Maggie Rogers Is More than an Internet Sensation Who Made Pharrell Cry
Welcome toGirl Rising, our recurring interview series featuring our favorite newcomers on the verge of stardom.
"I'm a pretty weird person to become a person of the Internet," Maggie Rogers admits over the phone. The 22-year-old singer-songwriter, who grew up in rural Maryland, fairly unexposed to pop music, is referring to the unexpected moment she became an online sensation last year after one of her songs brought Pharrell Williams to tears.
A video of the Grammy-winning producer teaching a music masterclass at NYU went viral after his visceral reaction to a track Rogers wrote, sang and produced, called "Alaska." Williams shook his head and his eyes reddened as the song got to the chorus, and when it finished, he said to her surprise: "Wow. I havezeronotes for that." The song wasn't even finished; it was just a demo. At the time of writing, the video has over 2.4 million views onYouTubeand "Alaska" has over 27 million streams on Spotify. By the end of 2019, Rogers was in Best of the Year roundups fromThe New YorkertoPigeons and Planes,and on Artists to Watch lists in 2019 forBBCand Vevo Discover.
Williams's fascination with Rogers's music is for good reason. Her sound is enchantingly unique, combining sonic influences from her various musical backgrounds: she played banjo and wrote folk songs in her teen years, played harp in her high school orchestra, fell in love with the dance scene in Paris while traveling, listens to soul and even incorporates audio recordings from nature hikes into her music. The result is a captivating hybrid of folk harmonies and picturesque lyrics (which she credits to her English double major and heavy reading load) over minimal electronic tracks. After releasing her most recent, rhythmic single, "On + Off," in January, Rogers dropped a five-track EP,Now That the Light Is Fading,last Thursday.
The fashion industry has become fond of the starlet, too. Rogers was among the style set (including Bella Hadid, Hailey Baldwin and Lexi Boling) at the Dior fête, "The Art of Color" in October and sat front row at shows like Proenza Schouler this New York Fashion Week.
Before releasing her long-awaited EP, Rogers talked toHarpersBAZAAR.comabout developing her unique sound, meeting Pharrell and coming to terms with her newfound fame.
Rogers graduated college last May—the perfect time for self-exploration and, of course, making music.
"After college, I took some time to breathe; there's a lot of finishing and a lot of beginning. I made all of the songs for the EP,and went through the process of mixing and mastering, finishing the album, prepping for release. There's also a lot of personal things as far as making the next step into adulthood. I found a new apartment. I live alone now and I'm sort of exploring what that chapter means. And I signed to a record label—there's just been a lot of settling. I have a team around me. Now I'm just getting settled back into writing and starting to work on my record."
She has synesthesia, a phenomenon that links certain senses together. In Maggie's case, she connects music and color—an advantage when filming music videos.
"I'm really excited because the real creation that I've done during this period is make music videos, which has been a new challenge for me, because I didn't grow up in TV, and I've definitely never been on camera before. I'm an extremely visual creator, so being able to think about what that means and bring my visions to life has been so exciting. I have always had a really clear vision. But I'm also synesthetic, so I tie color and music really strongly. If you look at my lyrics, I spend a lot of time in first verses setting a theme, describing texture and color and the atmosphere, so a lot of the music video is basically just doing that."
She can write a song in 15 minutes.
"I'm kind of a funny writer because I write very sporadically. There are some people who have an incredible amount of discipline; I only write when I'm inspired. I don't make sure I'm inspired every day at 10 AM; I don't work that way. I write once a month, once every two months, once every three months, once a year, you know? When I write songs, it happens very quickly, sometimes 10 to 15 minutes, and I draw inspiration from everything. I think that I marinate and meditate on ideas for a long time and that way I know exactly what I have to say when I write a song, but I find I'm really inspired by the natural world and by walks and by space. I think it takes a little bit of time, and maybe boredom, to allow yourself to get to a place where you can actually figure out how you're feeling."
Rogers, who lives in Brooklyn, finds her best writing inspiration in nature.
"I grew up in a really rural area in Maryland. I love being outside. But I think that when I am in the natural world and find it inspiring, it's not because it's rooted in childhood. It's not like a familiar thing I grew up with. I think it's greater than that. I think it's just calm and sort of free of any stagnant imagery. Right now there's so much happening, and there are so many fiery emotions being passed around between people and there's a lack of empathy. I think that when you're in nature and you're outside, it reminds me that I exist in this larger sphere, that I'm a part of something else."
"I have always wanted, my entire life, to make music."
Her biggest song, "Alaska," was actually the product of a two-year writer's block.
