Alice Merton: “I Really Want to Find Out Why Women Are Underrepresented”
Small in size but large in attitude, Alice Merton‘s year and a half rise is one of the most encouraging music industry stories to date.
The German-British-Canadian’s phenomenally huge hit No Roots is inspired by the singer’s inability to find somewhere she can call home: “I’ve got no roots, but my home was never on the ground” she chants on No Roots‘ grungy yet danceable chorus. No Roots was quietly released at the end of 2016, but slowly gained traction across Europe throughout 2017. After kicking off 2018 by hitting number one on US alternative radio and a major performance of No Roots on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Alice‘s slow yet steady rise has eventually equated to 75 million streams on Spotify for No Roots.
The fact that Alice‘s unfaltering dedication and belief in her song has finally paid off is truly inspiring, and that figure is the perfect redemption for a song that very nearly didn’t even happen – read my chat with Alice to find out more.
The story behind your rise is super interesting. So, the song [No Roots] came out the end of 2016-
And then it started picking up traction in Europe last summer-
And then- still, now, it’s still going; it just went number one on alternative radio in the US in Feb. So, I guess, what has that really slow process shown you, with that rise?
What does it show me? Well… it really shows me how important promotion is in each country and, I mean, a good song is a good song I guess, people like it, but if you really wanna put something out there, you need a team that’s behind it and if there’s anything I’ve learnt, it’s that.
And then the same thing is happening with the EP right? Because that came out February 2017, then I was on your website and they have a pop-up that’s like ‘pre-order the EP now!’ and I was like ‘what?! This thing came out a year ago! What’s going on?!’
It’s really confusing. I think a lot of people are really confused, because they’re like ‘what?! The EP came out a year ago! Why are you-’: the thing is, so, we started our own record label in Berlin and we released a song and it started getting plays on SoundCloud. We only put it on SoundCloud for a free download and it started growing and growing and a lot of blogs were writing about it, so it went like number one on Hype Machine, number one in Global Viral on Spotify, and it was kind of just watching a snowball grow, like coming down a mountain, and just watching it grow and grow and grow, and then, so- where am I going with this? Okay so, after that, we wanted- we realised we couldn’t really do all of the world from our little company in Berlin, which was just me and my manager, so we signed a deal with an indie label in America, and they’re called Mom + Pop. And so, they re-released the song then like five, six months later. So they said they only wanted to release the song first though so that they could focus the attention on the song rather than the EP and they wanted to bring the EP out later, so that’s what we did, and that’s why in the US the hype is like, half a year later than what is was in Germany. So it was first like Germany, Austria, Switzerland, then came countries like Luxembourg, then came America, then came Italy; Italy cos we worked with a new promotion team there, and they were like ‘ooh we like the song’ and then it started being played a lot in Italy. So yeah it’s just been a very interesting process to watch, so that’s why in America the EP is actually being released later, because that was basically what we wanted; we agreed with them that we would just focus on the single first. I mean, I wasn’t aware of this before, but it takes ages to make a single or song grow in America; like you really have to do the ground work as well, like you have to do all the radio stations, and you’re traveling a huge country-
Yeah, it’s huge.
It’s huge! We spent just a month doing radio promotion and concerts and I don’t even think that’s an eighth of all the radio stations that are out there and that was just alternative, we were just doing alternative radio: and there’s like Alternative Rock, Hot AC, Hot 100, and in Europe you’re like-
It is massive.
(chuckles) It’s huge! It’s crazy! And to understand that, so that’s why I’m- yeah, I guess that was a long answer for your question, that’s why we’re releasing it later in America.
So kind of leading off of that, that process was slow but steady, so is that impacting upcoming new music?
Well it was a little difficult releasing upcoming music, because we wanted to release new music but the song was still growing, so we released a single but we said ‘okay we’ll just release it in Germany.’ It’s called Hit the Ground Running, which is also on the EP, but we didn’t release it anywhere else because in all the other countries, No Roots was still growing and we thought it would be too early to put it out in another country, but Germany was still waiting for new music so we put it out for the radio. But now I feel like everything is slowly catching up, so now we have chosen another single called Lash Out, which is going to be released on Friday and that’s coming out with the EP, so that’s going to be our second worldwide release.
So you just finished up a big European tour right? And then you have a bunch of US shows coming up as well, and obviously you have lived quite an international life anyway, but does that take a toll on you, doing it for your music now?
Um… not really. I mean, I really enjoy traveling a lot and being in different places and, to be honest, I don’t really get homesick that often, because I’ve lived in so many different places and I feel like it’s just normal now. Like, for me, I miss people; I miss certain people, whether it’s my parents or friends, but I can’t say that I’m homesick for a certain place.
Do you think they’re any misconceptions that the public might have about life as an international musician?
