Maggie Rogers' Overnight Success Took Years
The "Light On" songwriter questions "what the fuck adulthood is" on new album 'Heard It in a Past Life'
Published Jan 23, 2019Though she's reticent to go into detail over the phone, there's enough in the lyrics of "Light On," a highlight from Maggie Rogers' major-label debut Heard It in a Past Life, to suggest that while hers seemed like a simple case of overnight success, there was more going on: "Would you believe me now if I told you I got caught up in a wave? Would you hear me out if I told you I was terrified for days? Thought I was gonna break."
"My hobby," she tells Exclaim! now, "became my career." It was destabilizing, to say the least.
A few years ago, Rogers' career was launched by a viral video in which her song "Alaska" brought famed producer Pharrell Williams to tears: "Your whole story," he said; "I can hear it in the music." She soon inked a major-label record deal, embarked on a string of sold-out gigs and landed a bunch of high-profile television performances (Saturday Night Live, Ellen).
But buried beneath this flurry of activity was Rogers herself, an artist whose lyrics, coupled with the unusually long two-and-a-half year gestation period for Heard It in a Past Life, give the impression of a young musician still trying to come to grips with who she was as an artist while fending off pressure to capitalize on her initial success. With the release of her new album, Rogers finally has a chance "to tell my own story in my own words."
As bothered as she was by the hijacking of her narrative, she was also savvy about its power. Without it she probably would never have been given the artistic license to tell that story. "The Pharrell video bought me a lot of leverage." She negotiated her contract to give her that freedom, and even owns her own master recordings. After the hyper-stimulation of her first tour, following the release of the Now That the Light Is Fading EP in 2017, she decided she needed to "slow things down." Because she calls her own shots, she was able to do just that, and now travels with a recording rig and makes sure she's "taking the time to let things marinate."
When not on the road, Rogers, a native of Easton, Maryland, lives in Los Angeles with friends who work outside of the music industry. She's also filled the space that music used to occupy with a newfound love of motorcycling: "I love my professional life, but finding balance in my personal life has been one of the greatest things I've found."
Heard It in a Past Life is not, technically speaking, Rogers' debut; she released a pair of banjo-driven independent folk albums in 2012 and 2014. She was at a crossroads when she wrote "Alaska," crippled by writer's block and unsure what her future held.
But speaking on the phone with Rogers now, days before the release of Heard It in a Past Life, she is energetic and thoughtful, with clarity of vision that is the product of that period of uncertainty.
While she admits that the existential crises that afflict anyone in their mid-20s are far from over — "I'm two and a half years out of college and I'm still trying to figure out what the fuck adulthood is" — she's now able to offer a clear-cut image of the kind of artist she wants to be, and articulate a desire to have that vision understood. She won't be defined by any single sound or genre.
"The cool thing about the music industry is that there are no rules," she says. "You can customize and individualize the way you do everything you do in your career. From Bowie to Tyler, the Creator, there are examples of that. Dolly Parton has a theme park! And that's what's so exciting. There are endless opportunities to be creative with the way that you interact with the world."