An emerging voice of her generation? That’s not an overstatement. Weyes Blood has, this year, risen to that rarified stature, an achievement with considerable challenges.
“The world is so dense now, it’s hard to tell what’s ever going on,” she says. Her poetic rendering of the world’s densities on her deeply moving new album And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow is at once challenging, disorienting and ultimately comforting. And the album resonates profoundly with a rapidly growing fan base, with a reach cutting across generations.
“I think my message probably is just honest and, I don’t know, just talking about stuff that most people think about daily, but we haven’t really figured out how to talk about it, if that makes sense,” she says.
What does being named Artist of the Year mean to her?
“It makes me think I should keep going,” she laughs. “I won’t stop!”
As she considers the dense world around her that gave rise to the album, and as she considers her role as an artist assessing and reflecting it, she can get pretty serious.
There’s a focused intensity as she talks about a book that has had a great impact on her, 1985’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, by culture critic Neil Postman. The book’s subtitle: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.
“It definitely explains a lot about the media of communication that we’re all using and why the world seems so upside down,” she said in a video chat from the combo living room/recording space of her home in the hills a bit northeast of Los Angeles.
The natural question, then: How is that she, as an artist and entertainer who is in show business after all, does not see herself as participating in this deadly amusement? And with that, the spell is broken, as it were.
Yes, she wants to be a light in the darkness. She’s getting her chance. This, it seems, is the Weyes Blood moment.
The buzz building from her last album, 2019’s captivatingly, gorgeously murky Titanic Rising, has been considerable. Her voice, her literal voice, is striking, often compared to Karen Carpenter but also perhaps recalling Aimee Mann, or going back farther, maybe Julie London or June Christy.
And her arresting artistic voice has found her keeping company with such fellow dark fabulists as Father John Misty (she opened for him on tour and appears on his song “God’s Favorite Customer”), Lana Del Rey (they also toured together and collaborated on a stunning version of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free”) and Velvet Underground co-founder John Cale, who, impressed after she and he chatted for a Vogue magazine piece, brought her in to sing on, and appear in the gothic-y video, his new song, “Story of Blood.”
She was also recruited to curate a “Freaky Film Series” at New York’s Roxy Cinema in October, spotlighting tense, sometimes bloody, favorites of hers, from An American Werewolf in London to Possession to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
And, in a time-honored mark of arrival, she was recently profiled in a big, glowing New Yorker feature.
As for moments, she has certainly captured ours.
“I did really, post-Titanic Rising, want to make a kind of upbeat, hopeful record,” she says. “But when I started writing this [new record], I was like, ‘This is not going to be that.’ It’s more like taking stock internally of more vulnerable, intimate emotions and feeling like I went inward more than I’ve really done before.”
Aglow, she says, is the second of a trilogy, though it’s too soon to foresee the shape of the third. “Titanic is like sounding the alarm. And then this record is like living with the blaring sound of the alarm that nobody knows how to turn off.”
It’s a siren for people her age (she’s 34) of troubles beyond even the existential crises stemming from the pandemic, climate change, political turmoil and the fragmentation of society. And if she’s going to illuminate hope, well, as any good enchantment devotee knows, first there is a terrifying forest or chilly, desolate castle with which to reckon.
“We’re now in this new paradigm of modern uncertainty about the future, especially in my generation and younger,” she says. “Because the world has changed so much since our parents [became] adults, starting families and buying houses and stuff. Our lives are obviously going to be quite different.”
That was behind the first song she wrote for the album, “Children of the Empire.”
“I had been reading a lot about the fall of empires,” she says, seeing parallels to today. There was optimism, she notes, that the pandemic would be a wake-up, the fall of an old order making way for new connections, new senses of purpose.
“But instead, we’ve all just dug deeper into our phones and the gridlocked quality of feeling like we deal with so much information in a given day,” she says. “Turning it into any kind of action feels very abstract.”
That’s expressed with mordant humor in the video for the album’s first song, “It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody.” Wearing a stylized sailor’s suit and dancing chipperly through downtown L.A.’s ornate, Art Deco-era Ace Theatre, as if in an old MGM musical, she sings:
It’s been so long since I’ve felt really known
We’ve all become strangers, even to ourselves
As she dances, she and her partner, a little animated cell phone, blithely step around bloody bodies. After they reach the stage, decorated as a bombed-out disaster area, the phone gleefully gnaws on a corpse.
“There was a feeling of there being an expiration date on the kind of depression and anxiety that was caused by the pandemic and the things that were happening in America at the time,” she says. “I think people are now starting to feel that there is no expiration date.”
“So yeah. I think there’s a bit of whiplash, coming out of something, thinking that it’s gonna help things improve.”
Whiplash? Skip to the last part of the album, to “The Worst Is Done,” sandwiched between a haunting, wordless interlude “A Holy Flux” and the closing song “A Given Thing.”
At first she’s dreamily hopeful:
They say the worst is done,
Then the cold slap:
But I think the worst has just begun.
“I don’t know,” she says, reflectively. “I think it’s important to be realistic. And we really are on a very strange, bizarre trajectory.”
This plays out in a variety of settings, crafted richly with some core Titanic teammates returning, notably co-producer Jonathan Rado of the band Foxygen, and Lemon Twigs brothers Michael and Brian D’Addario. Somber strings, some winds, a harp here and there, even stately tubular bells, provide sonic threads — an extended instrumental passage ending the song “God Turn Me Into a Flower,” impressionistically portraying the mythic Narcissus being granted that wish, is a work of stunning beauty.
