Maggie Rogers

While in music college, she floored Pharrell and the video went viral. Does her debut live up to the hype?

BY MATT CONNER ISSUE 87 / MUSIC April 12, 2017

Most music, especially to people in the industry, seems familiar. That’s not necessarily bad, but it certainly makes this statement all the more striking: “I’ve never heard anyone like you before.”

Those are the words of 10-time Grammy-winning artist and producer Pharrell Williams, visibly stunned after hearing a song by Maggie Rogers. The video of their exchange went viral last year and made Rogers an overnight sensation.

The clip features Williams sitting next to the then-unknown college student, both facing the camera, as part of a masterclass at New York University. Williams was on-hand to offer critique to the student songwriters involved in the class and found himself blown away by the song Rogers penned for it, “Alaska,” which she wrote in 15 minutes about a hiking trip.

The song is a mesmerizing blend of folk harmonies and electronic rhythms that feels nostalgic but also completely new.

“Most of the time, people will say, ‘I’m going to make this kind of song,’ and it ends up sounding like something we’ve heard or felt before,” Williams said. “I feel, like, your whole story—I can hear it in the music. I can hear the journey.”

Williams’ thoughts are shared by anyone who’s heard Rogers’ stunning debut EP, Now That the Light Is Fading.

Rogers’ breakout moment has actually been a long time in the making. She began writing songs 10 years ago, and won a songwriting contest at a Berklee College of Music summer program before her senior year of high school.

She recorded and released two folk albums—The Echo (2012) and Blood Ballet (2014)—prior to her recent success. In fact, despite the electro-R&B sheen on her new release, Rogers says she still considers songs like “Alaska” folk music, first and foremost.

“I think the transition really happens in production, because the songs—the way I’m expressing myself, the vocabulary I’m using, the structure—all still feel like folk songs to me,” Rogers explains. “I still play them on the acoustic guitar. They translate into folk music or just stripped-down music.”

Rogers’ folk rootedness emanates from a childhood love of nature and the outdoors, having grown up in rural Maryland. When she moved to New York City for college, and then studied abroad in France, Rogers was exposed to the electronic dance scene and influences that now mix for a truly rare sonic blend. 

“It’s singular,” Williams said.

And that shouldn’t be a surprise, given Rogers’ story.

“I think music for me has been a reflection of myself,” Rogers says. “I came from the Eastern shore of Maryland and moved to New York City. I’d always defined myself by the outdoors and suddenly found myself really falling in love with the city and its energy, and then not really knowing what that made me. I loved pop music, and I loved New York City, but I also loved hiking and being in Maryland, and those in stereotypical forms fall in really opposing categories. I just realized that I could be both.

“It’s funny because I always get pegged as this sort of nature girl and, yeah, I do love nature, but I think if you heard my music in a coffee shop, you wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, this is definitely folk music,’” she says. “I think people picture me in nature fighting against the elements, and for about one month a year that definitely is me, but I’ve also lived in New York City for the last five years and it’s something that I really love. So I think it’s both.”

The viral nature of the masterclass video featuring Rogers and Williams is found in its authenticity—an honest, vulnerable moment preserved and shared. It’s an extension of Rogers’ music and accessible persona that emanates in the same authentic way.

Rogers’ music videos always feature her in her favorite pair of old jeans. Her songs resonate with experiences and emotions that easily connect with listeners. By being true to herself—or her journey, as Williams would say—she’s able to invite fans in, in a way other artists may not—or will not.

“I think music is this really, incredibly delicate frequency that’s able to bring people together and create community,” Rogers says. “I think inevitably it ends up showing us we have more in common than we might think.”

If that statement sounds spiritual, Rogers admits that she is “very spiritual,” although she’s also quick to distance herself from equating spirituality and religion. Though she does admit loving hymns, describing them as “the original folk music.”

“Sufjan Stevens’ cover of ‘Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing’ is one of my all-time favorite songs, and that’s just a folk song,” she says.

Between her childhood immersion in hymns and an art teacher in high school, she received her musical education.

“Where I went to high school, there weren’t really cell phones or Wi-Fi around, but there was one teacher who had a record collection in the painting studio,” Rogers says. “I didn’t grow up with musical parents, so I never really got a pop music education, but in high school was the first time I heard Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Carole King, The Rolling Stones and Talking Heads. It really was like we were living in a different era in the best way. I just really immersed myself both in hymns and that music, too.”

Rogers describes nature and music as two things “very spiritual” to her, and even the synthetic backbeat found on dance cuts like “On + Off,” “Alaska” and “Dog Years” stem from the natural rhythms she experiences while hiking.

“I think the thing I love about nature and folk music is you find your own internal rhythm when you’re hiking,” she says.

“You’re just walking. You find a pace, and there is sort of a quiet meditation in those moments. That’s what I loved about being outside, and often my rhythm of my steps served as the backbeat for a lot of my early demos for folk songs.”

After her first two albums, Rogers took some considerable time away from music to gather her creative thoughts and figure out what the next direction would be.

“I had a couple years in college where I stopped making music and wasn’t really sure what I wanted to make,” she says. “But then coming back to music and having it feel so urgent, the only thing that felt really logical was to be able to sort of challenge myself and express myself in a way that I hadn’t before.”

Rogers set a new standard for herself: She decided only to make the kind of music she would actually want to hear.

“I had been making quiet folk music, and I just really wanted to play a show that I wanted to go to on a Saturday night,” she says.

The kind of show where people could come together, dance and actually find community. Rogers wanted to create “something that people could find a release in—substance or no substance.”

It’s substance—decidedly a different kind—that draws you to Rogers’ music, a fact best illustrated by the look on Williams’ face as he first hears “Alaska.”

It’s the video that launched a groundbreaking new artist and created a label bidding war.

But despite the buzz and ever-demanding schedule, Rogers says she’s most grateful for that video inasmuch as it allows her to pursue her love of making music.

“I didn’t know Pharrell was going to be there that day or that there was going to be a camera crew or that that would end up on the internet, so inevitably when that moment happened, I just took it as a sign that this music I was just newly experimenting with was translating in some way,” Rogers says. “I actually made the song better the same day I met Pharrell. I immediately went back to working on music and assumed nothing would happen. At the end of the day, music is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. I’m a young college graduate with a job doing the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do, so it’s been a pretty incredible year.”

But the most incredible part is she is just getting started.

MATT CONNER

is a writer and editor living in Indianapolis.

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