With “No Roots,” Alice Merton earned her first international hit, reaching the charts in 2017 and 2018 in more than a dozen countries. The exuberant alt-pop anthem references her own nomadic life: born in Germany, she and her family then lived in the U.S. and Canada before returning to Germany, and she now lives in England. In 2020, though, the COVID-19 pandemic threw a serious wrench into her wandering ways, and that situation is reflected in S.I.D.E.S., her second studio album (released on June 17, via Mom + Pop).
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“I’m very introspective about what goes on in my life, and I like to share that from different angles,” Merton tells American Songwriter during a recent call from Berlin, Germany, where she’s on vacation. “This current album is a lot about what I’ve experienced in the past two years. I really feel that with my development as a person, I’m accompanying that with the songwriting. I felt that the message I wanted to say with this album is ready, and I need to share that.”
Merton picked S.I.D.E.S. as the album title “because it was one of the words that kept popping up in every song that I was writing, subconsciously,” she says. “Somehow, I felt like I was on this journey, walking from one side to the next side, figuring out how to navigate myself out of this hole that I felt trapped inside. For so long, I just felt like I was in such a bad place.”
By that, Merton says, she means that the tumultuous events in the world in recent times have deeply affected her. “There’s so much going on in the world at the moment that seems incomprehensible for me,” she says. “With the war going on in Ukraine, then Omicron and various [COVID] variants coming out, I feel just constantly stressed.
“But the thing is, with this album, it really shows that there is that light at the end of the tunnel, there is a way out,” Merton continues. “It will take some time, but you’ll get there. I realized, ‘You can’t stay in your hole forever, and there is good in the world.’”
This optimism, Merton says, came about after she moved to London (from Berlin) about half a year ago, where she lives closer to her parents and siblings. This “fresh start,” as she calls it, rejuvenated her. “It felt like I was ready to pull myself together and face the world again,” she says.
She also credits music with helping her find her equilibrium again. “That’s what’s so special about music. It transforms you. It helped me,” she says. “I’ll just feel miserable, and a song will come on and I’ll feel so much better. Or maybe I’ll want to feel even worse, and I’ll wallow in that feeling for a little bit longer, just put on a really sad song. It does so much with our emotions, and I’m so grateful that I can play a small part in that where I can make people feel things.”
Merton first learned about music’s emotional power when she was a small child. Her father was a skilled amateur pianist, so he started her on piano lessons when she was five years old. Immediately, she says, “I fell in love with the piano. I liked taking songs and then singing them in front of people, or playing classical pieces on the piano for other people. It made me calm, in a way. I felt like that was what I was meant to do. I really felt like it gave me a lot of purpose in life, like I had a place in this world.”
When Merton was in the 12th grade, living in Germany, she began teaching herself guitar, and also took a songwriting course. Both of these things further fueled her creativity. “It just was so much fun, but I never considered having it as a job. For five years, I was always doing it on the side, performing at cafes, hoping that someone would also like the songs,” she says.
By the time she was twenty, however, she realized she wanted to make this her career, so she began studying songwriting at a German university “because I thought, ‘Well, why not give it a try and see how far I can go with this songwriting thing?’” She met the musicians who would become her band there, and eventually earned her bachelor’s degree.
In 2016, Merton released “No Roots” as a single; she also released the track on her debut EP of the same name the following year. Her first full-length studio album, Mint, was released in 2019, and it also achieved significant success in multiple countries, firmly establishing her as one of the more successful emerging alt-pop artists.
“It really developed in a very organic way in that direction,” Merton says of her decision to work within that specific genre. “I loved The Killers, Keane, The Ting Tings, Paramore—I just automatically got drawn into that [style of] music because that’s what I was listening to and that’s what I really liked.”
Still, Merton was careful to develop her own distinctive sound, rather than merely emulating the artists who inspired her. “I wanted to keep it minimal,” she says. “I didn’t want to have too many instruments overpower the vocals because I love having a very raw vocal where you really understand every word and where the vocals are very crisp and clear. Lyrics have always been important to me. I used to listen to a lot of Regina Spektor—[she’s] one of the reasons I got into songwriting. I loved how special her lyrics were. They always opened up a new world for me. I just love that that’s what lyrics can do.”
In fact, Merton says, lyrics are at the crux of her songwriting process: “I’m always writing down ideas, so throughout my day there’s words that I discover, there’s sentences I discover, and it’s almost like a light goes on and it’s like, ‘Ooh, that’s a nice word.’ Or I’m feeling some kind of emotion. I write like I would in my diary.”
From there, she says, “I’ll go into a studio and I’ll see, ‘Okay, who’d want to work with me? Who do I want to work with?’ And it’ll be us, just one on one. I like it to be very honest and very intimate. Sometimes I’ll hear a certain riff or I’ll come in with an idea, and I’ll be like, ‘I really want to use this melody—let’s find the right chord and build a beautiful production around it.’”
Merton says songwriting is “a constant process” for her, adding that she never suffers from writer’s block. “I think it’s important to always remind yourself that you can get inspired by anything. When you feel like you’re in a rut, try and write a song about the simplest things, like a tree or a flower. Go to the museum. Go for a walk. Meet up with friends. Talk about their problems. Talk about your problems. People think, ‘Oh, there’s nothing inspiring to write about.’ There’s so much to write about in life—it’s such a crazy world we live in. I think it’s important to get those senses active and really be aware of what’s going on around you.”
Merton certainly did that with S.I.D.E.S., and now she hopes that the experiences she describes in these new songs will connect with listeners, just as her earlier work has. “I’m very excited to share this chapter with everyone and see what they think,” she says. “When it actually resonates with people and your gut feeling was right, that’s the biggest reward you can get.”