The title of Alice Ivy‘s sophomore album is called Don’t Sleep, and after talking with the producer/DJ wunderkind otherwise known as Annika Schmarsel, it feels like an album title and more like a note she wrote to herself.
“I feel like the past two years have been the wildest ride,” Ivy tells PopMatters. “I’ve been writing with so many different artists all over the world in between tours, and in the second half of 2019, I was just running on adrenaline. I can remember in October last year I got off a plane in Melbourne at 8.00am from a week’s writing trip in Berlin and didn’t even leave the airport. I met my band and caught a 10.00am flight to Sydney to play a show, then a 7.00pm flight back to Melbourne. After all that, I ended up flying back to Sydney the next day for a last-minute session to finish ‘Better Man’ with Benjamin Joseph from SAFIA. That was a weird month! But being at home now for the past few months, I think I’ve come to realize that sometimes I write better when I’ve had very little sleep, and I’ve been on the move.”
It’s understandable why Ivy is so busy. When she put out her debut I’m Dreaming in 2018, her chill dance vibes and splashes of genuine color and character helped make the collaborative effort stand out in a cluttered electronic wasteland. Her stellar opening salvo landed in PopMatters’ Best Pop Albums list for that year. Her album was intimate enough for listening to on headphones in your bedroom and explosive enough to soundtrack an impromptu groovy dance party. Her songs turned to streams which turned into touring all over the world, and it wasn’t too surprising that Ivy would soon be collaborating with a whole new cast of rappers and vocalists for what would become Don’t Sleep.
There’s just one problem with her new album: it’s coming out in the middle of a global pandemic.
While no one recording act is handling things the same way — some are putting out their albums as-is, some are postponing their releases, and some even went to record full-length efforts while in quarantine — Ivy knows she took the best course of action for Don’t Sleep by sticking to the drop date they already had in mind.
“My team and I made the call pretty early on just to roll with the same release time,” she explains. “Apart from the 50 odd shows that were either canceled or postponed and some more elaborate music video plans going down the drain, everything else has worked out great so far. The album was finished in February, about a month before it got bad out here. I feel like I probably would be going through a pretty similar thought process even if we weren’t going through a pandemic? Releasing albums is always a really scary process, ‘I’ve spent thousands of hours on this, I wonder if people will like it!?'”
Unlike her debut, wherein collaborative cuts mingled with solo creations to create a genuine portrait of an artist, Don’t Sleep, outside of its minute-long intro song, is filled to the brim with features, with Canadian rapper Cadence Weapon, Brisbane-bred rocker Thelma Plum, spoken-word balladeer Odette, electro act Safia’s own Benjamin Joseph, and Sri Lankan-born MC Ecca Vandal all making appearances. And that’s just half the guest list, ensuring that Don’t Sleep is a lively record full of different perspectives.
“The special thing about collaborating is that it’s always unpredictable and surprising,” says Ivy, when asked if she views the Alice Ivy brand as more of a collaborative moniker (a la Gorillaz) or a standalone project that just happens work with other artists a lot. “But no matter how different your musical backgrounds may be or what genre or tradition you come from when it clicks, and you find that mysterious common ground with another artist, you can create something bigger than the sum of the parts.
“I think Alice Ivy is a collaborative project,” she continues. “Particularly on this album. Everyone I had the privilege of collaborating with is utterly inspiring. The great thing about this project is I feel like I never really have boundaries, I just set out to write songs that both the collaborator and I and hopefully future listeners are going to connect with. Sometimes I feel like the curator of a very special little gallery.”
Two albums in, this gallery she curates is running on certain themes, and one of them is the need to make sure that everyone is having a good time. Her albums are typically celebratory, but Don’t Sleep ups the energy with the Cadence Weapon feature “Sunrise” and the clattering rising action of the Swsh collaboration “My Turn”. Both of those feature the secret weapon behind any great dance production: a healthy helping of cowbell.
“I’m so glad you appreciate the cowbell high-hat loop on ‘My Turn’!” Ivy exclaims, when the correlation between the songs is pointed out. “Those songs are two of the oldest on Don’t Sleep. They were also both written on a trip to the States. I was listening to heaps of ’90s hip-hop at the time, and the writing process sometimes comes so much easier if you start with a really dope drum loop. ‘My Turn’ started with that drum loop, and the song built from there! I think I’ve just matured a lot as a producer and songwriter. Sometimes less is more, I feel like on I’m Dreaming I was always aiming to make the biggest sound, but on this record, I focused a lot more on the songwriting and just getting the right sounds.”
While I’m Dreaming has been referred to as a record with chillwave vibes, decorated with light kisses of Big Beat, the sound on Don’t Sleep is more expansive, with the voices she works with helping expand not only her worldview but also her artistic vision. Just take the album’s title track, a tropical house collaboration with Imbi the Girl, a celebrated non-binary singer, and poet based in Sydney. To hear Ivy tell it, the track was a true last-minute collaboration.
“One of my favorite collaborations was with Imbi and Boi on the title track ‘Don’t Sleep’ because it was so unexpected. It was the last day of a songwriting camp, and we were all feeling really burnt out. I started to mess around with some loops, and something just clicked. We were all jumping around the room super hyped the whole session. It turned out to be one of my favorite collabs I’ve ever been apart of, that’s what I love about songwriting it’s so unpredictable! I had a list of demos back in 2018 that I was thinking would probably make the second album, but that changed by about 80%, which is crazy when I think about it.”
There was a freedom and a romanticism imbued in the shared lyrics of I’m Dreaming. Here, on Don’t Sleep, there are some sweet tracks balanced out by defiant relationship anthems, goals of having actual champagne late nights, and dreams providing the hits that comprise that “all-hit radio”. Even if I’m Dreaming openly wondered if we’d ever make it to the big times, Don’t Sleep — even after the actual radio hits, live shows, and growing fanbases are factored in — still trades in that panoramic optimism, perhaps even more than her debut. To hear Ivy tell it, it’s all just a part of her unique journey.
“I think Don’t Sleep is refusing to give in to the slumber whilst I’m Dreaming to me represents the daydream,” she notes. “When I started writing this record. I didn’t have a specific concept in mind. I just wanted to make music that made me feel good and moved me emotionally. My feelings can vary day-to-day, so I tried to go with the flow and capture whatever it was I feeling at the time as opposed to trying to channel it in a particular direction. I think what stands out on Don’t Sleep for me is that the voices that tell the stories on this record are real and important.”
Photo: Aneta Urbanaite / Courtesy of Motormouth Media