The Metamorphosis of Maggie Lindemann - Rolling Stone
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The Metamorphosis of Maggie Lindemann

The rising star unpacks the story behind her debut EP, Paranoia — and, for the first time ever, goes into detail about her detainment in Malaysia two years ago

Maggie Lindemann in Los Angeles in April 2021 ayntk

Maggie Lindemann in Los Angeles in April 2021.

Photograph by Kayla James for Rolling Stone. Styling by Emma Collins. Hair by George Fragkioudakis. Tights by LEFTHANDLA.

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Two years ago, Maggie Lindemann was in the middle of performing at a club in Kuala Lumpur when three Malaysian police officers pulled her off the stage and arrested her.

The American singer, who was there to play the first show of a headlining tour that June, had landed in Asia just a few days earlier. A team had been waiting for her at the airport, and she’d had no trouble getting through customs or checking into her hotel.  “Everything was great,” says Lindemann, now 22. “It was a really nice place, and everything seemed to be taken care of.” What she didn’t know was that there had been a mistake somewhere along the way, leaving her without the appropriate permits for a foreign artist to perform in Malaysia.

Lindemann — who released her debut EP, Paranoia, a head-turning burst of assertive rock, this January — only had a handful of singles out at the time. The Dallas, Texas, native was still figuring out who she was as an artist, tottering between the roles of an indie-pop princess and an emo, journal-scribbling poet. Too often, she says now, people treated her like she was too pretty to be pissed off, so she unconsciously tamed her inner flame in her trek towards fame.

Thanks to her satin vocals and coming-of-age lyrics that rebellious teens far and wide could relate to, she’d attracted hundreds of millions of streams and a loyal social media following. She’d proven that she had potential, but potential could only take her so far — and she was already a couple of years out from going viral with her breakout hit, 2016’s “Pretty Girl.” She needed to evolve, to sharpen her vision and unleash her fervor. The life-altering, week-long experience surrounding her arrest in Malaysia was about to do just that. 

On the day of the show, Lindemann floated through press meetings, warm-ups, and soundcheck with ease. When it was time to get in front of an audience, she was prepared. What happened next is still a bit of a blur; she explains that the shock and anxiety that came with her arrest make recollecting her experience difficult.

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Once she was backstage, the officers started ushering her away. Her manager, Gerald Tennison, bolted up from the front-of-house, asking for an explanation. In the venue’s green room, they were instructed to turn off their phones. “We were being detained because we were performing illegally,” Lindemann says. “And, obviously, we’re panicking because we have no idea what’s going on.” (Asked for comment on this story, Malaysia’s Consul General in Los Angeles said that Lindemann “was found to have misused her social visit pass to Malaysia, [under] which no employment of any kind can be undertaken. In other words, it is a tourist visa.”) 

Lindemann couldn’t understand what the officers were saying to the show’s promoter and venue organizers, but soon they had handcuffed Tennison and Lindemann’s keyboard player, Nolan Frank, both of whom pled with the authorities to escort Lindemann without handcuffs. The officers budged — to an extent — agreeing to cuff only one of her hands, which was concealed by her jacket’s sleeve, and pull her forward as if she was leashed.

The group was shoved in a van without being told where they were going or how long they’d be there. Without permission to communicate with the outside world, they were taken to a conference room in an undisclosed facility, where they sat for four hours or so. Some guards then encouraged them to discreetly turn their phones back on; other guards angrily shouted when they did so.

Lindemann was able to phone her boyfriend, Prettymuch member Brandon Arreaga, and her dad, before getting caught and shutting the device down again. She was determined to make contact: If she didn’t, her loved ones might just assume that she’d fallen asleep without checking in because of the time difference. “I was panicked already, but this is when the real panic started,” she says. “I texted my friend — my roommate at the time — I told him what was happening, and he thought I was joking. He really was like, ‘Girl, stop joking with me.’ That’s when I took a picture from inside the room and sent it to him, and he was like, ‘Oh, my God.’”

The phones were taken away altogether when the group was escorted underground to a large room with a single folding chair, and other detainees sitting around on the floor. Lindemann estimates that another seven hours went by before the group was called to the front. “I remember Gerald kept saying to me, ‘It’s OK, they’re working to get us out. We’re going to get out any minute,’” she says. Instead, they were officially booked into custody. Fear roared inside Lindemann, who quickly convinced herself that she wasn’t going to get out after all. “They started telling me to take off any jewelry I had,” she says. “This was shortly after I got my nose pierced. And I couldn’t take it off. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a nose piercing, but when they clasp it, it’s not coming off unless they, like, break it off for you.”

She fumbled with her nostrils feverishly before admitting defeat. “They were like, ‘You know, someone might rip it off and try to take it,” she says, adding that the thought of having to fight for her nose ring caused her to burst into tears. “It was just… I was so scared.”

