Music

Maggie Rogers: The Making of a 21st-Century Pop Heroine

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Recently, on one of the many, many flights 22-year-old singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers has taken since the February release of her debut EP, Now That the Light Is Fading, she watched the film La La Land. “Did you see that movie?” she asks from the comfort of her San Francisco hotel room, back on the road after a dizzying week at South by Southwest that solidified her Next Big Thing status. “Basically — spoiler alert — the girl becomes a star,” Rogers says. “At the end she runs into the boy who she was seeing before all this happened, and there’s like a recap of the life she would have had as a mediumly successful actor. Then it flashes back to her walking out of the bar and her face is on a billboard. And I just super related. It really makes me want to cry, thinking about it.”

On the one hand, the last year of Rogers’s life has felt like a dream so rapturous as to seem almost like bad writing, a plotline Riverdale might reject as a bit too much. One day last spring, Rogers showed up for her production seminar at NYU’s Clive Davis School of Music, where she was then a senior. The young singer rushed to class a little bleary-eyed from staying up late the previous night to finish a track she’d just written and was presenting that day, a serene electrofolk jam called “Alaska” inspired by a month-long hiking trip she took the summer after her freshman year. Rogers was proud of the song, but it was also just another day at school. Another deadline to meet. And yet, by June, “Alaska” would be the number one global viral track on Spotify and Rogers would be fielding dozens of offers for record deals (she eventually signed to Capitol); by the fall she would be interviewing stylists and business managers, shooting for Vogue, and planning her first European and American tours. “Everyone was trying to sign her,” says Nate Albert, head of a&r at Capitol, who had previously signed the Weeknd in the wake of a similar bidding war. “It was actually really similar to the Weeknd situation, because she’s critically great — it’s great art — but she also has some commercial thing going on, so [she] had major labels and indie labels wanting to be involved. It was pretty intense.”

But back to that spring day at NYU: That afternoon’s “masterclass,” as it’s called, featured an honored guest, Pharrell Williams. This in and of itself was not unusual. In her years at Clive, Rogers had played her stuff for Rob Thomas and Benny Blanco, to cite a couple of other bold-name classroom visitors. What was unusual was Williams’s response to Rogers’s song. “I have zero, zero, zero notes,” he said after hearing “Alaska.” “And I’ll tell you why: It’s because you’re doing your own thing. It’s singular.” He went on to compare her to the Wu-Tang Clan, as when they emerged, “no one could really judge it,” he said. “You either liked it or you didn’t, but you couldn’t compare it to anything else.” Also somewhat unusually, this encounter was filmed. Meaning that, a few weeks later, when the clip was posted online, anyone with an internet connection could see Rogers propped somewhat awkwardly on a studio stool in her jeans, nervously introducing her song, then trying to keep it together while one of the most decorated producers in the business displayed first casual approval then disbelief and then awe as he listened. We, the 2.5 million people (and counting) who’ve viewed the clip, got to witness, almost at the same time she did, the birth of Maggie Rogers’s career.

“I just feel so stupid-lucky,” the singer says today. “What the Pharrell video did was deliver me an incredible situation and opportunity where there was no mask. People heard me speak before they heard my music for the first time, so now the only real responsibility that I have is to be myself.”

Rogers and her most authentic self have a big year ahead of them. After a relentless winter tour schedule, including stops at the Late Shows of both James Corden and Jimmy Fallon, she’ll spend much of the spring indulging in “time off,” which is code, at this stage of a young artist’s career, for trying to be still long enough to finish a full album. “The hardest thing about all of this has been the lack of time for creativity,” Rogers says. “I’m learning to write on the road, but I’m not somebody who just writes all the time.” Then comes the summer festival circuit, with stops at Firefly and Outside Lands, plus a slew of dates in Europe, Canada, Australia, and Japan crammed in between. This is all before Rogers’s debut is even out, meaning that every single day over that span she will be asked when we can expect it.

But before any of that, Rogers will make her way back from the West Coast to round out her first proper U.S. tour with two celebratory sold-out shows in her adoptive hometown, playing April 11 at the Bowery Ballroom and the following evening at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. She might even sleep in her own bed those nights, which would be a thrilling change. “I haven’t been in my apartment for more than six weeks!” she says of the place she rented right after graduation. “I got a six-week chunk in September, a four-week chunk in December, and now I have another chunk coming in April and May, and that’s it. Then I move out. It’s like, do I just go home? Maybe. Maybe I just don’t have a place for a second.” She likes the sound of that, actually. “That feels more like a normal college-grad dilemma. It’s super age-appropriate.”

On the other hand, there’s something about Rogers’s story that seems less serendipitous and more fated, less wide-eyed talented kid seizing the opportunity of a lifetime and more cosmically ordained. “My entire life I have felt this incredible sense of predestination,” says Rogers, who is from Maryland’s bucolic Eastern Shore and has been writing songs since she was in middle school. She didn’t grow up in a musical family — Rogers’s father owns a car dealership and her mother works in healthcare — but growing up she dabbled in harp, piano, and guitar. In high school she fell hard for the banjo; when she arrived at Clive, she played in a folk band. It wasn’t until Rogers studied abroad in Paris and made her way (as one does) to European clubs that she came to understand the appeal of electronic music. “She’s doing something really new — she’s taking almost transcendentalism, this idea of nature as spiritual reawakening, and merging it with pop culture,” says Albert. “The urban stuff that I had been working on, like Phantogram and the Weeknd, had this dystopian Blade Runner aspect to it, and Maggie was flipping that. It’s modern, but it’s a return to nature and light in the world. And I think that’s why so many people are having such an impassioned response to her. Because they’re hearing something that they desperately need.”

