The CliffsNotes version of 24-year-old Maggie Rogers’s rise to stardom goes something like this: In March 2016 in her final year at New York University where she did a double major in Music and English, Rogers attended a Masterclass with Pharrell Williams. She had just written a song — “Alaska” — and wasn’t finished producing it, but brought it to class for critique anyway. It was the first she’d made in two-and-a-half years following a bout of writer’s block and a crisis over whether her career would be in music or journalism. At the time, she was interning at Elle and transcribing scores of interviews for the writer Lizzy Goodman, who was working on her 2000s New York oral history Meet Me in the Bathroom. The moment Williams heard “Alaska” was caught on video camera. He screwed up his face the way you do when you’re receiving information that doesn’t make any sense to you and told her he had “no notes” as feedback. The video was for Williams’s I Am Other channel on YouTube. By the summer and her graduation date, the Pharrell video had gone viral, and Rogers was in the middle of a label bidding war. She eventually signed with Capitol and released Now That the Light Is Fading, the EP she’d made as part of her finals. Then she toured the world for 18 months, gave up her apartment in New York, and retreated to her family home in Easton, Maryland, to write more songs.
Those songs form her debut album Heard It in a Past Life. It’s a title that divorces her story from any sense of agency or control. It’s about surrendering to process. It’s an album about making an album. Where her earlier work found her marrying folk music to electronics, the LP is an autonomous pop record, made in collaboration with producers Greg Kurstin, Ricky Reed and Rostam Batmanglij. We meet for breakfast in Echo Park, Los Angeles, before she heads out on the road again. Rogers shows up in red pants, steel-toe boots, and a cow-print jacket. “I wore my pop-star jacket,” she says, laughing gregariously. “I can’t tell if I’m a pop star or not, so I was going to ask you out of personal curiosity: What’s the difference between a pop star and a rock star? Is it guitars? ‘Cause I got guitars.”
I think the term “rock star” denotes a certain type of behavior.
So rock stars are bad?
Or maybe it’s that Lady Gaga is a rock star in A Star Is Born, but she’s a pop star when —
She’s got crazy shoes on? Does it just have to do with your footwear — like, I have to wear stilettos instead of boots?
What do you identify with?
I don’t know. This is the biggest question. When I’m joking around I’ll say I’m a pop star because it’s silly. I graduated from college, I got a job, and that job was … pop star.
It’s finite, too. Being a pop star has an expiration date. Rock star is more of a career path.
That’s interesting. So, Johnny Depp: rock star. The Strokes: rock stars.
Rock star! I was listening to somebody talk about the new Democratic candidates for 2020. They were saying that it doesn’t matter what party anyone is because America will always vote for a rock star. Obama is a rock star. In Trump versus Hillary, Trump is the rock star. I personally think Hillary’s a fucking rock star, but in colloquial culture it’s Trump.
Yesterday you did Ellen. Tomorrow you play in L.A. On Friday your debut is out. There’s a billboard of you in Times Square. This is a monumental week. How are you?
I’m so excited and I’m getting good at letting go of little things.
What little things?
On Ellen yesterday the background video projection wasn’t awesome. I was talking to the guy to adjust it. Then I was like, “You know what? It’s cool.” I’m not gonna worry about it. Another thing I’ve let go of: I cannot find a stylist. That’s a pop-star issue, not a real-world issue.
It’s an interesting symptom of genre. I send incredibly detailed notes, mood boards; I send fabric references. And I consistently get pulled floor-length floral dresses and velvet hats because people think I’m a ’70s flower child.
What are you?
I dress as a combination of space cowgirl and San Francisco art teacher. So I’m doing it myself. It’s way easier. I dressed myself for SNL [she performed in November 2018]. I wore my own jeans and a silk shirt. Then I wore a dress I bought at a vintage fair in April. My mom was coming and said, “Do you need anything from home?” I go, “There’s a red dress in my closet on the left, please!” I feel so good about the music that I’m at this point where I don’t know if anything else matters. In school we were told the whole package: marketing plan, art direction, what you wear on TV, what it says about you. I have no idea what I’m going to wear onstage tomorrow. The music’s great. It doesn’t matter.
