You Don’t Have To Make Your Pandemic Album

Talking creative pressure under quarantine (and more) with Alice Ivy and Cadence Weapon.

Alice Ivy is Annika Schmarsel, a Melbourne-based electronic musician; Cadence Weapon is Rollie Pemberton, a Toronto-based rapper and writer. To celebrate the release of the new Alice Ivy album Don’t Sleep (out now via Last Gang Records), the friends and collaborators hopped on a Zoom call to talk about the new album and how they’ve been holding up in quarantine. 
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor

Annika Schmarsel: Hey, how’s it going? 

Rollie Pemberton: Good, how are you doing?

Annika: I’m good, yeah! It’s the first sunny day in Melbourne in so long. We’re in winter here — winter here is nothing compared to Toronto though. How are you? 

Rollie: Good, it’s like peak summer here — you can almost not totally handle it. 

Annika: I remember when we tracked “Sunrise” at the studio, that week was also so, so hot. I was staying at an Airbnb in a basement somewhere with no AC, and I was just dying. It gets pretty fucking hot in Toronto.

Rollie: Yeah, tell everybody that we have summer in Canada. It is hot! They don’t believe it. 

Annika: [Laughs.] How’ve you been though? Are you still on lockdown?

Rollie: Not really. We’re definitely out of quarantine, is the vibe right now. The levels are a little more chill right now. Everyone is just acting like there is no virus — I’ll put it that way. People are listening and wearing masks, and not having, like, a big rager. There’s been no underground parties. But it still is kind of surprising. Basically today is the first time I’ve done some outside socializing at all in several months. I went to ship off a record someone bought from me and I ran into Owen Pallett, who’s an amazing musician and a friend of mine. He was like, “Hey, we’re going to Toronto Island,” which is a very idyllic environment, so I was like, “OK!”

Annika: It’s like, beaches and stuff, right? People go there to swim, is that what the vibe is?

Rollie: Yeah, it’s like beach vibes. People live there too, it’s like a different kind of community. But yeah, I hopped on the water taxi and I was on the beach.

Annika: Water taxi, that’s so bougie! [Laughs.]

Rollie: Yeah! Well, it was very “Sunrise” vibes.

Annika: We’re kind of the opposite right now. I’m in Melbourne, which is the southern part of Australia, and every other city is starting to get live shows back, cafes and stuff — you can eat at a restaurant now — but Melbourne just went into full lockdown again yesterday. We had, like, 200 cases overnight.

Rollie: Oh, wow. 

Annika: So we’re in lockdown again for six weeks. We just found out that yesterday, which is so crazy. It’s cool, it needs to be done, but six weeks is not a short time. Everyone else in Australia can go on holiday and Melbourne is just locked down. I’ve got a record coming out, not that it makes a difference, but I can’t even go out and celebrate that. I was really looking forward to going and having champagne somewhere or something. But now I’m just gonna be at home hanging out. 

Rollie: That scares me a lot, because we’re at the point where we’ve gotten down to… today is the lowest it’s been since March, so like a 115 cases in Ontario. And everybody is turning up! The studio just opened again, so I’m going back there tomorrow. I’m like, OK, back to business. But that’s quite scary. Though I will say, I did kind of appreciate the quarantine. I’ve been writing a book. 

Annika: Oh, sick! What kind of book is it? 

Rollie: It’s like a memoir, just talking about how I became a rapper, my time as Poet Laureate of Edmonton. Just some of my creative philosophies. 

Annika: That’s so cool!

Rollie: I just got a book deal for it, and I feel like I wouldn’t have had the time and space to actually properly do that if it weren’t for these specific circumstances. 

Annika: Totally. That’s amazing, congratulations. That blows my mind. A couple of my friends have recently written books, and writing a memoir just seems like such a peak adult thing.

Rollie: Right, right. It’s quite different from making music. In a way, I almost like it more, because it’s all, like, the life of the mind and internal processes. You don’t have to think, will this work for the club? It’s like, is it well written? OK, you’re good!

Annika: Is it the right BPM? 

Rollie: [Laughs.] Is this book the right BPM, is the question.

Annika: PS: “Sunrise” is 116, which I think is the perfect BPM for the club.

