PLAYING MELBOURNE: Alice Ivy Takes Collabs to New Heights on Sophomore LP Don’t Sleep

Photo Credit: Michelle G Hunder

Producer Alice Ivy (otherwise known as Annika Schmarsel)​ has become a name to know in the Melbourne music scene; her blend of ’90s house beats, lush layers of synths and raw instruments along with a voice sweetly attuned to pop sensibilities made her 2018 debut I’m Dreaming an instant cult classic. Whether fans hear her doing cover versions on radio, such as the 2018 Like A Version session she did for Australian radio station Triple J (in which she covered “American Boy” by Estelle), or whether fans come to her via a collaboration she’s done with a popular artist like Bertie Blackman (“Chasing Stars“), she’s built a solid base of support for her exciting pop-dance productions. It is Ivy’s skill for partnering with complementary collaborators that makes her sophomore album Don’t Sleep such a revelatory follow-up.

Ivy’s influences include Kaytranada, the xx, The Avalanches, J Dilla, and in a similar vein, she channels the vibe of fellow Australians Pnau, who build looped beats, keys, glitchy samples and live vocals in studio and live performances. “When I was in my early twenties, and beginning to dabble in electronic production after half a lifetime of playing the guitar, I discovered J Dilla’s monumental album Donuts. It was a major turning point for me. Once I was introduced to the world of sampling I was totally hooked,” Ivy recently told Acclaim.

Her current influences are a far cry from the clarinet and guitar lessons she was given as a child from well-meaning uncles and aunts. Ivy’s family immigrated to Australia from Germany when she was very young – she was the only child in her kindergarten group (preschool) who didn’t speak fluent English. This ability to traverse languages has echoes in her love for sounds and the ability for seemingly incongruous vocal samples, radio, TV and movies to make sense when partnered with looping keyboards, horns and drums.

At only 27, Ivy has lived long enough to have explored musical genres such as house, Motown, hip hop and acoustic to borrow what she likes and to confidently twist the sounds using the digital tools that younger, DIY artists are so enthusiastic for. Ivy has used multi-faceted software Ableton to mash up her loops, samples, collages of vocals and instrumentals. “I usually build a song around a sample,” she told Linda Mariani, Triple J radio host in 2018. “I started looping stuff, I put delays on keys and started pitching the keys… then I [add] samples to it.”

Ivy played guitar in a 25-piece, all-girl Motown and soul band during high school, The Sweethearts. Her proclivity for using horns as an atmospheric texture reappears across Don’t Sleep, as it did on her first album, proving that not all of us forget everything we learned in high school upon graduation. She would later study for a music industry degree, which is where she was introduced to Ableton.

In 2017, she performed and spoke as part of the global series of TEDx Talks, TEDxYouth@Sydney. Her lively performance covered singles “Charlie” and “Touch,” impressively allowing the young producer to dance about on stage while also manipulating a keyboard, laptop and electric guitar. Her pure focus on the music and clear joy in getting lost in it is palpable.

The eclectic, celebratory nature of what is ultimately a great party album is so much richer for the inclusivity it invites, both from collaborators and listeners. Whether by choice or pure coincidence, Ivy gravitates toward collaborations with BIPOC, LGBTQI, non-binary and female artists. Indigenous Australian singer-songwriter Thelma Plum makes a cameo on “Ticket To Heaven,” which was co-written over five hours in an Air BnB set up as a studio. On “Sweetest Love” she collaborates with operatically-skilled Melbourne singer Montaigne, who is openly bisexual. Canadian rapper Cadence Weapon brings his rapid-fire skills to “Sunrise,” asking – or challenging – “Can you keep up?”  “All In For You” is a killer collaboration between Ivy and Papua New Guinea-born, Sydney-based artist Ngaiire, a much respected and celebrated singer-songwriter in her own right. And South African-born, Tamil, Sri Lankan artist Ecca Vandal features on “In My Mind,” one of the album’s standout tracks.

Videos for the album’s singles have promoted the album’s joyous oddball streak. Exuberant solo choreography (courtesy dancer Alex Dyson) lends a visual expression to the vocal dexterity of SAFIA’s Ben Woolner on “Better Man,” a fun and fluent collaboration between two skilled instrumentalists. The video for tropical-edged, reggaeton-infused title track “Don’t Sleep” shows Alice Ivy, imbi the girl, and BOI alternate between synchronized dance moves and roaring around on motorbikes. “If you’re losing the vibe, how do you feel alive in your body and soul?” goes the chorus.