You used to wear very performative outfits.
Totally. I was scared. The jumpsuits were a way for me to put a costume on and have it be bigger than me. I was worried I wasn’t gonna be enough. Now I’m stoked to not be wearing a costume. When I first made the EP I thought I had to dance around to hold everyone’s attention. It was the first time I wasn’t playing a guitar. Now I’m learning to just feel. I’m learning the power of standing still and really singing.
We spoke after I saw you perform at Glastonbury 2017. You had this look in your eyes onstage, like, Holy shit, this is happening.
It was disbelief. That was the hardest thing. Now I’m so calm and excited because I’m getting to enjoy it. Not that I didn’t enjoy it for a couple years, but I was so … overstimulated. Glastonbury was crazy. There was an article that ran in the Guardian the day before: “An Electric Joni Mitchell — the Great Hope of Glastonbury.” When did I become the great hope? And Joni Mitchell? What the fuck?
You began your album release week with a Spotify playback on Saturday for fans and you cried before you played a song. What were those tears for?
I started sobbing. I think because I’m taking ownership. This is the first time I feel like this isn’t happening to me but I’m making it happen. I haven’t got to be present in this process because I was so overwhelmed, scared, wasn’t sure if I wanted this. Everything from graduating college to September of 2017 — that year-and-a-half touring was so hard to sort through. I was having moments like Glastonbury, Lollapalooza, Fuji Rock, my first gig in London. These crazy fucking shows, glimpses of insane elation. Just trying to keep up with it. The tears come just because … It’s a relief. I’m so glad.
You’re glad you made it?
This album makes me feel like a person. I get to tell the story of how I felt instead of having to play a character. My story was fragmented. I was in a lot of pain, feeling super conflicted. I wasn’t able to share that. My music was so intimate. People thought they knew me. It was like living a double life. Now I’m gonna choose it on my terms. This time I’m fighting because I actually want it and I’m gonna go get it.
What was the moment where you felt it was worth fighting for?
What I love more than anything in the entire world is making music. It’s what I studied in school. And I love to write. That’s what makes me feel challenged, excited, curious. My creativity died during that year-and-a-half. You can’t have output when there’s too high of an input and no time to synthesize. All this stuff was happening, but I didn’t feel like an artist because I wasn’t making things. So when I was making the record I was so happy. I loved it. I want to do this for the rest of my life. It’s how I know I’m alive.
After you toured, you retreated back to Maryland and you wrote “Past Life.” It’s a song about impending change, seeing yourself on TV, knowing things were never going to be the same. It sounds sad. Do you feel robbed of the anonymous troubadour years?
I did the whole New York musician thing. I played [venues] Pianos and Baby’s All Right with my rock band and my folk band. The universe was gonna make this happen whether I was ready or not. I get the chance to be ready this time. When I think about whether I feel I was robbed of something, the biggest thing is privacy. I’m a private person. I am quiet. I wonder how I’m going to feel about this in ten years.
How do you mean?
This happened to me in the age of social-media stars, but I didn’t grow up with TV or Wi-Fi. I had dial-up until college. Where I went to high school there was one Ethernet cable in every classroom. I didn’t have a cell phone till I was 18. I grew up really slowly in the middle of corn fields. The biggest thing was having my very private life become public very quickly without any of my consent or control. That felt … To have a video of you put on the internet … Not cool.
So you didn’t know the Pharrell video was going online?
No. Pharrell put it up. But I don’t wanna be bitter about that, and I’m not. It does not do any good to be upset at the gatekeeper who gave you your career.
He didn’t give you a career.
No. I don’t believe that. It has nothing to do with Pharrell. I have an incredible amount of gratitude and respect for him. It has more to do with me, and that’s an important distinction. I never wanna talk about what happened to me in a context that feels like I’m ungrateful. It’s hard to talk about it in a vulnerable way like this because it can be taken out of context. I spent a year not wanting to talk about that video, and then I made a record about it.
