In Conversation With… ALICE MERTON

Alice Merton released her debut album in January 2019, it’s a powerful mix of personal and relatable music that acts as a vibrant beacon for the artist to tell her story. Through emotionally-succinct and intensely rhythmic means, ‘Mint’ wields a strong sense of defiant resilience and upbeat motivation. It’s a record to embrace fully, or not at all. There are moments of light and shade that showcase Merton’s vastly textured musical palette and creative nature, but there’s also big hits of pop majesty too.

Currently touring the new album, Merton and her band have been playing shows throughout Europe and the UK. What’s interesting about the live set is that it captures the essence of ‘Mint’ and replicates every minute detail and nuance, but rather than plateauing there it takes the energy and atmosphere within the music, to stratospheric places, fuelling epic gratification once the night is over.

Everything you see and hear has been carefully created with love, the passion behind Merton’s focus and vision emanates throughout the stage show. The bespoke wardrobe she wears honours her ambition and is emblematic of the kind of artist she is—tirelessly committed to her craft, truthfully authentic and always willing to step outside of the box. The personal touches allow the performance to go beyond just a simple portrait of an artist in their element but instead capture a theatre-level production full of ingenuity and entrepreneurial savvy.

Catching up before the show in Manchester, we sat down with Alice backstage to discuss her approach to music making, why it’s important to her to diversify and what future releases we might be hearing soon.

Thank you for talking to us today, how are you?

Alice Merton: “I’m good. How are you?”

Charlotte, BSS: “I’m also good, thank you.”

There’s a lot of talk of mental health and well-being in the industry today, and rightly so, how do you think we as a community can work together to be more aware?

AM: “Well I do think that there should be classes offered at schools, and I do think after you’re done [with] university or you’re done [with] school… I think it would be a smart idea to just take a year to have classes, or even therapy sessions, where you digest and try and understand everything you’ve gone through in that time. So I think that would be amazing if that could be supported whether it’s in schools or colleges, but I think it’s getting a little bit better. There’s a university that I know of, of a friend of, and they offer courses as well, mental health courses, they teach you coping mechanisms of how to cope with anxiety or mental stress, depression. And I think that’s really, really, really good.”

You recently shared an acoustic recording of ‘Funny Business’ exclusively through Amazon Music, is it fun for you to change up how you sing a song and work with different arrangements?

AM: “I love doing that, yeah. It’s probably one of my favourite parts of making music, testing the boundaries, yeah, putting different twists on songs.”

The first instrument you bonded with was the piano, and in a sense it can be considered quite a solitary instrument, part of its charm is that it can act as a very primal, intensely close partner and outlet. Because your songs are very emotion-based, do you think that the piano has played a role in the way you approach songwriting at all?

AM: “Um, I definitely think it’s played a role, yes. I think because it’s so intimate and because it’s something I’ve learned since I was very young, there’s a very intimate feeling I have with it. Yeah, I’m very thankful that I got to learn such a beautiful instrument at such a young age… so, like, almost all of my songs start at the piano.”

We need to talk about the debut album, ‘Mint.’ Congrats on the release.

AM: “Thank you. Thank you so much.”

I noticed that a lot of the tracks were previewed via your live shows before the album was even out. Did playing the songs live offer a sounding board for you to gauge which songs would work best for the album?

AM: “Um. Sometimes. I mean, there’s still songs that work live really well but we didn’t put them on the album because I felt I wasn’t ready to. Like, I wasn’t happy with the production or I just felt like, ‘Okay, I wanna wait a little bit longer,” and it’s something that I felt worked live better than on a CD, so there’s both sides. There’s looking at what works well and putting [that] on a CD, or [saying] like ‘Okay I just wanna keep that for live.’ Because I like having those special moments where people come to a concert and they don’t just hear what’s on the CD, they hear songs that I only play live. It gives it a kind of charm, I find, because, yeah, it makes the concert different than just sitting at home and listening to the CD.”

So, what does the studio give you that your live shows don’t?

AM: “What does the studio give me? Well it definitely gives me a regular lifestyle, of just going to the studio, making music, being creative. I’m not really that creative on tour which is kind of annoying sometimes, but I really love performing live and I love those moments when you sing in front of a crowd and just share the lyrics and the song and the meaning. We had that in Leeds yesterday, the crowd knew all the lyrics to all the songs on the album, and I was just blown away, because I was like, ‘Wow you guys actually listened to the full album…’”

Charlotte, BSS: “That was probably your first time in Leeds as well.”

AM: “It was my first time in Leeds so it was a very, very special moment.”

You’ve mentioned already that there are some songs in live set that aren’t on the album – like ‘Holes’ and ‘Back to Berlin’ (which I really love). I know ‘Back to Berlin’ has an airing on a special compilation put out by Mom+Pop but that’s an album-only situation, so, are these tracks potentially forthcoming releases?

