Alice Merton: “I love slugs! I like how they’re really slimy”
A year only truly begins once it has a properly ludicrously busy (and great!) New Music Friday, and one glance at this week’s lineup means we can officially declare 2019 open for business. Sigrid’s finally got a single that’s really good and really radio-friendly! Maggie Rogers’ brand of sensational magic is now available on a 45-minute disc! The Drums learned how to swear! Pitchfork is probably overdosing on LPs from James Blake, Sharon Van Etten, and Toro Y Moi! No, you haven’t woken up a decade ago – there really is a new James Morrison/Joss Stone duet! And there’s approximately four million other new things we haven’t even gone anywhere near, like a re-re-release of Mabel’s ‘mixtape’, The Killers vs. Donald Trump, and whatever this is!
All that aside, today also welcomes the first properly good album to hit the bop stereo in 2019: Mint, by singer-songwriter (and jaNEWary member) Alice Merton. Things have been building up a delightful steam since she debuted in 2016 with stomp-along anthem ‘No Roots’, a song about her disjointed upbringing – split between Bournemouth, Ontario, her birthplace of Germany, and a fair few other places – which then snowballed into the charts on both sides of the Atlantic without the need for major label support. Moving on through the full No Roots EP and 2018’s utter bops ‘Funny Business’ and ‘Lash Out’ brings us to the present day, and we’re pleased to report that Mint is every bit as sharp and thoroughly refreshing as you might hope, with ‘No Roots’ no fluke when it comes to being slick and frankly annoyingly catchy, mournful moments and wide-eyed optimism alike dressed with a bow to shimmy the storytelling along, and – in closer ‘Why So Serious’ – a deeply human kiss-off to pesky fun-sponges everywhere.
But how exactly does an unsigned artist make a name for themselves in the streaming age? Does the album carry the scent and/or taste of its namesake herb? Who is the bus stop dreamer she’s on about on ‘2 Kids’? When you’re on SoundCloud one second and Jimmy Fallon the next, is there such thing as a good way to adapt to the trials of pop? Does she have mollusc expertise? These are just some of the questions we craved answers for, and Alice was more than happy to join us from Berlin to give us a little flavour.
Hello! You seem to be from somewhere completely different depending on which article I read. How would you say that’s affected your life and your music?
We moved to Bournemouth about five to six years ago, and I grew up in Canada, but I’m now living in Berlin. I think the biggest impact was kind of experiencing so many things as a child in different cultures. Also learning a new language and figuring out where I felt at home, so each place I lived in definitely affected my writing and my music.
What were the main differences you noticed growing up in the cultures between the different places you lived in?
In Canada everyone’s very open and friendly, but when you move to Germany it’s just a little bit different. The people were closed in the beginning, and I couldn’t really understand anything because I couldn’t speak German. It took me about a year and a half to learn the language.
It’s so poetic and mechanical, isn’t it?
I don’t know if it’s poetic! I mean yes, there are parts of it that are very poetic but I always thought of it as a very harsh language. Like, when my mum spoke German to her mum on the phone, I always thought they were in a fight.
Would you ever want to do a song in German, do you think?
No, definitely not! Although, maybe in 10 years’ time I’ll change my mind.
How did you develop your sound, then? You have this very fierce, swaggery guitar sound on some tracks, but also go completely down the opposite direction on things like ‘Jealousy’.
I think living in Berlin and working with a certain producer changed a lot of… well, it didn’t change my style, but when I started writing for a band, I started writing differently than I had before. Before, it was very much just me and my guitar. When I found a guitar player – his name is Simon Kemper – I just liked writing guitar riffs, experimenting with basslines, and making the music sound more powerful.
Speaking of power, a little tangent here: you mentioned it being just you on your own at first, but you’re still independently releasing. Once you had the songs ready and were pitching them around labels, how did you make the decision to go ‘You know, what’s right for me is just to do it myself’?
I think it’s just because I’m stubborn, to be honest. I didn’t want to compromise anything – like, I wasn’t someone who was like, ‘Whoa, if you want me to take out the guitar I’ll take out the guitar.’ I didn’t believe in that, and the only other option I had was to start my own label. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to really release the music the way I wanted to have it, so that’s the main reason we started Paper Plane Recordings.
