words: ERIN SHARONI pics: ANDREW RAUNER
“Hi! We’re at the airport again!” Liv pops up on the Skype screen, holding her phone at arm’s length while hurrying through a terminal in London’s Heathrow Airport.
“Mim’s on another call right now, so we’re tag teaming today,” Liv laughs. “I’m doing an interview with you, and she’s doing one with someone else.”
The NERVO sisters are en route to Germany.
Exactly 36 hours prior, Miriam and Olivia Nervo called us from the Los Angeles International Airport after wrapping up a few west coast tour dates. They spent the time between our two Skype sessions like this:
- 12 hour flight from LAX to Heathrow;
- Land in London and head to studio to complete final song on upcoming LP;
- Engagement dinner for a friend;
- Sleep, the amount of which remains unclear;
- Mad dash to pack upon waking. Liv yells at Mim for this;
- Rush back to Heathrow to catch flight;
- Simultaneously conduct two interviews en route to gate.
“We’re flying to Frankfurt now for a show in Würzburg tonight. Then we go to Switzerland, then two gigs in Spain,” Liv rattles off the schedule. “And then on Sunday we go to Ibiza! Ushuaïa.” Her face lights up at this.
It’s the same light that brightens her sister Mim’s face when the subject of DJing arises: “Ahh DJs. They’re just music obsessed,” Mim gushes. A massive grin betrays her own obsession. “They’re a bit less image obsessed and just all about the music, you know... It’s not about what you’re wearing and what you say in interviews. It’s about the music.”
Music is their passion. It’s what Mim and Liv’s entire journey as NERVO has been about. It’s what drives them, and try as you might to dismiss the blond beauties’ claim that selling records doesn’t matter nearly as much as fostering a connection with listeners does, when you watch their faces as they talk about it, you can’t. You can’t chalk it up to the luxury of self-deprecation afforded to artists who command massive booking fees. It’s not a press shtick, nor an ironic consequence of narcissism. The girls are not delusional; they’re passionate.
If there’s one thing that quickly becomes clear when speaking with NERVO, it’s that they are in love with what they do. They’ve struggled for it. They’ve given up a lot for it. They’ve done it when it bore no fiscal fruit and they might still be at it if that big break had never come. They’ve been grinding for 14 years, long before they were on the radar of record executives, and it’s finally paying off.
COMING FULL CIRCLE
Every artist has a story of almosts. For some, the story’s apex occurs when they almost made it but missed out. For others, it’s when they almost gave up but didn’t.
Just over half a decade ago, Mim and Liv were at that point. “There was a time when we were really at the end of our tether,” Mim says. “We were going to quit. We were listening to the music that we made and we loved it so much. We thought, ‘This is good, why isn’t it on the radio?’”
Liv looks solemn when she recalls that period. “We were kind of a bit over the music business then. Our songs weren’t really getting the traction that we wanted. But there was a friend and mentor of ours named Andrew, who worked for a record label. He was such a shining light to us.
“We were really disheartened, even though we had all these amazing opportunities,” she continues, “and Andrew always told us, ‘You’ve just gotta chill out, girls. You don’t understand. The fact that you’re working with all of these people...it’s all collateral. Everything you’re doing is collateral and it’s all going to build to something in the end’.”
Liv laughs, “Of course, we were still living off waitressing then and didn’t really believe him. And now looking back you realize, all those tiny little relationships that went nowhere at the time then ended up being something, you know...something that took off and ended up being a success story,” she smiles. “It all comes full circle.
Fittingly, ‘Collateral’ is the title of their first LP, due for release this summer. It’s exactly what their friend Andrew had predicted as a light in their darkness, years ago.
“It’s about everything that we’ve done...for our whole lives, really.” Liv states. “It’s the collateral that’s brought us here, to where we are now.”
The list of collaborators speaks to that: From commercial acts like Nicky Romero, Steve Aoki and Afrojack to a luminary from another era like Nile Rodgers, the album spans both sound and time. ‘Collateral’ is a mix of familiar, previously released records such as ‘You’re Gonna Love Again’ and new songs that dip into other dance music genres without abandoning NERVO’s identity.