Some of it is intensely, intimately personal, as in “Grapevine,” a relationship disintegrating on California’s Golden State Freeway. If a man can’t see his shadow, he can block your sun all day, she sings, before rolling drums evoke George Harrison’s ghostly “Long, Long, Long.” Some other songs, as we’ve seen, lean to the socio-cultural-political. More often than not the line blurs.
“I think it’s important to try to balance those two things,” she says. “I used this term sometimes: ‘Crying the world’s tears.’ Like I have a lot of empathy for other people and I feel a lot of the kind of pain people are feeling. The zeitgeist of what’s really fashionable, I can’t really put my finger on as much. But I know when people are hurting and what they’re hurting about. And yeah, I think I have to include my own feelings in there, because that’s where it all stems from, that I feel for other people and myself too. So it’s a very discombobulated mixture and the two I think verge on being indecipherable at times.”
But finding, and sharing, meaning from the mixture has become a mission.
“I’ve always really been interested in trying to steer people’s thoughts in a direction that’s a little more self-aware,” she says. “Because I feel painfully self-aware. It’s not about feeling guilty or shame, but knowing that in some ways we’re all vulnerable to invisible forces that we don’t fully understand. And that’s okay.”
Isn’t it also a tricky thing to manage as an artist?
“I don’t want to insulate my ego too much by thinking that I’m right on the money with what everybody’s feeling or something,” she replies. “But I do try to help people understand stuff. It’s a pretty thin line to toe without sounding whiny or preachy. Maybe it’s difficult nowadays to write music like that.”
It’s also difficult to reach people in significant numbers — a byproduct of the very fragmenting, isolating technology that she has in view on the album — as well as the logjam of music and entertainment competing for attention. She’s a reluctant participant in social media, a necessary but troubling way to be in touch with her audience, she says.
“I don’t want to be on it! I don’t get great joy from being on it. But I do feel joy when I can connect with the fans. It does help with steering the whole thing. But I do feel that if you reach a point where you don’t need it anymore, it’s a great time to get off.”
And why has it worked for her?
“You just have to make really quality work consistently,” she says. “And not give up.
“I’m feeling really grateful that enough people have heard [the new music] and it’s resonating with people, it means a lot to me because it did feel a little bit like going out on a limb, saying so many things so literally in a time where we kind of avoid that. I’ve worked pretty hard on it. But I think you become a channel, like the more time you spend doing it, the more it happens. It’s not something I can control.”
While it may seem a long way from her born-again Christian upbringing in Pennsylvania with her mother Pamela, father Sumner and brother Zak, some roots of her music-to-come were planted there.
“My mom was such a huge Joni Mitchell fan and played me so much Joni Mitchell as a little girl that I’m sure that had a big impact on me,” she reminisces.
And her father (who in fact dated Joni Mitchell briefly) fronted a near-miss late-1970s L.A. band, called simply Sumner, but left that behind well before Natalie was born.
“There would be nights where he’d bring his guitar and play and I’d be like, ‘Oh my gosh!’” she says, laughing. “I’d have this revelation like, ‘You are a rock star! Really! Now you’re so square! You just go to work!’”
Her own early musical explorations took a different path. She made experimental recordings in her teens and then, having moved to Portland for a short try at college, played with noise bands Jackie-O Motherfucker and Satanized. She started making her own music under variations of her Flannery O’Connor-inspired stage name (first Wise Blood, then Weyes Bluhd), taken from O’Connor’s 1952 novel, Wise Blood, with her first album, The Outside Room, released in 2011.
That, too, is a long way from what she’s doing now. Room, all instruments played by her, features long, drone-y songs with quirky percussion and deep, drawn-out vocal lines, suggesting echoes of Nico, Tim Buckley and the mad spirit of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s English scene centered in Canterbury, especially the music of Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett, Soft Machine’s Robert Wyatt and the band Gong.
That’s a world of which she can talk in great depth. She even did a cover of Soft Machine’s “A Certain Kind” a few years ago, paired with a version of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’.”
Her parents were dubious until the 2014 release of The Innocents, her second album and first on a “real” label, the indie Mexican Summer.
“They came to see me play at a real venue with a real P.A. system, a bar in Philly that was nicer. And they saw that I had an audience and all that.”
Each subsequent album has been a leap in musical accomplishment and emotional expression, the songs sharpening, the vision expanding. But it came with doubts and struggles. To address those doubts, she looked to the paths of several role models.
“Lou Reed is a very interesting example of somebody who did whatever he wanted in this really bizarre way and managed to make it all work,” she says. “And in some ways I feel like all artists have great stories about things that didn’t go as planned, but turned out being for the best. It’s never super linear. So I think any story like that definitely keeps me from feeling jaded, any kind of redemption story. Maybe Leonard Cohen, the ‘80s Leonard Cohen, is for me the biggest version of that. I think about him a lot and how many times he reinvented himself. And how Joni Mitchell reinvented herself a lot.”
With Aglow, it feels like worlds are opening to her. She’s been through things. She’s seen things. She’s renewed and ready for whatever’s next. And that, she says, is what the promise of the album’s final line is about.
“It’s about love everlasting, but it’s also about how you get to orbit in and out of it. We’d love to stay in that perfect orbit, but as you know, how orbits work, it’s kind of elliptical.”
She traces an ellipse in the air with her finger.
“At one point you’re going to be the furthest away from something, and at another point you’re going to be really close and you can’t really choose where you’ll be, how close you’ll be to love at any given moment. But I think that it’s like the idea of being abandoned by God. Every once in a while you just don’t understand why, but it’s just not happening for you. We go through seasons of being closer to who we are and closer to love and then further from who we are and further from love.
“That’s just part of life. It’s the cycle of life and death. Sometimes you need to die completely as the form you are and be reborn again to love again, which is the love everlasting part. But there’s still a death and a birth in there too.”