Weyes Blood Rising: A Soundtrack For Our Wild Times
“We played our last show in New Zealand and the next day they banned gatherings,” says Natalie Mering, who records as Weyes Blood. This she told Pollstar in late March while she was quarantining at home in Los Angeles and taking a self-distancing walk with her Pomeranian Luigi after returning home from the Oceana leg of her 2020 “A Lot Has Changed Tour.”
“While we were in Australia, nobody was really thinking anything was going to happen; by the time we got to New Zealand they were canceling shows. It escalated very fast. It was a miracle we were able to finish our tour.”
Weyes Blood is continuing to support her fourth studio album, Titanic Rising, a kaleidoscope of light and dark, filled with introspective songs examining love, loss and meaning amongst anxiety and uncertainty including the devastating effects of climate change and the search for a romantic partner in the connected-but-isolating age of online dating.
Though the LP was released a year ago, the recording feels more poignant than ever as the world navigates the global COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis, from the first song “A Lot’s Gonna Change,” where the protagonist mourns the comforting life she once knew, yet holding out hope for the future. As the track “Wild Time” declares, “Don’t cry, it’s a wild time to be alive.”
Mering posted on Instagram March 24 urging her followers to look within themselves and find love for humanity by sheltering in place. She wrote, if you’re “living in anguish and shock over the potential outcomes of this pandemic, I want you to live through the dystopian questions … because answers can only be revealed in time, the extension of which we do not possess.”
For Mering, the pandemic has shined a light on stark class inequalities, along with the hubris of man. But similarly to the message of Titanic Rising, Mering says, “I think we can find hope. I don’t think it’s the end of the world, I really like the R.E.M. song [which goes] ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it.’ We are going to go through a lot of changes and stuff shifting.”
Mering should have been prepping to make her debut at Coachella in April, followed by a run of May dates in the U.S. including the 1,424-capacity Regency Ballroom in San Francisco and 1,400-cap White Oak Music Hall in Houston. Since the interview was conducted, most of her May dates have been canceled because of COVID-19, with plans to announce rescheduled California gigs in San Francisco, Pomona and San Diego. Her European festival appearances this summer have been nixed, but August shows in the U.S. are still tentatively on the books, with appearances including the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., Variety Playhouse in Atlanta and The Basement East in Nashville.
“The unfortunate part for the May dates, we were pacing to do sell-out business on almost every show. No one ever wants to pull out a sold-out show but in this current climate we’re just trying to figure out which ones made sense to try to salvage,” Mering’s agent, Lenore Kinder of Paradigm, says.
“Last year artistically was a breakout year and this year was to further solidify her as a headline artist and establish that hard ticket base. I feel as though we accomplished that, having been privy to the sales of the shows before basically the world ground to a halt. We had already proven that baseline of demand by stepping up into bigger rooms and selling the tickets,” Kinder adds.
“The timing is unfortunate but it doesn’t take away from any of the work she’s put forth … in terms of her touring and where that was in terms of ticket sales and fanbase. I don’t think that goes away or diminishes it. If anything, I think it creates even more demand when we’re able to push play again. You can’t stop demand but you can definitely create more.”
Kinder started working with Weyes Blood in 2018, after Jason Foster of We Are Free came on board as her manager in 2016. Foster reached out to inquire if she had management after being “blown away” by the song “Do You Need My Love?,” which was featured as a “Best New Track” by Pitchfork, and listening to it 20 times in a row.
“She’s always been a good writer, I think her songwriting and production just started getting really, really good on [her 2016 album] Front Row Seat To Earth. I think that’s when she took a really big step as an artist. That’s what I heard in that song,” Foster says.
“I think if you look at her discography you can see really remarkable growth from record to record. Just every facet of what she does – the songwriting, the composition, her voice, it just keeps evolving and evolving.”
The 31-year-old artist grew up singing in church and school choirs, with parents who performed music and then converted to born again Christian. Mering started writing songs under the moniker Wise Blood (later changed to Weyes Blood) as a teenager, inspired by Flannery O’Connor’s Southern gothic novel Wise Blood about a “guy who starts a church without Christ.”
“Coming from a super Christian background I could just really relate to the characters and the kind of weird mixture of dark world stuff and spirituality, kind of like a Paul Schrader, Scorsese film,” Mering says.
Mering spent time playing in the noise music scene, including the experimental Portland, Ore.-based Jackie-O-Motherfucker and Baltimore-based Nautical Almanac. Though Mering initially viewed the scene as “really creative and fun” she says that it became “cliquey and conformative.”
“Experimental music is actually really square; everyone has the same tastes, same opinions, they dress the same. It just really got weird, so I was like, ‘I guess I’m going to go into the realms of normal people and try to make some pleasant music,’” Mering says. “But it wasn’t that new for me. When Weyes Blood first started I was 15. I was writing songs on nylon and they were pretty, emotional songs like the ones I make now. So, it’s kind of always been there.”
She self-released her debut album, The Outside Room, in 2011, followed by 2014’s The Innocents and 2016’s Front Row Seat to Earth on Mexican Summer.
