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Weyes Blood’s search for the signal in the noise
The singer/songwriter/sound sorceress discusses the heavy themes of her fifth album, And In the Darkness, Hearts Aglow, on the latest episode of The FADER Interview.
Weyes Blood’s search for the signal in the noise Neelam Khan Vela

Natalie Mering may well be the world’s most rational optimist. She looks at the planet’s problems pragmatically and unflinchingly — with the knowledge that, in more ways than one, society has passed a dystopian point of no return — but also with a rare emotional nuance that allows this truth to coexist with a stubborn belief in the power of old-fashioned concepts like mercy, hope, and love.

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Mering’s singular sense of the universe has always permeated her work as Weyes Blood, manifesting in the eerie ambience of her debut album, The Outside Room; the heartbroken melodrama of its follow-up, The Innocents; and the lonely tableau of Front Row Seat to Earth. But her vision crystalized on 2019’s Titanic Rising, a near-perfect record that gently laid bare the unsustainability of post-modern human life.

As it turns out, that project was the first in a three-part series whose second volume, And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow, arrives Friday. Much like its predecessor, the new album is unabashedly allegorical, drawing clear threads from personal crises and relationship dramas to the collapse of community and the rise of a self-enforced surveillance state.

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“Our mediums of communication are fraught with caveats,” Mering writes in a letter to her listeners accompanying the new record. “Our pain, an ironic joke born from a gridlocked panopticon of our own making, swirling on into infinity.”

And yet, despite these overwhelming odds, there is still hope for salvation from the yawning void. “Chaos is natural,” she continues. “But so is negentropy, or the tendency for things to fall into order. These songs may not be manifestos or solutions, but I know they shed light on the meaning of our contemporary disillusionment.” As long as our hearts continue to glow toward one another — signals in the endless noise of the cosmos — all is not lost.

Months before her new record’s release, I sat down with Mering for a wide-ranging interview that was rendered unusable due to a mic issue. We met again a few weeks later for a more granular analysis of the album at hand, touching on invasive algorithms, astrology scams, and avoidant attachment styles.

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Weyes Blood’s search for the signal in the noise Neelam Khan Vela

This Q&A is taken from the latest episode of The FADER Interview. To hear this week’s show in full, and to access the podcast’s archive, click here.

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The FADER: Two related central concepts to this album are apophenia, the natural human tendency toward pattern seeking, and negentropy, the more universal tendency toward order — the opposite of entropy. Why are those concepts so important to the record?

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Weyes Blood: We’re living in a chaotic time, and it’s important to know that chaos is just a part of the equation — that there are also ecosystems of interdependent things that live in harmony with each other, and that they exist just as much as the chaos. They’re two sides of a coin, and it’s very easy to get lost in the chaos and forget about the negentropy. Apophenia, I think, is just a natural human tendency. I don’t know if it’s a major theme on the record, but I’d say it’s just a good word for people to know about when they start to get a little too in their heads about synchronicities.

And In The Darkness, Hearts Aglow starts with “It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody,” which feels like its mission statement. Our feelings of solitude are universal, but there’s a solution: “Mercy is the only cure for being so lonely.” How can we show mercy to our fellow humans — not on a grand, performative scale but in our private, everyday lives?

We need a place where we can have discourse and conversations about nuanced things. Unfortunately, the internet is not the most fabulous place to do that. There’s just too much anonymity. People can come out of nowhere and say something hateful, and it’s functioning within really specific algorithms. We’re all living within algorithms that don’t necessarily serve a greater purpose besides perpetuating what they’re good for.

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I don’t know if that place exists yet, but it would be really valuable in the future. Political conversations, even between politicians, are reduced to platitudes and people that look shiny. Certain politicians are trying to have more nuanced conversations, but in general, we haven’t figured out a space for those conversations to happen. And then there’s the whole physicality of everything: As soon as somebody says something, if you can see who they are, their physical appearance will be attacked.

So I think of mercy as having some patience with the ugliness the internet has uncovered in everybody and hoping there exists an evolved version of the technology, or of how we communicate, where it’s not just a medium of entertainment. Entertainment has become our main medium of communication; it’s difficult to separate the two, but I hope that will be a merciful aspect of the future.

Track two, “Children of the Empire,” feels directed at white Americans who feel “long gone” due to the “mess we’ve made” of society. You say “We don’t have time anymore to be afraid,” and “We know that we’re not free,” both urgent statements. What do you feel is the path forward for breaking out of this postmodern crisis of privilege?

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I’ve been looking a lot into what Extinction Rebellion is doing, and I like it, but I also think there’s a lot of spectacle on spectacle. It’s all we can really think of at this point. We’re trying to get people to pay attention, but we’re at this tipping point where everybody knows what’s happening but it doesn’t necessarily mean anybody’s doing anything about it, so I don’t think we need to make any more awareness. It’s more finding a way to understand how decentralized the power has become. You don’t know who to attack because the power is evasive, and it moves.

