“I’ve Got No Idea What The Fuck Is Going On”: Maggie Rogers Is Really Living ‘A Star Is Born’
"I always thought I would play to 600 people...I never thought anything would look like this."
“That is the craziest sentence anyone’s ever said to me,” Maggie Rogers laughs.
She’s in a hotel in New York, chatting to me over the phone on an off-day while on tour supporting Mumford & Sons. She’s halfway through a string of shows at Madison Square Garden, which I’ve just congratulated her on. And while her response could come off like polite downplaying, it’s clear, as we chat, that Rogers is still acclimatising to her fame.
Most of us know the story by now, but still, her sharp incline is worth repeating. The Garden’s just a dozen or so blocks away from NYU’s campus where, in 2016, Rogers played ‘Alaska’, one song from her final project of a music degree, to Pharrell, who was visiting her class.
In a now-viral YouTube video, a fidgety Rogers sits next to Pharrell as he listens, a sense of disbelief continually washing over his face — as the song ends, praise gushes out, with the producer celebrating the song’s singularity. From there, things moved quickly. Rogers signed to Capitol Records and released her final assessment as an EP, Now That The Light Is Fading.
As a self-described ‘banjo musician’ who had recently found release spending hours dancing the pulsating music of Berlin’s clubs, Roger’s EP mixed sensibilities. It was filled with the folk honesty of Rogers’ childhood, backed by pop-forward synths and samples of hooting owls, sung with the burgeoning confidence of someone ready to graduate.
At 22, Rogers found herself with a major label deal, with the The New Yorker calling her “an artist of her time” — praise that’s reminiscent of Girls protagonist Hannah Horvath’s dream to be “a voice of a generation”. How do you follow that up?
Well, if you’re Rogers, you retreat, trust your instincts. After a year of non-stop touring and promo, she went home in 2017 to Maryland. Rather than force a second wind of virality, she relaxed — and worked out what she wanted to say, what she wanted to be.
“The EP was just something I made for school,” she tells me. “I never really had the intention of it speaking for me or introducing me as an artist. With the record, I got to really create the introduction I always wanted to have.”
And now, it’s here. Heard It In A Past Life, Rogers’ debut major-label album, is sharp and assured, even if its topic — the maelstrom of the past few years — is shaky ground. Leaning less on quirk sampling, it cements Rogers’ songwriting talents as anything but a one-off. Like the best folk musicians she grew up listening to, she turns her own specific experiences into something universal without losing character or wit.
Chatting to Music Junkee, Rogers discusses writing Heard It In A Past Life, the importance of breathing space, and how her life looks a little bit like a certain film starring Lady Gaga.
When you released [stand-alone single] ‘Split Stones‘ in 2017, you framed it as a parting gift while you said goodbye for a little while. Did you feel like you needed to take some time away?
Yeah, I did. So much changed in my life so quickly and then I was just kind of [on] this rollercoaster, just figuring out my career or my life, I don’t know.
When it was time to make the record, I just needed a second to breathe and rest. I also needed to figure out what I had to say, because I think my writing process is always really fast. Once I know what I have to say, it’ll take me like 10 minutes to write a song, but maybe it evens out in the long run because it also takes me quite a little bit of quiet first to understand exactly it is I have to say.
And I’m an extroverted introvert, you know? So like, I get my energy from being alone, even though I love being with people.
What did that time away look like for you? That breathing space, what did you do?
Well, I moved back to my parent’s house in Maryland. During that year of touring, I was living in New York before, so I kept my place and actually only ended up spending five weeks of my whole year [I was] leased to that apartment.
I moved everything home to Maryland and then I tried really, really hard to just stay put, which is maybe a hard thing to explain. [For] that [previous] year and a half, every three days at least, I moved.
“I just like to trust my creativity and just know that it would come when it was time, and that I would know when it was time.”
It became really hard to sit still. I worked really hard at sitting still and being in this very quiet removed place where my family’s from. I read a lot, I went on a lot of walks with my childhood family dog and I just stayed really quiet.
Obviously there was a lot of pressure to make the record happen. I just like to trust my creativity and just know that it would come when it was time, and that I would know when it was time.
Sonically, it’s a step forward. Did you have any guiding principles in terms of sound?
Well, it wasn’t even really a conscious choice, it’s just about checking in with myself and wanting it to be who I am now, versus the EP representing who I was then.
I grew up playing music and I’ve played in pretty much every kind of band at this point. I’ve played for punk bands, I’ve been a DJ and I’ve played guitar in like shoegaze-y rock bands and the EP was really me discovering synthesisers and getting excited about dance and pop music.
I think the biggest thing after touring that music for a year and a half, I really wanted to make a record that was going to be really fun to play live.
And I went around, [testing] out all these different kinds of music, and where I landed is like a big mix of all of them. There’s more piano and there’s just a guitar on this record, it’s structurally more like a band than an electronic project.
You’re also known to sample a lot of unconventional sounds like trees falling, rattlesnakes, woodpeckers. What did you sample in this album that we might not be expecting?
There’s only really one sound sample, I think, on this whole record, which is the sound of rain falling on my tent at the end of ‘Say It’. It’s from a camping trip I took in 2014.
When I made the EP, I was coming out of a really long writer’s block and I think sometimes you can be more creative if you give yourself a box to work in. And so, the box that I gave myself to work in was using the sound samples.
I also wanted to find a way to make dance music feel human. On this record, the piano and guitar represent that level of humanity and so I didn’t need to lean on the sound samples as much to do that.
So, I have a really dumb question but just allow me, if you will. Have you seen A Star is Born?
I have seen it.
Okay. So, I was thinking while I was watching it I thought, “This is dumb, you couldn’t record a viral video of a song and then get a record deal and then go on SNL.”. When you were watching it, were you like, “Wait a minute, this is like moderately familiar.”?
[Laughs] I definitely had a lot of friends texting me around SNL time, being like, “You fucking are A Star is Born! You’re the real thing!”.
It’s really funny, but also I thought the movie was great and I’m such a fan of Gaga, and Bradley Cooper is amazing. But it’s definitely like, I’ve got no idea what the fuck is going on. I still think this is all… I’m still in awe that I’m in a hotel suite in New York doing music interviews, and you started the music interview saying, “Congrats on two great shows at Madison Square Garden”. It’s just insane.
“I just needed a second to breathe and rest. I also needed to figure out what I had to say.”
I think that that insanity… this is why my record is called Heard It In A Past Life, because this stuff is so crazy and I’m so like … this was never really the goal. I always thought I would play to 600 people. I always thought I would just make records and play smaller, indie shows.
I never thought anything would look like this, but I have this feeling like I’ve been trying to do this for a really long time, [now] just happens to be right time where it lines up.
Maggie Rogers’ debut album Heard It In A Past Life is out Friday 18 January. She’s touring Australia this May, with a Sydney date to be announced.
Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.