Something to Believe: An Interview with Weyes Blood

Photography by Lizzie Heintz

By Kenneth Cox

Singer/songwriter Weyes Blood performed at the Rockland Trust Bank Pavilion on Thursday, September 12. Before taking the stage, WERS' Kenneth sat down with her to talk about her newest record, Titanic Rising, how the world of film influences her songwriting, and the relationship between environmentalism and artistry.

Kenneth: Just last night in Philadelphia you began this new leg of your tour opening for Kacey Musgraves. How has it been so far?

Weyes Blood: It's been really great! It was a really fun show, her audience is really sweet and receptive, and I'm a big fan of her music, so it's really cool that I get to see it every night.

This past year, you've been playing everywhere from small clubs to massive festivals. Do you find that in playing for different sized audiences there's a different feeling when performing?

WB: You know, sometimes I think that small rooms can be vibey-er, whereas larger rooms can be more cathartic, because it's such a big, roaring crowd. It's different, but not that one's better than the other necessarily. 

Just earlier this year, you released your newest album, Titanic Rising, which has a really rich, orchestral sound to it. Is that something you envisioned for the album from the start?

WB: Yeah, I had a lot of really big ideas, and I love classical music so much, and soundtracks to movies, so, I wanted it to have that feel. I wanted it to be like what the soundtrack to your life would sound like if your life was a movie.

Going into that about movies, there's a lot of cinematic references on the album, from the title invoking Titanic, to the song "Movies," to the slasher-inspired video for "Everyday." How does the world of film inform how you make music?

WB: I think my generation might have been the most cinematically-saturated generation, because video has just come out. So, in the '90s, watching movies was a weird rite of passage. There were so many more to watch, and then Blockbuster really kind of peaked. There was this whole phenomenon where movies began to take up a lot more headspace, and inform a lot of young people, whether they knew it or not, of their concepts of love and friendship and being the hero. When I write, I try to write about everything, including what informs our emotions and how we feel, and I couldn't just ignore movies because that was such a big part of my childhood; Such a big part of everyone else's even, we're streaming pretty nonstop now, you know. 

The song "Movies" really captures that communal experience of watching a movie in a theater with a bunch of strangers. But talking about that streaming domination right now, do you think that experience is something being lost today?

WB: I do think that people are so hooked on the feeling of that [streaming] in some ways. What's really taking precedent right now is TV, and I think TV will win because it's this serial medium. So, when it comes to people in power, the biggest goal is to make money, not necessarily to make something great, or make art. And I think they found that if they can get people hooked for eight years, in the end, it's a little more of a safe space than making one big movie. So, I think it's the market that determines it, not really people's preferences. I still love the movie format, and I think there's a lot you can do with a movie that you can't do with a serial TV show that goes on for years and years. And inevitably those end up being a little disappointing. [Laughs]

There's a really interesting contrast between the retro sound of the album, and how unmistakably modern its lyrics are. What led to this?

WB: Well, I feel very connected to older music, because that kind of was the music I grew up listening to. I have a very nostalgic space in my heart for some of the early songwriters like Hoagy Carmichael and Gershwin, right when jazz and classical were just starting to formulate the idea of what pop music would be. So, it was like the dawn of popular music if you will. And everything that came afterward like The Beatles and the '70s and '80s and stuff is like a buffet of cool sonic ingredients. And I feel so limited by what music has become now. It's very homogenous and auto-tuned, and really boring. So I think the retro sound comes from the fact that I prefer interesting chord changes, and acoustic instruments, which has become obsolete at this point, but not for everybody. 

You hear a lot of that sound on the album's opener, "A Lot's Gonna Change." Lyrically, that song has a lot of feelings of hardship and strife, but there's really a message of resiliency in that song. Where do you find this resilience?

WB: I can't help it because it's my whole goal to help others. And so, if I admit defeat, then how can I help anyone else? So, I do it for the benefit of humanity, the idea that we can persevere and still have hope in times that feel really dismal, because I think there's been a lot of peaks and valleys of civilization, and there's been a lot of really dark times we've gotten through. And I think now it might be a little more existential and complicated, but I think there should always be hope.

There's the line in that song - "born in a century lost to memory" - that really speaks to the obsession of nostalgia that so many have. Why do you think so many are hooked on the past?

WB: I think because, in a lot of ways, the way capitalism works, it's almost like people are now just discovering that nostalgia is a capitalistic tool for gain. They know if they keep changing things and innovating, inevitably, based on how humans process information, we're gonna miss what's gone. Before the 20th century, before my childhood and my grandma's childhood, there wasn't a dramatic amount of change. Changes for sure in technology, but there wasn't this shift that we're experiencing now with my grandmother's childhood versus my childhood. So, I think as things speed up, and as the paradigm continues to shift, and things change faster in ways we can't even describe, nostalgia becomes a more emotionally poignant tool for capitalism to use as manipulation, where they can just sell us back what they took away. 

And in the internet age, where we can gather even more information about the past, does that make this nostalgia even more accessible?

WB: It does, and I feel like capitalism has really strangulated modern art and modern forms of expression. So, if something truly innovative and interesting was going on right now, why would we have to be nostalgic for the past? The hippies weren't like "let's put on a flapper dress!" The nostalgia we're experiencing right now, which is basically nostalgia based on like, a decade or two ago, is really missing when there was this sense of newness. And I think that the 21st century has been a serious rehashing, where it's like, "Let's dig up some '90s stuff, because that was the last time it felt like we were making a fresh culture."

"A Lot's Gonna Change" is reprised at the end of the album on "Nearer To Thee." What made you want to bookend the album with that?

WB: Because I think "A Lot's Gonna Change" is the theme of the whole album. This idea since like, when I was a child, environmentalism used to be just cleaning up pollution, and now it's something completely different.

It feels cataclysmic.

WB: It's cataclysmic, like, how can we evolutionarily adapt to a hostile environment? That's a pretty big leap, as is the phones, which is a big leap in terms of social structures. The way the economy is set up, millennials are really burnt out, and are struggling to have the lives that their parents had. Buying property and procreating, a lot of this stuff seems very abstract for a lot of young people. And just 20 years ago, it was a little different. So, I could feel that a lot was going to change, and I knew personally a lot changes anyway just from growing up, no matter what else was going on externally. So, it just felt like this was an important message - this kind of surfing or riding these waves of change. And keeping peaceful in the storm - the cataclysm, as you said.

Finally, going back to what you mentioned about environmentalism, the song "Wild Time" is very much about climate change in the world today, something that many artists have been especially vocal about this year. What about this issue elicits such a response from artists like yourself?

WB: I think artists harbor a certain level of sensitivity, so, I think we might experience nature on a level that's not as superficial as people who are just using it to make money or something. I feel like there's this desire to protect and save the biodiversity of the planet because it's such a rewarding ecosystem to be a part of. And I think that anybody that spends a little bit of time outside - you don't have to love it, or be like, obsessed with camping - can tell that we're not here alone, and animals have emotions. And maybe that's an artistic thing, being more emotionally sensitive, you can kind of sense that "no, this has feelings, I don't want to fire and brimstone this whole thing, I want to save it"."

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