"'Alaska' was the first song I had written in two years, maybe more, and I had this big period of writer's block, so when I finally got to the point where I wrote 'Alaska,' the biggest part for me is that I just felt good. Not only did I start to feel like myself again, but it was a strong reminder [of] "Oh yeah, I can do this!" I'm really meant to do what I'm best at doing, what I feel really fulfilled with doing. I would always say that 'Alaska' is a three-minute song about nine months of my life that took almost three years to write, which is so so true, but listening back to the finished product at the end of the day, I think more than anything, what it did was restore my faith in my own creativity and allow myself more to trust myself."
Rogers's music wasn't always electronic-influenced; her previous songs and EPs, available on Bandcamp, were very folk. But after college and meeting other young artists, her music evolved as she did.
"I really know folk music in and out. I've played for a long time in the folk world. I understand folk tradition, and songwriting, and the sort of songs that folk lends itself to. Then I was in Clive [Davis Institute of Recorded Music], and all my friends were making different kinds of music. That was a really key part. It's exciting because it's like, 'Oh what would it sound like if I played a drum machine?' because I would play it differently than anybody else would. Going through that process was incredibly helpful, and some synths, and bass and drum machines and programming—it's something I've always done on some scale. I think creativity is in which your brain naturally reacts, and I was really curious as to how I would mentally react to a lot of those things while I was in Tisch [School of the Arts]."
She finds it "weird" to be the star of a viral video.
"I don't know how you predict that kind of thing. You're sitting here, hearing this strange, abstract way I talk about the outdoors—I'm a pretty weird person to become a person of the Internet. It's been really strange but it also hasn't. I have always wanted, my entire life, to make music. And so I've always pictured some version of this life. It feels so good and so exciting that I get to use every part of my brain every time I wake up, and think about music and what my life looks like. So in a lot of ways this isn't strange at all. It's what I always wanted."
Her viral moment with Pharrell was completely unexpected—she just showed up for class.
"I think the way that it strangely happened blew my ambition out of the water, because I wasn't asking for it. I just showed up for class. If I knew Pharrell, or a camera crew was there, I might have like, worn clothes that weren't men's clothes from Goodwill. Or maybe I would have brushed my hair, but the beauty of that video and the way everything happened has been that I've been given the incredible gift of only having to be me. And strangely, that seems to be what people are connecting with—well not strangely, but thankfully. The real goal now is getting settled, and I have an opportunity to have people actually hear my music. Now I get to make the best music I possibly can."
Pharrell continues to support her music online.
"We actually haven't spoken since the video. I have so much respect for him. He sort of let me figure this out by myself, because it would be really easy for him to take ownership. He's been incredibly gracious, and he's been supportive on Twitter, he has shared music and videos, and I appreciate the sort of grace that he's moving in me."
"What you're you're hearing is not only the trajectory of what I feel like represents me as a person, but it's also the trajectory of my entire story."
Her initial goal was to be an opening act at a local venue by her mid-20's. Now she's headlining her own tour, which is sold out in every other city.
"Even before any of this happened, the goal was always like, 'Cool, I would like to be an opener at Bowery Ballroom within five years.' That was truly the goal, and so now to have a sold-out show at Bowery, I don't even know how to process it. It so quickly happened, the goals that I had set for myself. In a way, I'm feeling that I've become incredibly present because I have never experienced anything like this and there are so many new things happening at once that feel really grounded, and I'm really quietly and purposefully dealing with what's in front of me at the moment."
Growing up, Rogers was exposed to a mixed bag of music.
"We listened to a lot of soul. My mom would send me Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill and OutKast and Alanis Morrisette on the way to harp lessons, but I never sought out pop music for myself growing up. In high school, I really loved folk music so I just dove right into there. I think everyone in high school is searching for an identity, and by being a banjo player and belonging to a folk community, there are songs based on tradition so it's incredibly inclusive, and it's really easy to define yourself as part of that community. So that's just sort of where I landed, a very natural place rooted in song, rooted in words."
It's the feeling she gets onstage that makes her feel destined to make music.
"I've been writing songs for about 10 years, and playing music for about six or seven. I remember moments specifically when I was 17, at the time I never really got to sing with a band, but now I'm onstage performing for terrific groups of people, and I've just had this earth-shattering feeling, like, 'This is exactly what I'm supposed to be doing with my life.' I've gotten that feeling a few other times—three total. I've gotten this feeling a couple times on stage, just like, this is exactly what I'm supposed to be doing with my life. I can't imagine doing anything else."
This is just the beginning for Rogers―she's already hinting at working on a full-length album.
"I think what I'm most proud of about this EP is that all the songs feel really different. It feels like a collective statement. It's a sample of songs from my last year of college, so I'm definitely thinking about transition inside of it. I'm really excited, because I also left myself a lot of room to play a record. I'm excited to have it out in the world and to be able to make more."
Rogers'sNow That the Light Is Fadingis out now. Listen below.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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