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Nashville based artist MNERVA (also known as Matt Wagner) has recently hit the rock/rap music scene in a triumphant blaze of creativity with the release of his newest single "Stuck." By the use of guitar melodies and trap beats, this song's themes speak on what it was like to live during the 2020 pandemic, and how alone Wagner felt during that time. This new track was also a huge change from the singles he had released in 2020 like "Geek," "Bad Guy," "Famous (See You Again)," and "Growing Up (feat. danny G)." Those tracks served their purpose of showcasing his ability to rap, whereas "Stuck" seeks to transition his style of music from hip-hop to a blend of rock and rap.
MNERVA started his career in music by attending college in New York to pursue his dreams of being a theatre actor. While pursuing this objective he stumbled across the band 21 Pilots, more specially their album Blurryface. After hearing the last track of that album, Wagner was inspired to combine the rock elements of the album with his knowledge of theatre production and created Blurryface: The Musical. After posting the trailer of the musical online, he was served a cease-and-desist letter from the band's manager and had to dismantle the whole operation. This did not discourage him, in actuality it made him determined to become an artist and fulfill his ambitions.
After living in New York, he moved to Nashville to accomplish his dreams of being an artist and is currently maintaining the goal of, "Flipping the conventional wisdom of hip hop and rock on its head." He is currently working on his first EP entitled Talk Too Much which will feature the tracks "Talk Too Much," "The Interview," "I'm Not You," Quarter Life Crisis," and "Picture Perfect." This new EP will also feature an overture track which is unusual for EP, but interesting nonetheless. Continue reading for the full MNERVA interview and be sure to check out his latest single "Stuck" now streaming on all platforms.
You recently did a livestream performance on tuneden, how did it feel to play your music live after living in a pandemic for more than a year?
"It was so fun, that was a dream come true for me. It was really interesting because it was definitely live, and when things didn't go right on my end I was like, 'Crap, crap, crap!' I grew up performing in a mirror, so swap the mirror out for the camera and it's like 'I can do this, I've been doing this my whole life!' I had a lot of acting and theatre training growing up so I knew I had to focus on the camera and go from there. I got a lot of good responses from the show, so that was good."
When did you first decide you wanted to play music?
"So my parents are both musicians, my dad is a drummer and my mom is a singer – they actually met in a jazz trio back in the day. That piano player was really a third wheel in there. Music was always around the house, and when I was five I'm pretty sure I was like – 'Dad can I play drums?' and it just went from there. I've been playing for almost 20 years, most of my life. Around the time when I was 13 I joined my first rock band and none of the guys could sing; but I could hold a tune so they were like, 'You can sing and play drums right?' and I was like, 'Yeah?' so that's how I developed that. Before I knew it I had caught the songwriting bug and I was like, 'This is what I wanna do with my life.' I went to college and studied songwriting a lot and that was where I discovered rapping because I had never done it before. When I was a Freshman one of my roommates was like, 'Did you know you're better at this than singing?' and I explored it and became more obsessed with it. In 2018 I decided that I wanted to be an artist so I really took the time to do all the groundwork, record all the music, have a logo, the social media going, and here we are three years later and I'm finally getting some traction."
Your new song "Stuck" will be released next Friday on April 30th; how do you think listeners will feel about the song when they hear it for the first time?
"I'm very excited to put that one out. At the show everyone was like, 'Dude that's your best song!' People in the comments were like, 'Dude go off.' It's probably the most relatable song that I've put out as far as my catalogue goes. It's very much my pandemic song – it was me talking about how I felt that I was living through Groundhog Day every day. Every day I would wake up, play video games, finish TV shows, watch social media content, and I just felt like nothing was getting done – we all felt that way because it's still not the same. But with all of us getting vaccinated at least we're going in the right direction. So I just bottomed out there for a little while, my self-worth is connected to my productivity – so when there's no productivity…ahhhhh. So recording that was me getting out of that cycle because it was like everything I wanted to say for a long time, and here it is packaged in a little bow. Based on the show, I think some people can."
Do you think that other artists are also going through the same creative lulls due to the Coronavirus?
"Oh yeah. I can tell you from at least my peers - we have a running joke that we should all listen to our own advice. I feel like in the independent scene I feel like we used to plan out something in six months, and now it's week by week now. It's getting better but it's still very unpredictable. I just got my second shot and I'm very ready to get back out there."
