When Maggie Rogers woke up that day she didn’t know that she was about to become famous.
Travelling in to school – she was studying English and Music at NYU – it seemed like a pretty ordinary journey, one that would lead to a fairly mundane, run-of-the-mill set of lessons.
Except Pharrell was there. And he was listening to her music. And a video of his gob-smacked, stunned, delirious response to her song ‘Alaska’ almost immediately became a viral sensation, and would – in one swift move – change Maggie’s life forever.
“I remember waking up and I remember afterwards but it’s so… It’s a really incredibly strange thing,” she sighs, almost lost for words. “I’ve been very careful and protective of that memory because there’s inevitably a video of me in it… and I don’t want to remember that day from outside of my body, I want to remember it inside of it. I’ve only seen the video once for that reason.”
“I remember parts of it but I can’t tell at this point if it’s a part I remember because it’s on film, or whether it’s a part I remember because I was inside of my own brain. Without the video I probably wouldn’t remember a lot of it.”
Stop. Rewind. Play. That moment with Pharrell isn’t the end of a journey, merely the latest stop on a remarkable tour that extends back to Maggie Rogers’ childhood and isn’t set to stop any time soon.
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Entranced with music from a young age, she spent hours with her music box – “it played Mozart!” – before begging her parents to let her learn the harp.
“The thing about a harp is that it’s not really convenient,” she recalls with a wry smile. “We rented one. There was a harp in high school so I just played the school’s harp. And I haven’t really gotten to play since high school because I don’t know where to find one!”
“Not only is it unusual but it also proves what incredibly supportive parents I have because a seven year old asks to play the harp and instead of laughing and saying ‘let’s try piano!’ they were like: OK, sure!”
Free to pick out her own path, the classical fixation of her youth gradually led to a broader, pop-oriented voice emerging. Entering NYU – she initially wanted to be a journalist before admitting “I didn’t want to do the grunt work” – she was left alone with a stunning array of kit, and taught the intricacies of production and engineering.
“My degree is in recorded music,” she explains, “which is kind of unique because it’s not in music or music theory, it’s in the process of recording music. So I get really excited and nerdy about the more electronic elements, the nitty gritty of it.”
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I’ve been very careful and protective of that memory...
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We’re sat in an East London café, with music and coffee filtering in and out of the conversation. As if to prove her point – and perhaps to sharpen her skills - Maggie occasionally zones in on elements of each song as it passes the stereo. Compressors, EQs, bandwidth, distortion… it’s not for show, this is what she loves, this is her passion.
And it’s there in her music. Releasing three albums on her own, Maggie Rogers slowly moved from folk-hewn indie rock influences – think Grizzly Bear, Bon Iver, Dirty Projectors – towards a sound that is more explicitly, confidently pop.
“In the past pop has really often been upbeat music that is easily digestible but when I think about the pop that I love – which is like Michael Jackson or Donna Summer or Justin Timberlake or Beyonce – it’s inevitably pretty complex and I think the beauty in pop music is that complexity.”
“I think that’s why I’ve started to become completely obsessed with pop music. It just became a challenge. Pop seems to be about chasing that perfection, and I think that’s inevitably really exciting. The songs I write are very much still the same but I just produce it differently.”
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From Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth working with Solange, to Beyonce recruiting Jack White, we seem to be living in an era when the barriers of pop are less visible than ever before. It’s something that dominates Maggie’s thoughts, and enters our conversation time and time again.
“I mean, what is pop music?” she says with a shrug. “It can have guitars and still be pop music. Or you can have a synthesiser in a rock song. It’s almost like we’re starting to go off genre a little bit, which is when I think things get really interesting. Because genre, inevitably, is just used to sell music. I never think about genre when I’m making music -I’m just making music. I’m thinking about a feeling.”
‘That’s what’s been so funny, too, with everything that’s happened…I really just make music for me,” she argues. “One of the things I’ve been grateful about what’s happened is that there’s no pressure to be anything but me. So I’m free to change, to explore, to make whatever I want.”
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I never think about genre when I’m making music...
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Given her prodigious output – Maggie is still only 23 years old – you could be forgiven for assuming that the Maryland native finds songwriting as something of an easy pursuit. The reality, though, is a little further from the truth. Breakout EP ‘Now That The Light Is Fading’ began life as her thesis project, but quickly became submerged in stage-fright and writer’s block.
“Half-way through the year we had a check-in and I didn’t have a project,” she says, her voice almost deathly still. “I was almost going to fail. I was in a lot of trouble because I hadn’t made anything yet and I just kept telling my teachers: I promise I’ll get there, I’m just not ready yet! I knew that there was music coming but I just wasn’t sure what it was yet.”
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So she focused on the words. As adept with language as she is with melody, one of the few permanent companions on Maggie’s travels is a book – right now it’s East Of Eden by John Steinbeck, a taste of America as she travels farther and farther from home.
“When I hear music I listen to the words first. I love words. I’ve always thought that I would want my songs to have the ability to be published in a book of poetry one day. And so I really pay attention to them, I really want to say something.”
As songwriter, Maggie tends to cast her net out wide, slowly drawing her ideas together before suddenly snapping them out of the water. “My writing process is so quick. I usually tend to write in 15 or 20 minutes. Not often. Once or twice a month. But it’s quick when it happens.”
“I think music is this incredible thing where you can actually show somebody how you’re feeling,” she insists. “You can say it. The fabric of the music itself, without the words, can make somebody feel a certain way. It’s like the ultimate empathy tool. And really the ultimate connector as well. I think what is so fun about writing music is sometimes the simplest thing wins. Whether you think about words or think about music first, inevitably one can’t really exist without the other.”
In the end, the EP became an ode to the end of one chapter, and the beginning of another, one as-yet un-written. “It’s about transition,” she asserts. “It’s about graduating from college, about to face this wild adult world where anything can happen. You hear all these rumours about what’s supposed to happen after you graduate from college, but you never really know what does. It’s all about transition.”
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My writing process is so quick...
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By any standards, Maggie Rogers has been through a lot in the past 12 months. Overnight fame led to label interest, the creation of a full live show, and the experience of touring. Right now she’s in London, but within a few hours she’ll be in Paris, taking care of some European engagements. It’s an enormous weight to hold, but she seems – on the surface, at least – to be entirely at ease.
“I’ve had a really exciting year but also in terms of transition it’s been a really difficult year, as so much has changed so quickly,” she admits. “But I have to kind of remind myself sometimes that a lot of the things I’m processing, or going through, are pretty normal college graduate issues. Like, my friendship group is changing, and I need to find out how to balance work and rest.”
“Sometimes those feel like really personal big problems, but I think that’s just becoming a working adult. And so it’s been this crazy mix of really, really normal situations and emotions and incredibly abnormal situations and emotions.”
Everything has changed, and yet nothing has changed. Maggie Rogers’ life may be in perpetual flux, but she remains innately, expertly in control. Retiring to her room to loop through samples and offer feedback on mixes, she departs with one final aphorism: “The thing about all of this is that the audience has changed, but the way I make music hasn’t.”
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For tickets to the latest Maggie Rogers shows click HERE.
Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Paul Phung
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