German-born singer-songwriter Alice Merton doesn’t sound like the typical pop star emerging these days on iHeartRadio or at the Billboard Music Awards. For one thing, she doesn’t dream about gold records, award-winning recognition or, for that matter, any aspects about her music career.
If anything, her dreams are more like nightmares, she revealed during our recent phone interview. “I dream a lot that I’m gonna be eaten by … it’s not eaten, it’s more like people are trying to kill me.”
Asked if she knew what those creepy visions could possibly mean, Merton said, “Well, I’m told I’m not supposed to analyze dreams too much.”
Still, she admitted they can be frightening, vivid and strange, then added, “I think they’re always gonna remain that way. But I try not to … to be honest, I try and forget them very quickly because they’re not always nice dreams.”
Alarming as that might seem, Merton is full of more pleasant surprises, too, while often trying to look on the bright side. With hook-filled songs delivered so strikingly, this stunning performer isn’t interested in rowing merrily down the musical mainstream, even if alternative dance tracks such as “No Roots”, “Lash Out”, and “Learn to Live” have pulsating, anthemic qualities written all over them.
While preparing to launch a world headlining tour that began in Europe in March and takes her on the first leg of a North American trek throughout April (bolstered by Coachella dates on consecutive Sundays), the splendid artist with breakthrough potential (whether she likes it or not) cordially covered the basics of her promising career.
Among the subjects discussed besides those unexplained night terrors were her nomadic life, a slight brush with Beatlemania, one explosive night with the Village People, and why she likes to stay minty fresh after making her full-length album debut in January.
Minding the Mint
Mint, a collection of 11 songs she co-wrote primarily with producer Nicolas Rebscher, has already hit the mark throughout Europe, solidifying Merton’s golden touch that was established with the release of the sensational single that set into motion her five-song No Roots EP in 2017.
The fact that she is able to accomplish this independently on Paper Plane Records International, the label she founded with best friend and manager Paul Grauwinkel, makes such success (with an assist in the U.S. from Mom + Pop Music) all the more gratifying, though she seems modest about her achievements.
“I think it’s a good step in the direction I want to go in,” Merton said from Berlin, where she has “lived” the past few years while spending most of her time on the road, pausing her quest to return to the studio. “It’s a good first chapter that I’ve now been able to share with people. …
“I’m pretty happy with the way things turned out. There were points where I did feel like there was a little bit of pressure. But I realize the only one really pressuring myself was myself. I mean, there was no one above me saying my album needs to be out on a certain day, so if I really wanted to, I could have pushed it back. … I’m very happy with the time we put into it and I’m happy it’s finally out.”
The EP’s title cut brought initial international attention along with platinum awards in Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Switzerland, Austria and Turkey.
“I like standing still, but that’s just a wishful plan / Ask me where I come from, I’ll say a different land / But I’ve got memories and travel like gypsies in the night”
“No Roots” spells out Merton’s adventurous world in a nutshell. She’s going places, all, right, both literally and figuratively. And those penetrative lyrics sung to a pounding bass beat and searing guitar riff will follow her everywhere she goes.
So it made sense to bring it along for the ride on Mint, as Merton watched the new album reach the top of the charts in Poland (No. 1) and Germany (No. 2), her native country where she resided periodically while growing up with a globetrotting family.
As she addresses in Mint‘s “Homesick”, the bouncy, piano-driven track on which she confronts her childhood fears (“I was the new kid / Didn’t understand what’s going on / But I tried my best to fit in”), Merton doesn’t miss any particular place from her past.
“It’s the people that I miss. I don’t get homesick anymore,” said Merton, who still yearns to see her best friend near Toronto, an aunt an uncle and “lots of cousins” in Chicago and “my grandma in Ireland”.
The various moves throughout her life have had positive and negative effects, the 25-year-old songstress admitted.
“Well, on the one hand it’s been great because I’ve been able to meet people and I’ve become very open when it comes to meeting people,” Merton said. “But on the other hand, it’s … I’m just very careful when I make friends. … I try and stay friendly with different people … but it’s hard to find, like, true friends because I always have this spot in the back of my head that’s like, ‘Well, I’m gonna be gone soon anyway.’ So I guess that’s been difficult.”
Along the way, though, Merton has managed to make some new friends and influence more people. But the journey has included a few bumps in the road.
Musical child of the ’90s
Born in Frankfurt to a German mother and British father, Merton was raised with an older sister and younger brother in various places, including Canada, Munich, London and Bournemouth, the resort town on the south coast of England where her family currently resides.
It was in Oakville, Ontario, where a five-year-old Merton decided to start playing music after watching her father on the piano, his lifelong pastime. Though her sister “hated” the musical training, Merton loved it and persevered, learning initially from her dad, who also owned what she called “a very strange record collection”. The Alan Parsons Project, the first rock group that impacted her, were followed on the stereo by the Beatles, Queen, Abba, soundtracks of Broadway smash hits such as Cats and West Side Story, and classical music.