Rollie: I find it’s one of the BPMs people love. If you go a little higher, 124 or 126, people are like, “I don’t know, this is kind of experimental, am I gonna have to rave today?” But then when it’s lower, it’s like, “I can dance to this.” 

Annika: You’re writing a book, that’s amazing. I can’t say I’ve had such a productive [quarantine]. Creating music videos and stuff has obviously been hard — we went into full lockdown from April onward, and i had two shoots planned, which obviously went down the drain. So we shot an alternative video, and that concept turned out to be so much stronger, which is pretty amazing. So I’ve been kind of focusing on the art around the record, and shooting videos and press shots. Content making, all that sort of stuff. 

But in terms of new stuff, I can’t say… I’ve been doing remixes, and I’ve been in production for an app, like a music-making app, which is cool. 

Rollie: Oh, cool!

Annika: Yeah, that’s been kind of cool, thinking about making music in a different way. Like, what does the clicking sound on the app sound like? What does the background menu music sound like? So that’s been kind of cool. 

But you’ve probably been asked this too, but people are always like, “Has this time been great for you? You can totally just lock yourself in the studio and be creative and write all this music!” I can’t say that I’ve done that really. I’m a collaborative person — I love writing with people, bouncing ideas off people. It’s interesting, some people have written records and EPs in lockdown, but I’m just smashing out remixes. I’m not writing any music. 

Rollie: Oh, yeah, don’t get it twisted, I haven’t made any music for months. At first when the lockdown happened in March, I was, I’m not gonna do anything. Before that, I had back-to-back projects and I was traveling a lot, so I was like, OK, let me just sit in this and live in it and be OK with it. And in that emptiness, I ended up getting all of these ideas for writing this book, and thinking about creativity differently. I don’t think you have to feel pressure to make your pandemic album.

Annika: Yeah, I think it’s just unnecessary pressure. I think also in doing what we do, we are the people who motivate [ourselves] to get out of bed and be productive — you work for yourself, so when you have sessions cancelled, I’m the kind of person who’s like, alright, I gotta focus my time on other things, I’ve gotta be as productive as possible. But I think you’re in that [we should] stop putting so much pressure on ourselves. I feel like now is a really good time to reflect on life and how lucky we are. It’s so good that you’re able to go to the beach and hang out with your friends and stuff; I have a great house, and a dog now, and I actually just got my driver’s license, which is something that I did in lockdown somehow. I haven’t been able to drive anywhere, but!

Rollie: That’s a great achievement. I don’t have my driver’s license! That’s fire.

Annika: I put it off for so long. 

Rollie: I feel like a lot of people I’ve been talking to in quarantine have been doing things they’ve been thinking about for a long time. Like, I baked my first cake,  a blueberry coffee crumb cake.

Annika: How’d it turn out?

Rollie: Really well! I only just got into cooking, period, a few years ago, because I’m so used to the tour lifestyle. But now I can actually take care of myself. Making a cake felt amazing — I took mad pictures, I was super proud. The ‘gram was going crazy. 

Annika: Have you made use of streaming stuff, like shows and DJ sets?

Rollie: A little bit, not as much as I thought I would be. I just felt like, this is weird. I don’t wanna do some simulacrum of a live show. It makes me a little sad. I did one for Canada Day, which was with my buddy Skratch Bastid, and that was fun because he has a studio in his house and really fancy cameras, so we were able to look good. I hate the idea of doing some show that’s super dinky-looking in my bedroom, like “Yo, I’m rappin’!” It’s not lit at all. And that went better than a thought it would, but overall, the whole online thing feels like diminishing returns. Have you done anything? 

Annika: Yeah, I’ve done a few things, but I’ve started to say no to things because I feel like… I don’t know, it’s hard. The first one I did, I set up a camera in the studio and that was fun a got a really good response. I did another one that was actually paid, which was great, and we did it in a big warehouse and I had a drummer with me and we made it a big thing. But it was also… I don’t know, whenever I do it, I’m in my head like, are people actually watching this? [Laughs.] Like, do people actually give a shit about what I’m doing right now? Streaming is such a weird thing. One little thing could go wrong — when you have a live show, you have enough things going on, but now you’ve got the camera, the internet connection. If the internet connection isn’t right, you’re totally screwed. 

