Photo: Mike Massaro
“When I was 18 I saw St. Vincent play on a small stage. I was on the second row and suddenly she made eye contact with me during the song ‘Cheerleader’ and held it for the entire song… I swear to god, at that moment, if she had told me to jump off a cliff I would have done it. It felt like she was daring me to look away.”
On a sunny morning in a café on East London’s Brick Lane, Maryland-born Maggie Rogers tells me this awe-inspiring story as I try my hardest not to finish my tiny almond latte in one go. Fast-forward four years from this staring contest with Annie Clark and Maggie is gearing up to release her debut album, Heard It In A Past Life, to equally- adoring fans. The album, Maggie tells me, “mostly catalogues the period June 2016 to around the middle of 2017, which was my year of big change”.
The catalyst for this change involves Maggie’s single ‘Alaska’ and Pharrell Williams. In 2016, unbeknownst to Maggie and the rest of the students on her music course at NYU, Pharrell had been invited to their class to give feedback on tracks they were working on. As if that wasn’t terrifying enough, the students had to sit next to Pharrell while he reacted to their unfinished work, all while being filmed by the university for online content.
“…this record is about me saying ‘yes’ to all of it…”
Thankfully for Maggie it went pretty well: Pharrell’s reaction to Maggie’s track is like one you hope your best friend will give when you play them a new song you’ve discovered (but sadly never does). Pharrell was totally astounded and essentially concluded: “I have never heard anything like this before”.
Needless to say, Maggie was equally stunned, as were most people who saw the video when it was released in June of that year (the hype reached absurd levels when headlines were published stating things like ‘NYU Student Makes Pharrell Cry With Her Song’). The one issue with all the online excitement, however, was it sort of made it seem like Maggie had just had a quick go at songwriting and was now being carried away on a tide of Pharrell’s tears.
“People just sort of assumed that was it, like it had happened instantly,” she explains. “Because of this video that was put on the internet – without me really even knowing – people were just like ‘OVERNIGHT SENSATION’, but I went to school for this and had been working on it for ten years. I didn’t just get lucky one day.” She pauses before countering herself, “but then also I did: I got really fucking lucky.”
“Suddenly here it is: the opportunity to do the one thing – the one impossible thing – that I always wanted to do, I mean it’s insane!”
Work or luck or both, it was, at base, Maggie’s impressive songwriting that took her on a near two-year journey across the world where she played shows in “North America, Europe, Australia and Africa”. Stating it as plainly as if recalling a shopping list.
Quite quickly it becomes apparent that Maggie is someone who takes a pragmatic approach to most things she’s involved in. She pauses and repeats herself if a loud car goes by to ensure my voice notes are clear. She tells me she does most of her recording at home to keep things quick and reduce studio costs, and I even find out that she steals hard-boiled eggs from hotel buffets before she leaves in the morning.
“It’s to keep me going throughout the day!” she laughs, when I quiz her on this last point. “Sometimes food gets a bit overlooked when you’re on a busy schedule and so I just put a few up my sleeve before we leave and I’ll have them throughout the day.”
Being a practical person, Maggie describes being thrust into the limelight and zipped around the world not as her “dreams coming true” but rather as “graduating from college with a job” and pontificates that “being a musician kinda feels like being vulnerable as a sport”.
Despite the fact that Maggie embraced the chance to move into the professional ranks of this sport, there was a hidden side to her success that she was not exactly ready for, and one she says was hard to express to anyone.
“Suddenly here it is: the opportunity to do the one thing – the one impossible thing –that I always wanted to do, I mean it’s insane! But then at the same time it…” she trails off before explaining, “The reality of it was a lot less glamorous than it appeared to be. The irony of it was that being a musician meant I was too tired to make music. I felt really overwhelmed, really vulnerable, and there were times when I felt really lonely.”
This lowness in the middle of all Maggie could have ever hoped for understandably led to a conflict, one both internally and externally, as she continues: “The thing is, I was incredibly grateful for it all, and the highs were incredibly high but at the same time I was labelled the ‘Happy Girl’ and people would be like ‘Happy Girl, why aren’t you happy?’ and I was like ‘I am happy, but it’s complicated.’”
This sentiment is no more evident than on the song ‘Light On’. She pauses as she tries to recall the words out-loud without music, perhaps for the first time “Wait, hold on…” she says, more to herself than me: “Oh I couldn’t stop it/Tried to slow it all down/Crying in the bathroom/Had to figure it out/With everyone around me saying you must be so happy now”. Hearing the 23-year-old’s candid words without music makes them resonate in an even more personal way, and you could feel sorry for her, but sympathy is really not what Maggie is gunning for. She emphasises that the album is really about “me actively choosing all of this”, and elaborates: “Functionally this record is about me saying ‘yes’ to all of it. I went through all this conflict, I didn’t know if it was for me, but at the end of the day, the plan was always to make music, Pharrell or no Pharrell.”
“…people would be like ‘Happy Girl, why aren’t you happy?’ and I was like ‘I am happy, but it’s complicated…’”
The joy of playing live to fans who are just as passionate about Maggie’s music as she is seems to have vindicated her decision, “It’s actually what the chorus of ‘Light On’ is about,” she says, “It’s a positive song for those people who believe in what I’m doing.” To connect with those fans, Maggie has now adopted the St. Vincent method of making eye contact with one person in the crowd “not for an entire song but for 30 seconds or so. It’s a much better way of connecting, especially in the big venues”.
As we are talking about this, three girls come over to our table to tell Maggie how much they loved her show last night at London’s KOKO. She seems genuinely flattered and after taking photos with them chats about how it was one of her favourite headlines so far.
I catch Maggie back at KOKO that night, for her second sold-out show. I can’t make it close enough to the front to engage in a staring contest but her performance is captivating from every standpoint in the venue. Her voice and movement soar across the room and she delivers her songs with no trace of routine whatsoever. To use Maggie’s pragmatic phrasing: they’ve definitely hired the right person for the job.
Maggie Rogers releases her new album, Heard It In A Past Life, January 18th via Polydor Records.