Alice Merton plays "Vertigo," discusses what makes a place feel like home

Alice Merton - Virtual Session (MPR)

Alice Merton joins The Current to play a few songs, and catch up with Mary Lucia about overcoming her anxieties around performing, what makes a place feel like home, and her thoughts on writing about heartbreak.

Interview Transcript

Edited for clarity and length.

MARY LUCIA: We're doing a member session virtually with one of my favorites, Alice Merton!

ALICE MERTON: Hey, how are you?

I'm good. Now where are you exactly?

I'm in the UK. I'm working in London for a bit and my parents live in the UK. So I'm home for the weekend, which is exciting.

Almost. Well, we are going to talk about your music, we're going to listen to your latest single right now, "Vertigo," and if there was anything you wanted someone to know about that song, what would it be before we go to you playing it?

Very good question. If there's something I wanted people to know about it before they listen, probably that it's my favorite song to play live and I haven't played it live yet.

Perfect. So this is Alice Merton and this is "Vertigo" on 89.3 The Current.

[music: "Vertigo" by Alice Merton]

Now, this is huge. That song is so epic, that the fact that it can sound as good as it does so stripped down. Did you ever try playing it just in a really minimal kind of way?

Not when we wrote it, to be honest. When we wrote it, I remember saying to the producer, saying like, "Yeah, I don't know how I'm going to be doing an acoustic session of this." But I basically just sat at the piano, played some chords, and the version actually happened really quickly. I was really shocked because I really didn't think it was going to feel easy to to create a stripped back version.

Right. I think that's just the testament of any really good song, is that it--certainly when you're playing it live, it can use all the power in bells and whistles. But if you are just going to sit down and perform it with piano and voice that's pretty amazing.

Thank you.

Tell me a little bit about--I want to know about you when you were a kid. Were you--what did it say on your report card? Did it say that you were disruptive to others? Did it say you were just the wonder child?

Wonder child! Definitely not the wonder child. Gosh, what did it say on my report card? I mean, I have my parents here and the report cards are probably somewhere in the attic, I could probably dig them up. How much time do we have? Gosh, what would my report cards have said? Probably that my best subject is music and that everything else I was just okay at. Like, "Alice is trying really hard. But we can tell that music is basically what she wants to do." Music, and what was my other--I like math, I think math one of was my favorite subjects. But yeah I was very--I was enthusiastic. But I also have to admit, I changed when I went from Canada to Germany as a student. So in Germany, I became the person that just wrote one F after the the next because I just didn't speak the language. So my report card would have just been like, "Alice is trying very hard. We understand she can't speak the language, but she's trying very hard." And then the Canadian one be like, "Alice is a good role model and she enjoys music."

That is so perfectly Canadian too. I can only imagine--so how much German do you speak now?

I can speak it fluently, thank goodness. But it took a while.

Do you ever sing in German?

Never.

Because?

Because I have an interesting relationship to German. When I write my own songs, I need it to be in my first language because it's very honest. And that's the language I feel I can be the most honest in. In German, I just don't--it's a very harsh language.

Yeah, I understand too when you're singing about something delicate, but the word for delicate is harsh sounding. So when you are writing, do you start with piano? Or do you start just in your head singing? Or what is the process for you when you start to write a song?

I've been trying to track what I do, because I'm really bad at answering this question. So I'm noticing a pattern in my writing. What I do is, I write a lot of words down. I write a lot of sentences, basically of how I feel, what's happened during the day. I'll read something and I'll be like, wow, that's such a cool word, I have to put that into song. So I'll just write all these things down. Then I'll go to the studio with a producer or whoever I'm working with. And basically, I'll be like, "Okay, I wrote down this word, and this has to be a song." And so we'll just kind of start jamming. It automatically happens where I'm just, it's like a puzzle almost where I'm just literally picking out the words from each document that I've written up over the past few days, and then putting it together in the song and I think that's the best way to describe it.

Would you say in the last year, writing songs has the word anxiety come into play a lot? Or the feelings of anxiety?

Yes, definitely. I mean, anxiety has always--even before COVID happened, has been a really big part of my life. I had to sometimes interrupt shows and go backstage to calm myself down because I was so scared that I was going to vomit onstage from being anxious. And I kept--rather than focusing on the song in that moment, I was focusing on what people were thinking and what I was doing and was this movement right? Just overanalyzing everything. Before interviews as well, we'd have to stop the car when we drove somewhere. I'd have to go out and literally get air because I couldn't breathe. And I think that's definitely been a big part of my music.

How do you manage that now?

So I did therapy, I did an anxiety fear therapy that really helped. There's a lot of techniques that we used, CBT techniques where you use different senses. It takes a long time to explain the whole process, but it definitely helped me a lot.