As for the funny, clever promo photos of Ivy with her collaborators, she told Acclaim it was a joint decision by the artist and her photographer. “When it came time to shoot the promo photos for the album, I’d planned this big meet-up in Sydney with most of the collaborators and we were going to pose together for a group photo. My photographer Michelle G Hunder and I were referencing Solange Knowles’ wedding photos for inspiration. But when the pandemic turned up that idea went out the window so I switched it out for me on my lonesome in a warehouse with a bunch of lifesize cardboard cut-outs.”

The imagery might be a humorous, but there’s nothing flippant or two-dimensional about the eclectic, constantly dynamic sophomore LP Don’t Sleep, out now on Dew Process.

Follow Alice Ivy on Facebook for ongoing updates.

Playing Melbourne: An Introduction

Image provided by Toff In Town

Welcome to Playing Melbourne! A little on me, your host. I was born and raised in Melbourne, so this city is in my veins and deep in my neural cells. It’s part of me, basically. Melbourne is known for three things, primarily: our music scene; our coffee; and being enormously diverse in terms of cultures, ethnicities and subcultures.

I have written on and reviewed music for just over a decade, but I’ve loved music as far back as I remember. Isn’t it funny that when you love something so much, you assume everyone else does? Perhaps that’s why I took Melbourne’s incredibly rich range of music venues, the artists and creatives who make up this industry for granted for so long. Melbourne’s music scene encompasses world-class live performances, albums, studios, videography and art, to a ready audience of local and international fans.

Right now, there’s more opportunity than there has ever been for international audiences to engage with Melbourne’s music scene. You can check out a playlist on Spotify, watch a weekly gig on The State of Music, a government supported platform for Victorian musicians, or buy a ticket to support artists at Delivered Live (live streamed on Saturday evenings, Melbourne time).

Melbourne is home to over three times the number of music venues per capita than Austin, Texas; this city hosts over 62,000 live music events annually (though currently, those events are on hold due to the pandemic). Right now, venues are at risk of closing down permanently and many in the music industry are questioning whether they have a career when restrictions ease. As dark as this is, there’s also a lot of good news. Music Victoria has been prominent in championing the need for casual and freelance workers in the music industry to be eligible for government income support as well as ensuring grants are open to artists and venues to enable them to continue creating and operating in some capacity while they can’t do their usual thing.

We’re fortunate to have a number of community radio programs that champion local music, as well as state and federal funding and arts/music organisations that support and promote music and the people who work in the industry. Our community radio stations really reflect how diverse this city and its population is and if you’re truly curious about this city in regards to music and to its spirit, it’s worth tuning in live or listening back to recordings of Melbourne’s community radio stations online, like 3RRR, PBS106.7, and Australia’s first and only LGBTQI+ community radio station, JOYFM. Triple J, a national radio network that has supported and discovered many local acts in their infancy, provides another great sources of Melbourne sounds and culture.

But it’s the musicians themselves that make Melbourne what it is, and there’s no one genre that dominates the scene. Ngaiire performs soulful R&B, combines glitchy electro with melancholy instrumentation. She was born in Papua New Guinea but has really been adopted as a Melbourne music identity. In March, she released “Boom,” the first official single from her third album, which will follow 2013 debut Lamentations and 2016 sophomore effort Blastoma.

Likewise, Sampa The Great was born elsewhere (she’s Zambian and was raised in Botswana) but has been adopted as Melburnian. She raps about her own life and cultural observations over hip hop beats. Her 2019 album The Return was nominated for the NME Award for Best Australian Album. A prolific collaborator, she’s features a wide swath of Australian artists on her own releases, as well as appearing on tracks by Wallace, Urthboy, Jonti, and Ecca Vandal.

Eddy Current Suppression Ring are a garage rock band that has shied from doing much media promotion in favour of plying their trade. They’re favourites locally for their blistering live sets and no-frills, no-fuss personas. Along with associated acts like Total Control, Dick Diver, and UV Race, they carry on the lauded “Little Band” scene of the early eighties instigated by Primitive Calculators.

Lupa J (aka Imogen Jones) got her start by posting a couple of tracks on Soundcloud as a 15 year old. Now 21, she’s got two albums under her belt – 2016’s My Right Name and last year’s Swallow Me Whole – combining synth, soul and R&B to deliver personal, melodic songs. She carries on that tradition with her latest singles “Half Alive,” “Out to Wreck,” and “Limbo.”

Alice Skye is a Wergaia woman from Horsham, just outside of Melbourne in Victoria. She released her first album Friends With Feelings in 2018 and has toured with like-minded female folk singer Emily Wurramara. Her identity as an Aboriginal woman and her connection to the land in this way has informed her sound and her songwriting.

Whether you know one or two Melbourne acts or your knowledge on the Melbourne music scene rivals Wikipedia, I hope to bring you insight, profiles, interviews and recommendations that convince you – once travel is available and safe again – to spend some time in this city. If you love music, Melbourne loves you.