You've lived in quite a few different places like Maryland, New York, and Nashville; where would you say your music is based out of?
"Right now definitely Nashville. All of the creators I work with, all the songwriters and producers – they're all out of Nashville. So shout out to Kory Shore, Andrew Gomez, Austin Shawn, Tony Chetta, Katie Mac; they're all incredible musicians and writers in their own rights. I feel like I found my style and how I wanted to do things when I lived in New York, I did that for nine months in 2019 and I was chasing my theatre dreams at the time. I wrote a jukebox musical about 21 Pilots, and then that started my career because it went viral, I got a cease-and-desist letter, and fans, so it was a wild time. New York is where I got the skills, and Nashville is where I got the confidence."
How did you create the name MNERVA? Is it an acronym for anything?
"So Minerva is the Roman goddess of Wisdom, back in mythology – I'm a total geek so it's something I would think of – I was working an HR job at a guitar place, not Guitar Center, I had my headphones on shuffle, and I didn't like the job very much – and the song 'Minerva' by the Deftones came on. While I was listening to it I realized how much I loved the shoegaze guitars and all the production choices. I thought 'What if someone took those types of sounds and put some trap drums with it, and added some rap to it. That's really cool, I should do that! That feels very me.' So while listening to the song I thought, 'Who is Minerva? What is that?' so I started looking it up and found out it was the Roman goddess of Wisdom and I was like, 'Cool, I kind of want to turn the conventional wisdom of hip hop on its head.' So I went with that and decided to drop the 'I.'"
How do you feel about being an independent artist? Would you prefer signing to a label?
"Honestly, definitely the goal in the end is a record deal, or some kind of deal. I do music for the live show, and to have those resources to be able to book a show and get my music to the most people – it wouldn't necessarily have to be a major label; the dream would be if I got a FueledbyRamen deal, oh my god, 21 Pilots, Panic!, Fall Out Boy, Paramore, all my favorite artists. They give their artists a lot of freedom and also help them get to the right audience, a label like that would be cool for me. I currently work at a ramen shop right now, so I'm literally fueled by ramen. I remember when Gym Class Heroes was on there, I actually played a show with Travis McCoy back in like 2019. He was featured on one of my friends' songs and he's such a cool guy."
What artists are you currently listening to, or are inspired by?
"Definitely one of my favorites; there is an artist from Columbus, Ohio his name is Bilmuri and I remember discovering him a few years ago and just being like, 'Oh my god this is everything I love as far as the shoegaze stuff, but also, you're fusing it with electronic music. That's so cool!' I also plug him whenever anyone asks me who I'm listening to because I have every one of his songs in my head absolutely rent free. I love Grandson, I love 21 Pilots, J Cole is a huge one for me. I was gonna say Mike Shinoda's current solo stuff I absolutely love. I've been diving into old school pop punk recently like the Yellowcards of the world. MGK's newest record got me back into that stuff because I was like 'I forgot how good this was, I grew up in a really good time!'"
Early in 2020 you received a cease-and-desist letter about the trailer you released for a musical created around 21 Pilot's album Blurryface. Could you explain to your listeners what it was like to receive that letter, and what the effects of cancelling the musical had on you?
