersection of deep melancholy and massive machinery. The train is coming, but you can’t see it. Even so, you know it’s there, threatening the stillness around her from miles away. Mering’s music functions similarly: what sounds like a medieval dulcimer is actually layers and layers of sound deftly manipulated by effects pedals and tape loops. Mering spent years on the Philly noise rock circuit playing self-made industrial instruments before finding the courage to perform the rustic folk songs she’s now become known for. Her experiences playing in noise bands like Jackie O’Motherfucker have cast a wide net for Weyes Blood. On her third record, Cardamom Times, Mering immerses herself in the careful tension between folk and noise without falling into a droned-out mess.
If the use of such gear in folk songs seems counter-intuitive, consider the way a person can play a saw like a string instrument, drawing the most gentle lilt from a heavily serrated tool. That's how Mering's noise roots remain. While last year’s The Innocents certainly suggested a move towards the bucolic for Weyes Blood, Cardamom Times plants a stake firmly into the earth. Or maybe rather, a Celtic flute. She sings in the traditional folk tones of Karen Carpenter or Joan Baez, but all the echo chambers, magnetic tape reels, and chorus effects obscure the rural nature of her songs into a weird and industrial dystopia. How she’s able to sound this cavernous without actually being in a cave takes more than just a few pedals—her resonant alto is big enough to fill a tunnel.
The video for “In the Beginning,” premiering below, is suspended between technology and romance like the string she's plucking on the EP. We spoke with Mering over the phone from her new home in Atlanta about writing Cardamom Times in on the beach in New York, being raised by men, and how romance and destruction have always been one in the same.
Noisey: You make a point to record your albums in places that reflect the music you're writing. What made you want to write Cardamom Times in Far Rockaway Beach, New York?
Weyes Blood: I recorded “In The Beginning” and “Cardamom,” and I wrote “Take You There.” I actually recorded “Take You There” somewhere else, but every other song is from Rockaway. I was living in a basement apartment, and I could kind of just hide away and make jams without anybody hearing it, so I was working on it late into the night, keeping really creative hours. The cover of the record is of a shot from Jamaica Bay, which is a peninsula that’s still so industrial and so blown out. It’s just insane how that nature that was once so vibrant and beautiful. Right next to one of the richest cities in the world is this absolutely disrepaired, industrial wasteland zone. It’s just a very interesting dichotomy.
You started in out in the experimental Philly noise rock scene. Can you talk about your transition into folk?
Actully, when I first started making music, it was like the music I make now. It was songs, lyrics, and just guitar and voice. Maybe some sound effects. So Cardamom Times is a return to what I’ve always done. I was just so excited about what was going on in noise music and drone music when I first started performing. It was so exciting to me that I couldn’t help but to jump on the wagon. Seeing Wolf Eyes for the first time—I was fifteen. I had this crazy feeling that this my generation’s Stooges. I got infected by that energy. I started playing power electronics, harsh noise because it was how I was feeling, but there also was a little bit of a fear of if I really show my femininity. I was afraid I wouldn't gain the respect I really want by people who were becoming my friends. So there was a little bit of trying to quiet the beautiful side, in favor of the more violent. I was a little ashamed, because I had met a lot of men who didn’t like female music to begin with. So I was like, "Oh, when I play my girly folk songs or whatever, it doesn’t incite as much of a reaction. I had this instrument that I built in high school. It was a huge, six-foot-long stringed instrument, and I started playing with that amplified and singing through power electronic stuff. I played those shows, and it would blow the lid off of everybody, and everybody would flip out. But before, I would play those folky shows and it was always like, “Oh, you’re a goddess! This is so precious!” Back then, the freak folk scene in 2005 and 2006 was kind of cheesy to me. I mean, I loved it, and that’s what I grew up on. But something about it made me think they were pretending the late seventies didn’t happen. You want to pretend it’s still the sixties? There were people that kind of crossed over who I liked, like bands like Spires That In The Sunset Rise, who were folky but also kind of noisey. I was always trying to build this bridge where I could do these songs, but I’ll do it harmonically through all of this crazy noise.
Were you using electronic instruments on this record?
Yeah, there’s an electric organ, and some chorus, and a lot of effects, like playback delay. There’s a lot of technological advances for sure.
You mention grappling with gender. Why make an album like Cardamom Times that is so overtly feminine and romantic?
I’ve always had gender confusion. I had two older brothers, and I’ve been predominantly male influenced. I really always looked up to my dad, really always looked up to my brothers… I had a lot of male friends growing up. It didn’t help that in my town, where I lived, there were no female musicians.
There’s this really delicate balance between the classics and the avant garde in your songs. I’m curious what you appreciate about both, and how you see them bleed into each other.
Anything classic was once avant garde, so it can relate to a changing time. There’s this one painter who has a great quote, like “The new avant garde is painting trees and making home lunches for your children.” It's true. Avant garde is so past the point of being avant garde that the new avant garde is being conservative in some way. I think the craziest thing to do right now is to not be narcissistic and cater towards an intrinsic meaning. Making art for internal purposes, and not for external reward. I feel like so much of music now is, “Hey, if we make this record sound like this, then maybe we can get a piece of the pie!” It’s just doing things for external praise.
Photo by Laura Lynn Petrick
What made you decide to record this record reel-to-tape?
I think it makes my voice sound better. I’ve got a lot of frequencies going on. There’s something about recording to tape that does a greater service. Tape is magnetic, so it records an infinite amount of frequencies, versus digital, which is sixteen-bit. So if you’re really good at sculpting digital music, you can make it sound great, but I’m not. I learned how to record on tape. It’s just where I come from. There were some digital overdubs on this EP, and then we mixed it digitally.
Is that you playing the harp?
There’s actually no harp on the record. But if you heard harp, that’s awesome! I think you’re hearing a chorus effect, which is where you record a guitar part, take the tape, slow it down slightly, and then record guitar over it. That’s what’s going on with “Cardamom.” It creates this effect of sounding kind of warbley and bigger than it is. It’s something that people are really figuring out now. It’s a very Beatle-esque recording thing.
Totally. It’s romantic yet psychedelic. Everything about Weyes Blood straddles this point of tension: the name, to the art that you use, to technology to create these specific sounds. What's the end game while making these choices?
The hard thing about some of the choices is that if I had unlimited time and resources, I would do everything myself, but that would take too long, so I have to get people on board to help facilitate the dream, which is kind of what makes it change ever so slightly. On Cardamom, I had pretty much total control on all of the musical stuff, but I asked a friend of mine to take the picture for the cover, and I asked a friend of mine to draw the back. I was like, “Make it like a high school notebook, confession vibe.” When it comes to those aesthetic style choices, in my mind, I’m imagining, if I walked into a record store and picked up a record and didn’t know anything about it, what would I want from that experience? With the Cardamom EP, I wanted it to feel kind of like a secret diary entry.
You seem to thrive in the relationship between romance and destruction. Why?
The dystopian is just like, what it is now. All of my dreams include the apocalypse or something. Everything is kind of trying to be a microcosm of the macrocosm of all time. To not include any dystopian elements on the EP would be dishonest, because I feel like I lived in that neighborhood, I live a dystopian existence at times. As an artist in the time of the internet, as a musician, you don’t make a lot of money unless if you really make it. I don’t live a very comfortable lifestyle. It’s the truth. It’s honesty.
The tension exists in our lives in this fantasy of what we think it is to be a modern American versus what it really is. It doesn’t matter how many juices you drink, how many apps you have on your iPhone to help you sleep. You’re not going to feel well in this modern life unless if you take some spiritual steps towards understanding why we’re dystopian, or why we’re “sick,” in a spiritual sense.