Well it’s definitely not glamorous (laughs). I always thought – before I really got into this business – I always thought ‘it’s all about glamor’ but there is a lot of groundwork, and a lot of hours, and work, and a lot of… not fights, but just really- I feel like you’re always trying to- I don’t want to say ‘fight’, but you’re really, kind of- what’s it called in English… you’re putting a foot down for what you believe in, like, the more people you work with, the more people think they know what’s best for you and it’s very difficult to sometimes- it’s like boxing out, it’s like a path, and you’re going and there’s a lot of people in the way; there’s a lot of people who are like ‘this is what you should do’ and ‘this is what you should do’ and you’re kind of like boxing your own way just to be like ‘no this is how it’s gonna go guys’ and that’s difficult about this music industry. I think a lot of people think ‘oh you released a song, becomes a hit, so easy’ – it’s not like that at all. There’s a lot of work that’s behind it. I mean, in the cases I have known and from other artists, I know that there is so much work behind it. You need, like, a team. I mean, we released a song in Italy and it didn’t work at all and then we released it again with a team that actually was behind it and said ‘we want to promote this, we want it to do well’ – and then it was number one on iTunes four weeks later. So it just shows me that both sides are needed.
So then, branching off of that, do you feel like there’s ever been a pressure to fit a certain mould as an artist? Cos obviously you were saying people want you to go in this direction, this direction, so…?
There is, I feel like a lot of people think that you need to have a certain look or you need to have- I know that’s what a lot of people say. I think the more original you stay, the more true to yourself, and finding those weird quirky parts about yourself and really amplifying them: I think that’s what works. I think you need to really focus on the parts that make you weird and different, and with me that was just the whole- it was moving around. I didn’t wanna just write a random pop song and be like (nonchalantly) ‘oh yeah that’s gonna be my new single’: I wanted it to be an introduction to who I am as a person and all the things that I’ve kind of gone through, so that’s why I chose the songs, the first one.
So is that kind of pressure the reason you wanted to start your own label?
I didn’t really have a choice to be honest. At the time, a lot of the other record labels kept on telling me that my music was not… they said it wouldn’t work. They said it’s too different and people won’t understand it and I’d have to change a lot of things; there was this one part in my song where I had this synth going (sings) and they all told me to take it out, like ‘for the radio you have to take it out’, and it’s my favorite part in the song and I was like, ‘I’m not taking this out! I don’t care if my song’s four minutes-whatever, this is staying in!’ and they were like ‘well you know what, a radio song is three minutes-something, so you gotta take it out’ and I’m like ‘no!’ So I didn’t have another choice, so I had to start my own label, which actually I’m so happy about in the end, because it gave me creative freedom and I got to start a label with my best friend.
So kind of going in a different direction, are there any female musicians at the moment that you’re really into?
Female musicians… um actually there’s lots, but whenever you get asked that question you’re always like ‘oh fuck I can’t think of any’… I mean Sigrid is also a big one right now, I really- I like how she’s really different to-
Her name’s Sigrid. I don’t listen to her that much though, but that’s the problem – I actually listen to a lot of male artists.
Oh really? Okay…
Yeah, so my favourite bands are The Killers, Regina Spektor – she’s one of my favourite song writers, I haven’t listened to her in a few months but whenever I listen to music, it’s her. Who else do I listen to? St. Vincent, I really like her music… Adele obviously, you can always listen to Adele. Florence and the Machine… but I do have to admit, I listen to a lot of male singers.
Is there a reason for that?
Um… I don’t think there’s a reason for that. I think… there are a lot of male singers out there. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed in this industry it’s that there’s like- it’s like, 90% men and 10% women – if that. And I don’t know, I was just so inspired by The Killers as a child, as a teen. I love BØRNS. Also a lot of English singers like Tom Odell… I don’t know, I just- yeah.
So you’re just kinda drawn more to male musicians?
Well, like musically, sometimes, yeah. But I just think that because there’s not that many women in this- I mean, there’s a few, like there’s this one song by Amy Shark, she has a song called Adore. I love that song, it’s so so good, so I’ve been listening to that and St. Vincent, Florence and the Machine, but yeah a lot of my inspirations have been male artists.
How do you feel about the representation of female musicians then, cos you’re saying there’s only 90% men and 10% women so..?
Well we definitely are underrepresented. I’ve been looking at the line-ups that I’m playing in the US at these festivals, whether it’s Governor’s Ball or Hangout Festival, and it’s like- you see like one woman in, like, thirty guys, and I got asked that in an interview and they asked me ‘why do you think that is?’ and I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure if women weren’t being- or if there just weren’t that many women who wanted to be musicians, or if that they just weren’t represented enough in the industry. I feel like that’s something I really wanna find out, why we’re underrepresented and… yeah, or if women- I mean, this is a lifestyle that I don’t think a lot of women would want to be honest. I feel like it’s- like, for the last two months I’ve been in a tour bus with ten guys. Which is- it’s so much fun, but I don’t know if it’s every girl’s dream. If you’re a girl who likes to have her privacy and who likes to have girly moments then this lifestyle is not for you; like you’ll get into a club sometimes where you share a dressing- like we’ve had clubs where I’ve shared a dressing room with all ten guys… it’s a weird lifestyle.