It could be the oil companies or it could be the government. Any time anybody puts pressure on the individual to be green and save the planet, it’s a diversion. There are definitely young kids trying to come up with ways to create a spectacle on top of the spectacle, like, “Look at this: I’m gonna put mashed potatoes on this painting,” but whether or not that’s gonna move the needle is not for me to say. I hope it does, but I also feel like we’re still looking for a way out of the panopticon, functioning within a realm where nuanced conversation and actual solutions get lost in the spectacle of the stuff that’s more entertaining or shiny.

That’s difficult for environmental scientists. How are they gonna make themselves listened to? And everybody feels so powerless, which causes a lot of mental health issues in young people, so they lean deeper into being a stan of something, trying to have some semblance of a community based on celebrity, which I think is their cry for help, and you can’t really blame them for it either. It’s a lot of abstract information, and that’s difficult to turn into a tangible action when we’re dealing with a multifaceted paradigm shift.

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“That’s how reality is: marriages of opposites, things that don’t seem compatible, but when you make it work, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah.’ It’s quite bittersweet.”

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That leads us to “The Worst Is Done,” another pretty literal allegory. A lot of that song seems to refer to the pandemic — people saying, “It’s over. Let’s get back outside.” Toward the end, though, you take the position that the worst is actually yet to come. Is that in reference to the pandemic specifically?

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It’s in reference to everything. Maybe [the pandemic] was the first crack in the fantasy, like, “Wow, if one thing goes wrong, how much can our economy and society withstand?” It’s very telling of what the future could look like, and I think it’s just the [first] of these weird dystopian moments where we all have to take a step back, like, “It’s really not the nineties anymore. My life’s not gonna be my childhood or how it was for my parents.”

I’m sure so many generations throughout history have withstood this kind of cataclysm, but this one feels really abstract and new because there’s so much technological and climate overlap. It feels completely new, but there’s nothing new under the sun. So yeah, the worst is done, but it’s just gonna keep getting more abstract and gnarly. Even though we’re not in the dark age anymore, dealing with the plague, we’re gonna deal with something else.

Do you see our desire to return to whatever we think of as normal as related to apophenia?

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Apophenia is a survival tactic. It’s how we read what’s going on around us and gain information. Going back to how things used to be as a mode of survival is a reaction to feeling like we’re spinning out of control and our social fabric is fraying on a level that’s not biologically good for people. We’re attracted to harmony because we tend to lean toward benevolence, and that’s a really beautiful thing.

But if we were really that obsessed with apophenia, we’d have taken a good, strong look at history and have a greater grasp on what’s going on right now. I don’t think people have apophenia for history. They have it for self-serving stuff like astrology and dating.

I take it you’re not an astrology person.

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It’s really fun, but I think it’s a little sad that people follow it like it’s so structurally sound when, in reality, once you get into the nitty gritty, it’s full of a lot of Barnum statements that feel personal but could apply to anybody.

Do you think it’s sadder than organized religion in that way?

I do, because there’s no salvation or redemption or enlightenment or transcendence. It works really well within capitalism because it preaches to your identity. But some astrologers probably transcend that, like, “We’re all in the cosmos together and it’s a beautiful interwoven system.” I’m sure there’s a great take there, but I think most people just read their compatibility charts.

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“Children of the Empire” and “The Worst is Done” are both upbeat songs dealing with heavy stuff. What made you want to go that direction with the music, given the subject matter?

I wanted “Children of the Empire” to be an anthem, and I wanted “The Worst” to feel groovy. We can laugh at the absurdity of it all sometimes. And adding things that are tonally dissonant with each other… That’s how reality is: marriages of opposites, things that don’t seem compatible, but when you make it work, it’s like, “Oh yeah.” It’s quite bittersweet.

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Weyes Blood’s search for the signal in the noise Neelam Khan Vela

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Grapevine” tells the story of a one-sided heterosexual relationship where the man “can’t see his shadow” and is described as “an emotional cowboy with no hat and no boots.” Is that just someone who’s out of touch with their emotions and closed off from others, or is there a deeper meaning to that great turn of phrase?

The Grapevine is the freeway, but there’s also the idea that we have an internal grapevine that’s a chain back to all our old woundings. In “Grapevine,” it’s not a one-sided relationship: It’s that they haven’t dealt with their emotional wound, and it shows up in narcissism and feeling overwhelmed and taking things personally that aren’t meant for them. If you’re on the receiving end of something like that, they end up gaslighting you because they’re so overwhelmed by their stuff they haven’t dealt with. I think that happens a lot in relationships where people come in wounded. The channel of communication gets choked by the inability to express what’s going on beneath the surface. So [the song] is about being with somebody who’s really self-involved, and not thinking that means they’re evil.

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“Twin Flame” and “Given Thing” seem to be describing similar relationships, but in more of a positive light. A through line between all three songs is that one party is always pulling away and the other is chasing. Do you think there’s any hope for a relationship like that?