About a third of the album features Mim and Liv on vocals, and while the girls insist they hadn’t wanted to sing on so many tracks, they know what works. “Whenever we sing, we tend to do okay. So we kept doing it,” Liv shrugs.
‘Let It Go’, a reunion with Nicky Romero, which they sing on, is proof that straying from the expected can work. “That one’s actually a bit of a curveball,” suggests Liv. It also happens to be one of the album’s catchiest tracks. In place of the big room synth stabs that fill the space after a traditional Dutch drop, ‘Let It Go’ unfolds into a drum & bass inspired rhythm with the potential to make even a jaded junglist crack a smile.
Liv describes the album overall as “dance pop.”
That may be true, but there is sufficient variety throughout the album to allow ‘Collateral’ to live up to its own title. While it includes melodic anthems with enough generic euphoria to guarantee top 40 slots, like ‘Bulletproof’ featuring Harrison Miya, it also includes less-expected sounds on singles like ‘The Other Boys’. That song’s disco-inspired groove suggests that the genre is not dead, thanks in part to the Midas touch of Chic legend Nile Rodgers, with help from Kylie Minogue and the Scissor Sisters’ Jake Shears. There’s even a touch of techno on ‘Rainham Road’—not enough to warrant a play on an underground dancefloor in Berlin but enough to separate it from the stigma of dance pop.
WE’RE ACTUALLY GIRLS
Stigmas aren’t reserved for musical categories alone. NERVO are familiar with the kind that accompany their X chromosomes.
You can’t look at Mim and Liv without noticing they’re gorgeous. Even in the unforgiving light of airport terminals, they look good. And while beauty is highly valued in an industry which packages artists in ways aimed at generating maximum revenue, it can also be used as propagation to devalue talent.
At some point in an artist’s career, as success replaces struggle, it seems the sycophants overrun the detractors and stigmas start to fall away. But for Mim and Liv, DJing while female is still DJing while female. They balk at the suggestion that their fame has erased the gender issue.
“We got a lot of that at the very beginning actually,” Mim insists, “when we released our first two records. The first record didn’t have a music video, the second record’s video was a cartoon, and we weren’t singing on either of them. So we would turn up to gigs, and people thought NERVO were guys!”
Mim laughs. “We were like, yeah, we’re actually girls.”
“We get some hate online,” Liv adds. “People troll us and say ‘oh you know, they do nothing,’ or whatever. But I think people just need to look into our history to see that we do write and produce, and that’s actually how we came up.”
There’s strength in numbers. Despite their natural quarrels, the sisters agree that they wouldn’t trade their own company for the world, regardless of gender. “It’s hard being a solo artist, such a slog,” Liv shudders. Mim nods in agreement.
“We’ve been making music together now for 14 years, and only DJing for five years. We did nine years of full time studio work, working for other artists, and I think in a way that was much better for us when we came out as NERVO because we got the credibility and we got support,” Liv explains.
“You know, we were working with Avicii when he was Tim Bergling,” she smiles, emphasizing the artist’s given name. “And then we would write for David Guetta obviously, and even Armin van Buuren years ago. All of them supported us. Armin brought us on tour, and David we still tour with after all these years.”
Liv pauses for a moment. “But I think as women, you need to let the music do the talking and not your boobies.
“You’re seeing a whole lot more girls come through these days, which is really great because once upon a time you used to Google ‘female DJ’ and all you’d see is like, a girl in a bikini. Whereas now, I think there is, bit by bit, more real deal female artists that do something.”
The sisters have always looked up to female artists, citing BBC Radio 1’s Annie Mac and Maya Jane Coles. They describe MJC as “phenomenally talented.”
“And then you’ve even got artists like Missy Elliott, who really changed the game,” Mim adds. “We’ve always looked up to those women, you know? So if we can help other women do what we’re doing, then that’s great.”
GIVE IT UP FOR GUETTA
Artists helping artists is hardly a new thing, but some lend a bigger helping hand than others. Case in point: NERVO’s first paid gig as a live DJ act was with David Guetta at Pacha Ibiza.
“We went from our bedroom to Pacha Ibiza!” Liv exclaims.
Let that sink in for a moment.
