Alice Merton released her breakthrough hit ‘No Roots’ in December of 2016, the debut song received a startling reaction from audiences across the globe—earning platinum sales statuses in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy and Poland, and achieving the number one spot in Billboard’s US Alternative chart (just a few of the many well-deserving accolades that the song raked up). Since then, Merton has gone on to release an EP’s worth of standout tracks as well as some impressive singles—her latest, ‘Why So Serious’ (lifted from her upcoming album, Mint) is an astonishing shimmer of precision and self-awareness.
Currently engaged in a long touring spell that’s seen the artist hopscotch between different territories and countries, we meet in Manchester to discuss Merton’s formative years in music and increasingly dynamic song catalogue—gaining deeper insight into the artist’s journey and how those early moments informed who she is today. The concert later that night, offers a first-hand glimpse into Merton’s world and rising star, playing to a sold-out crowd Merton confidently owns her artistry. In between songs she shares personal anecdotes (her stage presence, wild and authentic, bears a natural captivation which evokes Taylor Swift’s mesmerising effervescence), a candid opportunity for all to experience the human behind the colourful pop music. Soaring across blossoming single releases like ‘Hit the Ground Running’ and ‘Lash Out,’ the singer-songwriter showcases not just her brazen writing ability but her fabulously innate vocal talent.
Alice Merton is far from one dimensional; her songs speak honest truths and intrinsic values, the presentation of those ideas is unique and unflinching, her live show is refreshing and inspired—and if her story so far outlines anything, it’s that she is destined to walk her own path, resilient and true.
Hi Alice. Firstly, welcome back to the UK. Excited to be headlining your first tour here?
Alice Merton: “Thank you. Yeah I am, actually. I’m super excited that we’re playing in Manchester, I’ve never played here before, and I’ve never been to Manchester before—so I’m really excited about that.”
Charlotte, BSS: “How was last night’s sold out London show?”
AM: “Good. It was good. It was fun. I didn’t know it was going to be sold out ‘til the evening of, so that was a really, really nice surprise—and they were a lovely crowd, so I’m excited to see how the Manchester crowds are.”
Charlotte, BSS: “It’s pretty incredible, though, when you consider that that was your second ever show in London and this is your first in Manchester, for both of the shows to sell out.”
AM: “Yeah, I know. It’s crazy. I feel very privileged. I’m just happy that people enjoy the music, that’s what I live for. I live for, just making music that I like sharing with people.”
Looking at your touring schedule you seem to be on a non-stop ride spanning all the way from last November to this October. Is life as a touring artist everything you imagined it to be?
AM: “I don’t think I ever had a certain image of what touring was like… I think when you’re young, you think it’s very glamourous, but it’s not [she giggles]. It consists of getting up early, making sure you’re healthy, taking care of your body, taking care of your mental health and yeah, just being prepared to be thrown into cold water sometimes ‘cos you can never predict situations. I mean, we arrived in London, in Gatwick, and we then found out that our guitar player and tour manager couldn’t get into the country without a visa—and so we were like ‘F***, what are we gonna do?’ But it worked out in the end! So it’s just, like, all these unexpected events that kind of scare you.”
When you have a song like ‘No Roots’ that has gained such incredible popularity across the world, does that impact the next song you write?
AM: “I think it could, if you let it. But I think if you really try and stay strong and say to yourself, ‘You know what, I’m not in this to make hits…,’ like, I never expected No Roots to have that attention. I’m putting out music that I love and they’re basically just stories of my life and how I try and teach myself to think about things. They’re kind of like notes to self, basically. Like with No Roots, it was, ‘Don’t be upset. You do have a home. It’s just not in one place.’ With Hit the Ground Running, it was like, ‘So these labels don’t want you, just get started, do your thing.’ Now, with Why So Serious, that was actually a song I wrote after I’d been asked in an interview if I thought I was gonna be a one hit wonder and I was like, ‘F*** you!’”
Charlotte, BSS: “It’s way too early to be talking like that anyway (and also very rude).”
AM: “Well, I guess, a lot of press they just think about that. They’re like, ‘Oh, you might be a one hit wonder, how do you feel about that?’ and I thought to myself… I was really upset, I went to my producer, I’m like: ‘These people are so rude’ and then he’s like, ‘Well, don’t care’ and then I’m like, ‘Why so serious, right?’ And that’s when the song came about…”
Charlotte, BSS: “It was great inspiration.”
AM: “It was. It was actually. A lot of my inspiration comes from anger, so…”
Charlotte, BSS: “That’s great. Like Fenne Lily as well, she’s…”
AM: “Oh, you know Fenne Lily?”
Charlotte, BSS: “Yes, love her music. I interviewed her earlier in the year.”
AM: “Oh nice, I love her.”
Charlotte, BSS: “Yeah, she’s an amazing artist. She’s going on tour soon with Lucy Dacus.”
