Somewhere in Brooklyn, Maggie Rogers answers the phone. I immediately take note of her voice—it’s soft and small, almost like a faint flute, and more delicate than the breathy falsetto that launched her into viral stardom. The video of Maggie playing a recording of her unfinished song for a supremely impressed Pharrell Williams during a masterclass he was teaching at NYU is one of the few joyous things the internet gave us this tumultuous year, and its popularity brought immediate success to the 22-year-old singer- songwriter. And while the 21st century Cinderella story is nothing new, there seems to be something different about Rogers’ rise to the public eye, a sincerity of sorts. After all, Maggie wasn’t looking for fame, she was looking to make music, and the impulse to listen to her instincts is ultimately what set her apart in a room of other talented musicians.
Perhaps it’s this sincerity that matters most on the day we talk. It’s the Monday after an emotional weekend filled with collective grief and nationwide post-election protests, and even though we don’t intend to make our conversation political, it’s inevitable. “Music”, Maggie says, “brings release, and it gives people something to turn to.” With an active intention to bridge the gap between pop and music with a bit more depth, Maggie might just have the voice to succeed.
You’ve named Patti Smith, Björk and Kim Gordon amongst your heroes. What about them influences you most, and how does it translate into your work?
MAGGIE ROGERS — What I love about them is they’re such strong women and sort of fiercely themselves, there seems to be no limit to their creativity. I really admire the way they make cross-media work. They express themselves in whichever way comes to them and I think that’s an incredibly inspiring and strong trait—to just be able to focus on being creative and expressive without limiting yourself in the way that that occurs. For myself, I’ve been doing all the cover art for my work, whether it’s taking photos or doing a lot of visual art. I used to be a folk artist and now make sort of dancier, pop, I-don’t- really-know-what-to-call-it folk-influenced music, and after I will inevitably evolve. I just want to be able to continue to creatively challenge myself in whatever way.
They’ve brought some sort of different awareness with their work—it’s not just junk food for your ears. I think with everything happening now, music needs to become a communication tool again.
What I love about music is that it really does tend to reflect the cultural consciousness and the cultural tide, and I think that music is also an incredible way of uniting people, it’s so contagious. If I think about, say, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, when that comes on at a wedding there’s always this instinctual need to move. People need to move. Music unites people. It brings release and it also gives people something to turn to. When I think about all the change that happened in the ‘60s and ‘70s, I think of songwriters like Carole King and Joni Mitchell, but I also think of people like the Beatles, and how instrumental they were in creating a voice for revolution. I don’t know if we’re fully in a revolution yet, but it definitely feels like it’s coming. It’s been a crazy year to watch so many musicians die. We’ve lost so many great voices in our cultural tide that I think it’s really important for artists to be using our voice in a positive way. We feel a lot for a reason and it’s important to be vocal.
Absolutely, I totally agree. You mentioned these artists’ deaths, which make us feel like there’s a void, but if there is a void then it’s time to fill it by creating guiding work.
Completely! I think the direction of music now, there’s a really big void between artists who are doing real work, which I think there are a lot of, and then the sort of more bubble-gum, industry creations that are leading the pack on pop radio. I think that both are really important, but the gap needs to be smaller. The Spice Girls and Britney Spears are so important, but there is such a big discrepancy right now.
How does your environment influence your work and your creativity?
Something that is so important to me is sense of place, and that’s why I use so many sound samples in my work. I want my work to feel as human as possible, so adding these little contextual audio treats—for lack of a better word—is my way of doing that. I also think it gives my music a sort of multi-layered thing for people to investigate, to look for clues to deduce what I’m thinking about. I think the reason I link the outdoors and dance music is because they both sort of provide a meditation for me. For hiking, you have this sort of rhythm in your feet, and you sort of find your own meditation within that rhythm. It’s kind of the same in dance music. In certain house songs there is a mantra, and there is a meditation, and you sort of find your breath within that rhythm. The two of them together, that meditation, I think it’s important for me to write to find that space and to find that calm.
What’s the strangest sample you’ve used in your music?
There are a lot of rattlesnakes, actually. The birds are pretty obvious. I found some samples of trees falling, and there’s a really loud crack in one of them. I was able to pin that down and use that as a rhythmic feature in one of the songs on the EP. For me it can be hard to make music when I have the whole world of tools to work with, but it also helped me not be so precious, because I think so much of audio is so slick and so clean, and I’m not really so slick or so clean. [laughs] That’s why I love folk music so much, that sort of raw quality of audio that feels rough or homemade or organic.
You became known through the video of the masterclass you took with Pharrell. What was the hardest part about finding viral success, and what was the most positive aspect?
