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Interview: Alice Merton

17 June 2022

Photo by JIDOH

When Alice Merton joined my Zoom call from Berlin, Germany on a Friday night, it would have been completely acceptable had she said, “Listen, my childhood friend from Canada just arrived yesterday so I need to keep this short as we have plans tonight.” But, for someone whose debut 2017 single, “No Roots,” has, at last count, over 1 billion worldwide streams, Merton could not have been more pleasant and accommodating in answering questions I threw her way.

The last 5 years have been a whirlwind for the singer. From releasing a global hit single that would appear on the No Roots EP (2018) and full-length album, Mint (2019), to appearing on talk shows ranging from The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon to LIVE! With Kelly and Ryan, it took a global pandemic to give Merton the chance to catch her breath.

While we didn’t dive into the singer’s personal life, a listen to her new album, S.I.D.E.S., doesn’t sugar coat a relationship that has come to an end with lyrics to back that up. From the “It’s all over” chorus on “Future” to the admission that “I’ve been hurtin’” on “Shiny Things,” it’s apparent that Merton has been through some things these last two years and has used this album as therapy though the album ultimately ends on a hopeful note with “The Other Side” where Merton reveals she’s “on the other side of it now.”

Before we got deep into the new album, I asked Merton about the inspiration for “No Roots”.

You talk about your song “No Roots” and the inspiration being that you moved around a lot so couldn’t really establish roots in any one location. Is this true or has the press blown it out of proportion, making it sound like you never unpacked boxes because you never settled down long enough to do that?

ALICE: I’ve moved 13 or 14 times in my life. But, I was lucky in that I only had to go to 3 different schools so I wasn’t at a different school every year. It was enough to impact my life. The biggest move was the one to Germany which I resented my parents for because I didn’t speak the language. In hindsight, I’m very thankful for it. Now I speak German.

Was all the moving related to your parents’ jobs?

ALICE: Yes. And, also, my parents are from Europe so we had moved to the U.S. and to Canada a while back because of my dad’s job and then when my dad didn’t work there anymore, it was like, “Okay, we don’t have any family here so maybe we should head back to Europe with the kids where we have family.” For the first time, I really got to know my grandma.

If you hadn’t become a touring musician, do you think, based on your life experiences, you’d be a traveling salesperson or flight attendant or something like that, always on the move?

ALICE: I wonder that a lot. I don’t know if I would have had a job where I’m traveling a lot, to be honest. I love traveling, I really do. But, jobwise, I would have loved to do something where I’m in one place. I was thinking about maybe becoming a kindergarten teacher or I was thinking about working in finance. There were so many ideas of what I thought I could be. I’m very grateful that I was able to do music in the end. It’s been a dream come true and traveling makes it amazing because I get to see different places and different people all the time.

Do you ever wake up on tour and have no idea where you?

ALICE: Definitely. When you’re touring every day and every day is a new city, there’s moments where, before a show, you’ll look at yourself in the mirror and be like, “You’re in New York,” “You’re in Wisconsin.” I do that a lot but that’s because my brain is always in the clouds. I’m a daydreamer. I’m someone who is not always present, which I’m getting better at. It’s very hard for me to focus sometimes. I try, whenever I’m in a city, to be very aware of where I am and take it in.

With all the traveling and touring you’ve done, is there someplace that you could see yourself living some day or going back and visiting when you have time to take a break?

ALICE: Portland, it’s really beautiful. But, we’re so lucky to be able to tour in Europe. Whenever we’re playing a show in Italy, I’m like, “I would love to live here.” Germany and England aren’t even that far from Italy, it’s really easy to get to. There’s a part of me that would love to have a house one day in Tuscany and have some chickens and have a little studio in the countryside and eat pasta all day.

They say it takes your whole life to write your first album but then the second album is more a reflection of where you are in the moment. Is that the case with you?

