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The Director's Cut: Alice Ivy - Don't Sleep

Alice Ivy dives deep into how her new album 'Don't Sleep' was made.
Alice Ivy

Alice Ivy in the middle with all her homies and the fresh kicks

Alice Ivy, real name Annika Schmarsel, is an artist whose music I stumbled across in my inbox a couple of years ago and was blown away by her debut album I’m Dreaming that combined electronic, hip-hop, jazz, soul, funk and everything in between. There was a hint of The Avalanches, but less psychedelic and funkier. She digs in the crates for great funk samples, while crafting her own uptempo funky beats and was heavily collaborative. That instinct to collaborate with others has remained through her work over the past two years and now on her new album Don’t Sleep.

The new 13-track LP feels like the acknowledgement of her ascendance not just Australia, but also to a growling international audience. Packed with features by the likes of Cadence Weapon, Odette, Dijah SB and others (see that press photo above), it covers hip-hop, soaring pop, downtempo electronics and funk. Though it is the winter down under, this feels like the perfect album for the summer here in the North. It is fun, bubbling and joyous, with those moments of pure bliss stacked right at the beginning. Soaring horns on tracks like “Better Man” give the album that little extra oomph and funk for a long drive. There are moments of beauty and tragedy that give this album some balance as well.

Sometimes with heavy collaboration albums, they can be scattershot and unwieldy, but Schmarsel holds this together deftly. With all of the collaborations, we wanted to know how they all were done and how the album’s pieces were fit together. This Director’s Cut feature focuses on the features and the journey this one took Schmarsel in her writing process. This album is an example of what can come out of writing camps.

Listen to the album now and get your copy here.

“When I started writing Don’t Sleep I didn’t have a specific concept in mind, I just wanted to make music that made me feel good and moved me emotionally. Not just try and create the biggest sound I could, but explore the rawness of sounds, experiment with different songwriting methods and work with a broader range of voices. The really special thing about this album is that it’s very collaborative. Collaborating with other artists is always unpredictable and surprising. But no matter how different your 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 that’s bigger than the sum of the parts. It’s been a privilege to create a platform where all of these special voices can be heard through the medium of my music.”

Champagne Late Nights

Like most of the songs on this record “Champagne Late Nights” happened by accident! I was messing around with the beat super late at night. Those are actually my pitch-shifted vocals you can hear on it. I showed it to Imbi a poetic soul artist from Sydney Australia (who features on the album’s title track “Don’t Sleep”) after we’d finished vocal tracking for another song and they just started spitting out all of these adlibs. Afterwards I thought this would be a very classy way to start an album.

Sunrise feat. Cadence Weapon

When I started writing “Sunrise” it was the middle of the Australian winter. I wanted to write something that reminded me of summer, especially in Melbourne, which for me is all about having park beers with my friends or being up on a rooftop listening to music. I’d met Cadence Weapon after catching a set of his at SXSW in 2018 and we’d kept in touch. I travelled to Toronto mid-2018 and we linked up at a studio belonging to Dan Kurtz from Dragonette. When I showed “Sunrise” to Cadence it was one of the hottest weeks on record in Toronto so funnily enough he was on the same wavelength! This was one of a few tracks on the album that I also mixed with Andrew Dawson in LA, he had gold discs for Lil Wayne records he’d mixed hanging up in the toilet. I kept thinking to myself how the hell did I get here?

In My Mind feat. Ecca Vandal

When I began writing “In My Mind,” I was picturing myself as a 10-year-old kid riding my bike through the park in summer holding an ice cream in one hand. I wanted to create that exact same exciting feeling of the endless summer holidays and with nowhere important to be. The only way to relive that feeling for me at the moment is through songwriting. I had written some of the hook with an artist from Melbourne by the name of Winifred but I deliberately left room on the verses for another voice. 

I kept coming back to that song “Your Orbit” from Ecca Vandal’s album that features Sampa the Great and so in my head I knew I wanted to pitch it to her. I was so lucky to catch her just after she had returned from going on tour for some time in the UK and just before she was going to take a break for a little bit. We tracked her vocals in my studio in Brunswick and it was soo crazy because we lost power that first day so we couldn’t work any longer. Lucky she was down to do a second day where we finished the song!

Ticket To Heaven feat. Thelma Plum

This is a very special song. I’d rented out an Airbnb in Sydney and set up a little studio and was just running sessions out of the living room. The feature artist on this song is a well-known Australian artist by the name of Thelma Plum. Although we have some mutual friends, Thelma Plum and I had never actually met prior to this session, so I was genuinely really nervous because I’m such a big fan of hers. Thankfully it all clicked and we started to write. “Ticket To Heaven” is about the tragic and sudden loss of a very close friend of Thelma’s and someone who was very much-loved within the Australian music community. I couldn’t think of a better way to honor his memory than with this utterly beautiful song. I remember when we were vocal tracking I was almost tearing up because Thelma had so much raw emotion in her voice.

Don’t Sleep feat. Imbi and Boi

“Don’t Sleep” is one of those songs that came out of nowhere! “Ricochete” is a writing camp held annually in Newcastle and is really special because only female non-binary artists can participate. So it was the last day of the camp. At the start of the session Imbi, Boi and I were feeling pretty burnt out as it had been a really long, intense week of songwriting. 

I had been working SOO hard all week producing beats for other artists and since it was the last day Imbi and Boi asked me “What do you want to do?” I had this idea of trying something in a Major Lazer meets Santigold sort of direction kicking around in my head for a while and suddenly it occurred to me that the combination of Imbi and Boi’s unique voices would be the perfect time to explore that sound. Something special happened in that writing room, we came out with a super powerful song and it’s definitely one of my favorite collabs I’ve ever been a part of.

