Who sings your favourite male/female duet? Sonny and Cher? Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl? Renee and Renato? It’s a special sub-genre where a song becomes a conversation, where the right two voices can unite to create something greater than the sum of its parts.
London-based singer-songwriter Tom Odell and German-born newcomer Alice Merton are the latest pair to share song space with a new single, Half as Good as You, out today. It’s a world away from the Somebody feat. Somebody x Somebody Else team-ups that currently dominate the pop charts, a doomed romance piano ballad in which a former couple realise that they’ll never do any better than each other but have no choice but to carry on the search.
Odell, 27, names Islands in the Stream by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers as his favourite duet. Merton, 24, is a bit more hip, picking Empire State of Mind by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. They befriended each other at a music festival in Munich, Tollwood, last summer, had a drink backstage while their respective bands mingled. Odell had already written the song just for him to sing, but as he finished recording his third album he realised that it could work differently.
“It was as simple as changing a verse from ‘he’ to ‘she’. When I did that, it made even more sense as a duet,” he tells me. “It suddenly occurred to me that it could be two singers talking about one another.”
“I have to admit I was a fan of his ever since his first EP. I loved his music. So when I found out he wanted me to be on a song I couldn’t really believe it,” says Merton, who is less well known over here but whose powerful pop-rock song, No Roots, has been number one in France, number two in Germany and topped America’s Alternative Songs chart.
“It’s so refreshing when you hear her voice in the middle of the album,” adds Odell, continuing the mutual admiration. “She’s a phenomenal singer. This isn’t some line for the press: I genuinely feel so lucky to be able to work with such an incredible singer. I wish she’d sung my whole album and I’d just written the songs.”
The problem with adding more talent to the mix, however, is getting two packed diaries to sync up. Merton was in London in January to spend a day recording the song, which was the last one to be finished for Odell’s album, Jubille Road. It’s released in October. When it comes to touring in the autumn, he’s in the US when she’s in the UK and vice-versa. They hope to get a chance to join each other on stage in November. I have to meet them in Hamburg separately – she’s there to perform at the city’s waterfront festival, MS Dockville, and has to leave on a train to her Berlin home just before he arrives from the Netherlands festival Lowlands. They spoke to each other the day before via Skype but that will have to do for now.
It feels strange for Merton to be singing such an intimate song, especially one with its roots in reality. Odell, who put a photo of an ex-girlfriend on the cover of his biggest hit, Another Love, has broken up again, selling the home he set up near Victoria Park with his last girlfriend and moving a mile and a half away. “I don’t know if I can relate to the song, because I’ve never been in a very long relationship where I could say that this person has meant so much to me, but I still love the music,” says Merton, who is single.
The end of that stab at domesticity, Odell’s former home and the surrounding area are the main inspirations for Jubilee Road, which is a pseudonym for the real street. “The walls are still paper thin/And the neighbours, my dear/I think they still hate me/For all these songs I endlessly sing,” he croons on the title track. You know you’re a bad neighbour when it’s the students who can’t stand you and not the other way around. “Four girls moved in next door and at first thought it was kind of cool to be living next to a professional musician who they heard on the radio occasionally,” he says. “The novelty very quickly wore off. They were banging on my door at two in the morning yelling at me to shut up.”
With his piano by the front window, he could watch the goings on outside and capture them in song. It sounds like he was very happy there. “It was the first house I bought. You feel more committed to an area, and sort of proud. There was this moment when it really felt like I was part of this community. I’d borrow dishes. It was a nice sense of belonging and I don’t think I’d felt like that for a long time. Ever since I was 15 I’ve constantly been trying to leave, to get away.”
Growing up in the village of Tangmere, just outside Chichester, his dreams weren’t that gigantic. As a teenager he was lugging his keyboard to open mic nights and hoping to move to Brighton, which he did at 18. When he was 22, he became the first man to win the Brits Critics’ Choice award, following Adele, Florence + the Machine and Ellie Goulding to take the prize predicting next big things. Then he released a debut album, Long Way Down, which went to number one and became a platinum seller. But even now, his ambitions seem relatively restrained.
“I feel like expectation has slightly been removed from my shoulders now,” he says. “There was a moment where the carrot was dangled in fromt of me of, ‘Do you want to be a masive pop star?’ but I very quickly realised it’s not something I would ever want. Ultimately I’m a musician. I love playing with my band, I love writing songs and that’s the thing that I want to be able to do forever.”
Merton, in contrast, didn’t have a dull, settled upbringing which she could dream of escaping. Her song No Roots is about moving home 12 different times when her father’s job as a consultant for mining companies took her family between Canada, Germany and the UK. Her parents now live in Bournemouth and she’s moving again, but only within Berlin. “It was a big struggle for me. I don’t think my parents realised what effect it had on me, my brother and my sister,” she says. “I felt this anger for such a long time, and this Verzweiflung – what’s the word in English?” She has to look it up on her phone to remind herself that it means “despair”.
Moving from Canada to Germany at 13 sounds especially hard. She sounds emotional even now when talking about being asked to give a talk in front of her class, and her teacher showing her a tally of all the times she’d said “um” and “ah”. She sings in English, speaks English on stage (even at the Hamburg festival) and doesn’t use German when working in the Berlin studio with her producer Nicolas Rebscher. “Music is something I can control. I can do whatever I want, and I’m not going to let anyone tell me what language I should speak in,” she says in her Canadian accent.
With a London show next month and the release of the Odell song, she’s getting closer to making a real impact in the country where her family is now based. But it sounds like she won’t be dwelling on that pressure, or spending too much time immersed in the heartbreak of the duet. Her next solo single is called Why So Serious?
Half as Good as You by Tom Odell feat. Alice Merton is released today on Columbia.
Alice Merton plays Sep 10 at The Garage, N5. thegarage.london
Tom Odell plays Oct 23 at Eventim Apollo, W6. eventimapollo.com