AM: “Oh my God, nice. That is so cool. That is incredible. I met her in Hamburg and it was so funny because we were nominated for this Anchor award—and I hadn’t heard of her—because that was around the time that we were touring as well and I hadn’t really listened to any of the [nominated] artists, and so, I just see her song come on the screen—because they were introducing each artist—and I was like, ‘Wait… I know that song. I love that song!” and they’re like, ‘And that is… Fenne Lily.’ I’m like, ‘That’s her?’ So I ran to her afterwards, I’m like, ‘I love your music and I didn’t know you were sitting right beside me!” So that was—oh my God—that was an emotional moment for me because I was like, ‘Holy crap, it’s you.”
Your work is very autobiographical, how do you channel emotion into a song?
AM: “I don’t know. It just kinda happens. I get mad about something and then I have this melody in my head, and then afterwards the lyrics come. So, sometimes It happens like that, sometimes I’ll write it down, like, I’ll write all these songs down and I’ll be in the studio with my producer and I’ll just pack out all these lyric lines—things I wanna put down in songs—and that’s when the song happens, so…
Charlotte, BSS: “It’s very natural.”
AM: “It is quite a natural process. It’s not really forced, it’s not like, ‘Okay, we’re writing a song today.’ It’s like, ‘I need to get this out of my system.’”
Charlotte, BSS: “I think that’s the best way to do it, probably.”
AM: “I think so. I’ve tried forced songwriting sessions and sometimes you can get a really cool result, but sometimes it just feels forced and you’re like, ‘Well, I don’t really enjoy singing this’ if it feels like the beginning of it was a forced kind of thing.”
‘No Roots’ was your debut single, the success of that song has been monumental for your career. How do you process a reaction of that magnitude—and the sudden fame that intertwines with that kind of success?
AM: “I don’t really think about it, to be honest. I don’t really go around being like, ‘Oh, this is my song!’ There are cool moments where I’ll be sent really cool videos of either, covers or… just the other day my tour manager sent me this really cool video of a brass band from UCLA and they had turned the song [No Roots] into a really cool… it was almost like a medley, they just had such a cool arrangement, and I was looking at it, like, ‘Holy f***, that’s my song!” So I really like those moments, but I wouldn’t say that… like, fame, I don’t think I can really speak of that yet because, I think people really know the music—and that’s what has always been really important to me, is that people just listen to that song and be like, ‘Oh, I like that song.’”
I hear that the debut album is arriving next year—
AM: “The debut album is arriving next year. January 18th, yeah.”
How will the new songs add to the existing palette of songs that are already known?
AM: “They’ll be different. Every song will represent the emotion that it’s written about, that’s what’s very important to me. So, not every song will sound like No Roots—I do like having really cool bass lines, I won’t stop with that, ‘cos I just love having it dancey.”
Charlotte, BSS: “I think that’s what we love about it as well.”
AM: “Maybe! Yeah. And it makes me happy, so… yeah I like grooving too, so that’ll still be there.”
There is a Tom Odell track which you feature on—how does the collaboration process work when you’re the featured artist on the record?
AM: “I met him at a festival in Munich, and I guess, we kinda got to talking afterwards and I thought he was a really cool guy—it was the first time I saw his concert, I had been a huge fan of his music for a very long time, and then when I found out we were playing at the same festival, I was like, [her face beams]. So yeah, he then actually contacted my manager about a few months later and said, ‘Hey, I have this duet. Would you like to see if your voice would fit on it?’ So I came to London, recorded it, and he’s like, ‘I love it. Let’s do it.’ It went really quickly, it was, like, within half a year.”
Charlotte, BSS: “And you’re in the video as well.”
AM: “Yes, I wasn’t expecting that. I thought it was just going to be the voice but they then asked if I had time to come for the video, so I was like, ‘Okay, we’re kind of on tour but we’ll make this happen!’”
Your interest in music started at a very young age—I read that your Dad taught you piano at age five—what was it that drew you in at that stage?
AM: “I don’t think at the age of five, it really… I think it drew me in later, like when I was eight. At the age of five, I don’t know… I liked sitting at the piano with my Dad. I liked playing these little duets with him, it was a nice feeling because he wasn’t at home that often and it was just nice to sit beside him, and just be taught, and have his attention, and…”
Charlotte, BSS: “Have the time?”
AM: “Yeah, and have the time to really show me these kinds of things. I did have proper lessons as well, but he was the one that kind of started it and really encouraged me to continue.”
Moving into your Teens, when you first picked up the guitar and started writing songs, were you aware that what you were doing could eventually lead to a career in music—was that the goal?
AM: “I always wanted to have a career in music but I didn’t think I was going to be good enough, and I only discovered songwriting much later. When I was younger I always wanted to be either a pianist or a classical singer, and when I discovered songwriting it was like a new portal had been opened. For the first time I could express myself in ways I couldn’t really express with music that had already been written—and it was really nice. So I just became obsessed with songwriting and writing thoughts down, putting melodies to it.”
What do you think inspired the level of passion and devotion at that young age?
AM: “That’s a good question. What inspired it? I just always wanted to make something really unique, I guess. Like even the pieces I played on the piano, whether it was Rachmaninov or Chopin, I always liked playing it my way. And I think a lot of piano teachers didn’t like that, but it just kind of inspired me to forge my own path.”
