To enable any diverse sonic experiment she wanted to pursue, Jessica Smyth chose the awkward and intentionally anonymous Biig Piig, a nonsensical name she found on a pizza menu. But — having just turned 23 in her temporary hometown of Los Angeles — the Irish-born, Spanish-raised West London native has been wondering: Is she old enough to already be experiencing her first identity crisis?
“Music has been such a big part of my life. It’s everything that I do, everything that I live and breathe,” she says, her still-strong brogue tinged with worry. “But after a while, you start to think — as I did recently — ‘Who the f—- am I without music? Outside of my name, Biig Piig, who am I without any musical thoughts?’”
The one constant in Biig Piig releases to date is Smyth’s sultry, seductive singing voice, which has morphed from hip-hop-inflected early singles “24K” and “Crush’n” to the smoky English-and-Spanish-trilled “Roses and Gold” in 2019; last year’s jazzy “Don’t Turn Around,” and her latest — the all-Spanish “Cuenta Lo,” which dropped on Feb. 12.
Since discovering she could sing as a teenager, she has aligned herself with various keen-eared producers, who have helped her shape her undulating sound. She’s currently fashioning her full-length debut disc in L.A. with the panoramic-minded Luca Buccelatti, who’s expanding her vision further.
But each day when Smyth leaves the studio, the lines between her and her alter ego start to blur.
“After doing creative stuff, I would go out and do impulsive stuff,” says Smyth, who began to enjoy having random conversations with strangers she’d meet in California bars, never letting on who she was or what she was doing in town. The results proved more than rewarding.
“Because after a certain point, you just get to talking, and you talk about basic stuff and you don’t get too deep,” she adds. “I liked meeting people and getting to know about them, and just seeing where the conversation leads. It made me think a bit outside of myself, and helped me work out where I’m at.”
No one could fault Smyth for being slightly confused. Her life story is erratic, to say the least. Born in Cork, she moved with her restaurateur parents to Spain’s Costa Del Sol (her brother’s severe asthma required sunnier climes), where she learned to read and write in only Spanish.
By the time the family returned to Ireland, then decamped to London when she was 14, she had to reacquaint herself with English all over again, even though she spoke it fluently. During the six friendless months she spent alone in her room upon arriving in Britain, she consoled herself by singing, then composing, she says, “because when you don’t feel like you can talk to anyone, and no one understands where you’re at, that’s the only way I could get it out — by writing tunes.” Her first somber three-chord piano effort, “Fly Away,” was inspired by U.K. folkie Ben Howard.
Smyth soon learned that she didn’t need keyboards or guitars to pen original material. After meeting fellow students Lava La Rue and Mac Wetha in college, the aspiring artists formed the NiNE8 Collective, wherein she began laying down slinky, slithery vocals over Wetha’s lo-fi home-tracked beats.
One Soundcloud-posted co-write, “Vice City,” caught the attention of the online Colors platform, which flew Smyth to Berlin for a live-taping of the song, and — 8 million views later — she signed to RCA as Biig Piig.
“I don’t play many instruments at all, really, so none of my stuff would be around without any collaborations,” she says. “I just put my own melody and lyrics over the beats and build them up like that.”
Smyth, who impulsively had her hair stylist snip off her shoulder-length tresses, says “Cuenta Lo” (“Count It Up”) is a start on her journey on figuring out who she is these days. “It’s an alter ego track,” she says. “And it’s very much about money and power and just the dangers of it, and how your ego can get so inflated you think, ‘I don’t care, I’m gonna do whatever I want.’ And for me personally, it just felt like something that needed to be sung in Spanish.”
Cutting her album has worked like a de facto therapy session, she adds. “I’m still learning a lot about myself, and trying to work out who I am and who I’m not. But now I’m exploring a more mature side, and topics that used to make me feel guilty, like sex. I’m feeling a lot more comfortable and confident.”