I know a lot of people well meaning people who think that they can address all the facets of anxiety by saying, "Do you meditate?" But what maybe people don't realize is that what's going on in my head, and perhaps yours, is so loud and so disruptive that it almost seems sometimes impossible to quiet your mind.

Absolutely. I can definitely agree with that. Because, yeah, once when someone tells me like, breathe and meditate, and I mean, yes, that's absolutely correct. But it didn't really help me for a very long time because when you're about to go on stage, for me, for a very long time breathing or any kind of rational like, "Yeah, just, you know, breathe in and out or put your hands in the air and feel like God," just never helped. I needed to do something a little bit more profound, because I really could feel it--there was something stuck in my head, telling me I couldn't do this, there was something very deep down that I had to address.

So when was the first time you got up in front of a live audience and performed? How old were you?

Five.

So at five, were you like wretching backstage before you went out? Or was it a little easier for you?

No, performing for me has always been really, really difficult. So I used to perform on the piano where I would, we would have like competitions or recitals. And then with singing, and every competition like with piano, my leg would just start shaking. Then I would try and get a hold of that. But then my whole body started shaking. So you could literally see sometimes just me at the piano, and just this like shaking wreck, and I would try and control it but it was so difficult and that happened with singing as well. But with singing, then your voice gets very dry. My voice would quiver. I couldn't support the way I wanted to. So it took years, like really years for me to be able to go on stage, and at least hide the anxiety for people outside. I knew I was still anxious. I felt it. But at least you wouldn't hear it in the voice.

Did you have a piano teacher?

I did.

And were they traumatizing?

Were they traumatizing?

Was that a traumatizing piano teacher? Cause some can be.

Yeah, um, no, I was really lucky with my piano teachers, I had lovely piano teachers, I really have to say that.

My piano teacher sensed that I was an introvert. And I remember dreading. She taught out of her house, and I just would dread going over there. The playing part was fine. And then I remember she looked at me, and I was pretty young, she looked at me and she said, "Okay, now that you know the music, now sing along," and I just looked at her and I went, "No," and I just left and that was the end. It was like, "Now that you know the music and the words, why don't you sing?" And it was like--

I love that.

"Peace out." Yeah, I was like done. Well, what's the next song that you guys are going to perform for us here?

The next song we're performing will be "Lash Out".

[music: "Lash Out" by Alice Merton]

Your songs are ridiculously catchy. And I would take that as a compliment because they are the kinds of song you hear once and then you go, "I can't wait to hear that again."

That's a huge compliment.

I sincerely believe that you have that ear for that. It's interesting to hear you certainly talk about "Vertigo," and sort of what's behind that. It sounds to me, correct me if I'm wrong, that you're fairly autobiographical as a writer.

Very, yes.

There's always a fear of giving away too much, right?

Yeah, there is.

So how do you rein some things in, when you want to be authentic and you want to reach people and connect, but there's still something you got to say for yourself?

So there's one big topic that I have difficulties talking about in songs or singing about and that's love. Because most of my songs I put out, they're not about love. They're about my kind of self exploration of anxieties or moving around or not feeling like I have a home or lashing out. And love for me, that's something I keep very private. That's something where I've realized for myself, I don't know if I can perform that in the way I want to be honest with my fans, because it is so difficult for me. It's not because It's not that I don't want to involve them in the process. But standing on that stage and singing a song that I wrote in the most horrific time I've had when I've experienced a breakup is not therapeutic for me. For me that is torture. That is opening up a wound, poking my finger in it and seeing how deep I can go until I'm truly bleeding and desperate for someone to come over and say, "Hey, put the band aid back on." So I'm very, very honest in my songs with what I go through. But when it comes to love and relationships, and I don't know, maybe that'll change in the next few years, maybe I'll become stronger. Maybe I'll say, "You know what, I can see it from a little like, objectively now." And even if I have written like, I did put one song called "Honeymoon Heartbreak," but that for me, it wasn't like it wasn't a relationship. It was meeting someone for the first time and falling head over heels and then realizing weeks later that it just wouldn't work out.

I think the metaphor, the metaphor can be your good friend in that kind of songwriting, I believe, metaphorically.

Absolutely, yeah, you're absolutely right.

And think of all the artists whose possible biggest hit was of the worst, wrenching, horrible relationship of their life, and they have to get up and perform it because it's, you know, it's the money. It's the hit!

I think about that so often. I honestly do, I think about that probably every day. And I wondered to myself, "How do they do it?" No, seriously. How do they do it? Is it so therapeutic for them to say, "You know what I love talking about it, because it's a way of working through it," because I've heard people say that, but then I can't like--I'm not like that. I am so--I'm gonna start crying if I think about that.

Maybe you all of a sudden have to develop some really callous skin and just go, "Well, it's a paycheck!" Like, I mean, you have to think of it in a whole different way because yeah, I would say that a lot of people have like, major hit songs that are like--especially as an artist with like a huge catalog where everybody wants to hear like the first two records and the first two records, you could be a whole different person. And it's like, I don't even relate to that anymore.

Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, I've got a lot of respect for people who can do that. And maybe I get to a phase where I can, but I'm definitely the phase where I can't.

Yeah, I hear you. Do you ever watch any of the TV singing shows?

Like American Idol and The Voice?

Yeah.

I mean, I wouldn't say regularly, but I've definitely seen a few episodes.

Do you feel like there's a bias, even if somebody is--I'll be truthful, I've never really watched any of them. But I can imagine that some really amazing performers have come out of that. But do you think that's sort of an odd strike against somebody that wants to really be taken seriously, especially if somebody who writes their own material. But it seems more common than not that I'm looking down this list of playlists that we even have, and I'm like, "I'm not familiar with them." And it's like, "Oh, they were on The Voice. And I'm like, "Whaaa?"

I think it depends how you look at it. I think these platforms are platforms where people get seen and want to get seen and want to get heard. And I think for that, it's very good. But at the end of the day, a lot of it is dependent on you and your actual talent, and not just your talent, but you as a person, you're someone who is relatable. So I had the chance last--2019 to be a coach. So it's in Germany to sit in The Voice of Germany and sit on the stool, and that was really cool. I really enjoyed that. And that's why I've been asked this question quite a bit, like, "Do you think that actually helped," like, do people come out of that? And in the UK, there's definitely been so many artists that have come out of that. But in Germany, it's not just the voice sometimes, it's the person you fall in love with--the songs they write, the stories they're telling, their personality. I think that plays a really big role. But at the same time, some really--like One Direction, all from a casting show. Kelly Clarkson was also from a casting show, so it does happen.

I've talked to you for five minutes and already I'm going to make an assumption about you--that it might be difficult for you to judge someone on the spot. I'd rather die. I would rather die than do that.

I originally had said no to the show, because I was like, "I can't do that, that's so harsh." How am I supposed to like, I'm someone who just likes writing songs and putting them out there, and I want to see authenticity. But at the end of the day, it's a show. And just because you're chosen for the next round, doesn't mean you're gonna take off. The thing is, I've often found that the people that don't make it to the very end, are the people that actually then make it, you know? So for me, and that's what I always told everyone that I was working with, like, who I put on my team, I was like, "Hey, just because you didn't sing this song as good as this person, I have to kind of choose this person. Doesn't mean that you don't have what it takes to make it. Do not listen to anyone when it comes to--if this is something you really want to do, then you go out and do it." You know? Don't let--who am I to tell you, "Yeah, by the way, you're not as good as this person." And that's something I made very clear during each show.

Okay, Alice, full disclosure I had no idea that you did that. That you were on that show, it was just a crap a crapshoot question. But now I want to know, who are the other judges?

They're all I mean, unless you listen to a lot of German music--

I don't, no.

A guy named Mark Forrester, a rapper, Sido. I mean, they're big in Germany, like, huge in Germany. But honestly, I was shocked that they asked me like, I was like, "Wow, guys, I just put out like, my first album." And I was sitting beside like, German artists that were 10 years older than me and had put out like six albums, and all super successful. I'm just sitting there being like, "Yeah, so I have this song called "'No Roots,' and some other stuff," so I felt that I have to admit, I felt out of place. But I also just really enjoyed the experience. So I was like, I'll take it, you got to try stuff in life, like, what am I going to write about if I just do the same old stuff every day?

Exactly. Well, and with that, you're going to do another tune? And which one are you guys gonna play?

So we are going to play the very first song I've ever put out called "No Roots".

You know, I don't have to ask you. And in fact, I don't even like asking songwriters. "What's that about?" Because I get it, I get it. I don't even need any further explanation. And I think it's a universal feeling about, especially like you said, if you grew up in a couple different places, and you live--yeah, everybody has the question of "Where do I belong? Where do I fit? What is my proper home?" Do you have a proper place? I know you're in your parents house now. But where do you feel most at home?

That's such a good question. I'm gonna say just with my family, wherever, my family is here. So that's kind of home for me. Even though I didn't grow up here. I moved to England six, seven years ago with my family but then relocated back to Germany. But also being in Canada makes me feel at home. To be honest, I can feel at home very, very quickly if there's a few elements that are right. If there's nice people, if I enjoy going on walks in the area, if I feel comfortable in my home, and if I have some friends around me that already feels like a home, so I'm easy to please.

That is really wonderful. Well, Alice, thank you so much for taking the time to do this, and we're gonna close up this session. It's Alice Merton and "No Roots".

Songs Played

01:31 Vertigo
14:46 Lash Out
29:56 No Roots

External Link

Alice Merton - official website

Credits

Mary Lucia - Host
Derrick Stevens - Producer
Jesse Wiza - Digital Producer
Technical Directors - Evan Clark, Veronica Rodriguez

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