“Leave your ego at the door.” The first time it’s said by Melbourne producer Alice Ivy – real name Annika Schmarsel – it’s a turn of phrase. The second, a coincidence. The third time, it’s a theme.
Schmarsel’s second album, ‘Don’t Sleep’, came out last Friday. It features no less than 22 collaborators with a guest vocalist, sometimes two, on 12 of its 13 tracks. Yet there’s no mistaking it for anyone else’s record: Schmarsel’s sound is as euphoric and emotive as ever. There’s scant trace, though, of the nostalgic plunderphonics of her 2018 album ‘I’m Dreaming’, with its vintage vocal clips, big band strings, heart-bursting horns and vinyl pop and crackle.
Her kaleidoscope of collaborators on ‘Don’t Sleep’ includes Thelma Plum, Ngaiire, Ecca Vandal, Benjamin Joseph (Ben Woolner of SAFIA), Montaigne, Odette, Bertie Blackman and Imbi. “I sought out artists who I admire, who I think are absolute game-changers in Australian music in particular,” Schmarsel says. “It just so happened these voices are primarily female, non-binary, First Nations and artists from the LGBTQI community. I don’t mean this in a pretentious way but I feel I’m a curator of a really, really special gallery. It’s amazing being in a position as a producer to create a safe space for these artists.”
But how, specifically, is that safe space created? “Talk, be real, understand where people are coming from and” – you guessed it – “leave your ego at the door.”
When we connect by video hook-up, it’s Schmarsel’s birthday. The virus wasn’t something I’d planned to ask about but it’s also the day her home of Melbourne is re-entering Stage 3 lockdown after a second wave of COVID-19 – a devastating blow for Australia’s most social of cities. Schmarsel had cancelled dinner and treated herself to a sleep-in and “a really great toasted sandwich” instead. A walk with the dog was on the cards, too: the god of small things reigns again.
So we get the COVID stuff over with quickly, as if collaborating on the interview. Which is something – on top of Schmarsel’s easy tumble from a laugh to doubling over cracked up – that you notice instantly: an almost conspiratorial sense that whatever you’re doing, you’re doing it together.
“I’m a curator of a really, really special gallery. It’s amazing being in a position as a producer to create a safe space for these artists”
“Releasing an album is, like, so scary anyway,” she says. “Even if we weren’t going through a pandemic right now, I would probably still be really stressed out.” Schmarsel and her team decided early to not delay its release. Instead, she hopes the album’s optimistic themes will be a force for good in bad times. “‘I’m Dreaming’ was a playful record whereas ‘Don’t Sleep’ is about, you know, fighting off the slumber. I’ve gone through all this touring, I’ve experienced so much more now. It’s like I’m awake, I’m hustling, just keep pushing.”
Prior to ‘I’m Dreaming’ people were “always a little bit confused” about what, exactly, she did. Her manager would get emails asking who produced the record. “He’d be like, ‘Annika did, Alice Ivy, she’s a producer’.” The message sunk in, she thinks, though ‘Don’t Sleep’’s press materials state it was “100 per cent produced by Alice Ivy” – a qualifier you’d not need for a male producer. Then again, can talented male producers leave their egos at the door?
Some, apparently. In Los Angeles last year Schmarsel mixed ‘Sunrise’, featuring Toronto rapper Cadence Weapon, with Andrew Dawson. Dawson is Kanye West’s primary audio and mixing engineer and has worked with Childish Gambino and Destiny’s Child. But it’s not his big-shot bio that Schmarsel is itching to relay, but his humility. “[Andrew] was, like, one of the nicest people. He had so much time for me. He had these records sitting on the ground and I said ‘Man, why don’t you have your platinum records on the wall?’ And he was like, ‘It’s showing off.’”
In dreaming up the new record, Schmarsel had made a list. She didn’t personally know most of the artists she wanted to write with but her concept for “a colourful-sounding record that was atmospheric and euphoric” glowed bright and steady. She had some stellar collaborations behind her too, showcasing her ability to alchemise a vocal performance into a bona fide star turn, as with Bertie Blackman on ‘Chasing Stars’. The near-perfect song was ranked 11th most-played track on triple J in 2018 and proved that Schmarsel’s intuition to do a lot with a little could powerfully pay off.
“‘I’m Dreaming’ was a playful record whereas ‘Don’t Sleep’ is about fighting off the slumber”
You wonder, too, which of the people she “cold called or hit up on Instagram” had seen her perform and been swept up by her will to demonstrate precisely how she wants her music to hit live: by acting it out herself, never afraid to lose her cool by showing how the music makes her feel.
Schmarsel took ideas into the sessions but left her boundaries at the door, too. With Woolner, before even touching the vocals on their song ‘Better Man’, they honed in on its groove and feel. “Ben’s writing style is different to mine,” she says. “I focus on getting the song as vibey as possible, including the vocals from the get-go. We were moving around the room picking up as many instruments as we could and putting them on the track.”
Later, after listening to the Bee Gees, Woolner decided to sing falsetto for the first time. Schmarsel was thrilled. “There aren’t a lot of male voices on the album, I’ve just found myself gravitating towards female and non-binary singers and songwriters,” she says. “But I love Ben’s voice. It’s unusual, it’s got a bit of rasp to it. In my estimation, he’s one of the only Australian male vocalists out there who can do justice to soul.”
While on a songwriting trip to Sydney in 2018, Schmarsel had set up some monitors in her AirBNB kitchen, nervously waiting for Thelma Plum, whom she’d fangirled over for years. An hour or so later, she was fighting back tears at the raw emotion in Plum’s voice and by day’s end ‘Ticket To Heaven’ was in the bag, a song about the sudden loss of one of Plum’s close friends from the music community. “We really clicked, it felt like I’d known her so long,” says Schmarsel. “It was a very vulnerable time, she’d lost a friend, but we wrote this incredibly sad and beautiful song within five hours.”
“It sends off a bad vibe if you’re hassling someone to finish something. You need to be respectful”
Dealing with so many collaborators was an immense task. Between doing take one and wrapping up ‘The Sweetest Love’ with Montaigne, for example, the singer won Eurovision: Australia Decides. Schmarsel puts on a begging tone: “It’s like, ‘I know you’re doing great things but could we maybe just finish the song?’” The flip side of working with artists whose careers are making great leaps, perhaps. Similarly, after Schmarsel’s 2018 session with Plum, “[Thelma] released her record and it blew up and she was like really, really busy.” Finding time to re-do some vocals took 10 months.
Schmarsel credits her hard-working manager for a lot of it. “He really cares… He’ll get things over the line and if I have to send an Instagram DM because sometimes that’s all it takes, that’s when I’ll step in. This all comes back to creating a safe space – you have to be patient. Obviously, you have your own schedule but you need to understand that everyone has things going on and sometimes the timing is off. It sends off a bad vibe if you’re hassling someone to finish something. You need to be respectful, like, you’re not the centre of the universe.”
There’s been another pay-off from all the collabs, too. “Cadence Weapon from Toronto, Swsh in LA, TEEF in London, all amazing people I can hit up anytime I go over there,” says Schmarsel. She laughs – hard. “I feel like once you have a song with someone, you’re on the next level of friendship. I can call around anytime, you know?”
Alice Ivy’s ‘Don’t Sleep’ is out now.