Before that video happened you had only just started to write music again.
It was the first song I wrote in two-and-a-half years, yes. The video went online in March. I had made the EP by mid-April, in three weeks, as my college thesis. The video went viral in June. I was finishing college, taking exams.
On “Light On” you sing: “With everyone around me saying: ‘You must be so happy now.’” You graduated from college and became a pop star. Did you ever feel like you couldn’t complain about the things keeping you awake at night?
There was an element of guilt. First off, I value hard work. I have an incredible amount of respect for my classmates. All of us knew I hadn’t put the work in on music for that two-and-a-half years. I’d been doing my English major. What’s that thing called? Impostor syndrome. My classmates were super supportive. It was me wondering why it was happening to me, not to someone else. It made holiday parties stressful. I remember going to church at home on Christmas in 2016 and people wanted to take my photo. Now I don’t go to church in my hometown. When I’m home in Maryland, I don’t leave the house. That’s a weird feeling. It was interesting to hear myself talk at parties. People would ask, “How are you? You must be so happy. Are you stoked?” And I would hear what was coming out of my mouth and think, Whoa, I’m really not okay.
What were you saying?
I was speaking about it with the language of trauma. It wasn’t till people asked that I realized how bad it was. There was no space for my feelings. No space for me to have a reaction. It was just, “Go!” That’s what you gotta do. I don’t resent that. You’re offered an opportunity and you take it.
On “Retrograde” you reference Stevie Nicks’s “Bella Donna.” Stevie wrote that song to herself because she wanted to slow down following a period of high intensity in her career.
I don’t have many hairs on my arms but they’re standing up! I didn’t feel like there was space for me to say what I was okay with and not okay with. But that has nothing to do with anyone around me. I’ve learned how loud my own self-critic is. I’m an academic. I wanted to be good at the job. Who are the people who set the standards in pop? Katy Perry. Taylor Swift. Giant names who have permanent smiles, host everyone, and are perfect. I couldn’t do it! But I thought I had to handle it all. I never thought I could say: “This is too much for me. I can’t.” I learned self-care.
When did it get to be too much?
Well, [the song] “Back in My Body” is about a series of panic attacks I had in Europe on tour. [She quotes the lyrics.] “I was stopped in Paris and I almost ran away. Two times round the block before I decided to stay. I was stopped in London when I felt it coming down, crashing all around me with a great triumphant sound. Like the damn was breaking and my mind came rushing in. I was stopped in London I felt an awakening.” That’s just me freaking the fuck out.
Who saved you in those moments?
I saved myself. Actually, that’s not true. My fans! The music! That time in London was before my first show. I had this panic attack because I was in sound check and someone said, “You didn’t play ‘Alaska.’” I never play “Alaska” in sound check. I play that song all the time. They were like, “The booker from Jools Holland is here; we need you to play ‘Alaska.’” I felt like a monkey, so I freaked out. I totally lost it.
What did that look like?
Me leaving, crying in the bathroom. Then I got onstage and had one of the best shows I’ve ever had. I felt supported. I felt like people were taking care of my music. I had allies.
I re-watched your SNL performance.
I haven’t seen it.
You have no intention of watching it?
At some point maybe. I don’t know. Rostam [Batmanglij] and I had a long conversation the morning after where we said, “I felt it. I was there. I don’t know if I need to see it.”
It was quite the journey.
The two performances? It was.
For “Light On” you came in flat, and you recovered.
My ears cut out. The first 30 seconds I couldn’t hear.
It felt like it happened exactly how it was supposed to: You became the underdog, and then when you returned to perform the second song and hit that opening note on “Fallingwater,” it was this triumph. It reminded me of a video I once saw of Stevie Nicks performing “Rhiannon” in 1976. She performs like a mad person in an exorcism.
Dude, I was fucking mad. It’s funny. I have great shows when I’m mad.
Where did the fury come from?
