Maggie Rogers: Journey from a Past Life

Occasionally, hard work pays off. Just ask Maggie Rogers.

In 2016, Pharrell Williams’ emotional reaction to Rogers’ project for her music production course at the Clive Davis Institute for Music changed her life. His reaction alone gathered a viral following, with the counter falling at over 3 million views on YouTube. Rogers went on to eventually release the song, “Alaska”, through Capitol Records, resulting in a swarm of critical acclaim that saw the 22 year old NYU student sign a record deal with the major label.

Rogers manages to intertwine the essence of rural American folk music with the driving heart of an electronic dance number. Demonstrating the otherworldly experiences with European dance music she’d encountered from her time in Berlin, “Alaska” was just a taste of what’s to come. Possessing wisdom beyond her years, Rogers demonstrates a unique style of production, offering a strong counterargument to sceptics cynical of the potential for progression in folk. In other words, Pharrell’s look of mesmerisation was warranted.

Rogers exhibits this exact point in an interview with her former boss at Elle. “I’ve never made R&B. I’ve never made Gospel. I’ve never made Hip-Hop – I don’t think I’m going to, but I just want to keep challenging myself”. In fact, Maggie Rogers’ first steps onto the musical horizon are captured in very different place. On a farmland estate in Easton, Maryland.

First picking up the harp at age 7, Rogers began by playing Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi and Holst on a farmland estate in Eston, Maryland. In middle school she picked up the piano and guitar, and began writing her own songs, just as folk was experiencing a revival at the height of pop’s domination. She told Beats 1’s OTHERtone:

“In middle school I loved The Black Eyed Peas, and Gwen Stefani, and The Killers. In high school I listened to a lot of folk music, so Bob Dylan, Nick Drake, Talking Heads… but also Bon Iver. I was part of that folk music revolution, that happened when I was in high school”.

Her first work “The Echo” (2012), was made entirely in a broom closet she had transformed into a makeshift studio. Rogers’ album pays an endearing testament to her influences at her Delaware high school, the banjo occupying a large space in her sound.

A five week intensive songwriting contest at Berklee (in which she came out top) clinched her a place at the Clive Davis Institute. Her arrival in New York sparked a hectic few years for the Freshman as she plunged into life as a full time English major while simultaneously pursuing her music production course. At the same time, she was interning with one of the biggest music journalists in the country, Lizzie Goodman. Rogers was part of Goodman’s project “Meet Me In The Bathroom”, an oral history documenting the rise of alternative music in New York post 9/11. As part of her role shadowing Goodman, she spent long periods transcribing and editing hours of interviews from the likes of The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, LCD Soundsystem, Interpol and Vampire Weekend.

Speaking to Pharrell and her lecturer (and multi-grammy winning producer) Bob Power in her NYU studio, Rogers explained the significance of her experiences studying abroad in France:

“I had a really spiritual experience with dance music there. Suddenly, this thing that had always been the most unnatural and the most artificial…I understood the release of it. The sort of sense like as if there was a fire, people were beating sticks together. Suddenly, it became the most natural thing… All I want to do is combine that folk imagery and harmony and natural samples I’ve being picking up while hiking over the last couple of years with the backbone and energy of dance music.”

Rogers released her debut EP “Now That the Light is Fading” in 2017. The accompanying music videos are variously glorious celebrations of femininity, family and the beauty of the natural world. She topped off a whirlwind year with performances on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Saturday Night Live and a coveted spot at Reading + Leeds 2018. She kicked off 2019 with a compelling debut album on Polydor Records.

“Heard It In A Past Life” is generally more pop-y than her previous work, but equally raw lyrically. “On + Off” is a destabilising, deftly-produced ode to a desperate love. “Burning” brings in peppy electronica to a Florence and the Machine-esque sound. “Back In My Body” is a haunting chronicle of an anxious episode in Paris where she wanted to run away from the spotlight. More than anything, the new album is an honest appraisal of the discomfort that unexpected fame can bring, analogous to the pain that unexpected infatuation can induce.

It’s been a rollercoaster for Rogers since Pharrell first heard “Alaska” in 2016. I can’t wait to see where it takes her next.

 

Words by: Thomas Fleury

Thomas is a recent graduate from South London. His work spans anything from music, to film, to theatre. It has also been said that he has an unhealthy obsession with 90’s alternative R&B. He can be found on Instagram at @fleury.t

 

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