From lo-fi beats to expansive alt-pop: Biig Piig reflects on her journey to icon status and her new mixtape ‘Bubblegum’, filled with personal growth and genre-blending experimentation.
Words: Martyn Young.
Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.
Styling: Phoebe Butterworth.
Make up: Georgia Hope using Danessa Myricks.
Hair: Tommy Taylor @ Stella Creative Artists using GHD.
Jess Smyth is an artist defined by exploration. The constant desire to evolve and grow, seeking new sounds and styles through experiencing different places, cultures and communities, encapsulates the richly fluid and thrilling sonic melting pot she has crafted over the past five years as Biig Piig. Everyone who’s discovered her knows she’s someone special. The exciting difference now, as she releases her most substantial and refined work yet, is that Jess now knows it herself. ‘Bubblegum’ is the first illuminating teaser for Biig Piig’s leap from adolescent naivety to full-blown alt-pop icon.
Jess has been making music under the name Biig Piig for quite a long time, with her first music uploaded to SoundCloud in 2016. It’s a staggering journey to hear her music progress from washed-out lo-fi beats to the kind of expansive and ambitious widescreen dance music collected on her new mixtape. The progression is not only sonic, though. Emotionally, the music she is making now and the artist she is in 2023 has been shaped by her travels in a life characterised by flux as her family moved from Ireland to Spain and then to London before Jess herself moved to LA. Now, she’s back in her safe space of London and is channelling all of those experiences into her work which feels like it’s stepped up multiple gears. “I feel like I’ve grown up a lot this year,” she reflects. “Maybe it’s because I’ve turned 25, and they say that your brain is supposed to be fully developed by the time you’re 25. I feel a lot more like a whole person.”
In many ways, 2022 felt like a culmination of many things Jess had been striving for. A safe and secure career making music on her terms with the freedom to experiment, the ability to travel and share her music, and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of belonging and peace, a lucidity that enabled her to work with clarity and freedom. “It’s been pretty mad, to be honest,” she laughs as she looks back on a pivotal year in her career. “It’s just been non-stop. A lot of the things that I’ve always wanted to achieve have come to fruition this year. It takes me a second sometimes to realise and let it all sink in, which I haven’t done yet because I’ve still got my blinkers on and just keep going because I’m in this creative mode that feels really good. I’ve toured the US for the first time, headlined London shows, and now I have this mixtape, and I’m thinking about the album seriously.”
There’s a sense that Jess has been liberated from some of the insecurities of her adolescence. “It’s mad looking back on a lot of the tracks. I feel like I can hear myself growing up with the things that I’m talking about, and it transports you back. As a whole, it just feels like a diary of adolescence,” she says of her already quite extensive back catalogue and three landmark EPs. “When I started, I never thought I would be here now. I never expected it to go this way. I used to be so shy about the whole thing,” she admits. “I was very fearful of showing people, and now I’ve found more power in that than ever. I feel like an established musician.”
“When I started, I never thought I would be here now. I never expected it to go this way”Biig Piig
Through all the upheaval of her youth, music was the one illuminating force that provided salvation for the young Biig Piig. It was a constant factor that introduced her to some of the most important people and experiences in her life, like the like-minded creative visionaries in NiNE8 Collective and the formative rush of going out clubbing. “Going to parties and raves around the end of that time in London opened me up to more dance music,” she enthuses. “The jungle influence is there, and that’s where I found my love for that.” She laughs as she explains how her richly diverse music taste has evolved into the anything-goes wonderland of her own songs. “I’m never the one to get the aux at the party because it’s just going to be chaotic, and you’re going to get a mixed bag of Shy FX and The Grateful Dead and D’Angelo. It’s going to be, ‘What is going on with her. Is she ok??’”
Biig Piig’s passion for music really began to catch fire when her family moved to London when she was a teenager. Her relationship with music began to take on more importance and became something fundamental in her life, a relationship that forged the artist she is today. “Music was definitely an anchor,” she explains. “Until I moved to London, I had listened to music, but because I was still so young, it was just the charts or the music you’d hear in the car. The moment I got to London was the point where the isolation of having moved around so consistently kind of set in. I was like ok, we’re here. We’re not moving for a while. That’s the moment it gets scary, and everything goes quiet. It’s an ‘is there anybody out there’ kind of thing. When I found music, it got me at a point where I really needed it. Ever since then, it’s been the thing that’s consistently brought me back to myself and feeling like, you’re not going to lose your mind. It’s something that I hope I can always rely on to pull me out.”
