That becoming snaps into focus with the news of her next album, Titanic Rising, coming in April via the storied Pacific Northwest label, Sub Pop. This will be her first release with Sub Pop, and the music contains an increased sense of confidence and agility that comes along with leveling up label-side. Titanic Rising builds upon the lovely blues of Front Row Seat To Earth, delving deep into the mythic power of movies and exploring how the forces of these unattainable stories of love twist our aching, lonely psyches.
Still, Titanic is not a sad album at all, but a thoughtful one, and certainly an ambitious body of work. It allows Mering, once and for all, to take her place beside the great songwriters of our era, she is, if you will allow me the comparison, the millennial Joni Mitchell, combing works of the heart with political thoughts and stunning universal themes. Ahead of the album’s release — it’s out on April 12, but you can pre-order a limited-edition vinyl version from Vinyl Me, Please now — I spoke with Mering about the record’s place in her career arc, the introductory new song “Andromeda” and why Titanic is one of our few modern immortal myths.
You’ve been playing music for years but 2016’s Front Row Seat To Earth felt like an album where everything clicked for you, like you were at the fullest extent of your powers. But now, listening to Titanic Rising, it feels like it’s even the next level up from that. What is the relationship between these last two records for you, and how do things feel different leading up to the release of Titanic?
On Front Row Seat to Earth I definitely took more of the reigns in terms of production. I had some great opportunities from my first record with Mexican Summer, The Innocents, to tour a lot and really sharpen my singing skills and my songwriting skills, getting the chance to perform for months at a time, which is definitely a privilege for indie people, because I think the DIY scene in recent years has taken a bit of a nosedive. To really get those shows and be playing consistently to an audience that’s listening is increasingly difficult.
Front Row Seat was the culmination of me playing these shows, taking the reigns and working with somebody like [producer] Chris Cohen, who I deeply trust. With this next one, it was just even more of that. I had gotten the chance to tour even more, I had the opportunity to play with whoever I wanted. And Jonathan Rado, who helped me produce the record, even let me have more free reign in terms of his opinion always siding with mine, versus Chris and I used to butt heads on some things. So, it was interesting to all of a sudden have even more freedom to explore different realms. I think for me it’s just been a long process getting to this point because I just haven’t really been afforded those kinds of opportunities until now.
This is your first album with Sub Pop, which is personally one of my favorite labels. I grew up in the Northwest so they were everywhere up there. What drew you to work with them and what has that experience been like?
They’re a big deal for me, too. When they were interested in me I was pretty blown away. There were some other labels that were a little bit more, how should I say, kind of borderline major labels, or just a little bit more of a hot name you could drop. And the way those labels treated me was just so random — like, there’s lots of wining and dining, and then asking for demos and it’s just like… my records speak for themselves. I’m at the point of my life where I don’t need to make demos to get a record deal. That’s not really my style.
So Sub Pop came out of the woods, and didn’t want any demos. They just wanted to sign me based on who I was, and they had a really wonderful kind of DIY/indie ethos and they weren’t trying to buy my entire life. I felt this kindred spirit with them and just an overwhelming amount of kindness and support and legitimate interest. People at the label have actually listened to my music on a personal level and it felt really like family, it was cool.
That’s my experience working with them too. Given some of the underlying traditionalism of your music — how it calls back to some of these ancient folk and vocal elements, but also incorporates 21st century pop songwriting — I think it definitely makes sense to have it released on vinyl. It’s one of the ways we can physically preserve music, but what was it for you that drew you to work with Vinyl Me, Please on this project?
I’m a big fan of people advocating for physical copies of music. It’s just so different than streaming. All of those streaming companies put compressors and different things on the tune to change their sound, and having just a raw analog copy of the record is pretty much what the artist wishes everybody would hear. And it’s such a different experience when you’re putting a record on the turntable to listen to it versus streaming especially with these fucking algorithms. I’m just so bummed that as soon you’re done with a record on Spotify it’ll shoot you to some crap that you don’t even want to hear, you know what I’m talking about? It’s just really sad. But like vinyl, especially, engages you with the music and makes you pause. I think that’s a great way to hear albums.
Let’s talk about the song that you used to introduce the new era, “Andromeda.” It obviously has allusions to the past and the universe at large as well as connections to sort of modernity and technology. Why did you want to lead off this new record with that song?