Her parents’ passion for the opera also turned out to become a musical obsession for Merton. She was “hooked” by the age of eight or nine, seeing Madame Butterfly with her schoolmates and, dismissing an acting career after some uneventful school play performances (“I was just not good at it”), deciding to move on to classical training with the hopes of becoming an opera singer.
A chance to take that training to a higher-education level proved unsuccessful for Merton, though. At 17, she was told her voice needed to mature more during a university entry process that was more like an audition. “I was very upset,” she said. “So I gave it a break for a while and started to study business.”
That’s when she got serious about another music-related activity while living in Germany. After writing some songs in her final years of high school, Merton applied to a university in Mannheim that taught a course in the subject. She passed that audition, earning a bachelor’s degree in composition and songwriting at Popakademie Baden-Württemberg.
“So I studied songwriting for three years and during that process I told myself, ‘Either this or nothing.’ I really put all my cards on this one opportunity.”
After a couple of years of confidence-building, Merton hit the jackpot with a winning hand.
“I’ve loved writing songs since I was 17 but I kind of always wanted to do something a little different and, yeah, I didn’t think I was good enough to become a songwriter,” she said.
Asked why she felt that way, Merton responded, “I’m not the kind of person that goes around and thinks they’re great at things.”
Yet the demure girl knew greatness when she heard it. Turned on to the Beatles, a fixation also passed down from her dad, Merton soaked up those pop sensibilities before discovering bands like the Killers and Keane as a teenager, then made songwriting a fulfilling reality by the time she was 21.
Feeling fab vibes
Mentioning her Fab Four favorite album (Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), she also applauds Ringo for “Octopus’s Garden”, one of the few chances the drummer had to write a tune and sing lead vocals on a Beatles record.
“That song was incredible,” Merton said. “I know a lot of people dissed it, but I thought it was great.”
Her only actual brush with Beatlemania came in 2018, when she saw Paul McCartney headline the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Austin, Texas, after receiving her first invitation to perform.
“Seeing the songs of the Beatles come to life is incredible,” Merton said. “It brought back so many memories. Each song was so different. I loved listening to ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ … every song was just so special. And it was great to hear the stories behind each of the songs.”
That memorable experience on the road might be hard to top, unless Merton could actually meet McCartney.
“Well, maybe one day,” she said, laughing at the unlikely possibility. “I don’t think, though, in this lifetime, I don’t know if that’s gonna be a thing.”
In the past two years, though, Merton has made a name for herself, too, singing her songs on late night TV shows hosted by Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and James Corden, just like Sir Paul. Whether the tunes are offbeat (“Funny Business”) or uplifting (“Learn to Live”), her delivery is just as luscious as the fashionable and colorful outfits (fiery red! mint green!) that she often wears. Combine Florence Welch’s style and elegance with the quirky verve of Karen O and St. Vincent, and catch a glimpse inside Merton’s kaleidoscopic cocoon.
The endless traveler also has opened for Vance Joy at majestic concert settings such as Red Rocks, and joined artists like Skott, Sigrid and Youngr as winners of the 2018 European Border Breakers Awards.
Notable appearances around the world included playing on a mountain in Switzerland and toasting with the Village People (of all people) while watching fireworks after performing at the foot of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate on New Year’s Eve 2018.
Road to everywhere
Who knows how far she can go with Mint, the album named for the flavor that calms her nerves before interviews, performances or special occasions (Spearmint is a particular favorite).
Not that Merton will need a pack of gum while anxiously anticipating a walk onto the Grammy stage if she ever makes an acceptance speech. Remember, music doesn’t currently exist in her dream world.
“I never really understand the point of awards,” she said, when asked of that winning possibility. “It’s kind of saying that someone achieved something incredible when music can be so subjective, you know? So … maybe one day. I think in the mindset I have now, I’m just happy to kind of be able to release the music that I can and, maybe in two years, I’ll be hoping to one day get a Grammy. You never know.”
Meanwhile, the road to everywhere continues, including sold-out shows next week at the Bluebird Theater in Denver and the Bottom Lounge in Chicago. After another swing through Europe, she’ll be back in the U.S. in August for the second leg of Mint shows while supporting Young the Giant and Fitz and the Tantrums.
“I think I want to enjoy touring and always kind of working on my performance and myself and connecting with fans but also just figuring out what I want in life, and what I want my music to say,” offered the woman who was on my list of top 18 artists of ’18.
As mysterious as she sounds about the future, Merton is determined to “keep that a secret until the next album is out.”
Whatever she decides to do for a follow-up, Merton just hopes her refreshing takes stray from the norm.
“I think I always kind of wanted to do something a little bit different and see if people liked it anyway,” she said. “So I think that’s a dream that I feel like I’m still working on and, I guess, challenging people’s tastes.”
Rest assured, there will be plenty of people wishing that Merton’s sweet dreams do come true.