One of her earliest musical opportunities was being invited by the influential Colors platform for emerging artists in Germany to perform in Berlin. A big deal for a shy kind from Ireland who, when they first moved to London, was playing folk music at open mic nights and was now making electronic bangers that crossed countries. “I remember getting on the plane and landing in Berlin and being like, wow, something I made in my bedroom in London has landed me in Berlin,” she remembers. “That was a moment when I realised something was changing and shifting. Something that’s not physical has made a physical change.”
As things have ramped up for Biig Piig, Jess has started to embrace some of the aspects of being a musician that were once scary. “The more I’ve gone through certain things, I’ve realised what’s important,” she explains. “Community for me is something that you can forget to appreciate sometimes, and even forget how important the people in your life who you love and where there from the start really are.” The clarity of success and the realisation that you’re no longer alone and isolated also impacted her losing the fear of live performance. “Why be fearful of something if it’s going to help?” she asks. “If it’s going to overall have a positive effect, then you have to jump into it. Do you know what? This isn’t just for me. At the end of the day, you’re in a room full of people, and the love is there for everyone. It becomes that thing where it’s less self-analytical and more like the bigger picture of what this is actually doing.”
The communal experience of live shows is replicated in the enduring relationships formed in college in London that became NiNE8 Collective. While the members may be scattered over the world at any given time and no longer working as relentlessly close as before, they have an unbreakable spirit and bond woven into all the music they make. Each member of the collective is thriving in their own individual way. “It’s in our blood at this point,” says Jess. “We just inevitably always end up collaborating. We’re always going to pick up the phone and bounce ideas off each other. That’s an integral part of who we are as people.”
Despite working with a swathe of new collaborators on ‘Bubblegum’, like multi-instrumentalist LA producer Andrew Wells and her long-time collaborators, Jess is always reminded of those carefree days messing around in the bedroom creating beats with Mac Wetha and her old friends. “I get excited to show them stuff. I’ll be like, oh I can’t wait to show them this!”
‘Bubblegum’ is the sound of the evolution of Biig Piig’s vision. “This mixtape embodies a little bit of the chaos of music and not being able to tame it,” she says. It marks an important stepping stone towards the eventual Biig Piig album. “It wasn’t planned to do a mixtape, but I just couldn’t stop writing, and I was like, ok, there’s a story being told now,” continues Jess. “You’re in that headspace of recording something that you want to put into a project, so let’s put the mixtape out and then I’ll focus on the album. It encapsulates the last year and a half so well, and I just wanted to put all the sounds of that into this. Lyrically, it’s a bit of a journey as well, but it’s not quite an album. I feel like I know what I want from an album. I never want to describe what I want to do too much, even though I’ve got a plan in my head for what it’s going to feel like. The minute you put up restrictions and barriers, you restrict yourself in where you can go. With this thing, in particular, I know how they feel; I know what it feels like to have them all running in the order they are. It’s definitely a little teaser.”
The songs on the mixtape are among the most striking and confident Biig Piig has ever released. ‘Kerosene’ is all thrilling fevered desire, “sexy and confident’’ as Jess describes it, while ‘This Is What They Meant’ is her most richly defined and anthemic track yet. “It’s more nostalgic and a little more innocent. Throw it all to the wind with no consequences when it comes to love,” she says excitedly. It also features a beautiful lyric that highlights her artistry and turn of phrase as the words become just as powerful as the music as she perfectly captures the overwhelming feeling of being young and in love, “Yeah, I’m all in, and I don’t mind. I don’t care about tomorrow.”
“A lot of the things that I’ve always wanted to achieve have come to fruition”Biig Piig
If there’s a lyrical theme to the mixtape, it’s about dealing with relationships, both good and bad. “They definitely sit in their own places about different people. I just fall in love with everyone,” laughs Jess. She jokes that she might have to operate a complaints hotline for people wondering if the songs are about them. Surely, they must be honoured.