"In 2015 that was when I discovered 21 Pilots, right after Blurryface came out – I remember my suitemate in my dorm was like 'Oh man this band is so good you have to check them out!' so he showed me 'Trees' and I was like, 'This is really cool, okay!' and so I started diving into it. Then I got to Blurryface and I was like, 'There's something here.' I started reading the story behind it, that everyone has their 'blurryface' which is their personification of their doubts, flaws, and insecurities. When I got to the last song 'Goner,' when he starts screaming, 'Don't let me be!' all that stuff, I was like; first of all I'm crying, second of all I could totally see a stage show in this moment. I was clear as day picturing it, and was thinking, 'Somebody should make a musical out of this album… I'm going to make a musical about this album!' I had done theatre in high school but I had never really attempted any project with that creativity so it took me a long time to get it right. But after 17 drafts, a workshop, and a free performance in New York I thought I finally had it. So I made a trailer for it and sent it out to the social medias, and it went very viral overnight. About half their fanbase were like, 'You're brilliant, this is amazing!' and the other half were like, 'Please kill yourself. This is so disrespectful.' They thought I was trying to monetize the lead singer's mental health issues and it wasn't the story I was trying to tell. A lot of them were also like, 'This is cringe.' But I get that, it's not for everybody. By splitting the fan base in two, it wasn't something the band could get behind – it would have been very controversial if they had cosigned it to me – and that's all I wanted. I was like, 'Hey I'm putting this out there, not to move forward with this project, because I can't do it without your permission. But if I get all these fans onboard, maybe you would be interested.' The drummer actually ended up liking the post on Instagram, but in the end the managers email was very easy to find and he responded with that cease-and-desist letter sadly. I guess they were not interested, but I don't take it personally because it would have been a huge risk for them, and would have been safer for them to cease-and-desist letter me. I also knew that it was a possibly, and because of that I figured what have I gotten from this project? My creativity has improved so much by having to come up with this storyline, and arrange the music for theatre, so I had to analyze songwriting and harmony. So I felt more prepared to be an artist now that I have gone through these steps in a different medium. Then over the pandemic I wrote my own original musical as well, so using those skills I was able to make something entirely my own."
Was it difficult for you to get over that initial rejection from the fans and the band's manager?
"It's wild man, they still tweet at me to this day. I'm a masochist so I look it up all the time. It's to be expected, whenever you put yourself out there creatively, yeah it's a part of you, but it's also a product. You're the artist, that's the product. Just because they hate the product doesn't mean they hate you. Finding a way to separate myself was really important. The loudest voices are always the most negative ones. I had people message me privately and say, 'Hey man, this project means so much to me. It's so cool.' Having that duality was really helpful to me. When I had to shut the project down I had a lot of people who liked the musical jump onto MNERVA. When I released the single 'Geek' it got 600 plays before I even playlisted it. That was all the 21 Pilots fans. That's what started my artist career, so I wasn't coming from nothing; and I've retained a good amount of them. I had quite a few of them watching my recent show, it was so cool. I always say I have like five fans, but I adore them, they're really engaged and whenever I feel down, I think of them and know that if I didn't do this – they'd be disappointed."
You've released a few tracks like "Geek," "Bad Guy," and "Growing Up (feat. danny G)" but which has been your favorite song to release?
"I love them all for very different reasons. My favorite lyric I've ever written is in my most recent single. It's on 'Famous (See You Again)' that one is about me falling in love with this girl I met on the beach when I was 15. I remember writing this song and writing the lyric in the song, and thinking that it was the most honest lyric I had ever written. Having that be out there, and having people be like, 'I knew you were a storyteller, but I didn't know you were this good of a storyteller.' That was really validating for me. The song 'Bad Guy' slaps live, especially when I have to hit the stratospheric notes at the end. It's like, I don't care where I am at in the show at that point, I hit those notes and I'm back in."
Do you have the same producer for all your music, or do you prefer to alternate between different people?
"So right now, with all the stuff that is out, that was all produced by Kory Shore. He's an artist and producer out of Nashville and I've known him for six years now. We used to live together in College and he was one of the people to really push me and be like, 'Hey man, you have something to say. Go be an artist. You have something that is worthwhile.' I remember experimenting and trying to find MNERVA's sound - and in 'Bad Guy' is where we found it. That little guitar riff and that on top of the drums was what I was looking for. He's produced everything that is out already, and the song 'Stuck' he also produced. After that I've already started working on my next phase for my EP Talk Too Much. That was produced by Andrew Gomez and Tony Chetta, Andrew – I did my first session with him, we did a song called 'Quarter Life Crisis' and it's going to be the first single off the EP. And that was really cool because that's the new bar, that's really changed the game. I'm leaning more into my Linkin Park influences and more of that early 2000's early rap/rock stuff. I'll always be a rapper, but I'm a rock artist at heart. Getting to finally do that and do it new and current, excites me. A lot of it is really cinematic as well, with the theatre influence coming in. The song I ended the recent show yesterday called 'The Interview' is another song I'm really excited about because it's kind of like a finale to my show."
Will the tracks previously mentioned appear on the EP? Or will you keep those as singles?
