Maggie Rogers Is Back In Her Body
On her new album and the introduction she never got
It takes seven seconds to make a first impression. This formula has been a staple of pop psychology and, although its veracity is somewhat questionable, I already like Maggie Rogers by the time she breezes into Cafe Mogador, slides into the seat across from me and fills up my water glass. We chat about halloumi eggs for a while (a go-to for her when she is back in town) and both decide to order them. The table is awkwardly small, but Rogers does not seem to mind, helping me when I am forced to lean the mic against the salt shaker after our food is delivered in a game of interview Jenga. Outside, it is pouring; Rogers has been in back-to-back meetings and got a stream of texts marked "URGENT" within seconds of arrival, yet somehow she is serene and ready to talk.
Really though, this isn't my first impression of Maggie Rogers. I got the same introduction the rest of the world did when the now well-known video of her wowing Pharrell with an early version of her song "Alaska" at an NYU masterclass went viral. Shortly thereafter, Rogers went from graduating NYU to securing a major record deal.
The video has left an indelible impact on Rogers's career, on the one hand jump-starting her musical endeavors while at the same time seeming to constrain her into the familiar status of viral icon, one stamped "happily ever after" with major label legitimacy. But Rogers is not one to be constrained, and in the past two and a half years, she has quietly but confidently pivoted the momentum of breathless reviews and internet chatter into a period of growth that is careful, deliberate, and increasingly uncommon for rising stars. Rogers's arrival may have been an anomaly, but her first major album Heard It in a Past Life, out today, marks her proper introduction to the world.
The 24-year-old has kept busy since her viral hit, releasing an EP, touring across the country, directing music videos, and performing on the Saturday Night Livestage all since graduating from NYU's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music in 2016. Originally from rural Maryland, her first foray into music was through folk. She learned to play the harp, then the banjo, and cites Bon Iver's For Emma Forever Ago as the formative record of her high school years. However fast her ascent might appear, Rogers has been making music for a long time, independently releasing her first two albums, Blood Ballet and The Echo—well before her much-anticipated 2019 record.
The new album tells a story we haven't heard before: Rogers according to Rogers. On the (now-chart-topping) single "Light On" she bares her soul. "Tried to slow it all down/ Crying in the bathroom/ Had to figure it out," she sings as a hollow drum thumps in the background. "With everyone around me saying/ 'You must be so happy now.'" Her voice breaks on this line, followed by a dance-until-you-cry kind of catharsis.
"For so long there was a tendency to turn my career into this Cinderella story—which makes sense, it's a great story—but I felt like I lost a little bit of humanity in the way that everything happened," Rogers says. "I was so simplified, and the reality is that things did happen overnight, but I also worked for 10 years [for it]."
The last song on the album is aptly titled "Back in My Body." It is a rhythmic jam that builds slowly, grounded in something more somber than some of the other dance tracks on the album. "I found myself when I was going everywhere" Rogers croons, "This time, I know I'm fighting, this time I know I'm back in my body."
After two years of feeling overwhelmed and rushed, Rogers has found a sense of calm—so she wrote a pop album about it, produced in a way that breaks from decades-old pop tradition. The album was conceived in a barn-turned-studio back on her farm in Maryland but begs for a subwoofer and a dance floor (just wait until you hear "The Knife").
"Some of these songs were written in my childhood bedroom where I started writing songs, or on the piano in my parents' living room," says Rogers.
Nixing ghostwriters, hordes of beat makers, and social media teams, Rogers prefers to cut straight to the bone, though this album was the first time Rogers worked with co-producers and collaborators.
"I knew that Maggie was a truly special artist the very first moment that I heard ["Fallingwater"]. After the first 30 seconds of listening, I distinctly remember turning to my assistant and saying, 'Whoa, are you hearing this?'" says Emily Lazar, Grammy-nominated mastering engineer and president of The Lodge. Lazar, who mastered Roger's latest album, started working with her more directly after that. The two bonded over their ability to "see music" as a spectrum of colors (Rogers is synesthetic), as well as their fervent dedication to finding the right sound to tell a story.
"Maggie is a unique talent that while obviously different, interesting and fresh, she resonates with a faint glimmer of some of the most important artists of our time... which makes her music and her presence universally likable," says Lazar.
Rogers does not fit neatly into one box. She just as easily wears jeans and a white T-shirt as she does an electric jumpsuit-cape combo with blue glitter streaked over her eyes. Her sound is pop by way of folk, organic and synthetic at the same time. She has no interest in being boxed in by genre or by half-truths about who she is ("I kind of always get described as this, like, 'nature girl'... I've lived in New York for the last five years," Rogers says) and especially not by the "celebrity" facet of her job. She is here to make music.
Over the course of our interview, she speaks candidly, but never carelessly. When talking about herself and her creative process, every word is measured, and every question considered before she lobs an answer in my direction. Rogers has no problem correcting me when my observations and musings about her aren't quite right. She is firm but kind. Now more than ever, there is no room for misrepresentation and, in this album, she tells the whole story, reclaiming a narrative lost to speculation.
