Alice Merton on Writing in Supermarkets and Finding Her Musical Roots
If you happen to run into a woman singing to herself in the dairy section at your local grocery store, you might just be witnessing Alice Merton at work. The singer-songwriter best known for her breakout track “No Roots” finds her mind clearest while pushing a shopping cart — and she could be doing so practically anywhere. The nomadic musician has moved 12 times in her 24 years and still doesn’t really call anywhere home.
“I sing to myself so much in supermarkets,” Merton told TIDAL when she was in New York in June for a performance in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. “I feel like if they were to look at the security cameras, they would see a very strange person humming … I could spend an hour in a supermarket and just stare at the different products and think of melodies.”
All that shopping has certainly paid off for Merton when it comes to songwriting. “No Roots,” initially released in 2016, grew from a European phenomenon over the years, earning Merton a #1 spot on Billboard’s Rock Airplay chart in February of this year. She was the first solo woman to do so since 2014, when Lorde hit it big with “Team.” Now, Merton, who has always insisted on doing things her way, is poised for an even bigger coupe: a full-length LP that could earn this week’s TIDAL Rising musician even more radio play when it drops early next year.
Merton is used to being the new kid in town. According to Rolling Stone, her father is a mining consultant, which kept their family on the move over the years; she has lived in Germany, Canada, England and America over the years, and still splits her time between various locales. Despite her seeming rootlessness, Merton sustained a passion for music that first sparked when she took in a performance of Swan Lake with her kindergarten class. “I was just so fascinated by the music,” she recalls. “I think that’s when I started falling in love with classical music and musical theater.”
She wrote her first song, “Little Lighthouse,” at 16 after her family moved to Germany from Canada. In a sense, that early effort was a precursor to “No Roots.” As she describes it: “It was just about finding a home and hoping that that lighthouse would kind of guide me.”
Only a few years later and “No Roots” turned out to be a surprise success in the manner most true artistic successes are: it stood out among mainstream radio, a kind of bluesy, chanty invocation of homesickness that stood in sharp contrast to Ed Sheeran’s woozy “Perfect” and Maren Morris and Zedd’s poppy “The Middle,” also on the charts at that time.
“A lot of the labels that I was talking to told me that I needed to remix the song or that I needed to take out the guitar — or that I needed to make a rockier production or more poppy production,” Merton recalls. “And most people just said it wouldn’t work on the radio because it was so different from what the radio was playing.”
Merton took that feedback with the proverbial grain of salt but, in the end, decided to start her own label with her manager Paul Grauwinkel and released “No Roots” on her own. Thus, Paper Planes Records was born and “No Roots” made its way across the world. She’s currently on Mom+Pop records, which released her No Roots EP this year.
“I think the first time I noticed [the song on the radio] was in Germany,” Merton says. “I was on my way to the airport in Berlin, and it came on. I was in a really, really big hurry. And I got in a taxi, but just before that, I stepped in dog poo. I was really, really mad because I knew I was going to be on a plane for quite some time, and I didn’t have time to change my shoes. So yeah, the morning started out really badly. And then when we got to the airport, my song came on the radio. And I was just so happy. Like all the anger, and, I guess, the dog poo thoughts just disappeared with the nice happiness of knowing that my song was being played. So that was really cool.”
Over the course of this week, you’ll find out more about Merton — our TIDAL Rising Artist of the Week. Check out our interview with her below:
So first of all, what is your earliest memory associated with music, like where you realized it was something that was important to you?
I think it was probably when I was five years old, and my dad introduced me to the piano; that’s when I started taking lessons. Or actually… it was just before that! I once went with my kindergarten class to see Swan Lake. And I was just so fascinated by the music. I think that’s when I started falling in love with classical music and musical theater.
Do you remember what the first song you ever wrote was?
Yeah. It was called ‘Little Lighthouse’; I wrote it when I was like 16. It was just about finding a home and hoping that that lighthouse would kind of guide me.
Your song ‘Roots’ kind of blew up, to put it mildly. Do you remember the first time you heard it on the radio or in a place where you weren’t purposely playing it?
I think the first time I noticed it was in Germany. I was on my way to the airport in Berlin, and it came on. I was in a really, really big hurry. And I got in a taxi, but just before that, I stepped in dog poo.
I was so upset. I was really, really mad because I knew I was going to be on a plane for quite some time, and I didn’t have time to change my shoes. So yeah, the morning started out really badly. And then when we got to the airport, my song came on the radio. And I was just so happy. Like all the anger, and, I guess, the dog poo thoughts just disappeared with the nice happiness of knowing that my song was being played. So that was really cool.
Early on, I know you had some pushback from people in the industry. What did they tell you to do or be in order to be radio-friendly?
A lot of the labels that I was talking to told me that I needed to remix the song or that I needed to take out the guitar — or that I needed to make a rockier production or more poppy production. And most people just said it wouldn’t work on the radio because it was so different from what the radio was playing.
And what was your reaction to that?