That’s fair enough. And the “we” is you and your manager Paul Grauwinkel?
Yes, Paul! He’s my partner in crime. We met at uni, actually. I started studying in Germany, and he was studying Music Business and I was studying Songwriting and Music Business. He was actually my roommate – we lived in, like, student housing and he was next door to me.
One of those things where fate is bringing you together to go on this journey, or something?
I think so! Definitely.
When you’re working with your American label Mom + Pop, how does that differ?
Well, the reason we signed with them was that they had a very similar way of working their label. Mom + Pop is also an indie label, and there’s only two people that, kind of, run it. There’s two A&Rs, but also they’re the heads of the company, and I love their story of starting off just the two of them and growing over the past 10 years into what is now this established label in America. I told them when we signed with them that I’d really respect if they understood that creative freedom would always be very important to me. I’ll always be open for suggestions, but at the end of the day you have to understand that it’s my decision,’ and they accepted that.
To rewind a little bit: you self-released ‘No Roots’ online in December 2016, then a few months later you were down at BBC Radio Solent doing Introducing sessions…
Yes, the very first thing!
Then it became a massive hit around Europe, and fast-forward a few months and it’s making moves in the UK and US and you’re performing it on Jimmy Fallon. How was that journey?
It’s been a crazy journey, but I’m very, very thankful for everything that happened, and especially how it happened. I’m really happy that it kind of also showed how an independent song can still have success without there being a really big major label behind it pushing lots and lots of money in, you know? I think a lot of artists nowadays are confused as to how to make it if they don’t get a record deal, and I have a lot of artists contact me. They just have a lot of respect for what we did, and are very interested in how we figured out the strategy to do it. I mean, it wasn’t just luck – we invested a lot of time and effort into the No Roots EP and also into the release, and tried to figure out how we could still make it get attention if we didn’t put it out with a major label.
And 290-odd million streams later, here we are.
Yeah, something like that!
Speaking of releases, Mint! Can you tell us a bit about what we can expect to hear?
Well, with this record – it’s obviously the very first one I’m putting out, other than the EP – you can expect a lot of honest stories because they’re all based on true events, but some of these events are based on fear or on negative feelings but still turned into, like, a positive twist, so there’s definitely kind of a comical part about the songs. For example, ‘I Don’t Hold A Grudge’ – if you listen to the lyrics, it’s quite… not depressing, but like almost a negative feeling, but then when you listen to the melody, though…
Like a bit of sadness lingering in it?
Exactly! But if you listen to the melody and the instrumentation, it doesn’t feel sad at all.
I remember the first time I heard ‘No Roots’ on the radio: all of a sudden there’s this stomping guitar and this powerful voice, and it felt like something I hadn’t heard in ages. What is it you think about your sound that makes it so unique compared to everything else getting attention at the moment?
I think that’s one of the reasons why no-one wanted to sign it: because it was different from what people were used to. I think that will always still be my goal: to try and make music that’s not exactly in at the moment, but still has something interesting and unique about it that people will want to listen to maybe not this year or next year but maybe in three years or four years. Perhaps they’ll like it now, perhaps they’ll like it later, but just something that doesn’t make it ordinary, and that’s exactly what ‘No Roots’ was like for me.
How about ‘Why So Serious’?
I was being asked a lot in interviews if I feel pressure of the album or if I feel like I’m going to be a one-hit wonder, and it annoyed me a lot, to be honest, so I went to the studio and told myself that I needed to take a step back from everything and ask myself why I’m taking everything so seriously. I mean, music has always been something for me that I’ve enjoyed – it’s always been a hobby – but it’s not just that. It’s something much more, and it’s become much more, so I guess I’ve become even more serious as the journey continued, and I needed to take a step back from that and just remind myself why I love making music.
Beyond writing songs about it, how else do you try to give things that sense of perspective?
I remind myself that music is something I love and it’s something I don’t do to make hits. None of us ever expected ‘No Roots’ to become a hit, and if I started to create music along the guylines of always making it sound ‘hitty’ and being the next biggest thing, it wouldn’t be honest. It would be, like, machine-made. It would just be something that’s not genuine, and that’s not what I want.
