The Maryland singer-songwriter was mentored by Pharrell Williams at NYU
Maggie Rogers is something of a globetrotter. She was raised in rural Maryland, read music composition at NYU and studied abroad in Paris, before returning to the US to release her first single, ‘Alaska’, inspired by a hiking expedition she took in 2013. She wrote the track in 15 minutes before presenting to Pharrell, the video for which turned Rogers into a viral music phenomenon. The producer holds back tears, and compares the song to a “drug” for its skilful musical fusion.
“I kind of blacked out to be completely honest,” she tells NME of the experience. “It was really weird. I felt like I was showing my homework. It was very uncomfortable listening to my music in front of my peers, then you add a camera crew and one of the most powerful music influencers. I pretty much picked a spot on the floor and stared at it. I saw his foot tapping and felt my classmates moving, but I didn’t really know what was happening or how excited he was until I saw the video… and I’ve only really seen it once. We’re not in touch; That was my whole interaction with him.”
But it was enough. The video has over 2 million views. More than a folk-dance hybrid, ‘Alaska’ draws together her life experiences, and makes them totally musically spontaneous. “I reached a place where I wanted to make more music but I didn’t know what I wanted. So I stopped labelling music by genre and just got into a studio to be creative. Now I write whatever feels instinctive.”
Rogers wrote her first song aged 12, and picked up the banjo as a teen. “Everybody played guitar in high-school. When I started playing banjo I was adding something to the circle.” A “spiritual” experience with dance music on her European year abroad is what invigorated her songwriting further, landing her over 1.5 million YouTube plays on ‘Alaska’. “There’s a format in folk that I find so lovely and comforting, but I had worked in it for four or five years and didn’t know what else I could make.
“I still don’t really know what I sound like. I’m 22. I’m very much still figuring it out. But in terms of my voice, I’m very clear about who I am as a person and what I think. If I do my job successfully you shouldn’t be able to sense a difference between my folk music and the music I’m making now. It should just feel like one narrative.”
Rogers has a novel way of combating writer’s block. She’s a synesthesiac, someone who feels a strong connection between colour and music. “I’ve always been a very visual creator. I make mood boards or sit with coloured pencils and scribble and try and figure out what I’m trying to work through musically,” she says. “In production if I’m getting stuck and can’t figure out what I need then I make a palette, visualising what I’m trying to do. Then I can hear it.”
The video for ‘Alaska’ sees Rogers and her band of female dancers running through the forest, a girl band transplanted into the natural world. Rogers refers to them as her “coven”, the same word she uses to describe her biggest influences; Stevie Nicks, Kim Gordon, Patty Smith and Bjork. “We’re the best! I’m a feminist, so it’s just a really nice creative energy to work with a lot of women.”
She’ll be heading on tour to the UK and Europe in the new year. “I’ve never played this kind of music live before. The creative challenge I’m finding now is what do I do with my body when there’s nothing attached to it. It’s really fun, I made quiet music my entire life so I’m really ready to be loud and have fun on stage.”
Maggie Rogers will play the Omeara, London, on 27th and 28th February 2017.