The tendency to simplify women in the arts and define their life's work by the way they style their hair is real and these generalizations tend to stick to our careers like burrs. Refusing to be distilled down is in many ways an act of defiance. As a journalist, I respect it, but, as a woman in her early 20s forging the path of my own career, I empathize on a visceral level.
"The reality of my life is it's about 25 percent music, and everything else I do is so I can get that 40 minutes later to go play. And it is unquestionably worth every second of it," says Rogers in between sips of coffee. "Music is the most amount of joy or good I can do in the world. Being able to know that something I wrote is making someone else feel less alone or maybe made somebody have a release, dancing in their kitchen... I make myself vulnerable for sport. It's a weird job."
Rogers confidently commands a crowd and knows how to get people on their feet, but when I saw her at Madison Square Garden, it was her joy that struck me. I got to the show early and sat with my infant-sized popcorn box somewhat disappointed there were not more people around as she walked on stage. She entered regally, white fringe flying behind her, shoulders set back. The opening chords to "On+Off" started, and my eyes were fixed as Rogers swaggered effortlessly from one side of the stage to the other, making the space seem intimate with her at the center. The stage lit up pink for "Give a Little," and she jumped and bounced and twisted and twirled. Slowly the stands started filling until suddenly, she was playing "Light On" to a full stadium.
The shift was gradual, almost undetectable, but by the end of her set, you forgot a time when the whole stadium was not focused squarely on her. "She makes me feel so free!" I heard a girl shout behind me, hugging her friend closer while belting the lyrics to "Alaska." This is a sentiment shared by many Maggie Rogers fans.
With the new album, one of the things Rogers is looking forward to most is finally being on the same page as her audience. The track-listing takes the listener through the past few years without shying away from the complicated nuances of her ascent.
When Rogers talks about her people, whether they be a newfound crew of musicians she admires (Phoebe Bridgers and Billie Eilish, to name a couple) or old friends from NYU, I notice her soften for a fleeting moment. She talks about seeing Jessie Reyez and Eilish arm-in-arm directly side-stage watching her entire set and doing the same for them at All Things Go, the all-female festival she curated in Washington, D.C., that just happened to fall on the day of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation. Her friends have been there for her.
"They were all like kind of worried about me," Rogers says. "Friends came on the road, came on tour, came in my music videos, I got in the studio with them, I'm a really loyal person and I don't have a really large group of friends, but the people I hang out with I really really care about and they continue to be a part of my life."
One of her best friends from NYU is actress and NYLON's July cover star Camila Mendes, known for her role as the iconic Veronica Lodge on Riverdale. Mendes has been there for the whole ride. Rogers and Mendes had a similar come-up, rising to fame at a speed that would make anyone dizzy.
"When our careers started to take off, Maggie and I immediately recognized the value of having each other. We both experienced this unique duality of being elated that your dreams are actually coming true, but also feeling overwhelmed with the pace at which they're coming true," says Mendes. "I remember what a relief it was when we met up to talk about all these changes. She was pretty much the only person with whom I felt comfortable sharing my fears of fame and the pressure of newfound success."
It is fitting that Mendes made a cameo in the music video for "Give a Little." She, Rogers, and Rachel Matthews (another friend from their NYU crew) are seen laughing together at the bottom of a drained pool, dancing with reckless abandon. Otter pops, skateboards, and Vans classics (the likes of which I haven't seen since leaving the Orange County suburb I grew up in) all make an appearance. Rogers wears the hell out of a pair of white cowboy boots, honey-blonde hair whipping around in the sunlight while she smiles big. It looks authentic, and that's because it was.
"We learned the choreography an hour before we started shooting the dance sequence. She didn't want it to be perfectly synchronized; she wanted it to look like three gal pals just made up this dance together in their living room," says Mendes, who oozes with admiration for her friend and the vulnerability of her music. Mendes is clearly not just a friend, but a genuine Maggie Rogers fan and the two are constantly hyping each other up and supporting one another's work all over social media. "I wish people could really see how much she invests herself in every part of the process. She is always fighting for creative freedom and making sure every move she makes is in line with who she is and what she believes in. This dream means everything to her."
It is only right that "Give a Little," with its unapologetic poppy synth and its music video-turned-college reunion, kicks off the new album. "I thought the record was done and I realized I didn't have a song to start the album," Rogers says. "The meaning of that song is a fresh start. I don't know you, you don't know me, everything's new, let's create this whole new world where I get to reintroduce myself."
The song sets the tone for the album. It is about empathy, about turning a new leaf, and Rogers is saying yes to all of it. As I sit down to write this profile just days after the new year turns, talk of new beginnings is swirling in the air. The song strikes a new chord. What if we all had the chance to cast aside first impressions and reintroduce ourselves? What would