You might not be able to tell from her rave-inspired debut mixtape, but Jessica Smyth – AKA Biig Piig – is ready to settle. Having already lived in Ireland, Spain and LA, the nomadic 25-year-old is now planning to stay put in London. “You can’t run away,” she tells NME over coffee in Hackney. “Things always catch up.”
We meet a few days before the release of ‘Bubblegum’, a lush dance-pop record that blends the sun-drenched ennui of lockdown life in LA with the feral pulse of London’s nightlife. The Irish singer and rapper continues by reflecting on her personal growth since the release of her last EP, 2021’s hushed and gloomy ‘The Sky Is Bleeding’. “I’ve felt a lot better this past year than I’ve been feeling for a while,” Smyth says. “Sometimes with old projects, in the thick of creating them I’d get in this loop that was very isolating. Now I’m acknowledging the dark moments rather than getting lost in them. I’m in a much better headspace. I’m getting therapy.”
Crafted primarily in LA, ‘Bubblegum’ blends liquid drum‘n’bass beats with wispy vocals and lyrically depicts snapshots of an all-too-familiar night out: from the fizzle of an almost-romance to shimmering dancefloor euphoria, followed by the edgy anxiety that comes with the knowledge that the bubble will eventually burst and the party will end. The vast allure of the City of Angels, meanwhile, is twisted on ‘This Is What They Meant’ by the shadowy isolation that can come in tandem with moving to a new country alone.
The full return of festival season last summer marked the starting point for ‘Bubblegum’. “Seeing where you can take the crowd with more high-energy tracks excited me, so I wanted more of that,” Smyth recalls, which bodes well for her upcoming UK, European and US tour. September single ‘Kerosene’ then provided the first preview of the mixtape, with Smyth proudly describing it as a “hot girl summer anthem”.
“I wanted it to feel like [Daddy Yankee‘s] ‘Gasolina’ because that’s such a banger,” she explains. “It’s a summer anthem that you put on and you can’t help but move. I didn’t want to say ‘gasoline’, so ‘kerosene’ was the next best thing and we worked from there.”
Underground dance sounds are receiving growing exposure in the mainstream at present, and a flurry of emerging female artists – such as PinkPantheress, Nia Archives and Piri – are ushering in a drum‘n’bass revival that is also embracing influences that range from pop, rap and R&B. With ‘Bubblegum’, Smyth is embedding herself into this new movement. “Dance music is in a really good place,” she says. “We’re re-emerging in a time when it’s really needed. It feels like it’s taking a different route because it’s more female-led. It’s the new wave of rave culture. I feel like, in London, you can find something going on every night.”
The expressive freedom that Smyth has found through being an active participant in the capital’s nightlife scene is the same feeling she’s now hoping to create at her live shows. “Dancing does something to you,” she explains. “I believe it can be one of the best things for self-exploration and being yourself. I would love to think that people who come to my shows feel like that about the music I put out.”
While ‘Bubblegum’ draws much inspiration from London’s rich club culture, parts of it were crafted while Smyth was taking a much-needed break from going out and partying. “Things were getting out of hand,” she says. “I was like, ‘Let me pause before I freak my housemate out any more than I have’.” On ‘In The Dark’ she alludes to the sadness being carried from party to party, juxtaposing a fast pop beat with the whispered chorus: “I’m dancing to forget you / And the music loud, just tear me apart.”
“I’m sick of pretending things are good and not being completely real with myself,” Smyth tells NME. “I’m tired of it. I’m going to face it now and fix it, rather than letting it grow. I’m really trying to find balance, and I think I have recently. But whenever I say that, it just topples over.” She no longer craves chaos quite as much as she did in her teens and early 20s. “I definitely don’t have the best track record with chaos. Sometimes I follow it to deal with anxiety, but I’m trying to change because I don’t think chaos is necessary for creativity.”
Collaboration, rather than chaos, is the thread that best links Smyth’s work. A key member of the NiNE8 collective, which also features the likes of Lava La Rue and Mac Wetha, the ensemble took over Fabric back in September to showcase some of the eclectic range of young musical and creative talent who are breaking through. “It was really cool to see so many different artists from different genres fill a space that had never had anything like that before,” Smyth recalls of the event. “It was sick.”
The first track Smyth ever released, 2017’s ‘Crush’n’, was the result of a jam session with La Rue and Wetha. “I wasn’t sure about putting it out,” she recalls. “Lloyd [Mac Wetha] was like, ‘Jess, if you love it, it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks. Just put it out’. He’s the whole reason I started releasing music.”
The pair continue to work together several years on (including work on ‘Bubblegum’), while NiNE8 remain a tight-knit collective despite solo careers taking off and its members being spread across different continents. It’s testament to the cultivating environment that London provides for its creative communities, which in turn has helped drive the city’s dance music revival and provide a space for emerging DIY artists to experiment with their sound in the comfort that they’re not going it alone. This inclusive, anything-goes attitude has been pivotal for Smyth, who cut her teeth performing at open mics after joining NiNE8. “Music wasn’t a huge thing in my household,” she recalls. “As a career path, it never felt like it was possible.”
Being part of NiNE8 gave her the confidence, though, to start uploading music independently on SoundCloud, creating the kind of buzz when culminated with her signing to RCA Records in 2019. “The collective was such a huge, important part of everything,” she says. “I owe a lot to London for finding my own path in music because of the creative community that I found here.”
As she now lays down roots in the city that has already witnessed her go through so many transformations, Smyth is just trying to be more honest with herself. She describes how her community of musicians and fans have helped hold her accountable and feel less alone. “Something dark has brought us to such a great space where there’s a room full of people and you’re not alone,” she summarises. “We’re all here because, through the pain, we’ve become a community again.”
Biig Piig’s debut mixtape ‘Bubblegum’ is out now