Maggie Rogers Is Just Trying to Be Present
Maggie Rogers remembers the morning of her college graduation at Radio City Music Hall in May 2016. It was 4:30 am, and she was the first NYU student to arrive. She stood on the proscenium, looked out at six thousand empty seats, and began to cry.
Rogers made a promise to herself that she would return to the stage of Radio City in 10 years. It took her three; this month, Rogers performed two sold out shows at the iconic venue. However, sitting down in a swanky hotel restaurant in the Lower East Side a day before the first performance, she isn’t quite ready to talk about that accomplishment. “You’re asking really big emotional questions,” she says, sipping a cappuccino in a white blouse. “I’m not sure I’m ready to be vulnerable. Can we get to this place at the end of the interview?”
I get it. It’s been a lot. Since graduating, Rogers signed a major-label deal with Capitol Records (2016), toured for nearly three years virtually without breaks (2017-2019), dropped an EP (2017) and released a critically-acclaimed debut studio album, Heard It in a Past Life (January). Rogers went from a student to one of the most beloved singer-songwriters of her generation, garnering praise from everyone from the Obamas to John Mayer. “If I could write down all of the big bucket list check marks, all the career goals kind of happened,” she says.
It started with a YouTube clip. Her breakout hit “Alaska” was made famous in 2016 when Pharrell Williams sat in on Rogers’ class at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. A video of his teary-eyed reaction to the song went viral. “I have zero, zero, zero notes for that,” he says. “I’ve never heard anyone like you before.” This mythical origin story has been the defining moment of Rogers’ career so far.
Is she tired of being questioned about it in every interview? “I think there’s a different way that can be phrased that’s not negative,” she responds, buttering a croissant. I’m confused. Am I being negative? “What are you really asking?” she says. “Uh, that was it,” I say. “Then I was going to ask about your upbringing.” “From a journalistic perspective,” Rogers says, picking up the jam, “I understand why it’s in the conversation. Your editor is gonna fucking fire your ass if you don’t ask that.”
Rogers would know. She spent two and a half years as a music journalist, interning for Elle and Spin. She also interned for journalist Lizzy Goodman, transcribing hours of interviews for 2017’s Meet Me in the Bathroom, an oral history of New York’s gritty-ish rock and roll rebirth in the early aughts. “It’s twofold,” she says. “I got to spend hours listening to my favorite musicians talk about their artistic process, how their bands came together, how record contracts came together. I had just an incredible wealth of information. But it also lets me call out journalists when they’re being dumb. Like, whenever I sit down with a journalist and they’re like, ‘Describe your sound.’ Dude, that’s your fucking job. Shut up. It’s literally your job. Like, do not put that on me. Or even just the way that I was sort of like, ‘What are you actually asking?’ Because I don’t know.”
Rogers’ sound — at least on Heard It In a Past Life, which she wrote and co-produced — contains brushes of electronica and pop over introspective lyrics. In the Greg Kurstin-produced track “Retrograde,” Rogers references Stevie Nicks’ “Bella Donna” over swooning layers of synths: “Standing, staring straight ahead/Listening when Stevie says/Mm, ‘Come out of the darkness.”
Along with her music (and journalistic expertise), Rogers excels at performance art, in which she dances ecstatically in elaborate outfits: shiny jumpsuits, tie dye, florals. Capes are often involved. The organic vibe extends offstage. “We do a band meditation every night before we go on stage,” Rogers says. “And one of the things I say in the band meditation is: May I trust the work that got me here?” (After performing on Saturday Night Live, dumbfounding Pharrell and debuting her first LP at number two on the Billboard 200 chart to nearly universal praise, it seems like a safe bet.) Lately, part of Rogers’ pre-show routine is listening to “Standing in the Doorway” by Bob Dylan. “It’s like seven minutes long,” she says of the Time Out of Mind track. “So I can do yoga stretches for one ‘Standing in the Doorway’ and do my makeup on and put my earrings on for a second ‘Standing in the Doorway.’ It’s a good marker of time.”
Both nights at Radio City, Rogers will perform “Love You for a Long Time,” a new song she wrote before this tour leg started. “Now I’m just finishing the mixing process on the road,” she says. “But even that’s hard, because mixing is so spiritual. Sometimes touring leaves you a bit…stripped. Raw. It fills a very specific part of me, and the performing brain and the writing brain…it’s like introvert, extrovert.” Evidently, Rogers is ready to be vulnerable. Her parents will be in attendance at Radio City, along with college professors who were there when her life changed. The tour ends at the end of the month, and it’s all just…a lot. “I don’t want to stress too much,” Rogers says. “It is a special moment. It’s a weird balance of not wanting to miss it and not wanting to let it be the end all be all, because then you hold too tight and you miss it. I’m just trying to be present.”
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