Alt Hip-Hop Artist MNERVA Discusses Legacy Of Lost Friend & Mental Health On New Single ‘Josh’

Putting his own unique twist on hip hop and rock, songwriter MNERVA offers something a little different to the Music City landscape.

MNERVA, aka Matt Wagner, originally started his music career in Germantown, Maryland, before taking his talents to the bright neon lights of Nashville. His early musical experiences involved playing in rock bands before hip-hop became his next musical infatuation, and in 2020, he would become viral for his jukebox musical based on the music of Twenty One Pilots.

From there, he has released 10 singles and an EP, slowly building his catalogue. The EP was written during the pandemic, and embraced his early rock influences, and also saw him opening up about his struggles with mental health during this challenging time. Now, he’s looking to stimulate further discussion around those dealing with mental health with his brand new single, “Josh,” which officially dropped today.

This song tackles the tragic story of his close friend and former bandmate who lost his battle with depression in 2019, leaving a ripple effect of grief in his wake. While the topic is one that may be hard for people to face, Wagner hopes the song will start a conversation around mental health and hopefully help those who are facing the same issues.

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We had the chance to chat with MNERVA about his musical roots, the impact Josh had on his life, and what might come next.

So who or what inspired you to be a songwriter and musician, and how did your upbringing in Maryland play a role?

I am the son of two former professional musicians and some of my earliest memories are from their cover gigs in DC. My dad started teaching me the drums when I was five years old and I joined my first band, Remedy, when I was 13. That group really pushed me to take music seriously and introduced me to singing, songwriting, and performing. Before I knew it, I was spending every weekend with my bass player writing and recording songs, and knew I wanted to study songwriting in college and one day become an artist.

My Maryland upbringing had a fascinating effect on my journey because I went to a very academically-driven high school in a small town where there was no music program. So, in order to scratch my creative itch, I got heavily involved in my school’s theater program and fell in love with musical theater. That influence can be easily heard on all of my records, and I would never have been exposed to the genre had I grown up in a bigger town. 

What do you feel you’ve learned since moving to Nashville from a creativity and musical standpoint?

More than anything, Nashville taught me how to be a strong lyricist. I actually studied songwriting in college, and looking at the process academically really connected with me and helped me improve my writing very quickly. I actually crafted an all encompassing song formula that breaks down every lyric into four line chunks that I use everyday when I write songs. Additionally, Nashville has taught me so much about collaboration and trusting other people with your vision. It takes a lot of faith to let go of control in your career, but having other writers and producers improve your work is how you make a good song a hit.

I saw that you originally started making more rock-inspired music. What led you to start making more hip hop-oriented tracks?

So when I started college, my roommate was a DJ and we used to always host drunk freestyle nights in our room most weekends. Although I was terrible at freestyling (and still am), my roommate really pushed me to keep exploring rapping because he loved my tone and, before I knew it, I wrote exclusively hip hop for about 4 years. Being a drummer, rhythm has always made much more sense to me than melody, and I found rap to be a fantastic outlet for diving deeply into my emotions because the genre requires so many more words. Funnily enough though, I have slowly been returning to my rock roots, and MNERVA’s sound now involves me combining my two musical backgrounds with modern electronics into a cohesive sound. 

What does a day in the life of your songwriting process look like? 

More than anything, my process involves a lot of pacing. I find going walks to be extremely inspiring and I’m almost never sitting still whenever I’m writing lyrics. These walks are usually where I come up with my best hook ideas, song titles, and melodies, and winter is rough for me because I have to force myself to bear the cold in order to be creative.

If I’m rapping, I tend to write the majority of songs acapella by myself instead of in a production session. I’ll then record a voice memo of said verse on a click track and then work with my producers to craft a beat around the vocals. But if I’m singing on a track, I usually set up a co-writing session to collaborate and get the best song possible. Although my ear for melody has improved dramatically over the years, I still find that working with writers that I trust will almost always lead to the best result, and I am so thankful for the team I have created over the last few years. 

So naturally we wanted to talk about your latest track, “Josh,” which is about a close friend losing his battle with depression. What can you tell us about your relationship and how he impacted your life?

I first met Josh when I was 13 years old and he was one of the smartest, most creative people I had ever met. We were in a trio together, and I felt so bad for our bass player because Josh and I would bicker constantly about cover song choices and stage volume, but there was always a great respect between us at the end of the day. Funnily enough, Josh actually accidentally started me on my songwriting journey because he once told me “drummers can’t write songs” when I tried to critique one of his originals, and so I learned piano the next day completely to spite him.

That spirit of friendly competition truly defined our relationship even after the band broke up, and we always pushed each other to do our best in every aspect in life, whether it was with music, school, or relationships. I was really lucky because we both lived in New York City at the same time in 2019, and spent a lot of time together in the last year of his life. Without Josh, I never would have fallen in love with music, and MNERVA would have never happened, so I carry his legacy with me everyday.  

What do you feel you learned from him, whether musically or just life in general?

Musically, Josh taught me a lot about dynamics, and pushed me to play drum parts that were very outside of my comfort zone. He would sing a part and then expect me to replicate it immediately, and I just couldn’t ever let him down, so I put in the work! From a personal standpoint, Josh was always very true to who he was, and he definitely helped me learn how to care less about what other people thought of me, and overcome some of my many insecurities.

What would you like people to take away from this song and Josh’s story?

I think one of the hardest parts of my relationship with Josh was how I knew he was struggling, but he never wanted to open up about his feelings with me because we had such a competitive relationship. I would definitely encourage listeners to have those uncomfortable conversations with your loved ones when you know they’re going through it because you may regret not saying something if tragedy strikes.

But more than anything, I think the biggest take away from this song is that people only disappear when we stop talking about them, and it’s our responsibility to keep our lost loved ones alive through honoring their memory. Josh and our band, Remedy, will always be a huge part of my story and a day doesn’t go by without me thinking about how he changed my life for the better. I look forward to seeing him again when my time comes and hearing what he thinks about the song, and how far I’ve come since he passed away. I just hope I’m making him proud. 

Can fans expect to see this on an upcoming EP or LP?

I still have to finish it, but “Josh” will be a part of my second EP, Invincible, and I truly believe it’s my best work yet. It marks my triumphant return to rock and explores my personal journey since starting therapy. Hopefully one of the tracks blows up soon because I am ITCHING to release this EP.

What are some of your musical ambitions for the rest of 2022 and beyond?

My main goal for this year is to blow up an unreleased song on a social media platform, and I don’t plan on releasing my next record until there are a lot of eyes on MNERVA. But once that happens, I hope to release my sophomore EP, Invincible, and I look forward to starting this new era of MNERVA.

But, before dropping the EP, I hope to remix some tracks off my last EP, Talk Too Much, and play a lot of shows outside of Nashville to try and build a grassroots following by connecting with listeners in person. After embarking on my first tour last month, I discovered just how well my music translates live and I can’t wait to keep sharing my new music on stage in new places!

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