Alice Merton's Wanderlust Anthem 'No Roots' Heads to U.S. After Blowing Up in Europe
The singer wrote her breakthrough hit about "never being grounded to a certain place, but having your home with people who you love."
Struggling to adjust to her new life in Germany after moving from Canada at age 16, Alice Merton wrote her first song: an ode to homesickness titled “Little Lighthouse.” The burgeoning singer-songwriter, then in high school, was just beginning to branch out from a decade worth of classical music training, subbing arias for the sounds of The Alan Parsons Project and Regina Spektor.
“My first song... was basically just about finding my way back home,” Merton, now 23, tells Billboard over the phone from Berlin. “I just didn't feel at home in Germany at all in the beginning. That’s why I kept on searching for this lighthouse, I guess, which would take me back to Canada.”
But Germany wouldn't be the last move for the singer -- who in addition to Canada has also lived in England and America, and has moved between cities a total of 11 times. In fact, the nomadic lifestyle that led to Merton’s first original song would also inspire her recent breakthrough hit “No Roots,” which catapulted her to the top of the charts in Germany -- and now, as the singer inks a deal with New York indie Mom + Pop Music, beginning to trickle over abroad.
Released overseas in December 2016, "No Roots" was quickly picked up by blogs and music discovery sites like Hypemachine, climbing to No. 2. on the Spotify Viral 50 charts just before Christmas. The song spent seven weeks on Billboard's Germany Songs charts, peaking at No. 2, and has hit the top 10 on charts in Germany, Luxembourg, Austria and Switzerland since April.
"I always wanted to do something with music, but to be honest, I never thought I’d be good enough," Merton says of the sudden attention. "There’s so much good music out there that still hasn't been heard. But I thought if I don’t try it, I’ll always regret it."
While the theme of wanderlust had been on her mind since "Little Lighthouse," Merton says that "No Roots" came together two-and-a-half years ago while she was visiting her parents in England. "I was on the beach, and I was just thinking to myself that I have no one place where I actually feel like I’m at home," Merton explains. "I came up with the idea of having no roots -- never being grounded to a certain place, but having your home with people who you love."
The rollicking, chest-thumping track itself reads like a roadmap, telling Merton's story through a marching drum kick, rugged bass and the chorus' chant of "I've got no roots, but my home was never on the ground." And while the track could serve as an ode to globetrotters everywhere, each line is as honest to Merton's experience as possible. Merton's favorite line, for example -- “I like digging holes and hiding things inside them / when I grow old, I hope I won’t forget to find them" -- isn't just a figure of speech. The singer-songwriter says she has left her mark in every city she's lived, whether through time capsules buried in backyards or secret messages carved into her wooden school desks.
"I love writing about things I know, and I like to be very honest in my music," Merton adds. "I feel it’s much easier to be honest or be myself in songs, when I’m playing. That’s why I felt: you know, I’m going to write the truth."
After several meetings with major labels in Germany, Merton says she and her manager, Paul Grauwinkel, discussed a different option: starting their own label, and releasing "No Roots" on their terms. The two chose the name Paper Plane Records, partly as a homage to one of Merton's favorite songs -- the 2007 M.I.A. hit "Paper Planes" -- and partly to symbolize their faith in hard work. "Paper planes are made of such simple things. It’s a piece of paper. But they can fly for three or four meters, depending on how good you build that paper plane," Merton explains. "That’s why we decided to call it that, because we started out with nothing."
Following its success abroad, "No Roots" has drawn 922,000 total on-demand streams (audio and video combined) in the U.S. to date, according to Nielsen Music. There's more to come -- Merton is getting to work on her debut album, which she says expands on each motif in "No Roots."
"What I’m doing is taking different parts from 'No Roots,' whether it be the gypsy part or the holes part or needing something to stay, [and] I put all that into different songs," she explains. "'No Roots' is like the stem, and the other songs branch out."
For now, Merton is based in Berlin, though she often spends time with her family in England and would like to eventually spend time living in New York City. But she'll be a nomad again soon, traveling across Germany this fall for a string of festivals including New Fall Festival in Düsseldorf, Baden Baden's SWR3 New Pop Festival and, back in her area, Lollapalooza Berlin. Not surprisingly, touring comes naturally to Merton -- and the singer says being onstage is the only way she can comprehend her growing success.
"I don’t think I registered the fact that there were that many people that have heard it, or seen it," she says. "They know the lyrics, they get out their cell phones, they film. That’s when it becomes real. That’s when I notice that there’s actually people out there who listen to my music, which is a really nice feeling."