I think there were a lot of songs on the record we were all excited about, and it kept feeling like “Andromeda” was this really cool meeting point between the more electronic and sparse, and spatial arrangements, along with the nostalgic songwriting. It seemed to have everything rolled into one, and I just think it’s a really beautiful song. When I wrote that song I could feel a lot of emotion in it. I’m a big fan of country, especially ’80s country and kind of lo-fi country in the ’80s that would use the LinnDrum, which is the drum machine that we used on the track. It’s also the first song that Rado and I did together, so it had a special little feeling because I didn’t have a LinnDrum and he did and I was like, ‘Well, perfect, I wrote this song basically hoping there’s a LinnDrum around’ and we put it all together and it was pretty magical, so it’s just a good intro.
One of my favorites on the album is the song “Movies,” especially as someone living in L.A. and thinking about the way these stories do shape our lives and contribute so much. This song seems to be seeing the light side of that industry instead of its dark side, but the album title makes me think there was a specific film and experience that sparked writing that one.
For me, as a child I was so emotionally impacted by movies and I really was emotionally impacted by Titanic because it was kinda geared towards little white girls in the late ’90s. It was engineered for us in this weird way, and I did have this intense epiphany at the age of 12 that these films were brainwashing people because they’re the only source of universal myths that our culture was providing. (Besides religion, which was kind of on its way out, and upsetting most people anyway.)
I felt like there is something so incredibly unfair about Hollywood and the way it’s such a capitalistic industry. They can’t help but be on the trashy side, so in a lot of ways it’s just a strange thing, because you can’t really hate movies, there’s something so magical about them, because, psychologically, that’s how we operate. We operate through myths and that’s our way of understanding reality, so in a lot of ways I feel like that song is about watching these myths, taking them for what they are, accepting the negative side — which is this very specific streamlining of experience and cutting out of people of color, and people with different experiences.
Watching that shift, just in the last two years or so, you can really feel the impact it’s had on people! The whole lyric of “I want to be in my own movie,” is representational of our reality where, in a lot of ways, people aren’t living in their own reality. Whether it be looking at other people’s Instagram, whether it be capitalism telling people that they need this or they need to be like this or a movie portraying reality in this really backwards way or portraying romantic love in this really blown out way. I think that in a lot of ways people want to live their myths and they want it to be their own. It’s like movies are these subpar versions of our deepest psychological needs.
Right, and you’re writing like a redemptive take — at least in the title — on that story, which is one of the great tragedies in our modern culture. I liked how the title track was mostly instrumental and almost like the overture for a movie in its own way.
Well, the reason Titanic has such a huge symbolism for me, not only was it engineered for little girls, but it showed the hubris of man in the late ’90s, the hubris of man is getting pretty intense and I think we all could sense something was about to happen and it was gonna be really bad. Even as a little girl I was kinda like, ‘Oh my God, we do not have dominion over nature and we really need to put that in its place.’ It just feels so appropriate for the times, because the ship crashed into an iceberg and because for us now the glaciers and the ice is melting, and instead of the ship sinking, third world countries are sinking. I feel like it’s kind of [a] ridiculously parallel and the concept of Titanic Rising is more like this slow-moving hubris of man, flooding humanity in a pace that we can’t fully comprehend, kind of like a frog boiling in water. No matter how big of a movie you could make about the whole concept, no matter how big of an impact that movie had on my life, we're still struggling to fight against these men who continuously choose to assume that we have control.
That title track instrumental comes midway through the record, and then the closer references a very well-known hymn. You’ve talked about how being raised in the church had an impact on your childhood and your work, so I’m wondering, was it important to have a reference back to that included on this record?
Yeah, and as far as that hymn, that was also the last one the band supposedly played on the Titanic. So that’s all tied into it. The full title is actually “Nearer, My God, To Thee,” I omitted the “my God” because I feel like nowadays God has become this obsolete term and for people “thee” is more of a big relatable idea of the superpower that’s overseeing everything that’s going on. So “Nearer To Thee” is a little bit more like great singularity style and the string arrangement is the same one from “A Lot’s Gonna Change,” which is the first song on the record and kind of the theme of the whole record; that we’re all going through some huge shifts, especially people my age who remember pre-internet days and have these memories of when the environment was slightly different. I do feel like life in L.A. — and especially in Pennsylvania — was very different pre-21st century climate change stuff. I’ve watched some crazy shit change, so I think to end on that note is fitting: Yes, a lot is gonna change, let’s make the best of it. Kind of like the Titanic band, playing to the very last minute.