In channeling her sunny woodland maiden side through this cold synthetic world, Rogers located what has quickly become her signature sound. “I’ve always wanted this. I’ve always pictured my life as some version of this,” she says of how it feels to have finally arrived at this point. “I really feel like I’ve been trying to do this for two hundred lifetimes, and this is just the one where it lines up. Because look at the circumstances — even the fact that I’m talking to you right now” — Rogers and I know each other — “or that I was at South-by with Eva and she fucking killed and we talked about the book. And those are just the coincidences with you.”

I first met Maggie at French Roast on Sixth Avenue in the early fall of 2013, just after she’d moved back to the city to begin her sophomore year. I was looking for interns for a book now titled Meet Me in the Bathroom, an exhaustive oral history of music in New York from 2001–2011, which it was only just beginning to dawn on me would require an inhuman amount of work. Maggie and her classmate Eva Hendricks, now of the ecstatic grunge-pop outfit Charly Bliss (who I hear did indeed fucking kill at South by Southwest this year), were among those who answered the ad I posted on the Clive message board. “Dear Ms. Goodman,” began Maggie’s email, a perfect letter written by a perfectly composed young woman eager to put her good manners and cum laude brain to work in the grown-up world. Under “Work History,” her attached résumé simply said, “2010–2013, Camp Counselor, Director of Music, Wohelo, Raymond, ME.”

What I remember most about buying Maggie a cappuccino that day in the Village was the almost visible force of her enthusiasm, which gave her a kind of iridescence when she talked about her eagerness to work on the book but also when she spoke of her life growing up in Maryland, her siblings, the wonders of the East Village and the banjo. She glowed, this nineteen-year-old former music editor for her high school newspaper. And she was beyond psyched to get started transcribing what would become literally hundreds of hours of interviews with mostly drunk rock boys in loud bars. These were the people who would tell the stories necessary to bringing to literary life the wildness and possibility of the city I had lived in when I was her age. Maggie was exactly who I was writing this book for. And there she was, all fresh-scrubbed and stoked, sitting across from me at a charmingly bad French restaurant talking about Beck and hiking. I hired her immediately.

Looking back on it, the three years we worked together on Meet Me coincided with a period of dislocation for Maggie, creatively. She’d all but given up songwriting. “Sophomore, junior, and beginning of senior year, I wasn’t making music at all,” she recalls. “She was taking time to figure out what she wanted for herself, to fuse together her folky, banjo-playing past with this new identity she was creating for herself in New York,” Eva remembers. In place of making music, Maggie was interning at Elle and at Spin and for Robert Christgau and pitching ideas for the 33 1/3 book series. “One was Jagged Little Pill — that was going to be a sort of song-by-song memoir of my relationship with my mother,” Maggie recalls. “Because I listened to that record with her a lot.” The other involved framing Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago “as like a catalog of literature and narrative of the guy in the woods,” she remembers. “I was going to write about Wordsworth and Thoreau and Bon Iver and that narrative through history.” But something was off. As graduation loomed, something in Maggie started to reject the path she was on. ” ‘Primal repudiation’ is a good way to put it,” she says when I use those words to describe how it looked from the outside. “I think I got scared to tell my own story for a while, so I wanted to tell other people’s.” Until one day, she wasn’t scared anymore. The creative channel she then tapped into is what led to “Alaska” and everything that’s followed.

And yet, all those hours spent listening to the Strokes talk about the perils of overnight success, or record execs detail the behind-the-scenes melodrama of corporate music culture, gave Maggie an advantage as she found herself cast as the New York–music heir apparent. She already knew what it was like to be plied with expensive dinners and pawed at by manic British fans, if only vicariously. “I imagine it must be a lot to process, and we briefly discussed the feeling of ‘holy shit, this happened so quickly, is this all going to suddenly disappear?’ ” says Eva. “But pop-star Maggie hasn’t swallowed up Maggie from Maryland. I can see Maggie in every video, photo shoot, performance that she’s done. She’s managed to handle her success with so much integrity.”

“Weirdly,” Albert agrees, “she’s brand-new but also an expert at everything, because she’s been through the Clive Davis school, so she knows everything to be careful of and has many mentors and people who can help her through the process.” The other day, Maggie remembers, Albert told her she was having a healthy reaction to an unhealthy situation, which sounded about right to her. “Obviously there’s this incredible story, right?” Maggie says, laughing. “I did, for a little while, feel the pressure to play the role of the girl in awe living her dream. And honestly, those were real feelings for me for a long time. They still very much are.” But she also knows that kind of thinking — becoming a slave to the narrative you invented — is a snake-eating-its-own-head kind of trap. “It gets tricky when you start to interview like your brand,” she explains. “I get to align myself with my favorite artists, like Beck or Björk or even Kim Gordon, who consistently are defined by their creative practice, but not by a genre or a brand. Their brand is their creative mind. And then they express themselves in multiple mediums and multiple genres. So you buy into their voice and not their statement of the week. If you interview just as an artist and a person, then you have the agency to feel however you’re feeling, because there is no mask to hold up.”

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