“Swear on my life. I was so nervous.” Her eyes widen as she recalls the moment. “My hands were shaking so badly. And there was like, no one in the room because obviously we had the opening, opening, opening slot,” Liv laughs.
“David was such a supporter to us. Such a sweet man.”
David Guetta’s name evokes a variety of reactions. Yell it out at Ultra and chances are you’ll send the kids into frenzy. Yell it out at a tech house party and chances are someone will unleash a string of profanities to underscore their opinion.
Mention his name to the NERVO sisters, and they smile.
“David Guetta is a really big mentor of ours. He’s actually the guy that said,‘Girls, you just need to be DJs yourselves. Not writing for all the DJs and making music for everyone else, but make music and put your own names on it.’ And we did. And then he supported us.”
Liv and Mim didn’t get to where they are now without help from guys like Guetta, but they also had support at home. The sisters grew up in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, where they took piano lessons throughout childhood and participated in school plays.
Their parents, though supportive and nurturing of their children’s creative endeavors, didn’t think the obsession with music production would last. “Our parents are dentists and they’re immigrants [from Italy] so they were very like, ‘Music is a luxury, it’s not a career,’” explains Liv.
When the girls were 16, they began experimenting in a studio in Australia, landing a songwriting gig with one producer, which caught the attention of a manger in the UK. That ultimately led to their move at 18.
“Mum and dad were distraught because we both dropped out of university,” Liv smiles reflecting on what a difference that time has made. “They thought it would be just one or two years, that we’d give up what we’d got for just a few years. But we really did struggle for five or six years -- even more -- working on our craft.
“Because you know, you’re really crap at the beginning, but you think you’re good. Everything you do, you think it’s amazing!” Both girls laugh. “But it gets better and better."
Mim and Liv worked up to five jobs at once, constantly leaving one location for another at the drop of a hat to chase new opportunities.
“There was a time when we were really, really broke,” Mim explains, “and our publisher was like, ‘Girls, you’ve gotta make more connections, go and work at this members bar in London...’ And to be honest, they were just full of shit,” she laughs.
“Apparently all the music execs would hang out there then you could meet them straight away, give them your demo...but it was demoralizing for us.”
Liv nods in agreement, “So demoralizing.”
Mim turns to her sister: “We worked, how long? Two weeks at this club?
“It was demoralizing because we were trying to waitress at these places and also go about our day job which was making music, and then our night job was paying the rent. But when we worked in this members-only bar, it was just a bit humiliating for us. We’d have a meeting with these peoples’ A&R while they think we’re killing it, and then the week before that we’re pouring them drinks,” she explains.
“But that was ballsy. That was ballsy for us,” Mim says.
NO ONE KNOWS WHO CALVIN HARRIS IS
NERVO may be female, but having the balls to keep pushing forward eventually paid off.
The turning point came in 2009. ‘When Love Takes Over’ with Kelly Rowland and David Guetta was the song that launched a thousand notes for NERVO. Calls that they had tried to get and couldn’t, suddenly came flooding in. Offers to collaborate with household names were no longer things they had to chase while serving drinks to people.
Mim points out that this success happened for them as songwriters, not as DJs or performers. “The DJing came because we just loved DJing,” she insists.
When they were given a record deal following the song’s success, the label wanted NERVO to release pop songs. But the girls had other plans. “We were like, ‘no’. We like pop stars but we love DJing. We want to DJ.” Mim recalls. “And they kept saying to us, ‘Don't worry. DJs are faceless, they’re not artists in America.’ And we kept telling them to check out Calvin Harris and what he was doing in the UK.”
Their label assured them that no one knew who Calvin Harris was.
"You know, we’re not gonna name names," Mim laughs, "but some serious people in the biz, heads of labels, were just like, 'No one knows who Calvin Harris is. No one cares. No one cares about DJs. DJs aren't real artists.’”
She shakes her head in disbelief, "They just didn't get it."
This year, NERVO’s Ibiza summer residency is on Mondays at Ushuaïa with David Guetta. The open-air dancefloor will always be packed. Everyone knows who Calvin Harris is, and it’s safe to assume that soon everyone will know who Mim and Liv are.
As Liv says before the girls depart for their next flight: They're cruising now. It's time to enjoy that collateral.