Alice Merton on No Roots, the TikTok generation & Heron: “Fame & fortune will either come or it won't”

“I've got no roots,” Alice Merton famously declared on her 2016 debut song. Born in Germany and raised in Canada and England, the singer-songwriter calls London home these days, but found that moving so often left her with a residual feeling of restlessness, leading to her asking herself some big questions...

Merton’s new EP, Heron, is made up of five songs examining the kind of thoughts that keep an overthinker up at night. Merton reveals how the EP’s lead single, run away girl sees her take an introspective look at herself:

“Especially feeling lost on the inside,” she says from her London home – her Canadian accent a reminder of her vagabond past. “Where do I fit in, in all this craziness? Who do I actually want to be in life? We are constantly surrounded by the opinions of others who show us what their version of happiness is, so we automatically assume ours must be the same. It often isn’t.”

Since the success of No Roots, Merton has played Coachella, gone 8x Platinum, her two studio albums, MINT and S.I.D.E.S. have racked up over one billion streams and three million sales, and she’s performed on NBC’s Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, The Late Late Show with James Corden and ABC’s Late Night Show Jimmy Kimmel Live! – and all under her own steam. She explains the reasoning for creating her own label, Paper Plane Records International:

“It happened early, just because we didn't get any other deals,” she admits candidly, bursting into laughter. “There were one or two labels that were interested at the time, but they kept cancelling meetings. Then they sent over a contract where I was basically signing 80% of all my rights to them for the next three albums. 

"I thought to myself, ‘That's just unfair.’ So it was an emergency solution of, ‘How are we going to get this out there? Let's just start our own record label and put the music out.’ We didn't like the other options that were around.”

the more I learn about life and myself, the less I actually know.

Crucially, Merton owns her master rights, which sees her retain control of her work: “If I had signed to a big label, there would have been a lot of pressure after No Roots to come up with something bigger,” she says.

“I don't think I would have been okay with that pressure from labels saying, ‘I'm going to drop you because you're not earning me enough money.’ I wanted to be independent from that whole craziness. I really noticed myself getting influenced by people's opinions and people's input, so I needed to create a shield around me to keep doing what I think sounds good. I've said to myself, ‘I'm going to have moments where it's going to be successful, and when it's not going to be successful,’ but I am prepared to stick to it and keep going because I want to still be making albums in 10 years time. I see myself mainly as a songwriter that's able to sing, and I'd like to still share those stories.”

Merton has matured as an artist along with the changes in the consumption of music. Today,

TikTok is an essential promotional tool for artists and labels, with ‘pre-TikTok’ songs regularly reaching new generations of fans on the platform. No Roots is one such song. Merton shares her mixed feelings about Gen Z’s favourite social platform:

“I think it's cool that there's so much autonomy with artists in terms of how they can present themselves,” she considers. “They don't need a huge amount of money or a huge label to push it anymore. I think it also requires a certain personality; there's more and more artists coming up who are very good at presenting themselves and that keep feeding the machine. 

"It's the artist's job to figure out if they want that or not, because these things are going to be on the internet forever. I don't want to be 50 years old and look back at TikTok and see all this embarrassing stuff that I've done! I don't want to take away the magic of the music because there's so much mystery in creating music. I find it a bit concerning. 

"I want to let people in that enjoy my music, but there needs to be a limit – a shield and a separation between the private side of you and the mystery of the music. As a musician, the way I share my thoughts is through music and writing, and that's not going to change.”

If I had signed to a big label, there would have been a lot of pressure after No Roots to come up with something bigger.

On Heron, the voice and alt-pop leanings that first enamoured fans remains at the core of Merton’s sound, but it’s adventurously doused with touches of indie, electronica, alt-rock and synth-pop. run away girl was released one day after the song's live premiere at the ZDF New Year's Eve party at Berlin's famous Brandenburg Gate, broadcast live to 3 million people, and

puts a classic ‘80s tinge on Merton's propulsive dark-pop, infusing brooding, introspective lyrical themes. Merton shares that the song sees her admit that despite her success, she is her own worst enemy.

“When I look at myself, I don't see….” she trails off. “I guess that's the definition of imposter syndrome, but I don't see what other people see. That's not my personality. I think I'm too normal, in that sense, to ever look in the mirror and be like, ‘Damn, you're amazing!’” she laughs. “I think that's something that will always be there, but it's good because it'll always ground me. It'll always make me appreciate what I have.”

Do things that you love because you love them and everything else will either happen, or it won't.

Merton wrote and produced the song with James Dring (Lana Del Rey, Self Esteem) and her regular collaborator Paul Whalley, who she worked with on Charlie Brown and Waste My Life. Merton recognises that since she can remember, she has always questioned two things: who am I, and who am I supposed to be?

“I thought when you grow up, all these questions magically get answered, but as I continue to witness, I don’t think you ever quite know,” she muses. “It is the beginning of a series of events that have led me to realise that the more I learn about life and myself, the less I actually know.”

Lying awake at night and trying to work out her place in the world, Merton realised that she’s the monster under her own bed.

“It was this feeling that I get quite often where I feel out of place, whether it's in a certain location, or it's in myself,” she says of the thoughts that inspired run away girl. “I'll question everything about myself: Who am I supposed to be? Am I doing the right things? Am I in the right place? But I've learned that that's a very unhealthy way of thinking because, where does it end? I could also always compare myself to the highest of artists and be like, ‘I'm not going to be happy until I get a Grammy.’ I don't want that pressure in my life. 

"My music has always been something fun and I want to always keep the joy of music. I don't think fame and fortune should come first, it should be the love. Fame and fortune will either come, or it won't,” she shrugs.

I could compare myself to the highest of artists and be like, ‘I'm not going to be happy until I get a Grammy.’ I don't want that pressure in my life.

Her 2022 album, S.I.D.E.S was Merton’s first album where she acted as the executive producer throughout the whole record. On Heron, Merton is listed as a producer on each track, although she’s reluctant to accept the credit despite overseeing all aspects of her music.

“Even with the music in the beginning, I wasn't listed as executive producer,” she recalls. “I don't see it as being an executive producer, it's literally just saying how you would like to create the music, sitting there with someone and having a good time and exchanging ideas. So yeah, it is producing,” she concedes, “but you're overseeing the project. That's something I always would like to continue.”

Merton may have crafted an EP out of being left alone with her own thoughts when unable to sleep at night, but she always finds solace in the process of writing songs. With the EP out in the world, is she sleeping any easier these days? She’s getting there.

“You have to go on your own road, at your own pace and do what makes you feel happy,” she says on finding contentment with her achievements. “Not everyone's happiness is going to be winning Grammys or being super successful. My happiness is being able to do whatever I want without anyone telling me to. 

"Don't make it your whole life's goal to do something that might happen in your life. It just doesn't make sense. Do things that you love, because you love them, and everything else will either happen, or it won't. You just have to accept that,” she smiles.

Photo credits: Elias Koehler