Lately, Natalie Mering has been closing her sets with a cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talking,” a 1966 folk ballad about wanting to drop out of city life and go where the sun is shining through the pouring rain. It’s a sad song—you never know if the protagonist is going to make it—and one so embedded in our country’s musical imagination that hearing it at a show in the New York of today feels like running into a long-lost friend. Onstage at a recent performance in Brooklyn, her brows pointing north, the petite, brunette, 26-year-old singer/songwriter slows the song down until you can barely tell it’s moving, carefully decelerating her vibrato until it sounds like she’s sobbing through the words. “I’m just trying to get into the zone where the jig is up, basically—like the top’s blown off,” she says of the almost frightfully untethered state she enters when singing. “It’s like getting right to that core, right in that pocket of life.”
Extremity—in music, at least—has been something of a lifelong passion for Mering. At 6, inspired by the “deconstructionist rock & roll of Kurt Cobain,” she picked up the guitar, taught herself a single chord (“I could only play E minor”), then tried to “prepare” the instrument by sticking pencils in the fretboard. By middle school, she was setting up earsplitting rock shows in her Bucks County, PA school gym. “It was a place to put all your anger and isolation and frustration,” she says of the ecstatic, body-banging highs of the punk and hardcore scene in her hometown. But finding other people to play with proved difficult. “I would show up with my electric guitar and a delay pedal or a loop pedal and they’d be like, ‘Yeah, we’re not really trying to do that,’” she remembers. “I’ve always been on the periphery. I’ve always just been looking in.”
At 15, Mering resigned herself to playing solo, adopted the moniker Weyes Blood and started recording “slow, dreamy, very Tim Buckley-style” folk tunes on a four-track, frequently drowning the vocals beneath tape drones and swells of industrial saw. She began taking the train down to Philly on weekends and fell in love with the two intertwined aesthetic currents that were boring through the city’s underground in the early aughts: harsh noise and freak-folk. But after moving cities a few times in her early 20s, putting out a couple of hiss-laden, limited-run releases and doing a year-long stint in the improv-centric psych-rock band Jackie-O Motherfucker, she grew restless with the avant-garde scene and started thinking about how pouring your heart into a good old-fashioned folk or blues melody can pack just as visceral a thrill as abrasive sonics.
With its lush, country-rock arrangements and ghostly harmonies, her debut full-length on Mexican Summer, The Innocents, is a document of that more chiseled approach to songwriting, balanced by a sort of inverse vocal technique that comes from letting her natural voice “unhinge itself.” She likens her raw, gut-spilling resonances to singing through “two open alligator jaws and blasting harmonically,”with the aim of creating a direct psychic conduit between herself and the listener. “We live in such an isolating time with technology and social media,” she says, “and I think that creates this feeling of having to connect, of having so many ways to connect but nothing’s connecting.” For her part, Mering says she walks around like “a black hole of emotional question marks” most of the time. It’s only when she’s up on stage singing about it that she feels a little less alone.