The Big Read - Maggie Rogers: "My story is the story of the internet"

Two years ago, a viral clip with Pharrell put the spotlight on Maggie Rogers. Her debut album ‘Heard It In A Past Life’ traces that journey from plucky graduate to an SNL performer and a musician whose impact is reaching an audience bigger than she could have ever imagined. Thomas Smith witnesses the transformation

Pictures: Olivia Bee

It’s when Maggie Rogers starts talking about performing on Saturday Night Live that tears form in her eyes.

We’re sat in the restaurant of the swanky InterContinental Hotel, right next to London’s O2 Arena in late November where she’s supporting Mumford & Sons on tour. The clientele is a mix of out-of-town tourists and suited-up lunch meetings, but our chatter is far less formal. This is the second time we’ve met in less than three months; our first encounter was at the end of August, coinciding with her appearances at Reading & Leeds Festival and a show at London’s 1500-capacity venue KOKO.

In August, we bonded by chatting about her appearance on a different TV show, Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch, a hangover-baiting morning-show full of food, booze, sharp chatter and, er, Tim Lovejoy. “It’s not particularly enjoyable to taste cheese on live TV,” Maggie says jokingly. “I really tried my best.”

But by the second time we meet, in just three months, the playing field has changed dramatically. She’s touring the world as the lead support for Mumford & Sons, announced that her album will be out in January and, most importantly, has bagged a slot on SNL at the start of November.

SNL, undoubtedly, is the most coveted live TV platform for musicians outside of the Super Bowl. Even more so when you haven’t yet released your debut album – ‘Heard It In A Past Life’, a spritely and emotional pop triumph, is released on her own record label, Debay Sounds, next week (January 18). When she talks about walking down the hallways of the show’s studios at the iconic 30 Rockefeller Centre in New York City, or about the outfits she was deciding between, an excitable and infectious rhythm flows through her.

She first performed ‘Light On’, a weighty tale of self-doubt and human connections, but a few technical issues meant it didn’t pan out exactly as she’d envisioned; “I knew I was flat at the start because I was picking the note out of nowhere”. ‘Falling Water’, her second song, was a different story; a soaring, earth-shattering performance that righted the ship, her sublime showing now puts her performance into the leagues of legendary SNL clips. But she’s not interested in rewatching it at all. That moment in time is locked away in her head and can never be replicated.

“I love the fact that it lives in my head now. I felt so in my body and out of my body at the same time,” she says. “In the end I think it’s perfect, because the story of what happened over those two songs is perfectly my story. I had a rough start, but it’s human.”

It’s here that Maggie, reliving the moment as she looks out the window, is moved to tears. “Ever since I performed ‘Falling Water’, I’ve felt a real shift in my life. Something’s changed. Sorry, I’m getting kind of emotional,” she says dabbing her eyes. The restaurant races around us, but we’re both sucked back into the moment that’s changed her life. Hell, I’m about to tear up.

“In a way, it felt like I was saying goodbye to [‘Heard It In A Past Life’], she says. “It’s about to not be mine anymore. I care so much about this work, and really… things have changed. At a certain point you have to let go.”

The idea of change, reinvention and fate sum up Maggie’s story. The album traces her development as a songwriter and a human since the immense moment two and a half years ago that helped put her in this position.

In March 2016, bonafide superstar Pharrell Williams arrived at New York University (NYU) to take part in a songwriting masterclass with some of the students, including Maggie. In the clip, he listens to Maggie’s song ‘Alaska’, a song inspired by her time backpacking a few summers earlier. Pharrell is blown away by the song, and starts welling up while Maggie bops away in the seat next to him. The song, and his reaction, found its way onto Facebook and YouTube feeds across the planet. As of January 2019, the song has been streamed over 69 million times on Spotify, with a further 12 million on YouTube.

The video with Pharrell, which came out on the day Maggie graduated from NYU in June, changed her life. It set in motion this journey of success that most new artists could only dream of. She landed a major-label recording contract and has spent the ensuing two years touring relentlessly across the globe and working on her debut album. But that doesn’t mean that everything was perfect in that time – as anyone who’s been catapulted to viral fame in an event beyond their control may tell you. Maggie, for example, does not want a eight-minute video to define her legacy.

“The hardest thing about the Pharrell video was that it turned me into this thing that happened over night, but it totally ignored all the work I’ve been doing in my entire life. I’m just excited for the day when my music is enough,” she says.

Maggie’s development as musician has been in motion for a lot longer than just two years. She grew up in Easton, Maryland, USA, a small town with a population just a shade over 16,000. When she was seven, she began playing the harp, and her creative instincts led her to the piano, as she wrote songs and recorded in her bedroom. She cites Patti Smith, Björk and Mumford & Sons as key inspirations, and the latter now call her “a kindred spirit”.

“People want to see a magical fairytale story, but the reality is that I spent a lot of time making music alone in my bedroom,” she says. The results include two independently-released collections, ‘The Echo’ (2012) and ‘Blood Ballet’ (2014), which are full of sparse folk songs headlined by her unparalleled and emotive vocals. She included the former in her application to study music and the industry at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where notable alumni includes Lady Gaga and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ lead singer Karen O.

Moving to the city and its constant opportunity to see bands and meet fellow creatives represented a huge change from her rural beginnings. “I used to beg my parents to drive me two hours each way to see a show,” she says. “Then I got to go to New York and start seeing like eight shows a week. You go to school in New York because you want New York and the life that comes with it.”

“I have a really strong connection to a sense of place and I sort of get pinned as this nature girl all the time. It feels like I’m being nymph-fetishized. I like trees, but I’ve lived in New York City for five years – I’m not a bat in a city.”

