Melbourne creative Alexander Biggs came up with a novel way of writing his second EP, Whatever Helps You Sleep. Having created a cubby in the living room of his inner-city apartment by draping a huge blanket over the ceiling fan and the couch, he and his partner would invite friends over to watch Game Of Thrones from the sanctity of their self-constructed fortress. One day, he entered the cubby with his guitar and started strumming.
“It just took me to another place,” he smiles. “It became the zone where you could write and cut out the distractions a bit more.”
Also inspiring Biggs was his location. Having moved to the city from the north Melbourne suburb of Thornbury, he immersed himself in the energy of his new locale. On occasions he’d have to wait for late night revellers to pass by his ground floor apartment before he could record a demo take.
“It was such a crazy time living right in the thick of it with drunks out in the street, waking up at 5am to builders building skyscrapers,” he offers. “It just felt like a whole change, and change is so conducive to creativity.”
The follow-up to 2017’s acclaimed debut EP, Still You Sharpen Your Teeth, the songs on Whatever Helps You Sleep span a period of two years in Biggs’ life, from the ages of 22 to 24. They chart a huge period of growth, from a bad break-up in Thornbury to finding new love and moving to the city, before moving back to Thornbury, where he completed writing the EP in his kitchen.
The artwork for Whatever Helps You Sleep reflects these locations, from the front cover shot of dead flowers in a vase that Biggs took in his Thornbury kitchen – “The fact that flowers are a gift that you give someone that eventually die is really powerful,” he says of the imagery – to the film strips containing shots from his home and the studio. The very act of shooting on film is, says Biggs, representative of his approach to music.
“I like the idea that you shoot it once and that’s it. If someone’s squinting that’s just how it is. And I think that speaks of how I record as well – we keep the mistakes because it’s human and feels right and feels honest.”
Which explains why if you listen carefully to closing song “The Worst We’ve Ever Been” you can hear the sound of trucks driving past the Yarraville warehouse where much of the EP was recorded (with some work also done at Melbourne’s Sing Sing Studios).
“Even though we were recording at 1am, it’s just so alive in Yarraville,” chuckles the singer.
Biggs co-produced Whatever Helps You Sleep with producer Matthew Neighbour (The Avalanches, Matt Corby, Missy Higgins). For someone who got his start by recording and producing his own music in his bedroom, Biggs revelled in being more hands on than he was on his debut EP. “I’ve found that I always feel way better about what I’m doing when I’m steering the ship,” he says.
In Neighbour, Biggs found a “kindred spirit”. “He had a similar pool of music to draw from, and really understood a lot of the references I brought in and the vibe,” says Biggs. “He knows how to get a great vibe, but he also knows how to make it sound really solid as well. He just had a good way of inspiring some action.”
Recorded in three four-day blocks of 15-hour days, lyrically the EP’s seven tracks range from the autobiographical (“The Worst We’ve Ever Been” essays a toxic relationship) to ruminations on grief and loss (“Car Ride”); from trying to nurture more positive living habits (“Dog Boy”) to finding the positive side to negative events (“Death Bed”).
“Before I had anything I had that line that ‘There’s nothing like a funeral to bring all the family together’,” explains Biggs of “Death Bed”. “I just wanted a cute little song that cuts through the bitterness of pain.”
The last song to be written for the EP, the gorgeous, piano-based “Ophelia”, uses the metaphor of a flood to comment on the scourge of “toxic masculinity”.
Throughout the seven songs, Biggs uses vivid, poetic imagery to bring his lyrical subjects to life. Witness the first lines of EP opener “Car Ride”: “You arrived covered in salt/You were a wound that was weeping for someone who cut you all over.”
“I think so much music is so intent on the same imagery and it gets so boring,” he offers. “I guess I see it as a duty to not be boring. Not out of wanting to be credible, but just out of wanting to give people work that isn’t about forests and oceans and anchors.”
Together it all adds up to Biggs’ most confident outing yet, veering from the dreamy, whisper-quiet melodies of “Car Ride”, which hints at the influence of Nebraskan singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, to “Dog Boy”, which builds from a gentle acoustic song to a stirring, horn-laden climax.
For all the success of his debut EP – more than one million streams on Spotify, global airplay on triple j, BBC Radio 1 and KCRW; tours with artists such as Evan Dando, Frightened Rabbit, Julien Baker and a spot on the UK’s Great Escape Festival – the sense here is of an artist truly finding his feet.
“The confidence comes a little bit from live work, but I think mostly just from writing and honing my craft, and just feeling in a good space creatively,” says Biggs. “It just felt like really strong work and something I could be proud of at the end of the day.”