Well, I did listen to them, but I didn’t think that they knew what they were talking about. I felt like they were only guessing what could work and what can’t. Because you can never tell what works in the music industry, I find. Sometimes you can, but very rarely. And I guess that was the moment when I realized, ‘Why not do it ourselves? Why not take everything into our own hands and just kind of … release it with our own label?’ And so that’s what we did, and I’m very happy about that in the end because we didn’t have to make any compromises. We could just release it the way we liked it.
So what do you think it is about that song that’s really struck a chord with people? Is it a surprise to you that it blew up that way?
It’s still a surprise to me. I guess it could just be the attitude of the song. Maybe it’s that it’s different from what you normally hear. It has a cool bass line. It talks about something that a lot of people relate to. I’ve realized, with all the traveling and meeting different people, that people connect with the actual meaning of the song. So I think there’s a bunch of different factors that could be the reason. But it’s hard to tell. There’s no recipe, and I still haven’t quite understood what’s going on, and why it’s become so popular.
Do you still feel that way like you’re not sure where you’re from, or is that something that’s kind of abated?
I don’t feel like I’m from one certain place. I get asked a lot where I’m from. I can’t say I’m Canadian, and I can’t really say I’m European regardless of what kind of passport I have or where I’ve lived. So I definitely still relate to that feeling, which is not really knowing where your home is — just having that home with people, and the people you really love and enjoy spending time with.
How did that song first come to you? Was it like the bass line? Was it the chorus? What was the seed?
It was actually the lyrics. I’d been writing and collecting a lot of the lines that are in the song throughout the whole year, and I didn’t even know they would come together in one song. That just happened in a session that I was doing.
I pictured this really cool chant that would repeat in the background. I wanted it to be uplifting. I didn’t want it to be a song that would remind me of the fact that I’ve moved around so much and feel sad about it. I just wanted to kind of embrace it and enjoy it.
So that’s how we started. And then I showed my producer the chords that I was thinking of and melody, and he just started playing this bass line, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s so cool. Let’s use that. And yeah, that’s how it developed.’
In terms of songwriting, where’s the weirdest place you’ve gotten a song idea?
The weirdest place… probably supermarkets. I get a lot of ideas in supermarkets. I don’t know why. That’s why I spend so much time there.
I sing to myself so much in supermarkets. I feel like if they were to look at the security cameras, they would see a very strange person humming … I could spend an hour in a supermarket and just stare at the different products and think of like melodies.
So you actively go to supermarkets to write music?
I don’t actively go there to write. I actively go there to buy food, but I end up staying there for a very long time, just kind of looking at everything. I don’t know why … maybe because they’re playing music and sometimes a certain note will remind me of a melody. I don’t know why. But supermarkets are my go-to.
Do you bring a recorder or a notebook?
I always have my cellphone with me, so if I do come up with a cool idea, I’ll just record it on my cellphone in a corner in like the milk section.
So are you currently working on an EP or a full length?
We’re working on a full-length album actually. So it’s going to come out, if everything goes well, beginning of next year, and we’ll just be releasing songs up ‘til then. I’d already written a lot of songs, and we’re working on productions, and we’re just going to start releasing them one by one.
And are they kind of like a similar story to ‘Roots,’ or are they all over the place? What’s the through-line if there is one?
There is a line between ‘No Roots’ and some of the other songs. But for me, it was very important to not just focus on the fact that I have not really one place that I can call my home. I just feel like there’s so much to talk about in songs and what I do enjoy is not just writing about love, but just writing about experiences that I’ve been through.
So whether it’s the rejection of different labels telling me my songs aren’t good enough or [something else]. Our new single called ‘Lash Out’ is about not being able to voice your opinion the way you want to voice it.
Is ‘Lash Out’ specifically about labels?
It wasn’t specifically about labels. I felt like there was a lot of people, whether it was labels or other people, who always felt like they knew best. There are always people out there who think they know what’s right for you, and they know how you should act and how you should be in life. And I wanted to break out of that.
I was tired of always listening to that from other people. And there were situations where I would have loved to say my opinion. And sometimes you feel like you can’t. You feel like you need to hold back on something because you’re afraid or you’re worried that it’s going to hurt someone or it’s going to get you in trouble. And I just wanted to put that in a song. I wanted to get that freeing feeling out there.
What specific situations have made you want to lash out?
There are so few women in the industry. I was being asked a lot in the beginning how I felt about being one of the first women since Lorde to top the alternative charts. If you go to festivals, there are really not that many women who are represented. I don’t understand why that’s the case.
So that was something I felt very strong about that in the song. Before ‘No Roots’ got released, no one was taking that seriously, whether it was companies I wanted to work with or producers. It’s not fun. It’s not easy, always feeling like you need to prove yourself to someone. Those are some of the reasons why I needed to lash out.
When you were in those situations where you felt like you needed to prove yourself, what kept you going?
What kept me going? I guess it’s my passion for music, to be honest, and the people who’ve been supporting what I’ve been doing for the last five years.
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