There’s a few discussions going around in Australia about big companies hitting up artists to do these streaming sessions for free, and it’s like, are we lowering our value? Do we need to be doing that? There’s been some lines crossed with massive companies asking artists to play for free and streaming off their platforms.

Rollie: Absolutely, I think about that a lot. I’ve seen the sponsors for some of these streams up in Canada — there was one that was happening and it was like, the number one cellphone company and the government sponsoring it. How much are the artists getting out of that? I’m becoming more and more wary of where I send my artistry towards. I like it when it’s something that comes from the heart, like I’m just doing it with a friend and it’s more of a collective thing, but I don’t like it when it feels like it’s this kind of forced corporate thing. I find those corporate things don’t even really help you. 

Annika: No, they don’t, unless they pay really well. [Laughs.]

Rollie: Yeah, obviously the pay is great. But I just mean like, [you get] no new fans, and do you even have a fun time? I was thinking about this a lot for you, because I’ve noticed that you play a lot of festivals — so many festivals, in fact, that I was like, I didn’t even know they had that many festivals in Australia. So what is it like not having that outlet right now? 

Annika: It’s so hard. My two favorite things in music are collaborating, which is gone in lockdown — though I’ve been hit up for Zoom writing sessions, which is too much for me. 

Rollie: Oh, my god. I don’t know. 

Annika: Especially writing something from scratch, because you don’t have the person in the room. If you kind of have an idea going, it’s not so bad. But that’s a thing I’ve had to go through, and to be honest it’s been a massive headache.

Rollie: Think about how we made our song — that wouldn’t be possible today. I feel like part of that vibe we captured was from having a fun time in the studio. 

Annika: We were just talking smack and having fun. But yeah, so there’s that outlet [gone], and then there’s my other favorite thing, which is touring and playing festivals. I fucking love touring. I could go on a 40-day tour and I’ll be tired, but I’ll have the best time because I love traveling and meeting new people and socializing. 

I love being tired. I moved houses a couple days ago, and my body was so sore I went to bed and was like, it feels like I just came home from tour. I love the feeling of being so exhausted. [Laughs.] 

Going into lockdown, I had, like, 50 shows booked. I’m meant to be on a massive tour with a band all around Australia that’s been completely cancelled. I was supposed to play Splendor in the Grass, which is kind of like Australia’s equivalent — probably one-tenth the size, though — of Coachella. That’s obviously been postponed. I was so excited when I got that show. The record would have just come out, it would have been amazing. I feel like for me as a creative person — this record was written on trips, in between shows on tour, and I feel like I perform so much better like that, as opposed to now like, “You have three months to potentially write an album!” I kind of need those time limits. 

Touring is my favorite thing. It makes me feel so busy and productive. I just don’t have that now, which is really weird. 

Rollie: That’s so funny, because people always typically complain about being tired from touring. But you like it!

Annika: I love it! I really struggle to take time off. I’m talking about the day you get home from tour where you’re like, shit yeah, I’m gonna switch on Netflix and order pizza in and lie on this couch for eight hours and not feel bad. But then two days later it’s like, oh no, I feel like a piece of shit, I should probably do something with my life. The post-tour comedown is crazy.

Rollie: OK, I like that feeling too then. What is it like putting out an album right now?

Annika: Putting out an album is so stressful anyway, pandemic or no pandemic, but the past three months have been like, “OK, we gotta shoot this video, we gotta do this photo shoot, we gotta plan this tour.” Then coronavirus gets in the way and it’s like, “OK, we can’t do that shoot anymore, let’s work around it and do something else.” Then the restrictions ease a little bit and it’s like, “OK, maybe it’s possible again!” Then the virus gets bad again, so “maybe we just need to work around it again.” It’s just been problem-solving for the past three months.

Rollie: It’s like, we’re artists, right? It’s just another level of creativity we’ve gotta do. 

Annika: Even just a small thing like a listening party for your record — I had this ridiculous thing planned. My listening party, which was supposed to be the day of the release — I was planning on getting, like, 50 people on a bus and we were gonna drive out to this roller skating rink. I wanted to rent the rink out and just blast the record and everyone could skate to it. 

Rollie: Aw, that sounds amazing.

Annika: Then we could all go to a bar and get drunk.