"I'll keep those as singles for now. I had one more track for that whole EP but I was unable to clear a sample for it. I'm going to let those songs live as their own proto MNERVA and from Talk Too Much, this is the direction I'm going in. 'Stuck' will also be it's own thing, I'm using that as a transition phase."
Will Talk Too Much feature artwork by the same artist who made the pictures for "Bad Guy," "Geek," and "Growing Up?"
"I would love to, Kari Tilly absolutely kills the cartoon vibes for everything. She was actually the Assistant Stage Manager for my New York production of Blurryface the Musical. I do think moving forward though, I do want to change the art style a bit. I'm excited to start exploring that happening. Once the single gets dropped, I can focus on everything else."
What plans for merch do you have to accompany the EP?
"I have a shirt based on 'The Interview' I really want to put out. I just have to wait until I put that song out. It'll be the lyrics, 'I hope it gets better than this.' From there I have stickers with my logo, and as far as from there, I really do enjoy my logo and what it means. So I think I can put it on a lot of other stuff like hats."
Will there be a physical release of Talk Too Much?
"I hadn't thought about it yet, but at the same time I remember being a kid and going to F.Y.E every day after school and buying CD's. So that'll always be nostalgic for me, so probably having physicals in the future is very much something I will be doing."
Speaking of your logo, could you explain what it represents?
"It is a wisdom knot, because Minerva is the Goddess of Wisdom. Usually a wisdom knot is vertical but I turned it horizontal because I really wanted to turn the conventional wisdom of these two genres, rock and hip-hop on it's head. We know what they sound like together, we have the 90's nu-metal stuff like Linkin Park. What if rap-rock, it's rock-rap? So I turned the symbol that way so it's connected to the name and what I want to do with it. I think Breaking Benjamin has one of the coolest symbols ever and when I finally found this symbol, I thought that it could be my version of it."
What song off the new EP would you like to make a music video for?
"I have a live video that I just finished for the single 'Quarter Life Crisis' and that one looks so good. It's me in full red lighting and it has the moving camera around. I keep talking about 'The Interview' because that's like my favorite song ever made and that one – the whole point of the song is me going to a job interview and the interviewer asking me where I see myself in five years. So I feel like I could make a really good video for, and it'll be the last single off the project at this point. First I'll be doing 'Quarter Life Crisis,' and then I have song called 'Talk Too Much,' a song called 'I'm Not You,' and then 'The Interview' will be the last one. I'm probably going to try to do a video for each of them. It's going to be a six track EP, so there will be an overture, and a song called 'Picture Perfect.' But those four will definitely be the ones I'll be really pushing."
You don't typically see an overture in an EP, what made you want to release this in an EP rather than an album?
"With the EP I wanted people to dip their toes in. I want people to be watching and listening before I decide I want to do the album. I'm actually working on my next EP after this one. Once I finally get enough traction and I have more money on the table, I'll release the debut for MNERVA."
Do you see an album happening in the next five years like you mentioned in "The Interview?"
"The consensus I basically come to in 'The Interview' is in five years I want to be happy. Whether that means I'm in a really good relationship, or I can put food on the table because of my music. I'm at a point where I'm part of a community and that's what really matters to me, if it turns out music is where it happens and I get that deal, then that's amazing. In the end if I'm pushing 30 and I'm content with where life is going, I'll count that as a win."
If you were stranded on a desert island, what would be the one album you had to have with you?
"I actually ask this question to everyone so I'm glad you asked this question. I would say Songs by Jane by Maroon 5. I think that record is so varied and every time I listen to it, I always get something more from it. It also reminds me a lot of my childhood because my parents would play it at like every family function for my entire life. That one I feel like every song is incredible, Adam's voice and songwriting is ridiculous. That one has a lot of musical complexity as well as pop writing. It's the perfect mixture of an album that hits on very different levels. An alternate would be Hybrid Theory by Linkin Park."
What would you like your listeners to know about you, or what would you like to announce?
"I'm 24 years old and I am just now discovering to not be afraid of judgement. I started therapy recently and it's been the best decision of my life. I'm realizing that my whole life has been based off shame of liking the things I like, or making the music I make because it's not cool. I always encourage people to like things off the beaten path, by being open about it – you're going to find people that feel the same way. Now that I'm doing that, I'm just happier. So I encourage my fans to be you."