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Maggie Rogers Reintroduces Herself

Jan 17, 2019
Originally published on January 15, 2019 10:56 am

So far, Maggie Rogers has spent a healthy dose of her professional career as an online sensation. That may not sound strange given the Internet age, but in Rogers' case, it was entirely accidental.

In 2016, Rogers was attending class at New York University when super producer Pharrell sat in on a master class to critique the students' work. Pharrell was blown away by Rogers' song "Alaska." Pharrell's filmed reaction to her music was uploaded to YouTube and Rogers became a viral star.

It's a horrible cliche to say someone's life changed overnight but in Rogers' case, it really did. Since that day, Rogers has been touring around the world, playing her songs to huge crowds and appearing on late night television. It's all led up to this: Three years after going viral, Rogers is negotiating all the peaks and pitfalls of stardom on her debut album, Heard It in a Past Life, out Jan. 18.

Though it was a chance encounter that jump-started her career, Rogers says she remembers feeling "incredibly overwhelmed" by the instant Internet notoriety and by losing control of her private life. She was suddenly thrust onto photo shoot and music video sets and says she didn't have much time to learn how to navigate the music industry. "There's all these expectations that you just know how to do it," Rogers says.

Maggie Rogers takes hold of her own narrative on Heard It in a Past Life.
Cameron Pollack / NPR

Rogers' music melds traditional folk with nuanced pop and dance. This mixture of influences left some wondering what kind of artist — especially one with a co-sign from Pharrell — Rogers would become in the current musical landscape. But Rogers says she's gotten over worrying about other people's opinions by learning where to dedicate her energy.

"I realistically talked about Pharrell Williams everyday for about a year and a half," Rogers explains. "And so, I went through different stages of that. Like, 'I've worked for 10 years. Why can't just talk about my work?' And now it's like, I understand it. I've just decided, like, I'm not going to let that stress me out and I'm way happier because of it."

Rogers strikes a balance of chemistry with the songs on the 12-track album. On "Fallingwater," co-written and produced by Rostam Batmangli, she copes with the reality of letting love slip through her fingers while on "Give A Little," she tries to wipe the slate clean.

"Light On," the album's most recent single, is, as Rogers puts it, the record's thesis statement. The track dissects the artist's disorienting fast track to fame.

"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,'" she sings.

YouTube

Rogers says "Light On" was the last song she wrote for the album and her most vulnerable work to date.

"When all of this happened, I sort of became this cocktail party version of myself where I felt like I had to play the role of 'happy girl' because my story has this element of a Cinderella story to it: 'Girl gets plucked from obscurity, becomes star!' But I was really struggling."

But as the chorus of "Light On" swells, Rogers embraces hope as the solution. "It's a dance song," she continues. "You can hear it in the chords and the textures; there's optimism and hope, and the song says, 'OK, I'm going to do this. I'm going to be here for you in the way that you've been here for me and I'm going to keep coming back.'"

Heard It in a Past Life marks a new chapter for Rogers, one where she is the writer of her own narrative. "Realistically, the album is the introduction to me that I never got to make," Rogers says.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Maggie Rogers was doing what most college seniors do when classes wrap up. She was packing and getting ready to head home.

MAGGIE ROGERS: But I graduated and then, I guess, very quickly had a job.

MARTIN: What was the job?

ROGERS: Pop star.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Pop star because just a few months before graduating from NYU, Maggie Rogers went to one of her classes and found none other than legendary producer Pharrell Williams sitting there. He was part of a master class there to critique student's work. She played him this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALASKA")

ROGERS: (Singing) Moving slowly through westward water over glacial plains, and I walked off you.

MARTIN: It's a song called "Alaska," and the classroom video of this moment shows Pharrell Williams practically in tears. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PHARRELL WILLIAMS: I've never heard anyone like you before, and I've never heard anything that sounds like that. So that - that's a drug for me.

MARTIN: That video went viral. And it is a horrible cliche to say someone's life changed overnight, but in Maggie Rogers' case, it really did. Since then, she has been touring around the world, playing her songs to huge crowds. And it's all been building up to this - her first major label album. It's called "Heard It In A Past Life."

