maggie rogers: the prodigal songstress
Already loved Pharrell, Maggie Rogers is the star who shines brighter and brighter by the minute. Get to know the multi-talented musician ahead of what promises to be a storming set at Glastonbury this weekend.
Singer/songwriter/producer Maggie Rogers, 22, became an overnight sensation last year after a video of Pharrell Williams teaching a masterclass at her University in New York, and going very wobbly over Rogers' song Alaska, found its way online. "I've never heard anything that sounds like that," he said, eyes glazed over in shock. "That's a drug for me." Since then Rogers has built on the indescribable power of that song, and the legend that's built up around it, with her recent EP, Now That The Light Is Fading, a collection of spacious, human-sounding, folk-inspired pop that cements the arrival of a bold new talent. We sat down with her on a rainy London day to chat about myths, seeing songs as colour and the smell of beer.
Do you think people will ever interview you without mentioning Pharrell Williams?
I hope so. I mean, I hope that I can create work that allows me to stand on my own, but also I think maybe not.
What is it about Alaska that drove him to distraction do you think?
Oh I don't know, I think that's totally personal. Music is completely subjective for the listener. I'm glad he liked it but he could have just as easily not liked it. This is what I make and what makes me feel good, and if other people like it then that's great and if they don't then that's fine too. It's music.
Is it quite exciting to have this mythology around you, or would you rather stop talking about it now?
I think it's more exciting for you then it is for me. I didn't really choose that, or orchestrate it, so it's probably more exciting for the press. For me, it's neither exciting or boring, it just is what happened.
Are you interested in the mythologies that build up around the artists you like as a fan?
No. I'm really interested in stories, and the truth. I'm really interested in memoir. Songwriting and journalism are essentially the same thing, it's just that one is in poetry and one is in prose. Everyone is just telling a story, whether it's my story or your story. That's what's so cool about songwriting, and what I write is often from my own perspective and is a form of memoir. I'm way more interested in what actually happened over alter-egos and mythologies.
But that did at least happen, so it's not like it's stemmed from lies.
But I find there's a strong trend with the press to paint me as this character. There's even parts of meeting Pharrell that the press have latched onto - like Pharrell never cried. That made a good story and then the press latched onto it. It makes a wild headline but that's not true.
I guess it also feeds into this false assumption that he was involved in the music in someway...
And that's just not true, that's my music. That was basically my homework. I had no idea that Pharrell was going to be there or that there would be a camera crew, or that the video would end up on the internet.
Shall we try and start a new legend about how you broke through?
(Laughs) No, I mean I don't feel negative about anything that's happened. It's been incredible. I totally understand why it's important to talk about because it is how I've been introduced to people, so it makes a lot of sense. We start at the beginning, and while that's not the beginning of my story it is the beginning of a story for a lot of people. But there are a lot worse things to be than the Pharrell girl. I have the world of respect for Pharrell and find him incredibly inspiring.
Your video for Alaska suggests someone who likes the outdoors rather than someone who cares about music blogs, Twitter followers, or even the internet in general. Is that fair?
Totally, yeah. I grew up in rural Maryland and I didn't have wi-fi until I came to college. I've never really owned a TV and I didn't have a cellphone until quite late in life.
What were you doing instead?
I was just running around, playing games. I played cards, I read a lot and played music.
How did you find having to shoot videos and be photographed etc?
The photography world has been very strange. My first ever photoshoot was with Vogue, last July, which is just insane that that's true. I've definitely learnt a lot since then. With photography it's the work of somebody else, whereas making music videos is something I love doing and found myself very comfortable on camera. I didn't direct those early videos but I worked closely with the director and wouldn't be surprised if I directed my own videos in the future.
Who were your musical inspirations when you were starting to make your own music?
