Everyone loves a heartwarming origin story, which would be the easy explanation for the rapid ascension of Maggie Rogers. You might remember her as “Pharrell Girl”: while she was studying at the Clive Davis Institute at NYU, a video of Pharrell Williams listening to what would become Rogers’s first single went viral. He tells her he has zero notes for improvement, that her song is perfect. She’s stunned and so is he. But Rogers is tired of that story. Plus, it’s been quite a few years and that type of virality only lasts 15 minutes.
When we met five years ago, she looked straight at me and said, “Hi, I’m Maggie” with a firmness that implied there is a very precise definition of what it means to be Maggie. Nothing about that tone has changed. She is unabashedly 24 and still figuring it out — a Kacey Musgraves stan like the rest of us — and has a voice that is equally at home in friends’ kitchens and stadiums alike. After the release of her debut album, Heard It in a Past Life, I want you to know her like I do, and she wants you to know her as well as she knows herself.
You skyrocketed right out of school, and in college you had this really tight-knit universe. You’ve done a lot of work to carry that community into your creative process and bring your friends and peers into everything you do. Can you talk about the role community has played in your career and how that influences the way that you interact with fans?
The thing about fans is you don’t get to choose your own. But every time I meet a fan, I’m like, wow, we would totally be at the same house party. My music is doing this crazy thing of personally curating all the people I would be naturally friends with anyway. I think you come into contact with people for a reason, and including my [old] friends and new friends in my work allows for a friction that can only come from storied chemistry.
Locations have always been extremely central in your songs. How do you think about identity in relationship to places?
I feel like I’ll spend the entire first verse just setting the scene instead of starting with action or climax. It always rolls in gently. I’m inherently a product of place and I think when I was trying to figure out what kind of music I wanted to make, it was really confusing because I’m from this really rural place in Maryland, and folk music was what represented that landscape to me: [the] naturalness, the slowness, the quiet. Then when I moved to New York, I realized how much I loved pop and dance music, and I was really worried about how to create something within [both] these boxes. Both the locations and the music that I make and love, they’re wide because I’m a complex and real person, and I think it took growing up enough to understand that.
With touring, home right now is whatever hotel I’m staying at. Trying to find and ground into [new] places is really hard, and at first, touring was really stressful for me. But now I go to Kansas City and I know exactly where my favorite thrift shop is, or there’s this coffee shop in Manchester that I really love, or this one restaurant in Portland, Oregon. I’m starting to get the opportunity to build relationships with cities all over the world. That feels really exciting.
So much of this new album, and your work, is about processing your life; now a big part of your job is going to parties, meeting people, talking to the press, and being extremely online with your fans. Is it hard to balance these basically opposite states of being?
I know some artists who write every day, and for a while I felt really guilty that I didn’t. I was like oh, I’m not committing, I’m lazy. I’ve learned that for my creative process, there’s a push and a pull. I live and then I catalog or write and process. And then I finish it and I do it again. As much as I am devoted to the work, and work really hard and am so proud of this record, I don’t feel super precious about it, where it’s like THE FIRST ALBUM, because it’s like yeah, I lived for a while, I wrote about it, I made an album, I feel great about it, I’m going to make another one. I’ve achieved everything beyond my wildest dreams already. I make pop music because it makes me really fucking happy, but I’m also uniquely aware that it can buy you your freedom. I will only ever make the kind of music that I’m inspired to make, but I also know that if I did this for a couple of years and said yes to a couple of things that I wouldn’t otherwise, that if I made some compromises in the first couple of years of my career, compromises that still felt true to me, that it could afford me the ability to make really weird music the rest of my life.
Over the past two years, you’ve remained really steadfast in your process and doing things on your own timeline. How much of your life and this transition have you felt was in your control?
I think that was why I struggled so much at the beginning, because everything felt so distinctly out of my control and I felt really overwhelmed. But I think what was out of my control was public-facing industry things. What’s always been in my control is the work, and I think that is essential — I wrote my record contract so that I own my masters. I also have my feet in two worlds — between the world of folk and the world of pop. The expectations of creative control are really different in each genre, so it forces me into this process of constantly checking in about what feels good to me. There’s nothing worse than rushing it. It took me two years to write “Fallingwater,” but it’s one of my favorite pieces I’ve ever made, and it was worth waiting for. It’s gonna be there forever. Might as well get it right.
It’s interesting that people don’t seem to have the language to describe your music without comparing you to other people.
I only get compared to women. Which is crazy because often the women they compare me to … we just have a similar hairstyle. Whether it’s Joni Mitchell or Florence and the Machine — our music doesn’t always sound anything alike. But we just all have long hair. I get the vibe thing; people need context. I understand it. But it feels lazy and also the context always has to do with the reporter’s points of references — it actually doesn’t have anything to do with me.
I’ve decided this year I’m going to stop hugging people. Professionally. When I was on tour with Mumford and Sons, I realized how many people hugged me and gave Marcus a handshake. Because I do really intimate work, and I’m a woman, and I’m small and smiley and I write about my feelings, it feels like you know me. But I’m learning to set these boundaries and trying to leave more for my friends and family. The thing about music, too, and these comparisons, is that there is this underlying sense of competition which is just driven by advertising, marketing, and industry. Going to awards shows you realize that all the pop stars are like ponies and these label heads are all betting on them. They all want their horse to win. And it’s like, what happens if the horses just run together? What if it’s Patti Smith style? Then they’re off.