Over-qualified for the underground

Academic and musician Maria Minerva is edging closer to the mainstream, writes Don O’Mahony

AS WELL as a quirkily written biography, Maria Minerva’s website supplies her CV, an actual résumé outlining her qualifications to date. Earnestly furnished, it could quite easily leave one with feelings of inadequacy.

Born three years before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Minerva, we are told, graduated from the Estonian Academy of Arts cum laude. The 22-year-old then took her art history degree with her to Goldsmiths in London and emerged two years later with an MA in Aural & Visual Cultures.

Having taken up music as a hobby, she was signed to the achingly hip underground LA label Not Not Fun, an impressively prolific imprint that specialises in limited-edition cassette-only releases of woozily structured, reverb-drenched lo-fi dance music. Fitting Not Not Fun’s aesthetic like the proverbial glove, Minerva released her debut record for the label (a limited cassette, naturally) Tallinn At Dawn, in 2011, and followed it with two more albums and a pair of EPs.

The statuesque singer has curated exhibitions, written widely on music, art and popular culture, and is currently making the type of eerily atmospheric and icily cool torch songs that are the essence of underground pop with their crumbling beats and naggingly half-familiar synth lines. She should be insufferable but instead she’s disarmingly down-to-earth.

“I do not think I’m a very good writer, so I’m glad I didn’t try to push this career further,” she says, referring to her stint in journalism. “Music took over. I like bits and pieces, random ideas, and turning these random thoughts into something else, like a song or a music video.”

She is equally dismissive of her dalliance with art. “I was convincing myself that I am into contemporary art but I think that’s not always true. The Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz talks about why people appreciate art and states that there is a lot of pretension, more appreciation of each other than the actual artworks; liking what someone else likes because you want to have something in common, something to talk about.

“I feel a lot of hype around contemporary art is just pretension but I accept that not everyone shares this view.”

Having spent six years studying art, she wonders aloud if she’s beginning to sound disillusioned with it.

“Maybe,” she wonders. “I think I’ve just given myself the chance to like and dislike whatever I actually feel like liking and disliking. Lying to yourself sucks.”

Since she left her home in Tallinn, Minerva has lived something of a semi-nomadic lifestyle. She has lived in London and Lisbon. Her most recent move has seen her settle in New York in order to make an album, but even her stay there sounds open-ended. She is making her way through a month-long European tour, and will then perform at the SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas in March.

“Work work, work,” she sighs. “But I cannot call New York city home either, so yeah, I’m pretty much all over the place. No idea what happens after I have finished the album, or where I will end up going to. Intrigued to find out myself,” she adds, her voice trailing off.

On more than one occasion in interviews, Minerva has entertained the fantasy of writing songs for huge mainstream pop artists, which would allow her to continue comfortably as an underground artist off the proceeds.

“I’m not interested in being in the spotlight forever. The idea really does not appeal to me. Right now, music has given me everything. I have travelled so much and met so many people.

“It’s great, but I think there will come a phase when I don’t want so much going on all the time, so yeah, I wouldn’t mind working behind the scenes at all. I would love to write songs or work in music, have kids, be able to put them through university, because staying indie probably wouldn’t allow that,” she says.

Could she imagine one of her songs being remixed into a huge dancefloor anthem in the manner of, say, Lykkie LI’s ‘I Follow Rivers’?

“Why not? I love dancefloor anthems. I think, once again, this comes down to marketing issues — any track could be turned into a dancefloor anthem. Which is kinda sad at the same time,” she laughs.

And with that last remark she reveals the tightrope she walks between pleasing herself and dealing with the expectations others have for her music. Not that she’s too preoccupied with suiting them.

“I don’t like fixed identities, labels that people assign you. It’s all very boring but needs to be done because we live in a world of marketing. I get it; I just can’t take it seriously. I like to send out confusing messages.”

*Maria Minerva plays Whelan’s, Dublin, on Friday, Feb 1, and the Half Moon, Cork, on Saturday, Feb 2

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