Charlotte, BSS: “It was your form of expression.”
AM: “Yeah. I really needed that. When we moved to Germany the school systems there were much different, they didn’t have any kind of creative subjects, so it was all math, science… and when you had the subject English—which was the equivalent for the German subject—it was writing essays. There was nothing creative about it. I felt very lost, for a very long time because I felt like I just lost my creativity. And yeah, I was very lucky that I then found songwriting. I felt like I could just express myself and those past four years… like even not being able to speak German was very tough for me ‘cos I couldn’t express myself, I felt like I had this mouth guard on, it wouldn’t let me say what I wanted to.”
Did the performance element arrive around a similar time as the want to write and make music?
AM: “It arrived later. I still get very nervous on stage. That was very tough for me actually, because I would shake a lot and you would hear it in my voice and my voice would quiver, so through studying it and being able to practise with my band we were able to ‘off the scene’ at university just practise in front of smaller crowds—because we all studied music [together]. There would be concerts every month were you could sign up with your band [to perform]. That definitely helped.
“I don’t think I’m a natural performer. I love being in my own element but I don’t think I am someone who was born to stand in front of people and just perform without it looking completely horrible. I definitely needed to practice.”
Operating as an independent artist in the music industry, what have been the learning curves that you’ve experienced?
AM: “I think it was starting to listen to what I want to put out rather than what other people want me to put out and what they think the music should sound like. I mean, everyone’s always going to have an opinion but I also learnt that it only really makes sense to work with people who are really a hundred percent dedicated to what your vision is—and there were very few people that really did that, it was like my band, my manager who I studied with. I mean, back then he wasn’t really my manager he was just my best friend, he was just there and always made sure things were happening, trying to get a gig wherever we could, even doing sound sometimes or lighting.
“So, just working with people who you know are a hundred percent behind your music and also, being careful with rights of songs. I love writing my songs, by myself or with my producer, and I learned that there’s always going to be a lot of people who are like, ‘Hey, let’s write together,’ and you have groups of, like, four or five people and it just, it confuses me. I had a writing session where the woman was like, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t say this word because the other one sounds cooler,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, what about if I wanna say that word, this is my music.” So, there’s those things. There’s a lot that I’ve learned, a lot of stuff.”
Charlotte, BSS: “I’m sure you’ll continue to, as well.”
AM: “Oh yeah, it’s a gradual learning process. There’s not one day where I’m like, ‘Oh, I didn’t learn anything today,’ and it’s so interesting to see how a record label works. I mean, I think a lot of artists aren’t really aware of what happens, or what kind of work is involved in promoting a song and what kind of money gets put into it. I look at these videos sometimes and there’s so much money being pumped into a video, like, a hundred thousand dollars or euros—and I think to myself every time, our No Roots video; we didn’t have much money so it cost us like two thousand euros—camera equipment and location—but that’s super cheap, like super low budget. And it started growing so quickly, I mean, it took a while but it still grew and I thought to myself, ‘Well, if we can still make a cool video with the budget that we have, why would we spend tons and tons of money on a video where we don’t know?’
“But it’s also like a learning process for us. Like the next time we were like, ‘Okay, let’s spend a little bit more money,’ the more we started earning, we’re like, ‘Umm, let’s see what happens.’ It’s just so interesting to be like, ‘Is it the video that’s really important? Or is it the song? What promotion do we focus on? Do we focus on online promotion? Do we focus on airplay promotion?’ It’s just very interesting.”
Fashion seems to be a big part of your world. Onstage and in photo shoots you get to wear amazing designs, if we could turn the tables for a second and ask you for style tips, what would you suggest?
AM: “Style tips! Wow. I never thought I’d be asked for style tips…“
Charlotte, BSS: “I thought that Eco-friendly dress that you wore was really gorgeous.”
AM: “Oh I really loved that one. Thank you so much. It was actually a complete coincidence that I got to wear it, though, because I lost all my luggage when we played in Montenegro so, I called up my Italian promoter, I’m like, ‘Is there any way you can ask anyone if I can wear something, like a designer that’s kind of new or…?’ and she’s like, ‘Okay, I’ll make a few calls.’ And she told me about this eco-friendly designer, I’m like, ‘Let’s do it. Show me the dress,’ and I was like, ‘This is perfect. I wanna wear this. I love green.’ Green’s my favourite colour.
“Styling tips… I think you should just wear what you feel comfortable in. Like onstage, I would never wear anything that I don’t feel comfortable in. I barely wear high heels. The only thing I will wear is, plateaus, but never something that is on a slant ‘cos it’s too hard, it’s too much work and it’s just uncomfortable for your foot. I would rather my foot just be, like, in a bed and just lying flat. Yeah, wear what you want.
“I just like trying new things, I like being open to that and I don’t like showing too much skin—it’s not my kind of thing. I don’t like looking too sexy, it’s not my thing, and I feel very uncomfortable if I do. Whatever you feel comfortable in, you should wear.”
Alice Merton is set to release her debut album ‘Mint’ in January 2019. For more information on how to pre-order the album, visit her website: https://www.alicemerton.com/