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I’ll Find It feat. Odette

“I’ll Find It” features another well-known Australian artist by the name of Odette. Her songwriting is a combination of spoken word with powerful melodies. I was really nervous going into this session because I am a massive fan of Odette’s! I think we both had a sense we were going to write something special as soon as we stepped into that writing room. I remember when we started messing round with chords we were saying to ourselves “Yeah this is going to be a good song” haha. Honestly I’m completely blown away with how talented Odette is on the piano. I just kept the mic on the piano all day because she kept putting down incredible ideas. I also had a lot of fun messing round with lots of really loud drum sounds.

Sweetest Love feat. Montaigne and Bertie Blackman

This was another song that came out of a writing camp! This time it was day one. I was writing with a couple of pretty incredible Australian Artists. Montaigne is representing Australia in the 2021 Eurovision, and Bertie Blackman is to me one of the most underrated songwriters in Australia -- both very unique and extremely talented. It was heaps of fun writing it because we didn’t put any pressure on ourselves, we were just focusing on making cool vocal chops, sampling stuff, experimenting with ideas. Montaigne shows off her hidden talent (she’s actually fluent in French) and Bertie, well Bertie’s always divine. 

I remember when I was nutting out the drop towards the end we switched the lights off and we were all lying on the ground just thinking about how we could make it weirder. At the time I had been smashing Jon Hopkins new record Singularity so I’d been itching to write something a little more dancey as you can gather towards the end of the song.

All Hit Radio feat. Teef and TESSA

Fun fact, this is actually the oldest song on the record! I’ve been playing the instrumental in my live set for a while now as an opener and it always goes down well because the beat is super intense. But a couple of years back I was doing some writing in London and I had a session with TEEF, an up and coming rapper with a killer tone to his voice. Later I added a topline with my friend Tessa in between showcases at SXSW in Austin.

Better Man feat. Benjamin Joseph

“Better Man” was another late addition to the record! The song features Benjamin Joseph the lead singer of a pretty known Australian band by the name of Safia. Again, I was super nervous going into because I’m unashamedly a massive Safia fan. I remixed them a couple years back but it never came out so when the opportunity came to write with Ben I jumped on it. Ben is an incredible writer, multi-instrumentalist and producer. He can literally play anything so we were moving around the room picking up as many different instruments as we could and putting them on the track.

Ben’s writing style is different to mine, we focused A LOT on the groove and feel of the instrumental before even touching the vocals, I kind of like to focus on getting the song as vibey as possible including the vocals from the get go. When we were writing the hook we were listening to references and we got onto The Bee Gees and Ben goes “I’ve never sung in falsetto this high on a song before” so we gave it a crack and it stuck! So this song is really special! There aren’t a lot of male voices on the album and while that wasn’t totally deliberate I’ve just found myself gravitating towards female and non-binary singers and songwriters in the past few years. But Ben’s voice is so singular, in my estimation he’s one of the only Australian male vocalists out there who can do justice to soul.

My Turn feat. Swsh

This song slaps! I met SWSH in LA a couple of years ago and we decided to do some writing at a little make-shift studio I set up out of the poolhouse at the house I was staying at. It was so sick because it was super hot, so we would lay down a verse and then jump in the pool for a quick dip and then get back into it. SWSH was incredible to work with because they have so much energy and an enormous vocal range, very very honored to have them on this record. For anyone who hasn’t seen their performance on Colors, seriously go and treat yourself!

Money feat. Dijah SB

When I was in Toronto doing some writing, I was staying in an Airbnb in the basement of someone’s house. I had a session fall through so I didn’t have a studio to work out of or anyone to work with. But it just so happened that the guy living upstairs was also a music producer and he lent me a pair of monitors to work with. Anyway my manager and I were literally just cold-calling Toronto artists for sessions we had vibed on SoundCloud which was where we discovered Dijah SB! The stars aligned and the very next day we wrote “Money.” I had all of these kalimba samples, so once piecing together some little loops the song began to branch of those kalimba arps.

All In For You feat. Ngaiire

This was the last song that was written that made the album. It features an Australian, Papua New Guinean R&B/ soul artist by the name of Ngaiire. Again I’m a massive fan of Ngaiire. Her album Blastoma is just incredible. So I challenged myself to prep something really special ahead of this writing session. I flew up to Sydney and met Ngaiire at a beautiful artist residency house she was living at in Paddington. We set up some monitors in her living room and wrote and recorded some scratch vocals to “All In For You.” I had these romantic string samples, which became the core of the song. I flew up to Sydney a couple of months later to finish it off with her and track it properly in the studio. Ngaiire’s range is sooo incredible, her takes have so much energy and emotion in them, it was such a special time working in the studio with her.

Gold feat. Bertie Blackman

Bertie Blackman is the feature artist on this song. Bertie and I have written a couple of songs in the past so writing with Bertie is a very comfortable process. We understand each other in the writing room, so “Gold” came together in about three hours. I think we were a couple of bottles of wine deep when we began to track vocals. Bertie is the type of artist who can just get a verse down in one take. Her voice is so easy to record because her vocal tone is quite clean, it feels warm but it’s also quite fragile. She also just puts so much emotion into a vocal take. Bertie had lyrics that she’d already written and I’d brought the instrumental and it all just melted together. I remember after finishing it I was already thinking to myself, this has to be the way the album finishes.

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