Can I just say, thank you. That was the best way that question has ever been asked, because you asked about me and not about Pharrell. The hardest thing about it has been... I didn’t really grow up on the internet. I come from a really rural place. We had dial-up forever. I didn’t have internet in high school. I didn’t really have a cell phone until college. I just grew up in a routine around these things, so suddenly becoming a person of the internet was, and still is pretty strange. At the same time, if the internet didn’t exist I would be freaking out and probably waitressing right now. God save the internet. Obviously it’s been kind of a complicated experience. I’m just super grateful that I was about to graduate and ended up sort of tripping and falling into this alternate universe where I actually get to do the thing I love every day. This is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do my entire life, and now I have a platform where I can perhaps have a positive impact on the world. Getting messages from people about how something I’ve made has brightened their day or made them feel better or helped them fall asleep, or any of that—that’s just the most incredible thing. To see my work having that kind of effect on people is overwhelming, but it’s unbelievable.
I think the honesty of your work and the intention of it has protected you from negativity. I looked through the comment section and no one is really trashing you, which is incredible to find on YouTube. People not being nasty is kind of unheard of.
My stance on writing music has always been to purposefully make myself as vulnerable as possible, because it almost feels like if I put it all out there, nothing can hurt me. It gives me security in a way, but I also feel like, there’s this feeling I get in my throat when I’m singing those words that are so fragile, and it’s kind of the one thing that makes me feel like I’m alive. I have always used music as a way for me to figure out how I’m feeling and sort of work my way through it.
Speaking of which, I know you stopped writing for a period of time. How did you start again?
Music has always been how I’ve defined myself. I went to college and met all these new people, and experienced and learned all these new things. I was in a period of transition and I wasn’t really sure who I was for a little while, so it’s really hard to sonically represent yourself when you’re not really sure who you are in the first place. It was a really frustrating and difficult time, because the one thing I’d always identified as—a musician—I sort of wasn’t anymore. I couldn’t actively claim that title, and it was really, really strange. But then, when I was ready to make music I knew exactly what it would be and what it would look like and sound like and it sort of just ended up representing exactly who I am. I have this background in folk music but felt, after coming to college, that it didn’t really represent all of who I am. I have this newfound love for pop and dance music but that’s not entirely who I am either. I felt really frustrated with these boxes and trying to fit in them, so I inevitably decided that I wasn’t going to and that I was just gonna play what I wanted to.
I love that, because it is very difficult when you’re a creative person and you suddenly can’t create. It’s reassuring to know that the period ends and if you keep going it will come back to you.
Yeah. I think it’s a very kind of 21st century concept, because forever people have identified in groups of what genre of music they like, but now that we have access to all types of music, you don’t have to fit into one group or one stereotype. It’s not like “I’m into punk, so I wear leather,” or “I’m into pop, so I wear a tight shiny t-shirt.” There is so much music and so much access, so you don’t have to be one thing or like one thing, you can like as much as you want.
If you could relive any moment of your life, which one would you choose?
Maybe I would go back to Alaska. I’m not saying that in a political promo-my-single blah blah blah [laughs], but it’s just the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. I was in this period of such darkness in my life and suddenly I went to this place where the sun never set. I remember about one week into the trip—I was there for a month—I was making dinner one night and I just started crying. I was just so happy. So happy, and so full. It feels so far, like a place I can’t go back to. It represents such a special and cathartic and unreal time that it feels like a crazy dream. I wouldn’t want to relive it, necessarily, but just keep a part of myself in there, you know? Sort of like a third party observer—be a ghost and go back.
Who is the first artist you remember having an impact on you?
This is super nerdy, but when I was really young I used to listen to Gustav Holst’s The Planets. It’s a series of orchestral pieces based on the planets and the Greco-Roman mythologies around all the gods and their personalities. I was obsessed with the CD. I always remember getting to Mars and being really scared, because it’s the god of war. It gets really dark.
What music have you had on repeat recently?
Solange’s A Seat at the Table. I can’t stop listening to it. She’s amazing.
What is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?
A couple of years ago I went hiking in the fall with a couple of friends to the White Mountains. Peak foliage was looking really good. We got to the top of the mountain right around sunset and we looked around and it was all cloud, except for some peak coming up. It almost looked like a dragon’s spine, and all of the clouds were flowing down the path, like a waterfall. It was the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen, and we just stayed up there for hours.
If you could hang out with anyone, alive or dead, who would it be?
Joan Didion, but mid-20s Joan Didion in LA. I want a Joan Didion dinner party. I wanna drive in her car and go to her parties and chill with her. I just wanna be Joan Didion’s wingwoman.
What was the last text you sent?
It was actually to a boy I have a crush on, telling him to read Rebecca Solnit [laughs]. Pretty on-brand.