A really important question I’ve got about the album that’s not about the music in any way: you’re selling it on peppermint-flavoured vinyl?
I mean, it’s our goal? I don’t want to give away too much of what the vinyl will look like…
It’s on your website! [Well, it was when we asked this. Her PR folks sent us a digital copy, but alas it's tough to embed a scent into a 320kbps MP3, so we're not sure what's going on there.]
I know, but not everyone’s seen that yet, so I do want to almost have it as a surprise for when people unpack it. Whether it will smell like mint, or whether there’ll be mint leaves in the vinyl… I mean, I don’t want to give away too much too soon.
What is this connection between you and mint? Clearly you must quite like the stuff.
You know that saying in England where everyone’s like ‘Oh, it’s gonna be mint’? I thought that saying was really, really funny. It’s not why I called the album Mint, but I just thought it would be funny to have a playlist and call it “It’s gonna be mint”. But no, the real reason I called it Mint is because when everything started out – when we started, like, touring with ‘No Roots’ and doing interviews – I felt very sick a lot of the time because I was very nervous. I wasn’t used to talking to people about something so private, and I wasn’t used to singing in front of hundreds of people or thousands of people. The only thing that would help me in those times was chewing on mint leaves, or drinking mint tea, or chewing mint gum – for some odd reason, it had a very calming effect on me, so that’s why I called it Mint.
Obviously when you’re starting out you’re doing small little sessions or gigs like every young musician does, and then all of a sudden you’re performing in front of hundreds, thousands, or on a TV show seen by millions. How do you get yourself into the mindset to go on stage and do that – even if it doesn’t come naturally to you?
I’ve gotten quite used to it now – we’ve had a lot of practice these past two years – but I think I just go into a certain mindset where I tell myself that it’s not as scary as I think it might be, and I think it’s almost as if you create a stage persona that can perform even if you don’t feel well or even if you are upset or feeling horrible. You need to literally switch all of that off, and it’s like something takes over. Like, even if you’re feeling really, really bad, you still go out and put on the show, and I think that’s helped a lot.
Almost like there’s Alice Merton the popstar and Alice Merton the person backstage going into that character?
Kind of. I wouldn’t try and differentiate into two people, but it’s just kind of like finding that strength inside of you and showing – kind of, yeah – a different side of you.
Just before we wrap up, there something I’ve been trying to work out all day. On Instagram you posted about a podcast where you talked about building houses for slugs, so of course I tune in but it’s all in German and I can barely understand the word ‘Tischtennis’…
I used to make houses for slugs! I’d get a big glass bowl – like a fishbowl – and I’d put leaves in them and little branches – like, little twigs – so they could have a little playground, and then I would gather the slugs and put them in there and watch them and give them a house like a home. I mean, I was younger – this was, like, when I was 7 and 8 and some girls were maybe playing with dolls, but I loved slugs. I liked how they were really slimy.
And that’ll be the lasting quote from this interview, I’m sure.
There weren’t that many slugs in England, though. I haven’t really found many.
Does Bournemouth not have a large slug population?
No! I’ll definitely talk to town hall about it – maybe we can import some.
While we’re talking south coast, did you play much around the area when starting out?
No, I was too nervous to play in England to be honest. My dad was like, ‘Hey, why don’t you go and play in Bournemouth?’ I was like, ‘Noooo, I don’t think anyone wants to listen to this here,’ so I actually kind of started gigging in Germany.
How would you say the German scene differs from what you tend to see elsewhere?
In Germany, it really depends on where you play. Each city is different. But we’ve had some great English crowds: Manchester was one of our coolest crowds, and even the London show they were so supportive and so lovely. In Berlin, for example, they’re kind of more held back – they’re very reserved. It really depends on what city you play in. I don’t think I can say it’s country-based.
Finally, let’s end things by looking ahead: 12 months from now, where do you see things?
I don’t know, to be honest. I still want to be on tour, I want to be creating lots of music, and I want to have a fanbase that keeps growing – and have people who want to come back to shows and not just see us as a one-time thing, but feel like they can relate to songs – and just keep on making music, to be honest.
Alice plays Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, Glasgow, and London between March 17th and March 24th. We’ll see you there. She’s bound to have the freshest merch table around.