Titanic Rising is widely regarded as her best work yet, receiving universal acclaim and being featured on more than a dozen “Best Albums of 2019” lists. The LP is her first to be released on the beloved indie label Sub Pop and was co-produced by Mering and Jonathan Rado of Foxygen (who’s also worked with Father John Misty and Whitney). With strings, synths and slide guitar, the experimental chamber pop is beautiful and haunting, highlighted by Mering’s ethereal vocals. As Foster puts it, her sound has “a familiar side to it but it also feels very new and fresh.”
The album was inspired by the 1997 blockbuster film “Titanic” and its namesake ship that infamously sunk, with takeaways including man’s lack of dominion over nature, the effect of class divide and Mering’s complicated love-hate relationship with cinema – being influenced by horror film scores while disillusioned with mainstream movies’ myths.
Mering, who once named Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark and Ween’s Pure Guava as two albums that changed her life, describes her latest album as “the Kinks meet WWII or Bob Seger meets Enya.”
The team’s strategy with Titanic Rising was to continue building off of the success of Front Row Seat to Earth and let the music speak for itself.
“It’s important to be patient and take your time and let the music be the main force in the campaign,” Foster says. “No matter what marketing campaign you have, if the live show and the music aren’t awesome, it can only go so far. A lot of it is about patience. [Weyes Blood’s] been doing this for over 10 years so she definitely has patience and she has the drive to continue.”
Kinder concurs, saying, “Not all clients are the same, they have different agendas. … There are so many different variables to factor in. For this team, we let the art dictate where we should go.”
Titanic Rising’s positive response in the press (as well as marking Weyes Blood’s first album to chart, including No. 6 on Billboard’s Top Alternative Albums and No. 34 at Top Album Sales) was followed by highlights on the road in 2019 including festival appearances at Outside Lands and Austin City Limits and opening for Kacey Musgraves in the fall, along with her own headline dates. She also made her late show debut on “Late Night With Seth Meyers” and played NPR’s Tiny Desk.
“It’s been a nice brick-by-brick campaign,” Foster says. “I don’t think there’s any one thing that’s been a grand slam, it’s been a lot of base hits, if you will. … It feels good when you’re doing that because it feels real. It feels like you’re dealing with a real artist with real music.”
Weyes Blood’s fanbase has kept increasing since the album came out, with Kinder noting that streaming numbers have “stayed pretty steady, month after month on Spotify. People are naturally discovering her which is in my opinion in the best way to grow an artist slowly and organically. … With an artist like this, it can’t feel like it’s a marketing ploy or else it comes across as ingenuine and takes away from the message she’s trying to share.”
As stunning as Weyes Blood’s music is, the live show takes the material to the next level.
Kinder recalls seeing Weyes Blood play a sold-out show at Los Angeles’ Fonda Theatre last summer.
“It’s such a dynamic show. I think she is pitch perfect. There are moments where every little hair on the back of your neck is completely raised … and the entire room feels like it’s swirling,” Kinder says.
“Not a single person got their phone out the entire time. Everybody stood with their hands by their sides, singing, or just being completely engulfed by the music.
“The show ended and everybody just stood there for about one minute, just dumbfounded by what they’d just witnessed. I being one of them.”
Kinder adds, “I literally found myself crying, one, because the show was so beautiful and two, honestly in shock that I get to work with such an incredible artist. I’m getting chill bumps just talking about it. She’s just absolutely inspiring.”
When routing shows, Weyes Blood’s team works to find a balance of not playing it too safe in terms of venue size and making sure not to skip steps. The Aug. 8 Fonda booking (selling 1,200 tickets and grossing $30,000) showed Weyes Blood’s growth in the market within four months, following a June 13 show at West Hollywood’s Troubadour (that sold 468 tickets and grossed $10,296) and an April 4 show at Los Angeles’ Masonic Lodge (that sold 375 tickets and grossed $7,500).
When choosing the right venue, Kinder adds that it’s important to not alienate her younger fans and pick great sounding rooms “because of the delicate nuance of her songs.”
As an “artist’s artist,” Weyes Blood’s distinct music pairs well with a variety of performers, from the country-pop star Kacey Musgraves to gothic rock hero Nick Cave, who Weyes Blood is scheduled to appear with as a special guest in late September and October.
There are plans to reroute Weyes Blood’s postponed May shows in the fall to go along with the Cave dates and rescheduled Coachella appearances.
Whenever it’s actually deemed safe to return to post-pandemic touring, Kinder knows the fans will be there.
She explains, “The art that Natalie produces requires an attention span. … it’s an involved fan or an evolved fan even. And those fans don’t come and go with the wind. It’s a profound emotional or artistic connection to them.”
Like many, Mering realizes that she took gatherings of people for granted.
“I learned my lesson big time. When we’d be on our 25th show of the tour … I even started to take my own shows for granted. I mean, by the time they were over it was always a fun release and I’d be grateful. … At this point, I’d do anything to do a show.”