In a further example of her desire to constantly explore and discover new things, the songs here were created during the time Jess was living in Los Angeles. In some ways an alien environment and, in others, the perfect location, it allowed her to truly reflect on herself and the artist and person she is. Something of a reset for the next phase of her career. A world away from the cheeky daydreaming of debut EP ‘Big Fan Of The Sesh, Vol 1’ back in 2018. “I went out there to work on an EP initially, and I was stuck there for a while, so I just stayed there,” she explains. “My head was a bit scrambled at the time, but I made sense of myself more out there. There was a lot of spending time alone and then meeting other creatives and being faced with the question of, outside of everything that you know and everyone that you love, who are you? That’s a place I got myself to, and I think I learned a lot there. I understood a lot about how to understand and cope with things and grow up a bit. I definitely feel like a different person now to when I went out there.”
For Jess, the difference in feeling and ambition between her three previous EPs and ‘Bubblegum’ is as stark and wide as the Hollywood Hills in her previous home city. “The EPs feel like the three sections of teenhood to adulthood, and this feels like coming in with ‘I know who I am’ or ‘I’m getting there’ rather than just being in this lost, insecure place. It’s a little bit more self-assured.”
So, after seemingly finding so much inner peace in a blissful location, why move back to London? “I just miss it,” she says. “I want to settle. I want to be able to make a home now and settle in with friends and family outside of Biig Piig as a person. Life is quite chaotic in the music industry. There’s a lot of moving about and shifting and consistent ups and downs. It’s important to have somewhere that you know is a base.”
When she first moved to London in the early 2010s, it was out of her control. It was just another place that her family had to move to. Returning now, the London she is experiencing takes on added resonance. “It feels different, in a good way,” she explains. “As a whole, it’s got the same character to it, and it feels like I’m seeing it through a different lens; it’s somewhere where I’m choosing to be.”
One of the characteristics of ‘Bubblegum’ is the clever juxtaposition of supremely danceable beats with emotionally layered lyrics. It’s what makes Biig Piig’s music so compelling. Emotion doesn’t always need to be conveyed by someone baring their soul and wielding an acoustic guitar. “The record has ebbs and flows and sits in different spaces,” says Jess. “Capturing the lyrics in a way that feels like the atmosphere. Even though it’s upbeat, it still hits with that emotion. ‘Picking Up’, for example, with that being a more drum and bass kind of tune, it’s a lot to do with the anxious feeling that you need to go out and you need to get this sorted, or it’s going to end. It’s become a pleasurable adrenaline rush because you’re just chasing it.”
Having had experience making and releasing music for over six years now, Biig Piig might be in a more fortunate position than some of the other artists nominated in the BBC Sound of 2023 poll in the sense that she has had a long time to reflect on the hype cycle and everything that goes with it. “A lot of people don’t have time to adjust and just get thrown straight in,” she says. She’s not one who particularly has much time for lauding achievements, though. For Biig Piig, the only thing that matters is what’s next. “I don’t like to look back that much,” she says confidently. Every now and then, it’s important to talk about achievements and moments, but in everyday life, it’s important to get straight back to work. Straight back to making the next thing. It gets me excited. It’s motivating, but it’s not something I want to sit on or dwell on too much because where are you going next. What’s the next song?”
“I just fall in love with everyone”Biig Piig
Biig Piig has very big plans for 2023. The ideas for that much-anticipated debut album are bubbling around in her head, and she even has a list ready of dream collaborators that she wants to work with. “I’m trying to keep an open mind. I’m going to jinx it. I’m very superstitious. If I say it aloud, it’s not going to happen,” she laughs.
Some other plans Jess has for this year are to hopefully stop smoking and maybe take up the knitting she promised she would start in 2020. Do some more laundry. Oh, and take over the pop world. The first step is the new mixtape, and then the shows in spring promise to be must-see. “Visually and sonically, it’s so immersive,” she explains excitedly of her live set. “You can shut the world off for a minute and let yourself go and have a good time. From the start to the end, I want it to be like a party. I want it to be a euphoric experience.”
Following that comes the possible album: the next step in the ever-evolving universe of Biig Piig. “The next focus is the album, realistically,” she confirms. “I’ve got a vision for what I want to do. I know the story I want to tell and the visuals for it. It’s putting the pieces together, which is going to take up most of next year. We’re on the cusp for a lot of things and working it out as we go.” In 2023 Biig Piig is leading the charge for alt-pop’s sonic explorers. ■
Taken from the February 2023 edition of Dork. Biig Piig’s debut mixtape ‘Bubblegum’ is out 20th January.