Incidentally, Maggie is now a part of New York history for her work with author Lizzy Goodman’s book Meet Me In The Bathroom,  the oral history of the city’s early ‘00s indie scene. While studying, she found work both as an journalism intern, and transcribed the interviews with Grizzly Bear, LCD Soundsystem and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs that made up Goodman’s time capsule of a book. “I got the craziest crash course in rock’n’roll that I could have ever dreamed of. And I got a lot of dirt on The Strokes…”

In 2016, Maggie was working on her EP ‘Now That the Light Is Fading’, a collection that draws on some of her folkier influences (‘Dog Days’) but also pulsates with pop bangers (‘On+Off’). The EP was, she says, her “thesis project”, and her goal that year was to graduate, release the EP, make some music videos and start “figuring out my shit” – as every graduate is forced to. “I did do that, it just looked a bit different in reality; at the end of the day, I graduated with a job in the field I studied, and that in itself feels like an accomplishment,” she laughs.

By the time of her graduation in May, the video with Pharrell had been released and the trajectory had changed. It opened her career up to millions of people on the internet, but that comes with both its benefits and its pitfalls. “Suddenly my private life became very public,”  she reflects. “It was completely out of control and the emotions that came with it were really complicated.”

Maggie has only watched that video twice. Once before it went viral and the again during her appearance Sunday Brunch in August. “It’s crazy seeing myself in that video and not know what’s going to happen and for it to go on the internet and change my life,” she says today. “I was watching myself and thinking how after I would just go sit with the rest of my classmates at lunch.”

‘Heard It In A Past Life’, which she worked on with super producer Greg Kurstin (Adele, Beck) and Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend, courses with tender and heartbreaking moments about that “crazy” period. Take ‘Light On’: she reflects on “crying in the bathroom” with “everyone around me saying ‘you must be so happy now’”. On ‘Overnight’, she realises that “people change overnight” and that “things get strange”.

Just as she’d intended, the album’s lasting impression is one of – as she puts it – “change and transition”. But a duo of closing tracks, ‘Burning’ and ‘Back In My Body’, trade on her belief that although we can be predestined to live out fates we cannot control, there’s always a way to spin it into a positive.

“My story is the story of the internet, and about all these people who said ‘Yes’ to me and my music, and shared it with their friends or whoever,” she says. “I think as a musician, or even as a citizen of the world, I just want to be a part of something or feel connected to something bigger than myself.”

“What I’ve learned is to celebrate this story. Not to hide from it or be scared, but to embrace it as something that is not bad or scary, but has made me the person I am in the present moment.” She says this with a palpable sense of relief. “I’m starting to enjoy it for the first time, because I’m letting go, and it feels amazing.”

Maggie Rogers is now, in her own words, becoming a part of “something bigger”. It’s what her 2018 single ‘Give A Little’ is all about. Penned in response to a nationwide school walkout in response to US gun violence last year, the song sees Maggie imagine a closer world, one not divided by polarising politics, and seek to find the middle ground and share it: “It’s all about empathy. It feels like we’re in a cold civil war, where you’ve got two parts of the country who think they’re 100% correct”.

This isn’t just posturing via lyrics; she’s taken this task literally. On a recent US tour, in the run-up to the midterm elections at the start of November, she teamed up with HeadCount, a non-profit organization that helps to encourage voter registration. At a Maggie Rogers show, you can laugh, dance, cry, and then register to vote in the lobby.

Her SNL appearance was filmed days before the vote on November 6 and you can see her proudly sporting a plain white t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan, ‘MAGGIE ROGERS WANTS YOU TO VOTE’. She says that she was chosen for that episode specifically because of her message.

“Democracy only works if everyone participates,” she explains. “The thing about the live shows is that everyone needs music. Like, excluding white males from my show would be dumb. Everyone needs music and I think it’s really important that my shows remain with the intention of bipartisanship. Whether you voted for Trump or not, everyone knows what it’s like to feel sad, for example, and if we can’t come together to find that middle ground of emotions, we have much greater issues than anything politics has to do with it.”

Mobilising your peers to vote is one thing, but asking them to vote for one party over another? That’s not on the agenda for Maggie. She just wants people to understand what your vote does, and why it’s important to engage: “I believe ferociously in equality and basic human rights, y’know, I’m not preaching anything radical here. I definitely am aware of how far a political statement I want to make, because I want people to feel welcome and included.”

That attitude is being acknowledged by her audiences, who are kind, respectful and know how to have a blast. Go to a show and you’ll witness them collectively boogying on down to Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ well after the house-lights have gone up. Her approach is also being noticed by those who fight for it on a daily basis. Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic politician who lost narrowly to Republican Ted Cruz in the race for Texas’ Senate Seat in November, and now a possible candidate for a 2020 Presidential run, has already, via Twitter, proclaimed himself a Maggie Rogers fan.

With all this said, I ask the question that’s been on my mind since this topic came up: would Maggie ever want to run for political office? “That’s a good question,” she responds. “I think I have more power and control with what I’m doing now than I ever could have in the US Government. I wouldn’t be opposed to it, but I’d have to feel like I was was really making a change.”

Judging by the journey she’s been on, and her magnificent debut album, President Rogers isn’t such a far-fetched prospect. She stands for what she believes is right and is full of empathy and wisdom when her listeners need it most. She promotes an open-dialogue where soul-searching is encouraged, because how can we know how to treat other people if we can’t look after ourselves?

Musicians and artists are tasked with making fantastical creations that help us escape modern living, but sometimes the art we end up clinging to the most is rooted in regular human emotions and relatable struggles. If you can convey that, like Maggie can, your influence is far-reaching and timeless.

Maggie Rogers for President? Who knows, but it could prove to be her greatest transformation yet.