ALICE: I don’t know. The first album was like, “Where do I start?” There’s all this stuff that happened in my life and I only have one album, like 12 or 13 songs, to summarize it. This album is more concentrated on the events of the last 2 years – being stuck in a pandemic. I don’t have a pandemic song where I’m like, “I’m trapped inside my house.” But, the experiences I went through because of the pandemic and resulted from the pandemic and just how I felt and the experiences I’ve had in this industry. I haven’t been in this industry for that long. I put out “No Roots” four or five years ago. It’s still a song that I keep getting messages about, “I love this song” and it’s trending on TikTok. I love how this song took a life of it’s own. With the second record, it’s more focused on a shorter time span.

Though the record company machine tries to fit things into an album cycle, there will always be people hearing “No Roots” for the first time and thinking it’s a brand new song because, to them, it is.

ALICE: I believe that too. Everyone discovers music at a different time in their lives. Of course, record labels will be like, “We can’t promote an album a year later.” I’m very lucky that I have my own label and we can be spontaneous with decisions. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it’s not so great because sometimes there are moments that I wish I had a bigger support of getting the music out there. They invest all this money in the songs and stuff but, at the same time, that investment comes with a lot of strings attached to it. I don’t know if I’m a fan of strings attached. I think I prefer this route of me putting out music that I think is cool, that I think might resonate with people but it definitely a song that is part of my life. If people like it, that’s great. If they don’t, then it’s time to write the next song.

It feels to me like you’re doing everything right so far. People know who you are and they know “No Roots” so you must be doing something right.

ALICE: I’m very lucky that I had a few songs that people liked. I have no idea if I’m on the right path or if I’m doing everything right. There’s a lot of moments where I’m very confused and I question things. I’m happy that I feel like I’m putting out the music that represents me 100%. I’ve heard of artists with a second album who have stopped it before it came out because they are like, “I can’t do it. This is not me. There’s a lot of pressure. There are songs I can’t relate to.” They record a completely new second album. I don’t have that with this because I know this is 100% me. I couldn’t have written a different album, it’s just not possible. It was supposed to come out like this and whatever happens happens. That’s just my motto because everything is just so stressful. Obviously there are parts of me that want it to do well and want it to resonate with people but I can’t influence that. I can’t influence what people go through.

_My therapist has asked me to write things down, any feelings I have, just to get them out. What I do with those written thoughts is up to me, I can tear them up, I can set them on fire, I can save them. With the new album, it sounds like you’ve written down all your feelings but rather than burn them, you’ve turned them into songs. It sounds like you’ve been through a lot of, for lack of a better word, shit the past few years. Was that your chance to purge all those thoughts? _

ALICE: The short answer is, yes. Writing for me really helps me understand how I feel about certain things. Even with “Blindside,” I would have never come to the conclusion of how I felt with writing this song about what was really going on until I write it down and play it back. “That’s interesting. You’re right, that’s not very nice. Maybe he did catch me off guard.”

I was in therapy for most of 2020 and part of 2021. It really helped me to look at myself and if somebody is giving yourself a mirror to understand why you act certain ways. I think a lot of us are trying to change our behaviors but sometimes it’s actually good to say “It’s okay if you feel like that. It’s not fair what happened. It went down in a bad way.” Everyone is always going through a different situation. We can’t look into everyone else’s heads so I think all you can do is be aware of your own behavior and actions. I find it weird to constantly say work on yourself. I think this mindset of saying we always have to work on ourselves and become a better person, why don’t we just become the person we want to be? Be present, be happy, try to find things in your life that make you happy and do that. For me, that’s songwriting. I’m very grateful I can do that. And if I didn’t do songwriting as my job, I’d do it as my hobby and I would be playing in cafes, writing poems, maybe some poetry slams. Therapy was great, it really helped me see a lot of stuff but once I saw that, I realized that I have to change a few things but I also have to learn to enjoy life a bit more and be a little more conscious of what exactly the world is, why we’re here. Just embrace it.

There’s been this shift to artists just releasing singles. For a certain subset of music, there’s no big incentive to release albums. S.I.D.E.S. is 15 songs long. For you, is the idea that you never know if you’ll have the opportunity to make another record so you want to get the songs out or is the idea that these 15 songs are a moment in your life and if you were to drop a few, it wouldn’t tell a complete story?