No. I think those relationships should end. There are freaky people that like freaky stuff, though, and they live off the drama. I know couples like that. But in general, the needy/distant tug and pull is a sign of two people who aren’t ready.

A lot of people who are avoidant in their attachment style probably have wounds of being controlled by family members, and they’re scared — just as much as somebody who’s [needy] is scared — and two scareds don’t make a right. I don’t think two fearful people can overcome their fears together, per se. “Twin Flame” is making fun of the idea that we have soulmates, so the twin flame soulmate is the destructive soulmate. The highs are so high and the lows are so low that it’s not sustainable.

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“Given Thing” is about codependency, the feeling of “Oh my God, there’s something in this person that’s the missing key to my whole life,” but how that doesn’t actually mean anything in the context of a relationship between two people. And if it’s not coming naturally, if love is really difficult, we have to ask how much work is [worth it]. That’s something a lot of modern people are struggling with: trying to understand how much grace they should have in a relationship versus how perfect and easy it should come together. There’s a lot of questions about intimacy and trying to access something universal within a relationship. It can be really difficult when two people are on a different page.
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“If there’s nothing we can really do, that’s fine too. We can just be nature, because that’s what we really are.”
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Sonically, “Twin Flame” is an outlier on the album. The drum machine gives it the vibe of something you’d hear in a doctor’s waiting room in space. Which came first for that song, lyrics or music?

Lyrics first. I like the texture of cold electronics, and I wanted to have one song that felt really cold but was talking about a flame. I also felt like it was time in the album for a little change of texture. Most of my albums have at least one or two electronic drum songs. I think [this one] is just ballsy in terms of how much electronic drums are going on.

Last time we spoke, you said something I’d never thought of in reference to the myth of Narcissus, which “God Turn Me Into a Flower” is based on: that his issue was not that he was self-obsessed but that he thought his reflection was another person and became obsessed with that idealized other. The song, which directly refers to what happens to him at the end of his story, takes an unusually positive view of his plight. Do you think the solution to or the antithesis of people’s self-involved, escapist tendencies — the modern corollary to Narcissus’ fatal flaw — is a return to nature?

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In order to withstand huge geological shifts, you want to be soft and pliable. The rigidity of wanting everything to constantly stay the same, wanting the life we thought we should have, won’t serve anybody well in the future. There’s a pliability and softness to a flower, and it’s also a catharsis: If there’s nothing we can really do, that’s fine too. We can just be nature, because that’s what we really are.

Weyes Blood’s search for the signal in the noise Neelam Khan Vela
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After our last interview, our engineer broke the tragic news to me that all the audio was unusable by telling me that there was more noise than signal. To indulge my own apophenia a little, searching for a signal in the noise feels to me like a pretty perfect description for what this album is doing. The central metaphor — hearts aglow in the darkness, “looking for love in all the wrong places” — feels like a humanist’s description of the sound engineer’s eternal struggle. Am I onto something?

All these things are symbolic of each other. Light in the darkness, the signal in the noise. We live in a lot of dark matter we can’t even perceive. There’s a benevolence to our light, and there’s a desire for negentropy and harmony that’s worth talking about and keying into. Even if it’s not the whole picture, it’s a cool part of being human.

In your own life, do you feel generally confident in your ability to separate signal from noise?

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No, because they’re so interwoven now. You never know when you’re getting your head invaded. I use social media for work, to keep people abreast of what I’m doing in a way that feels healthy for me. I’m not oversharing or feeling I constantly have to be on display, but every once in a while I’ll see something that affects the way I process my mood in such a weird way. It’s a very artificial invasion that happens so frequently, especially with the Instagram algorithm. The ads and the posts they show you, it’s like they can tell what the spiciest chili pepper is. And then, all of a sudden, you’re down a rabbit hole that you didn’t want to be down.

I don’t think anybody is fully exempt from the parasitic qualities of [social media]. I like to think I live a pretty righteous existence, but I’m just like everybody else. I don’t think anybody goes on there and doesn’t have some kind of weird moment of having to see something or feel something they didn’t need to see or feel that day. It feels artificial because it’s not something we’ve included in other experiences in the past, but it’s becoming so much a part of our lives every day now that maybe it’s the [modern] equivalent of walking to the store and having somebody elbow you.

There’s a whole new set of rules, and we’re still evolving, figuring out how to protect our mental health within that. If a comment section was a room of people, it would obviously be very different. It creates a whole new kind of agoraphobia: As opposed to being scared to leave your house, you’re scared to dive into the cesspool of our new form of communication.

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Making music is literally separating signal from noise. For you, is songwriting part of that more metaphorical process?

I think so. It’s taking pain and making it this transcendent experience. When you can take suffering and pain and turn it into something universal and beautiful, you’ve created meaning out of something that felt so meaningless. We’re all psychologically prone to apophenia, to seeking meaning. Our consciousness is a strange feedback loop, like the universe witnessing itself.

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Weyes Blood’s search for the signal in the noise