Nerve: “It’s the season for people to be tall poppies at the thing that they love”

On ‘Tall Poppy Season’, the Brisbane rap multi-hyphenate adds R&B to his toolbox and opens up about “real shit”

Brisbane’s Nerve, aka Toby Nicholls, leads a double-life. In Australian hip-hop circles, he’s renowned as a brazen rapper, producer, multitasker and communal champion, with a jocular social media presence and distinctive image – wild hair, petrol station-shades, abs.

But Nerve has also been anonymously studying electrical engineering on and off for eons. Just don’t probe him about whether he’s finished his course. “People have been asking me that a lot,” he cringes. “I generally decline to answer, but no. I’ve had a reminder on my phone that goes off every hour for the last two months to call uni and figure out what’s going on, because they’ve changed the structure of the degree – ’cause I’ve been there for so long.”

Chatting to NME over Zoom on a Wednesday, Nerve – wearing a headset and long-sleeved black Mascon Echoes T-shirt – is content to be addressed as either Toby or by his rap tag. “The only person I wouldn’t want to call me ‘Nerve’ is probably someone that I’m intimately involved with – that would really weird me out,” he quips. He’s dialling in from a dimly lit hotel room in Sydney, one he booked after performing at Wollongong’s “sick” Yours And Owls festival. “I needed just some alone time and to go to the gym,” he explains. The night before, Nerve was in a session with rising alt-R&B star BOY SODA and DJ Club Angel at Sony Studios, where they worked on “a full punk song”.

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The loquacious Nerve jumps from topic to topic in conversation – which fits his restless artistry. In less than five years the MC has independently released an album, three EPs and several singles. Nerve relishes roll-outs – and now he’s plugging his most personal project in ‘Tall Poppy Season’.

“When you’re making the music, the whole process is kind of like checking yourself and cutting away at stuff and criticising yourself. But, then, when you put it out, you just get all the love back from the people that were waiting for the music. So I’m keen for that – and I’m keen to show people a new chapter in what I’m doing, because I think I’ve changed a lot as an artist over the last year.” Still, opening up emotionally is “scary”, he says.

A self-proclaimed “straight-A nerd in high school”, Nerve started university in 2014. But he became obsessed with recreating US hip-hop, which he consumed through his teens. “I’m not afraid to admit it – I didn’t listen to heaps of Australian music growing up, especially hip-hop,” Nerve volunteers. “So I was learning about the Australian scene as I was entering it.” He developed his high-energy gutter rap and studio skills as a member of the underground Brisbane crew Syntax Junkies. Along the way, he befriended the influential Kyel Golly, founder of the local NO.ONE NETWORK collective. Initially an old school purist, Nerve had cut boom-bap tracks, raiding his dad’s record collection for samples and deeming anything else “toy”.

But on a whim, he attempted UK grime – and liked the results. In early 2017 Nerve premiered with the solo ‘Snot Rocket’, Golly filming the impromptu video around suburban West End. “It’s funny as,” Nerve starts. “I went out bush for two days – I was working on a cotton and chickpea farm – and I checked Facebook and I had 40,000 views!” The following year, he dropped a debut album, ‘Sober’.

“I’m keen to show people a new chapter in what I’m doing, because I think I’ve changed a lot as an artist over the last year”

Nerve has fostered camaraderie throughout his career, considering it vital to hip-hop. Indeed, many of his biggest moments have been collabs. He has worked extensively with both Tasmania’s Wombat and Sydney grime don ChillinIt – actually mixing the latter’s album ‘Women Weed & Wordplay’. He has had a unique rapport with JK-47, who won a freestyle competition Nerve judged for BODYBAGMEDIA. JK-47 then featured on Nerve’s ‘Sunday Roast’, a triple j anthem.

