Biig Piig: Together, apart
After a nomadic upbringing in Ireland and Spain, Biig Piig found her home, and her sound, in south London.
Jess Smyth is great at introductions. Affable and disarmingly laid-back, she often finds the process of forging new connections more rewarding than the connection itself. “I love going for a night out, meeting a group of people, and then you walk away and never see them again,” the 21-year-old singer beams between sips of wine on a sunny restaurant terrace. “Kind of like having a day in their life? It’s my favourite thing.”
Surely time is running out for Smyth to enjoy anonymity. In the past two years she’s amassed a fervent following for her work as Biig Piig, which favours smoky, soporific soul and jazz-tinged hip-hop, and features lyrics that shift fluently between English and Spanish. And as much as Vice City and Perdida established Smyth as a standalone voice, these early singles only confirmed her status as a natural collaborator too, featuring production from YSK Jamie and Puma Blue respectively.
She remains a key player in south London’s thriving, youthful scene; she’s well respected by her peers, despite preferring the company of strangers. But then Smyth’s attraction to fleeting friendships isn’t just some anthropological fascination – it’s a survival technique she picked up during her nomadic upbringing.
The oldest of four, she was born in Cork but spent her formative years in Spain, where her family relocated on advice that a warmer climate might improve her brother Paddy’s severe asthma. Her parents got by running bars and restaurants in Marbella and the Costa del Sol, before being forced to move back to Ireland around the time of the financial crash, when the local council revoked their property without warning.
Smyth is impressively relaxed about the whole experience today, be it Spanish bureaucrats forcing her family into bankruptcy or the wrench of starting all over again in Ireland while on the cusp of adolescence. Then there were the subsequent moves to Waterford and eventually west London, where her father still runs a pub today.
“[Moving around] was isolating, but it’s shaped me in good ways,” she muses, sounding as easygoing as she does in her breezy bars. “I don’t ever feel scared to go out on my own. I’m always out and about trying to make friends. And I’m always losing shit like my phone all the time, but I don’t really have attachments to things. Even with people, I think I get attached very quickly and then detach just as quickly.”
© Oscar Eckel
Some things do stick though, like her relationships with Lava La Rue and Mac Wetha, fellow members of multi-disciplinary arts collective NiNE8. They met in a music tech class at Richmond College, but fell out of touch when Smyth quit aged 17 to move in with her then-boyfriend (a period she now refers to as “a rough patch”). When the relationship ended, Smyth found herself back in touch with her old classmates by chance, when La Rue invited her to a party. It proved a pivotal encounter.
“[La Rue and Wetha] were having a cypher in the next room,” she recalls. “I’d been in jams at open mics but I’d never seen one like that before, where you have an instrumental playing. I walked into the room, sat down and was having a great time, and then they passed me the mic. I just improvised, and they were like, ‘Woah.’ I thought, ‘This feels sick.’”
The experience reignited Smyth’s creativity after having “completely fallen out of love with music” around the time of leaving college. Where it had previously been pop-punk bands or acoustic balladeers like Lewis Watson and Ben Howard that fed her imagination, she now found herself gravitating towards hip-hop and neo-soul. “I loved the way it was a lot more of a mellow vibe,” she explains. “The way that stories were told and the sounds they used… It just suddenly made sense.”
From then on, Smyth dedicated the hours that she wasn’t waitressing or working in casinos to writing music with Mac Wetha, singing and rapping over the beats he’d crafted in his bedroom. “Once everything clicked it just didn’t stop,” she tells me, still sounding astonished at the speed with which she found her sound. “And, looking back, without [NiNE8] being as supportive as they are, I might have followed music but it would have been a lot harder, and I would have lost a lot of myself on the way.”
Currently composed of eight members spread across London, the DIY collective remains a huge source of inspiration for Smyth, bringing together a group of like-minded outsiders, all born in 1998. As she puts it, “we’re like the loose ends: we’ve all come from places where we never really felt like we fit in.” NiNE8 provides a vital platform for experimentation too, and it’s notable that on the group’s recent mixtape, No Smoke, Smyth is more likely to be found rapping than singing. It’s no wonder then that when she joined RCA Records in June, one of the most important prerequisites of signing was that she could continue to collaborate freely with NiNE8.
Her first release for RCA is Sunny, a burst of shimmering yacht-pop that was fortuitously dropped in the middle of the UK’s recent heatwave. With its blissed-out beats and hook-heavy melody, the balmy single is a deviation from the after-hours vibes of Smyth’s catalogue to date. She’s excited about the development, her face lighting up when she talks about it.
© Oscar Eckel
“I haven’t made any happy songs in my whole career, which is mad, so I was like, ‘Let’s take a different route with it.’ Having grown up in Spain, around those little beach huts with people playing tunes, I’d love to imagine someone walking through one of those and hearing my song.”
Whether Sunny is representative of Smyth’s forthcoming third EP, she won’t say. But she does let slip she hopes to have the collection out by October, that it features “higher production values” and already has a name.
“It’s going to be called No Place for Patience,” she smiles, pausing to draw slowly on a cigarette. “It’s like, at this point in my life, I know what I want to do and there’s no more time for fucking around, do you know what I mean? Because the clock in my head has very subtly started ticking, in the sense that I’m not a kid anymore. This is the rest of my life. And it’s scary but it’s exciting. Because it’s my future.”
Photography: Oscar Eckel
Biig Piig plays at Simple Things Festival, Bristol, on 19 October