AM: “They are actually, yeah. Especially ‘Back to Berlin.’ I have always wanted to record that one but I haven’t figured out if I wanna have it just piano and vocals or if I wanna have a little bit of like an atmosphere. Maybe a little bit of strings, or if that makes it too cheesy? I dunno. Those are things that I’m still thinking about, and so, I said I would let that sit for the moment… perhaps in the deluxe version I’d put it back in.”

I would like to highlight ‘Honeymoon Heartbreak’ in particular—

AM: “Oh wow.”

I find this song very different to the other tracks on the album. The tempo is slower, it’s basically a ballad, but also the vocal take feels and sounds stripped, there’s a real sense of anguish in the voice. Was this one tough to record?

[Alice unusually pauses for a beat.]

Charlotte, BSS: “Am I reading too much into it?”

AM: “No. Well what do you mean when you say ‘stripped’?

Charlotte, BSS: “Like it feels very bare. Untouched.”

AM: “Interesting. We decided to take the very first vocal take we did of it because there is this kind of rawness in it and it almost feels shaky. But it was the most powerful one when it came to feeling-wise… like there are some of the notes where I notice, I listen back and I’m like, ‘Wow it’s a little bit wobbly’ but it has the most emotion. And I think that was really important to me, it felt really close that take, it felt like it was someone who was just whispering in my ear, and yeah, it touched us all so we were like, ‘You know what, we’re gonna take that one, and we’re gonna keep that rawness and the parts in it that make it feel very… where you question, like, ‘is she singing that note properly?’’ and we decided to keep that in there, so.”

Charlotte, BSS: “I definitely feel a connection to that one.”

AM: “Thank you. Thank you so much.”

Charlotte, BSS: “I’ve heard Demi Lovato talk about vocal takes and emotion, and how it makes a difference.”

AM: “It really does. I think what’s really important when you listen to vocal tracks is not that every note has to sound perfect, it’s really that feeling you want to convey with the song. I mean, during that session when I wrote that song I tried to re-record the vocals after, a few months later, and it just… that feeling was so fresh, it was the recording we had to take. It couldn’t be re-done to that same extent of emotion.”

If I remember correctly you said last time we talked that you like to write down thoughts whenever they come to you—

AM: “Yes.”

And then these moments inform songs further down the line… so, does the writing process ever stop for you?

AM: “I don’t think it ever stops, I think I’m always going to be collecting ideas, which I think is important as well, because I don’t think I ever want it to stop. I mean, songwriting is probably one of the best parts of my job, I find, and so I wouldn’t want to give that up.”

I was investigating on Amazon and I found this prog track which lists you as the featured artist—

AM: “Ahh. Yeah, yeah. From Eloy.”

Now I’m not claiming that it is you on the track, but there are similarities…

AM: “Oh it’s me. This was before I released anything. And there was a producer who asked me to become Joan of Arc, he did a whole album revolving around Joan of Arc, and yeah, he was looking for voices and he loved my voice, and he’s like, ‘You are Joan of Arc. You are the one I’m looking for.” So I was like, ‘Sure. Okay.’”

Charlotte, BSS: “It’s very dramatic.”

AM: “I love it though. I love trying different things as well, like at the moment I’m really focussing on establishing my style but in a few years’ time I wanna be that artist that goes outside of their box and tries different things rather than always sticking to that same style. Like, I love combining different styles and trying new things.”

To bring it back to ‘Mint’ and the live shows, what strikes me the most is the distinction between the playful side of your music and the serious, more exposing side of the writing. The interaction of these elements combine on ‘Lash Out,’ to great effect. Do you think contrast is important in pop music?

AM: “I think it’s important because people otherwise get bored. I mean some people are into hearing the same thing over and over, but I need a little bit of a challenge when it comes to music. I like challenging my ear, I like challenging listeners and that’s always been really important to me, so I’ll definitely continue having contrasts in the songs.”

Have you started to think about what’s next after you wrap this touring cycle for ‘Mint’?

AM: “Um, what’s next? I mean, I could say I’ll be writing back and forth all the time, like, I’ll be in the studio in and out. I think I also want to take some time for myself to contemplate on what the next album should be like, and also, just live a little bit. I wanna look back and really enjoy everything I’ve done up to now… and if you keep on doing that, I realise that you’re not actually taking the time for yourself and not patting yourself on the shoulder every once in a while, being like, ‘Hey, you can take a little break now.’ And I also just wanna enjoy life, like, every time we tour, every time I’m away from my family and my friends… I realise I don’t get homesick but I do miss them, and I wanna spend as much time with them as possible. Through meeting certain people,I’ve realised that it’s so interesting how people define success, and how for some people it’s the friendships and the way you treat people and the way you go through life, and I don’t want to miss that. Like, I don’t want to waste that. I think my goal for this year is to combine those, to combine the touring but also to remember how important it is to take a step back and really enjoy everything and take the time to do so.”

Alice Merton’s debut album ‘Mint’ is out now via Paper Plane Records – available to Stream/Purchase here.

Find Alice Merton on Facebook and Twitter.

Charlotte Holroyd
Editor, Creator and Founder of Bitter Sweet Symphonies. A lover of music and cinema, who's constantly attending gigs and in search of a great experience.

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