Next Lindemann was separated from the rest of her team because of her gender. The guards strip-searched her and gave her a pair of sweatpants to wear. Lindemann remembers seeing 15 to 20 other women in one dirty cell, along with a young child who was “probably a year or two” old.

The average temperature in Kuala Lumpur at the time she was there is 91 degrees. “I was so hot and so thirsty,” says Lindemann, who worried if it was safe to drink tap water in the jail. “I was so dehydrated. I kept nodding off.” After a few hours, a kind, older woman convinced her to down some water. The woman told Lindemann she had been held in “one of the worst prisons you can get sent to” before ending up at their current location, where she’d been for three months.

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Maggie Lindemann in Los Angeles in April 2021.

Photograph by Kayla James for Rolling Stone. Styling by Emma Collins. Hair by George Fragkioudakis.

Lindemann tried to sleep, but every time she’d close her eyes, she’d just jolt up sobbing. “It was the worst anxiety ever,” says the singer, who remembers feeling suffocated and fighting the urge to vomit. “The whole thing was like a big panic attack. I was exploding in my brain… They would tell me, ‘You can’t think in here. If you think, you’ll go crazy. You need to just clear your mind,’” she says. “I think a lot. I’m an overthinker. So, that didn’t help me at all. Actually, it probably made it a lot worse.”

She looked for bathrooms, only to find a hole in the ground and a hose. Unsettled, she turned back and tried to explain to anyone who would listen that she had started to feel “really sick.” One woman screamed for a guard, who soon handed Lindemann a pill. “I don’t know what it was, but at this point I didn’t care,” she says. “I just took it — and I did feel better. I actually passed out from it. I fell asleep immediately.”

All in all, Lindemann thinks she was locked up for about 24 hours, which she says felt longer due to the absence of a clock. It didn’t help that some of the women in her cell told her that most people were detained there for a minimum of two weeks. “I thought no one was looking for me and I was just going to be lost abroad. No one was going to find me,” she says, explaining that she feared she might “rot in this place” or “go crazy.”

Although she was reunited with her team after she got out, she says she wasn’t immediately allowed to leave the country, so she spent the next few days waiting in a hotel room. While the accommodations were much better, her anxiety was “still so bad.” The hotel gifted her a stuffed bear; she worried that it might have microphones in it.  “I didn’t know if they were just going to show up and take me away again,” she says. “Now, when I say it, I know I was just so paranoid. But I thought they were watching me. I thought there were cameras in my room.”

When she returned to her home in Los Angeles, the first thing she did was “sleep hard.” She never asked what exactly had gone wrong with her documents. She says she was too traumatized to care about that. “I was just happy to be home,” she says.

With rest, Lindemann reflected. She decided that, if she ever found herself in a similar situation again, she needed to “at least feel like what I was doing was worth it.” 

“I want to be making music that I love and doing things that make me genuinely happy, so that it doesn’t feel like everything was for nothing,” she says. “At the time, I was still making music that I didn’t necessarily love, and I felt kind of stuck in that. This was a tipping point for me. I was like, ‘OK, that’s it. I’m not doing this shit for anyone else anymore. I need to do stuff for myself.”

Lindemann made a beeline for the studio where she recorded Paranoia, an eight-track ode to intensified angst that strategically plucks from rock’s alternative, pop-punk, and nu-metal subgenres. The songs are mostly short and sassy, with just two passing the three-minute mark. “Gaslight!,” the only song with a guest vocalist, features her friend Siiickbrain, who screams over the hook. “Crash and Burn” sounds like it could belong on a Paramore album. “Love Songs,” on the other hand, is a tender, emo ballad driven by acoustic guitar. The aggressively catchy title track, “Knife Under My Pillow,” was inspired by the nights that followed Lindemann’s detainment, when she actually slept with a knife under her pillow.

Perhaps it’s the elements of pop production that tie the project together, or maybe it’s those glossy vocals, but Lindemann takes the musical equivalent of swallowing a bitter pill and makes it oddly sweet. The EP is both dark as hell and uplifting. Somehow, songs like “Loner” — the lyrics for which go, “Yeah, I’m a loner and I like it that way/I like a dark room with nobody but pain” — don’t leave the listener rocking back and forth in the fetal position. Instead, they feel like battle cries. 

While she sees the whole EP as reflecting the fresh perspective that resulted from her experience in Malaysia, Lindemann says “Different” is the only song that explicitly focuses on the ordeal. On that song, she sings, “Thinkin’, ‘Don’t be scared. Don’t you cry. Everything will be alright’/But if it’s still not enough, can somebody just take me where the headlights go?/I’m so fuckin’ lost here/Just wanna be not here.”

Creating new music was cathartic for Lindemann, who shares that, although she is actively in therapy, she has yet to discuss the Malaysia incident with her therapist. (During her first interview with Rolling Stone, she froze when the subject came up; weeks later, she agreed to a second interview with the understanding that she could go as slowly and take as many breaks as needed.) 