“Fallingwater” is about me trying to figure out the music industry. [Quotes lyrics.] “I thought that I was doing so well, and now it’s getting harder.” I’ve been processing that performance for the last two-and-a-half months. It’s changed my life more than any other time I’ve opened my mouth to sing. It was the first time I felt like I looked directly at the sun. I wasn’t gonna let this make me nervous. It was for me. All the other times I was doing it for people who showed up or because I’m a “good” girl. I was like, “Fuck this. This is mine. Nobody’s gonna tell me how to do this.” It was a switch. Something woke up. The first time I’ve taken any kind of ownership, been alone in it and felt empowered. I reclaimed it. I’ve spent the last two months completely restructuring my relationship with the industry.
So I presume you’re writing new music?
I’m writing songs again because I feel like it, not for someone else, or because it’s time.
What was the conversation backstage between the two performances?
I was just bummed because I sing that song perfectly every night. For picking a note out of thin air I did pretty okay. I just couldn’t find it. So I found the joy and the rest of the performance was fine. But man, that wasn’t what I’m capable of. I had to let it go. It made me feel as though I had something to prove to myself more than anyone.
The “’Fallingwater” video was choreographed by Emma Portner. It’s so physically expressive. What are you able to say with your body that you can’t in words?
I think I love to dance because it’s therapy. I was meditating and journaling, but there are some emotions I need to move through. Your body holds tension. In the video there’s this part where I’m smashing my fist into my hand. It’s this … [She starts dancing while seated at the table.] I’ve realized when I perform I hold an incredible amount of tension in my shoulders. I’m really tight. I’m trying to loosen up. I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for you. I’m just moving around the table. It’s like there’s something in your teeth. You know when you kiss someone with your teeth? It’s more about tension than it is emotion. That’s the same way I sing “Fallingwater.” There’s something about the tension in my mouth.
Have you ever had your past lives read?
Not officially … Have you ever read Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian Weiss? I’ve been getting asked about reincarnation because of my album title, so I read it for context. It’s about a psychotherapist in the ’70s. He goes through this woman’s past lives and helps cure her fears through hypnosis. There’s this concept in the book that I think about all the time: this idea that groups of people are reincarnated together every lifetime. They all have different relationships to each other every lifetime, but you work through your karmic debts.
Give me an example from your life.
I made this friend this year, Judith, who’s in her 60s — a real pillar. We were having a coffee and she goes, “I swear you’re my mom!” And I didn’t get it. I have these friends in my life, maybe you do, too, where you walk in a room for the first time and you go, “You’re my friend.” I swear that’s a frequency signature. There’s a kinesis. Judith was one of those people. When she said, “You’re my mom,” I was like, “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, but I LOVE YOU TOO.” And then I read this book and called her: “I get it!”
Are you on good terms with this period of your life?
Totally. I’m on great terms with it. The only thing I wanna do in this lifetime is learn everything and feel everything. When I was on [UK TV show] Sunday Brunch, they showed me the Pharrell video for the first time in years. I started crying. I have so much love for that girl, you know? It feels like me and it doesn’t feel like me. I’m proud of the way that girl handled it. The biggest thing I’ve realized is, I’ve made this record about a defining change in my lifetime, but I think I will always be writing about change as long as I live.
Tell me about motorbikes.
I love motorcycles. When I went home after tour I needed a hobby. I went to motorcycle school. It took three days to get my license. I live near a maritime museum and at the end of every summer the museum has an auction. Somebody put a motorcycle in the auction. I bought it for $700. Nobody was bidding on it. They were all there to buy boats.
What’s the feeling you get riding it?
It helps me moderate adrenaline. I was coming off tour, getting used to these giants spikes, and then you crash. If I can ride then I can hit some sort of middle through line. The motorcycle is the thing that made me creative again. As soon as I was going to school for something else it made me wanna make music more than ever. I wrote “Past Life” after I got back from motorcycle school. That’s a hilarious sentence.
So you kick-started writing your debut album inspired by learning how to ride a motorcycle? Do you know what that means?
Does it mean that I’m Bob Dylan?
It means that you’re a rock star.
Wow. Amazing. In that case, fuck the stilettos, baby.