Rollie: That would be a good birthday party idea. I guess putting out an album is like a birthday for your album. When I put out my last album a couple years ago, I had all my collaborators together, and someone made me a cake for it. It was like a birthday party!

Annika: We were thinking about alternatives like, we could go to a smaller venue, or we could go to this bar where we could livestream it. Now it’s like, I don’t think we’ll be able to do it because they’re putting everything under lockdown again. You have to indicate that the record is out in some wayI’ve spent hours and hours of my time creating content that’s possible to make. I was literally having a winge to my partner about this yesterday — he made this delicious pasta and I was just like [Annika twirls imaginary fork] “I’m so sick of creating content, I just want to make music! I just want to be in the studio writing music and having fun but I feel like my job now is to learn how to use Zoom and how Twitch works!” It’s good to be learning new things, but it’s just crazy how now no one really has any answers. No one knows what it’ll be like in two months. 

I want to be in the studio doing stuff but, first of all, I don’t have the drive as much, but also I’m so busy trying to problem solve. Someone tweeted something yesterday like, “Any ad agencies looking for employees should hire people from the music industry because they’ve literally solved one million problems in a day because of this virus.” 

Rollie: Did you ever consider postponing the album until after the pandemic? 

Annika: Yeah, we thought about it, but we decided not to because a lot of people were gonna do that — I can name 10 of my friends who have already postponed music because of this pandemic. So that way, it all bottlenecks toward the end of the year which will make it harder. But also, we made the decision to just stick to our guns and go with it because it’s a strong record, we feel really strongly about it. It’s got some really fucking sick features on it! [Laughs.] We’re so incredibly proud of it. Except for the live shows, everything has exceeded expectations. 

And let’s just forget about the virus for a second — pushing back music puts your career on hold. And people are going to want to be listening to music, I hope, so… 

Rollie: I think that’s the right move. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. I feel like there’s pluses and minuses to it, but I feel like there’s a captive audience that wants more music. What do you think of the idea of your album being considered a pandemic album? Like, it’s from that era. I was thinking about that with my book, like, they’re gonna say I wrote this during the pandemic

Annika: Obviously the record wasn’t made in the pandemic, but I feel like I’m always going to remember this year for the rest of my life. I feel like maybe it could be viewed as a good thing? Like, this record came out during this really hard time, and people want things to listen to and to spark them up. And this record does that! I mean, listen to “Sunrise” — it’s like the biggest fucking push of adrenaline. 

Rollie: It’s uplifting music. 

Annika: Yeah, it’s a celebration of so many different sick artists. It’s really special. It wasn’t made in a pandemic, but I’m OK with it being recognized as a record that came out during a really weird time when people were hurting and have struggled to get out of bed. I really hope that it helps people. 

(Photo Credit: left, Michelle G Hunder) 

In the years between the release of Alice Ivy‘s Australian Music Prize-nominated 2018 debut I’m Dreaming, the curator has grown into one of Australian electronica’s most prominent advocates for female producers. Now with the release of Don’t Sleep, Alice Ivy’s position alongside respected contemporaries is solidified, and her status as a revered collaborator confirmed.

Platforming new artists and helping new voices to break-through to the mainstream goes beyond just tastemaking for Alice Ivy, whose refined curatorial skills are on full display across Don’t Sleep. Through her choice of collaborators, Ivy is working to diversify the sound and look of the traditionally male-dominated studio space. This cause moves forward again through her second LP where Ivy is equally adept at uncovering new dimensions to well-established artists such as Cadence Weapon on “Sunrise,” Montaigne and Bertie Blackman on “Sweetest Love” and Ngaiire on “All For You;” as she is seeking out and breaking new ones including Thelma Plum on “Ticket To Heaven,” Odette on “I’ll Find It” and more across 13 tracks.

Written predominantly on the road where pool houses and kitchen tables were made into impromptu studios, in making Don’t Sleep Ivy strove to write music that could soundtrack both feelings of pure elation and move listeners emotionally. Challenging herself to experiment with new songwriting methods, explore the rawness of sound and collaborate with a broader range of voices, the result is a colourful journey made all the more vibrant and tender with tales woven from some of Australia’s most established and exciting upcoming voices.

(Photo Credit: Michelle G Hunder)