ALICE: It tells a whole story. If one of the songs was missing, the story still makes sense because I’ve put the songs at places where it’s kind of like a cycle. “The Other Side” comes at the very end of the album because that’s like the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s me realizing that it’s a shitty situation but whatever shitty situation you’re in, you’re going to feel better at some point. You’re going to be in a better place mentally. You can’t see it now but I promise you’ll get there. I think the album wouldn’t be the same without that song, that was one of the last songs I wrote. But I knew it needed to have that ending because I had a different ending that was like, “Sometimes you just have to let people go. There are certain people in your life that cause harm, that don’t have your best interest at heart.” That was originally going to be the ending but then I said, “No, I don’t want that to be the ending.” There’s 15 songs on the album because I have the freedom to do that and there are 15 songs that I really love. Two of them, to be fair, are interludes. They are almost like poems, they are much shorter than songs. It’s a message that I knew I needed to say and I knew the album would be incomplete without it. There’s 15 songs on it because I love to take advantage of the creative freedom I have.

Your videos are very impressive. They look like big budget movies. Is that your vision or is it the vision of somebody you work with?

ALICE: It’s a combination every time. I don’t have one director that does everything. I literally stalk different directors’ music videos and I’ll be like, “That seems interesting.” Then I’ll meet the director and be like, “Hey, would you be interested in working together?” I’ll see if we’re on the same wave. Every song I write I have an initial idea and then we build on that. That’s the seed and then we brainstorm. With “Blindside,” I was explaining that this person is two-faced. I got to know them one way but, somehow, in the course of time, they changed and I just didn’t recognize that. But, at the same time, I accepted it. In the video, you see me dancing. You see this character that I play dancing with the person and they are getting along but, at the same time, he wants to suffocate her. It’s a very weird relationship between the two – him putting down the contract and saying, “You have to sign this” and she’s just like, “I don’t want to but I know that I should. I feel very under pressure.”

You have a song called “100 Stories”. If you’re at a party and looking for an icebreaker, do you have a go-to story?

ALICE: That’s the first time anybody has ever asked me that question. I don’t know if I have an icebreaking story. I often start with the story of moving around a lot. It’s always the first question I get asked. “Where are you from?” and I’ll be like, “Well, let me get out this song that I wrote. It perfectly describes where I’m from.” I think that’s my icebreaker but that was even my icebreaker before I wrote the song and that’s what led to me to write the song. I was always so tired at parties of having to explain things. I have an English passport but I was born in Germany. I have a Canadian accent. I lived in America, moved back to the UK and am a British citizen basically. People are always like, “I don’t get it. You lived in Canada but moved back to Europe? Did you already speak German?” I was like, “I just need to write a song.” If they ask me where I’m from, I’m just going to send them the song.

What about any stories of meeting a celebrity or somebody that you just couldn’t believe you were meeting?

ALICE: There’s one person who really starstruck me and that was Brandon Flowers from The Killers. I was a big Killers fan growing up. I did get to meet him. We had one show together in Oakland together. There were four bands in total, they were the headliner and we were the first or second band that played. My management was like, “We can set up a meet up so you can say hi” and I was like, “Oh my God. Cool!” We had just flown in from Europe. It was a 14-hour flight, we then went directly to the venue and set up. We waited 5 hours for it to begin, then played the show. I met Brandon, said hi, said, “I love your music” and his manager was like, “If you want to hang after the show, here’s our number.” I was like, “This is amazing.” I was exhausted, I had been up for like 30 hours so I went to the hotel room, thought I’d freshen up and lay down for 20 minutes so that I feel a little bit better. I wake up and it’s like 9 hours later. I see a text on my phone that said, “If you want to hang, we’re at this place.” I was like, “NOOOOOOOO.” The coolest thing ever, I would love to hang with The Killers, and it didn’t happen because I fell asleep!