In the meantime, Lindemann has been channeling all of her emotions — at least the ones she’s willing to tap into — via her music. “I’ve talked about it with the people I write and my producers. That’s super helpful for me,” she says. “If I didn’t jump into music right afterwards, I would probably be way worse off.”

She needed an outlet, but she worried that a detailed discussion about what happened to her would come across as a marketing ploy. “I’ve been asked about it a lot,” she says, before acknowledging the complexities of immigration issues. “For a long time, I felt — and I still feel — like it’s not really my story to tell. I would never want to offend anyone or make anyone pity me, either.”

She knows that she was lucky compared to many. She talks of being born an American citizen, which has allowed her to live without the fear of deportation: “Families came here for a better life, and, their whole lives, [children] are scared that their parents are going to get taken away. It’s just such a sensitive topic. I was privileged. I am privileged. I had people working to get me out. It did happen to me, but it was almost like a freak accident. It wasn’t something that I struggle with every day.”

With time, Lindemann decided there was a right way, and a respectful way, to tell the story. After all, it has profoundly affected her; and she believes there’s strength in solidarity. “I just want to be able to help people if I can — people that have been in a similar situation,” she says with noticeable nervousness in her voice. “I don’t want people to feel alone.”

Maggie Lindemann in Los Angeles in April 2021.

Maggie Lindemann in Los Angeles in April 2021.

Photograph by Kayla James for Rolling Stone. Styling by Emma Collins. Hair by George Fragkioudakis. Dress by HARDEMAN, tie by ASLAN.

For surface-level fans of Lindemann, this new, edgier era feels like a stark departure from the bubblegum pop of “Pretty Girl,” which has earned more than a billion streams since its release five years ago, thanks largely to a remix by DJ trio Cheat Codes. It’s a song that could have been sung by nearly any Top 40 diva. Even on that song, though, Lindemann strikes her own note: “Fuck your ribbons and your pearls, ‘cause I’m not just a pretty girl.”

In a way, Lindemann has been gearing up for this moment her whole life. She’s always been a rebel. She’s also always struggled with varying degrees of anxiety. Growing up, her biggest fear was being kidnapped. “Even as a little kid, I would want my mom to stay in my room with me until I fell asleep,” she says. So while her case was treated “in accordance with the local law” (in the Malaysian consulate’s words), she was coming into the situation fragile.

She says she was bullied consistently from fourth to ninth grade, which caused her to lash out. “I stopped going to school,” Lindemann says. “I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was getting in trouble a lot, running away from home, and meeting up with my ex-boyfriend. Just your typical high school stuff, I guess — but kind of worse. And then, yeah, I was in and out of treatment centers.”

Lindemann moved to Hollywood by herself at the age of 16. Tennison discovered her on YouTube, and she eventually got a record deal with 300 Entertainment, which is known for pop and hip-hop acts like Megan Thee Stallion and Young Thug.

She had finished the first version of “Pretty Girl” months before signing to 300. “We knew [labels] were looking for something a bit more commercial, so we talked about making a more pop-sounding song, while keeping edgy and honest lyrics,” she says. “That’s how ‘Pretty Girl’ came… I was just really young and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do.”

As a kid, she listened to Three Doors Down, Alice in Chains, Godsmack, and Metallica with her dad; her mom loved No Doubt, the Pussycat Dolls, and Lady Gaga. Lindemann then got herself into the likes of Blink-182, Sleeping With Sirens, Black Veil Brides, Pierce the Veil, and Lana Del Rey. It wasn’t long after the ink dried on her first record deal that she realized she wasn’t built to make pop music. Performing felt awkward and songs weren’t pouring out of her. So, she resolved to start over.

In the video for the last song she released via 300, 2019’s “Friends Go,” a pink convertible flips over and goes up in flames. When she sings “I’m all by myself/Where did all my friends go? I miss you like hell/I know you’ll be back, though” — it sounds like she’s singing to her younger self.

Lindemann signed a distribution deal — one that gives her more creative control — with Virgin in 2020. She feels inspired now, and properly supported by her current team. “I don’t feel like anything’s stopping me,” she says. When asked if she’s worried about coming across as a bandwagoner, given the current resurgence of pop-punk, she seems unfazed. “I always loved the idea of making pop-punk music,” she says. “For a while, I just felt like that wasn’t even an option. I was always so nervous [about doing] something completely different. How am I going to make a living? How am I going to make money? It was kind of just me holding myself back.”

Holding herself back is no longer an option. “Pop-punk deserves to have a comeback,” she declares. “I’m really excited about it.” While Lindemann loves Paranoia, she put it out as an EP to test the waters. “By the time I put out my album, I’m going to be so much more evolved,” she says, adding that she wants to stick to the rockier side of things “forever” and hopes to drop her debut full-length next year. “It’s going to be like Paranoia, but grown-up and cooler,” she says. “I know I can do better, and I’m going to do better.”

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