The American post-folkie Maggie Rogers has 2019’s first big pop album. Heard It In A Past Life is big in spirit and sound and with the input of top studio collaborators. But the singer, songwriter and producer is still the same Maggie Rogers who in 2016 nabbed a streaming hit with ‘Alaska’. And she’s determined to maintain her creative autonomy.
Rogers, speaking midway through a Mumford & Sons support tour across North America, is conducting back-to-back interviews for Heard It In A Past Life, her major label debut. As a subject, she is at once outgoing and intimidating. Rogers doesn’t suffer fools, journalists included.
Rogers, who’s mythologised herself as “a banjo player from the Eastern Shore of Maryland”, is best known for ‘Alaska’, which she played to Pharrell Williams during a masterclass at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. The super-producer was wowed, lauding Rogers’ sound as “singular”. Astonishingly, the student had composed ‘Alaska’, inspired by hiking adventures, in 15 minutes. Footage of the encounter went viral – and labels came calling, a canny Rogers signing a licensing deal with Capitol Records.
Rogers grew up in rustic Easton, Maryland. She demonstrated her musicality at seven, learning harp before progressing to other instruments: piano, guitar and banjo. The prodigy participated in a Berklee College of Music program, revealing a flair for songwriting. She cut a folk album while at boarding school in Delaware. Eventually, she secured a spot in Tisch’s elite Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at Tisch and over time, embraced pop, and electronic, influences.
In fact, Rogers herself has a journalistic past. Co-majoring in English, she interned for magazines like ELLE. “I love telling stories and, in songwriting, I’m telling my story and, in journalism, I was telling other people’s stories,” she says. “I think, as an artist, it makes me really appreciate when people give good interviews, ’cause I know the work that’s in the research to go into that. But it also makes me have very little patience. I’ve been in some interviews where people are just like, ‘Are you going on tour?’ I’m like, ‘Dude, just Google it. You don’t need that. It’s the basics.’ I know the journalism basics so, if people don’t show up, I’m like, ‘C’mon!’.” Along the way, Rogers assisted uber-journalist Lizzy Goodman, transcribing interviews for her juicy oral history tome Meet Me In The Bathroom: Rebirth And Rock And Roll In New York City 2001–2011.
In early 2017 Rogers premiered on Capitol with the indie-folk EP Now That The Light Is Fading, entailing the break-out ‘Alaska’. The triple j rave visited Australia, performing at Splendour In The Grass. This May she’ll return for her own headline tour). “Oh, Splendour was so fun,” she recollects. “I got to see so many friends, too. I was there with [her hip-hop labelmate Lil] Yachty and it was the first time I met the HAIM girls before I went on tour with them. It was just really awesome.”
Rogers has developed a hybrid style that defies easy categorisation – ‘Alaska’ redolent of Bon Iver, Grimes and MØ. Though Rogers has been described as folktronica, she also leans towards contemporary avant-soul. But Heard It In A Past Life – taking in the 2018 singles ‘Fallingwater’, ‘Give A Little’ and ‘Light On’ plus, again, ‘Alaska’ – is an unabashed pop LP.
Ironically, in preparing the album, Rogers retreated to her childhood home in Maryland. “So much of it was [done in] the bedroom where I learned how to write and produce music,” she notes. “I was basically on a farm and, if the internet didn’t exist, I would never know that anything has changed.” Still, the multi-instrumentalist brought in co-producers: Greg Kurstin (Sia, Adele, Foo Fighters), Ricky Reed and former Vampire Weekender Rostam. Today Rogers is frustrated at the prevailing sexism in the music business whereby, despite her credentials, media-types occasionally assume she did no more than demo songs. Indeed, she was at the computer.
“I have a degree in music production from NYU. I’ve always been incredibly involved in music production. There are some songs on the record that I produced alone. But I love learning. I felt like it was such a privilege to get to have some co-producers on this record [where] I’ve spent my whole life studying their production and get to learn from them directly – producers like Greg Kurstin, Ricky Reed, Rostam; to pick their brains and to work with them on production and see how they do things was really special to get to learn from them.” She compares her cohorts to “mentors or professors”.
Rogers funnelled her experiences as a professional musician, and especially as a live performer, into Heard It In A Past Life. “The biggest thing was that I really wanted to make a record that would be fun to play live. I spent a year touring my EP, and the EP was great, but it was made kinda for the internet or for my bedroom. It wasn’t really ever made to play giant festivals with. So then I really wanted to make a record I was gonna enjoy touring for a while.”
Curiously, Rogers has been performing her new songs solidly live (bar the piano ballad ‘Past Life’) – yes, even prior to release. “I just got really bored of waiting for the record, and I was on tour, so we started playing all the songs.” Most acts would refrain from such a move, lest their songs wind up on YouTube. But Rogers realised that she didn’t mind. “There are versions of all the songs on the record online – but I don’t wanna be scared. I have so much joy and I’m so excited about this record and I just wanna be sharing that excitement. I think the best way that I can be me, or be present to my audience, is just to be exactly who I am and where I am and just be really true and honest about what’s going on in my mind. I was really excited about the songs, and I still really am, and they’ve been so much fun to play live.”
For all Rogers’ confidence, rapid success has necessitated a tricky adjustment. “This record is really about those two years [since ‘Alaska’]. It’s about the pain and the panic and the change and the transition, but it’s also about all of the joy and the light. I think a song like ‘Light On’ does a really good job of telling the full story – ’cause ‘Light On’ is written for YOU in that story; it’s my fans. It’s written as a letter directly to those people. Those are my favourite kinda songs; they’re vulnerable and they’re direct. If you know what they’re about, then you of course know what they are, but also they allow space for you to bring your own life to it.”
While fledgling artists are often apprehensive about promotional duties, the 24-year-old Rogers has the fearlessness, and forthrightness, of one expressing her truth. “You have to decide what’s gonna get your energy. I learned that I have control over where my energy goes. Realistically, yeah, some interviews are really great and some aren’t and sometimes I say something dumb… Maybe I learned this from working on Meet Me In The Bathroom, but this expectation of musicians to be perfect comes with social media. Social media is a place for celebrities – and I don’t want to be a celebrity. I’m a musician. There’s a real difference between the two. I’ve never looked at my favourite creators to be perfect. In fact, I really admire their humanness; their imperfection; their realness. I don’t know – like can you imagine if there was social media when The Strokes were around? It would have changed everything… Maybe it would have; maybe it wouldn’t – it’s hard to say. But I’ve just decided that I’m not gonna let that pressure change who I am or I’m not gonna let it stress me out.”
Not even cancel culture fazes Rogers. “There’s no ability to be misconstrued,” she suggests. “I mean, I’m very happy to be talking to the press, but realistically people used to need the press to talk to their fans – and nobody needs the press to talk to their fans anymore. You can just talk directly to them on social media. So I think, if you can always have that direct channel open, then there’s no reason to ever be scared ’cause, if you say something weird, there’s always a space to clarify.”
Maggie Rogers’s debut album ‘Heard It In A Past Life’ is out today. Listen here. Rogers will return to Australia in May for a headline tour. Dates below.
Maggie Rogers 2019 Australian Tour
Tickets on sale 12pm local time Wednesday, 14th November
Tuesday, 21st May
Astor Theatre, Perth (All Ages)
Tickets: Penny Drop
Thursday, 23rd May
Forum Theatre, Melbourne (18+)
Tickets: Penny Drop
Saturday, 25th May
Thebarton theatre, Adelaide (All Ages)
Tickets: Penny Drop
Thursday, 30th May
The Tivoli, Brisbane (18+)
Tickets: Penny Drop
Sydney show still to be announced.