Growing up I didn't have musical parents and so there wasn't that much music happening in the house. I listened to a lot of classical and folk music, so Chikovsky, Holst, and then Bob Dylan, Nick Drake, Cat Stevens and that crowd. Then I was a banjo player in high school in the middle of the indie rock revolution, so Bon Iver, Grizzle Bear, that scene all makes a lot of sense to me. Then in college I learned to look up to people like Björk, Patti Smith, Beck, Kim Gordon and Carrie Brownstein. Creatives that are creative in many different mediums and in many different genres, or different expressions, but it always sounds like them.
Is there a particular smell that reminds you of home?
Marshy water, like heavy salt water. There's a spice that goes on crabs called Old Bay. Pine trees, like balsam. Fresh cut grass, too. My mum would always make chicken pot pie, so maybe the smell of her kitchen.
What smells remind you of your current home, Brooklyn?
(Laughs) Last night's pizza. New York in general also smells of piss too.
Can you be creative in a city environment?
Yes. It's just different. It's just as exciting as being in nature.
Was the Now That The Light Is Fading EP made in the city?
That's surprising just because it feels so airy and spacious in a way.
There are a lot of natural samples in the songs. There's samples of air so that it doesn't feel so compressed like pop music typically does. The goal was to make pop music that felt as human as possible.
You've said you wrote the songs while standing up - why's that?
Yes, well, no.
Oh is this part of the myth?
I get misquoted on a lot of things. I did make a lot of the music standing up, but that's just the production. It doesn't really matter if I was standing up or sitting down when I wrote the lyrics.
Being stood up is meant to make you concentrate more. That and if you need the toilet as well.
Okay. That's good to know. But no, it was important to make the music standing up so that I knew it was making me move.
Can smells help you remember people?
Totally. Smell is the most vivid form of memory. It's hard to describe the smell of people but if you smell an old boyfriend's shirt or if my mum was in the room and then left, then their smell is very particular.
Does smell trigger your creativity at all?
It can start something that I might explore later. I'm a very visual creator and a very visual writer. I'll often set a scene, like in Alaska the entire first verse is me describing the space I'm in. That format is very frequently the way I write, so I can see how smell could factor into the way that I'm imagining the place I'm writing about, but it doesn't actively inform my process.
What does London smell like?
I haven't spent enough time in London really. It smells like a hotel room. Every time I've been in London I've watched some football and had a pint, so I guess that's what I picture most in London...Beer! (Laughs). A dank pub.
Talk me through how your synesthesia links to your creativity.
I have a very strong associated between colour and music. That wasn't something I realised was different until I went to school. We were studying engineering and production and I would get my papers back from teachers and I'd be like 'this sound is this shade of blue' and sometimes I'd attach diagrams, and they'd be like 'dude, this doesn't work'. I had to find new language to describe it.
Do you think about the listener when you're making music?
No. It's for me. It's how I think through my life and through my work. Björk has this incredible quote where she says, "the more selfish you can be with your work, the more giving you're actually being". The more you can tap into your emotions and the more vulnerable you can be, the more universally human you can become. I mean, I did make this music to play live, but that was also for me (laughs). I had made really quiet folk music for ages and I was ready to be loud. I felt like my shows were kind of lame, and I wanted to play a show that I would want to go to on a Saturday night.
What's your favourite item of clothing?
That's a great question. Honestly, I'm wearing all of my favourite things right now. I've got on some old Levi's that I live in constantly. These boots I've worn nearly everyday for the last three years. All my jewellery is from friends, and none of it is mine, so it's like I'm just hanging onto it for a while. My necklace is made of elk vertebrae that I found when I was hiking in Oregon. I love the sound they make and I love the texture and weight of them.
If you had to spend a week alone in a cabin - which you probably have done - with one album, one film and one book which ones would you chose?
Right now I'm reading East Of Eden by Steinbeck, and I'm not finished yet so I'll bring that book. I don't really watch films so can I bring two albums instead? I'll take Joni Mitchell's Blue so that I can have quite time and think, and I will take Our Love by Caribou so I can dance by myself.
Text Michael Cragg