INTERVIEW: Alice Merton faces off with fear, tours with Young the Giant, Fitz and the Tantrums

Alice Merton

Alice Merton. Courtesy Paper Plane Records.

Alice Merton still gets anxious to the point of nausea before performing. More than a year since the release of snowballing worldwide hit “No Roots,” which quickly reached the top spot on Billboard’s Alternative Songs chart, the Berlin-based Anglophile songwriter still faces bouts of self-doubt that she will make a misstep.

Young the Giant, Fitz and the Tantrums, Alice Merton
7 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 15
Greek Theatre in Berkeley
Tickets: $49.50.

For someone whose songs often represent a singular emotion (like “Jealousy” and “Lash Out”), the emotion with which she’s most attached, as if she was a character in a Pixar film, is fear.

“Which is not something I’m happy about,” Merton adds, “but it sticks with me for a very long time, and it’s something that I’m still dealing with in a lot of different regards. I feel like it creeps up on you when you least expect it. I may not be thinking about it, but then I feel it in my whole body. It wrecks me a lot. It really kind of wears me down.”

She’ll probably write a song about those thoughts, and then she might understand what she’s feeling, she muses. But for all the possible reasons, the one thing the 25-year-old is not worried about is how her bosses react to the songs she’s writing. That’s because she’s her own boss. Her label, Paper Planes, has expanded from a two-person operation, including herself and her manager, to a six-person team in Berlin.

She started the label out of necessity. From her earlier meetings with industry executives, she got tired of being told she would have to change various parts of herself to land a label contract or be successful.

“[Paper Planes is] still very much a way for myself to be able to just release music the way I want to,” she says. “But [this] year, we want to start expanding and finding other artists, as well, who we believe in. For me it’s important that I have the time to work with the artists, whether it’s songwriting or introducing them to producers and not just adding someone and leaving them [without] a support system and a support team.”

Alice Merton is planning out her career on seemingly separate planes. There’s her full-length debut album, Mint, which she released in January. Then there’s the label (in the U.S., her record will be released on Mom+Pop Records). At the same time, she’s still supporting her earlier singles, including the aforementioned “No Roots.” Because of the staggered release strategy for the song in various countries, it was peaking in one place while being introduced elsewhere at the same time. In some cases, later singles like “Why So Serious” or “Lash Out” have preceded her original hit in a market.

Around the time of the interview, “No Roots” was just reaching No. 1 on a Shazam poll in Brazil. Last November, the song was certified Gold in the U.S.

“It’s a little confusing sometimes because there are moments where you’re like, ‘OK, I want to move on and let the world listen to the next one,’” Merton says. “I really can’t complain. It just means it will take a longer for them to get the new stuff. I’ve got time. I think it’s wrong to rush things.”

Alice Merton

Alice Merton performs at Live 105’s Not So Silent Night at Oracle Arena on Dec. 9, 2017. Photo: Alessio Neri.

In the past year since her world was turned around, Merton has remained auspiciously levelheaded. She has continued writing the same way, and hasn’t felt any pressure to replicate the success of her original hit. Her only goal remains being able to tell stories she’s personally invested in and which relate to her.

Usually, she’ll start with a feeling, a sonic spark, or a name—and this usually happens when she has an emotion in mind in advance. Some of the songs preceded her writing “No Roots,” and deal with, for example, the stress she dealt with decided to strike out on her own without backing from a major label. Others came afterward and dealt with a perceived pressure to create another monster hit.

“At the end of the day … I love making music and I don’t see the point of being stressed about small things,” she says of the motivation behind “Why So Serious,” which was produced by John Hill, who worked on “Feel It Still” by Portugal. The Man and “What Kind of Man” by Florence and the Machine. “The reason I make music is to try to understand things. … The music is like captioning the moment and seeing how the experience happened and putting music to that.”

Most of her songs are also a “note to self,” she says. “Why So Serious” could be interpreted as a literal note to herself to lighten up and to take things one step at a time. When she wrote the song she was constantly traveling and spending a lot of time away from her family and friends, and that was causing a great deal of stress. Likewise, “Lash Out” was a self-reminder to slow down. In the video, Merton smashes cars with a baseball bat. For her, it’s a form of therapy and an opportunity to see things for what they are rather than the worst possible outcome.

Alice Merton has spent several months at a time in Los Angeles, but always to write and record. After a dozen transatlantic moves while she was a child, she has no plans to leave Berlin, which is home to her label, her friends and family, and is close to her parents in the U.K. She’s not ready to call the German city “home” yet, however.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever really develop roots where I’ll say, ‘this is that one place where I feel at home,’” she chips in, pun intended.

The song tells one of a handful of stories on the record. But Mint isn’t completely about searching for a home. There are songs about the fear of failure, striking out on a journey with no clear victory, heartbreak (“Honeymoon Heartbreak”) and even a love song or two. What the songs have in common is that most are upbeat, at least musically.

“I love having songs with … a really cool rhythm that just sounds like you want to dance to it,” Merton says. “I like turning serious topics into something that you can just laugh off … thinking of these problems from a different perspective.”

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