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Nerve admires the First Nations MC not just for his bars (JK’s BODYBAGMEDIA verses were “butter”, he enthuses), but also his sense of purpose. “He went from feeling like a little bro to a big bro – in the way that he’s grown up and in how prophetic he is when he speaks these days. His plans are bigger than music. He’s out here trying to change the world. I got mad respect for that – and that’s inspiring me. He inspires me a lot to look outwards and get away from being self-absorbed when it comes to music.”

In 2019, Nerve generated global buzz with an Aussie remix of British grime rapper Aitch’s huge ‘Taste (Make It Shake)’ alongside Hooligan Hefs. He was set to build on that momentum last year as a support on Aitch’s inaugural Antipodean tour. Its cancellation due to COVID-19 left Nerve “pretty gutted”: “I knew I was gonna show him beats.”

In March Nerve announced an EP, ‘Australian Horror Story’, as his first release with the distro co Believe, led by sinister and properly grimy lead single ‘Migraines’. But he was soon contacted by another Australian rapper – one he declines to name – who’d used the same EP title months earlier. “Long story short, they weren’t stoked,” Nerve rues.

Nerve explained that he couldn’t change the EP so late, “trying to be respectful”. But he felt increasingly uneasy. “I never want someone to hear my music and be like, ‘Oh, that’s like this’ or be associated with anyone in a way that makes it look like they’ve influenced my music enough to take away from my originality. I wanna be my own thing.” Nerve adds, “That might just sound cocky.”

Nerve hastily formulated an alternative concept: ‘Tall Poppy Season’. He subverts Australia’s culture of tearing down high-achievers – or tall poppy syndrome – instead extolling positivity, confidence and self-realisation. “It’s the season for people to be tall poppies at the thing that they love,” Nerve declares. “I want people to try and find their passion and excel at that.” He reunites with JK-47 for the heater ‘One In A Million’, amplifying the theme of empowerment. “I wanted to allow space for both of us to touch on topics that we wanted to speak about that were more serious than just a party track – but I also wanted it to bang.”

Brisbane rapper Nerve new EP Tall Poppy Season 2021 interview JK-47 One In A Million
Nerve and JK-47. Credit: Luis Campbell

Nerve regards himself as a musician and remains determined to always “switch it up” sonically and broaden his audience – necessarily challenging the long-term fanbase he dubs “the fam”. On ‘Tall Poppy Season’, Nerve introduces an R&B element and is properly singing – encouraged by vocalists he’s connected with, like Liyah Knight.

‘Who That? (Know Me)’ veers into acoustic pop, Nerve co-producing with Sydney’s 18YOMAN, whose credits include Kid Cudi. In the fourth instalment of his ‘Walk & Talk’ series, with frenetic go-go horns, Nerve breaks into a vocal run. “I’m just trying to diversify in general, but find my own way to do it – and I also have to ease the people that already listen to my music into that.”

“I was learning about the Australian scene as I was entering it”

Crucially, Nerve is no longer merely “rapping about rapping” but tackling “real shit”: success, pressure, relationships, responsibility and anxiety. “Music was fun and I was playing with it and having fun for the first few years, but it’s therapy for me now,” Nerve reveals. “Recently I’ve gone into a studio and just poured my heart out and then come out feeling a lot better.”

Though irreverent on Instagram, Nerve dispels any notion that he’s cultivated a persona – the gags are a defence mechanism if anything. “I like taking the piss and I don’t like taking things too seriously and I like making jokes and being funny. But, at the same time, I have realised in myself, through introspection, that I do use that as a defence mechanism against feeling shit or dealing with shit.”

Nerve will tour nationally behind ‘Tall Poppy Season’ with “special guests” in tow. “I just wanna tear shit up as much as possible!” And the maverick has another goal – to become a techno DJ. “I have a dream of having some other alias where I just go to really crazy clubs in Berlin or Japan and go super-hard on techno and no one knows who I am,” he says. “It’d be great.”

Nerve’s ‘Tall Poppy Season’ is out May 21

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