Sometime last year, Natalie Mering lost her phone. For a month, the singer best known as Weyes (pronounced “Wise”) Blood wandered around L.A. in a disconnected paradise, blissfully unaware of texts, emails and the daily bombardment of dubious news and instantly deleted information.
“Words, ideas and songs started returning to my brain,” she says, sitting on a bench at Echo Park Lake, close to the apartment she inhabits when not on near-constant tour. “I figured that those thoughts had gone away as I’d gotten older, but it wasn’t the case. Then my label bought me a phone because they couldn’t get ahold of me.”
Part of her latest album, October’s spellbinding, folk-inflected Front Row Seat to Earth, taps into the toxic necessities of modern life: the impulse to feel connected by technology and the jangled nerves such connection induces. The title comes from the access that the internet has allowed: From the comforts of home, we get close-up access to absurd realities, grotesque horrors and mundane Truman Shows come to life.
In person, Mering comes off starkly different from how you might perceive her on record. Wearing a long, cream-colored coat and electric-green Reeboks, she’s funny and self-effacing, quoting Lauren Bacall and pausing to play with a Pomeranian that trots past. At one point, a raft of friendly ducks encircles her as if she were Dr. Doolittle.
She’s one of those people who has lived a dozen lives before 30. Mering was raised on the outskirts of L.A. until age 11. Her father was a musician who played with The Doobie Brothers, hung out with Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash, and had a fling with Anjelica Huston. Then he found God and moved the family to a rural section of Bucks County, outside Philadelphia.
Her early adolescence was spent in the church, a Charismatic Pentecostal sect prone to masses in which the congregants would speak in tongues. She grew up writing songs on the piano and singing at talent shows. Eventually Mering moved to Portland, Oregon, to attend Lewis & Clark College but dropped out after a year to join the free-music improvisatory band Jackie-O Motherfucker.
Most of this decade was spent scattered across the continent, working odd jobs and trying to eke out a musical existence. She lived in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Atlanta, New York City, Kentucky. Worked at a juice bar, as a waitress, catering, just to name a few. Somewhere in this chaos, Mering found time to record and write constantly, including a trip to Texas last year to record an EP with Ariel Pink, due out in the coming months.
When I ask what led to her move back to L.A. a year ago, she answers wryly, “I’m really grateful for my East Coast experience. I wouldn’t be who I am today without that. If I stayed here, who knows? I would’ve gotten into surfing, become an actress and accidentally died. Who knows?” It’s a solid joke because there’s a seed of truth.
The breakthrough success of this latest album, her third on Mexican Summer, has finally allowed a sustainable career. Front Row Seat to Earth sounds as if David Bowie and Enya had produced an album for Nico, if she were born a half-century later with a better voice, a sense of humor and less contrivance.
It finds something sacral amidst cement, a burst of focused clarity within our fractured-attention fugue states. Something that reminds you that Yeats wasn’t wrong when he wrote, “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”
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“I wanted to show people that there’s nothing wrong with trying to make something sacred,” Mering says. “There’s nothing wrong with the feminine, there’s nothing wrong with being vulnerable.”