So obviously you have your own label so would you be looking to ‘fix’ the representation for women with that?
I would love to do that. I mean, in the first four-five years- well I said at the moment I want to concentrate on my music for the first two-three years, but after that I definitely want to sign different artists and I don’t want to just be like ‘I’m going to just sign women’ – it really depends on the music. But I feel like I want to give women a chance to release music where they don’t think they have to dress up, and look really, like, it has to be really girly. They should release something that- just what’s on their mind and not feel like they need to fit into a certain box and be super sexy.
I mean, yeah, people respond to authenticity, so definitely. They’ve responded to your song, which is very authentic, so obviously you’re living proof.
I was going to ask you if there was an element of the industry as a woman you find difficult to deal with, but you kind of touched on that already – the privacy thing?
The privacy… so many, I mean you’re just surrounded, like even when I’m not on tour, my manager is a guy, I mean there are female tour managers but- actually that’s why I’m really happy in America at our label Mom+Pop, there’s like 70-80% women working at that label and it’s so cool so I really really like that, but yeah, it’s… weird.
What kind of issues do you think musicians are facing today? Generally speaking, cos obviously we’re in a really different age compared to what it was a few decades ago.
Yeah. I think there’s a lot more pressure to be honest; I think there’s a lot more pressure that the first song or the second song have to work, especially if you’re a newcomer. If you’re a newcomer, that’s the biggest issue you have to face, because once- if a label, if a major label signs a newcomer and it doesn’t work for like two, three, four weeks, a lot of the time they get thrown to the side, they’re like ‘ah, it’s not working, sorry’, and if we’d been signed to a major label they would have done the same with us; they would have worked it for three-four weeks and been like ‘sorry guys it’s not working, it’s just not the kind of music people wanna listen to’ and this wouldn’t have worked. So you really need to have a base where you have people who work with you who believe in the music, who push it, who do anything in their power to get it out there; and I mean, sometimes it works and sometimes you’re signed to a major label as a newcomer and the song works, and there’s still challenges you have to face I’m sure, but if you don’t have someone at the label who’s fighting for you then you’re gonna have an issue, so I think that’s the biggest issue for newcomers, and for musicians that are already in the industry? I’m not sure. I guess always trying to make sure that the next song is a cool one or one that people like; at the same time, you want to like it, that’s for me the most important part: I would never put out a song that I don’t like. But also there’s the expectation still of others, of the fans, of the labels who you’re signed with… I guess just the pressure.
Do you have a quote that you consider to be your life motto and how have you used that to help you in your music career?
I don’t really have a quote. I mean- I used to say, ‘oh try and stay positive’ but I’m not the most positive person out there; I think if I was really positive, my songs would be really weird. What I like with my songs is that I had this idea that I make sad songs sound happy and I like putting really serious topics to upbeat, tappy, happy- not happy melodies but just melodies you kind of wanna like dance to and just… yeah, dance to. Wait, is that a quote? ‘I make sad songs sound happy’?
[laughs] I think we can work it as one.
If it counts as a quote, I would have that as my quote.
Okay that’s your new quote then.
Okay that’s my new quote, yes! Thank you. Yeah it just fits my music for some odd reason.
Generally speaking, what is your creative process like?
Mmmm… I write a lot down when I’m on the go, like words, sentences that I really like and when I’m at the studio that’s when it happens I guess. I mostly work with just one producer, and with No Roots I knew the song was going to be called No Roots. I explained the idea, I wanted to have a hooligan choir chant ‘roots’, and I wanted it to be really uplifting and upbeat and that’s when he came up with this really cool bassline, and I sang the melody on top, and we were done within a day. So that can happen. Sometimes I’m sitting at the piano though and I have these chords that I really like and my producer will take out either an electric guitar or a bass, and what I really like is having something that just has a feeling; it needs to have a feeling of moving you, whether it’s in an emotional way or just like a fun upbeat way. So that’s I guess the process, if that explains it well enough.
Yeah it does. Everyone has a different process. So what’s coming up for the rest of the year then?
For the rest of the year, I was told- so I’m touring now for the next four months, so I’m home for like-
(her phone buzzes)
I’m so sorry, that’s so rude! I’m home for one day in two weeks, and then the rest is just on the go, touring, a lot of touring, just promoting the next song, playing lots of concerts, festivals in the US, which I’m really excited about cos I’ve never played a US festival and that’s been a huge dream of mine… and just enjoying it to be honest, just taking in the whole experience and being thankful that it’s possible to do this, that’s my plan for the year (laughs) yeah.
Discover Alice Merton on Spotify
*This wasn’t a shady moment. The reason I asked who is because I misheard Sigrid’s name as ‘secret’.