ROGERS: This record is about that moment and what's happened since then. And when that Pharrell video went viral, the reality is that I was incredibly overwhelmed and really scared. And suddenly, my very private life was very public without me really having any control or say over it.

MARTIN: And it sounds like that it's taken you kind of a while to wrap your head around...

ROGERS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...This new life.

ROGERS: Totally, because - it's interesting. I've never had any doubts about the music, but the reality of the music industry is something I had to learn.

MARTIN: Really fast all of a sudden.

ROGERS: Yeah, and there's all these expectations that you sort of just know how to do it. They go, yeah, just, like, do the photo shoot. I'm like, no one's taken my picture ever before; like, I don't know how to do this and navigate it in a way that felt like me.

MARTIN: Right.

ROGERS: And I think that's the weird thing about my music, too, is that I'm from folk music. I grew up playing the banjo, but I also loved pop music. And I love to dance. And I think it left people a little bit confused about, like, who I would be - what kind of artist I would become.

MARTIN: So were people cool with that? Like, did you get to a point where you felt like you could play in all those spaces and everyone was fine with it?

ROGERS: I think I am now. And I think a big part of that for me was learning what to give my energy to. You know, I realistically talked about Pharrell Williams every day for about a year and a half. And so I went through different stages of that - of, like, I worked for 10 years; why can't I just talk about my work? And now it's like, I understand it. And I've just decided, like, I'm not going to let that stress me out. And I'm way happier because of it.

MARTIN: Let's get into the album.

ROGERS: I'm so excited you've heard it.

MARTIN: Yeah, man. I'm going to play "Light On."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIGHT ON")

ROGERS: (Singing) Would you believe me now if I told you I got caught up in a wave? Almost gave it away. Would you hear me out if I told you I was terrified for days? Thought I was going to break. 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.

This song - this first song I was actually - the first time I was actually nervous to put a song out because it is so vulnerable. When all of this happened, I sort of became this, like, cocktail party version of myself, where I felt like I had to play the role of, like, happy girl because my story has this element of, like, "A Cinderella Story" to it - girl gets plucked from obscurity, becomes star, you know? But I was really struggling. But I think the chorus of "Light On" says what I really want to say, which is that, you know, "Light On" is a happy song. Like, it's a dance song. You can hear it in the chords and the textures. There's optimism and hope. And the song says, like, OK, I'm going to do this; I'm going to be here for you in the way that you've been here for me. And I'm going to keep coming back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIGHT ON")

ROGERS: (Singing) If you keep reaching out, then I'll keep coming back. But if you're gone for good, then I'm OK with that. If you leave the light on, then I'll leave the light on.

I wrote 30 to 40 songs for this record. And I thought this record was done a bunch of times. And this time, I really kept going back and challenging myself. I was like, do I think I can do better? And even, like, "Light On" was the last song I wrote for the record. But I was looking at the tracklist and thinking about the balance between the chemistry of all of these songs. And I realized I hadn't written a song to open the record yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIVE A LITTLE")

ROGERS: (Singing) If I was who I was before, then I'd be waiting at your door. But I cannot not confess I am the same. So look at me and hear me now with all my body screaming out. In my mind, I'm thinking of a place.

So I wrote "Give A Little." And it's the first song on the record because I wanted to write something that said, let's have a clean start. And the lyrics in that song are like, you don't know me; I don't know you; let's say everything's fresh; let's start from a place of empathy; like, let's just, like, reacquaint ourselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIVE A LITTLE")

ROGERS: (Singing) But if you give a little, give a little, maybe we could get to know each other - give a little, give a little, give a little.

Realistically, the album is the introduction to me that I never got to make.

MARTIN: By the same token, there are going to be 15-year-old girls out there listening to this conversation who are writing songs in their bedrooms at night. What do you say to those girls?

ROGERS: I think the most important thing is giving yourself permission to feel and to write and to not worry about the reception. All I can say is that I want to make music because I want to create community and bring people together. And also, I want to feel less alone.

MARTIN: Maggie Rogers, her debut album is called "Heard It In A Past Life." It comes out Friday. Maggie, thanks so much.

ROGERS: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY IT")

ROGERS: (Singing) Standing in the open light within the swelter of the night, I found myself staring at you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.