Maggie Rogers always pictured herself "making it" in the music world, just not at 22. The self-described "banjo player from rural Maryland" was studying music at NYU when she inexplicably decided to give it all up in order to go hike in France. Rather than pull her away from music, the two years she spent off from music brought her closer to it. Equally in awe of the nature around her and the French dance music she heard in clubs, she returned to NYU with the desire to create something that combined them both. One of the resulting songs, "Alaska,"does just that, weaving an ethereal, earthy sound into a pop-driven, empowering chorus ("I walked off you and I walked off an old me").
Fame came unexpectedly a little less than a year ago, after a video of an emotional Pharrell listening to one of her songs during an NYU master class went viral. "Wow," he says after the song ends. "I have zero notes." He applauds her "singular" sound and raw talent, equating her music to "a drug" and comparing her uniqueness to the Wu-Tang Clan. The Internet, it seems, agreed. The video of that class has since been viewed 2.4 million times — and her independent career has taken off.
Her music video for "Alaska" hasgarnered 3.5 million views and her newest one, "On and Off" —released just two weeks ago — more than half a million. But while Rogers is grateful for the video that catapulted her into the spotlight, she's determined to keep her feet on the ground. "I've seen [that] video once," she says. "But I've been really careful to make sure that my experience does not become one where I'm watching myself from outside of my body."
A day before the release of her initial EP, I talked to Maggie about the very first song she wrote, the power of vulnerability, and the best piece of advice she has thus far: "Don't fuck with the coven." (Plus she's shared some exclusive behind-the-scenes images from the set of her music videos with us!)
ABBY HAGLAGE: You've had an insane couple of months. Almost overnight you went from being a student at NYU to releasing your first EP, performing on The Tonight Show, and launching a world tour. What does it feel like to be Maggie Rogers?
MAGGIE ROGERS: I'm really focused in the moment, so sometimes I have difficulty taking in the big picture. But I've only wanted to make music my entire life, and I guess I always expected there to be a significant amount of change after graduating from college — but I never really expected my life to change this drastically. It has been crazy and wild and unexpected. I'm having a blast.
AH: Now That the Light is Fading is your first EP, but you've been writing songs since you were 13. What was your musical background like?
MR: Nobody in my family is musical, so it's kind of a strange thing. The first song I ever wrote was in second grade to make my brother laugh. He had this thing about the pickle in the middle of the jar, so I wrote two verses and a rap section — it was silly. But I have really incredible, supportive parents, and music was something that felt so urgent for me from such a young age.
AH: So was it through other artists that you became inspired, listening to them?
MR: It's funny, I'm kind of missing that. There just really wasn't music in my house growing up. So it's been really fun because I've been in this incredible position where I get to be a 22-year-old hearing Prince for the first time and allowing it to influence my work so directly and so immediately. I didn't hear the Beatles until I was in high school. So it's a really strange way to get into music, to have that sort of relationship to it. But I think actually it's been kind of a gift for my own creation.
AH: You once said that folk music is "where your soul is" — is that what you mean, that you were inspired by something inside rather than external influences?
MR: Yeah, folk music for me was a place to find community. In folk music, there's ten verses and the chords are easy and there's so much harmony. I'm from a rural area, so folk music and bluegrass was just something really easy to participate in — something really inclusive. I did play in the orchestra, but that requires tools and education. With folk music, there's just tradition.
AH: In the behind the scenes of your "Alaska" video, you discuss the power of working with only women. Was that an intentional choice?
MR: It was. I chose a female director to work with and a female director of photography and was very clear on the concept going into it. We just chose women because those were the people we were most comfortable creating with. I think all of us were so empowered working with all women. It just felt really natural and really exciting. I'm 22, so womanhood and being part of a community of women is something I feel like I'm really just coming into. But I went to [an] all-girls summer camp, and that was where I was my most powerful self. I just really think there is a lot of power in a community of women.
AH: Agreed. I loved that quote you said at the end of that video — "Don't fuck with the coven."
MR: It's true. I think women standing together, there's nothing more powerful. Even historically, in times of great change in our country and our world and society dating back to Egypt, groups of women have always found each other and stood together for common ideals.
AH: Your songs have such a transformative feeling, combining folk music and pop and infusing it with the sounds of nature. In your class with Pharrell, you mentioned that part of this sound is inspired by a "spiritual experience" you had with French dance music. What did you mean by that?
MR: It was realizing how primal and ancient and instinctual rhythm affects humans. I remember I was at a club in Berlin with a friend of mine and just looking around the room and seeing such peace and joy and release. I mean, at the same time, everyone was moving in the same way. One beat, one movement. Nobody was told to move in a certain way, but yet it still sort of affected the way everybody experienced music in the same way. I think that music tends to show people that they have more in common than they think with each other — and rhythm is an unavoidable component of that.
AH: The idea of playing a song for Pharrell to critique sounds intimidating on its own, but doing that on camera seems extra nerve-racking. What were you thinking during it?
MR: It's funny. You guys were watching his facial expressions — I was looking at the floor. So you could see what's going through his head, but I didn't see any of that. The process of showing your work is always uncomfortable, no matter what. Everybody has their own way of feeling it. You want to laugh a little bit, but it's really strange … I think that was really what I was thinking about during that moment, to sort of find a spot on the floor to look at. And halfway through remembering that I was supposed to look like I enjoyed my own work to some degree.
AH: In the video, your professor Bob Power introduced you by saying: "This human being has as much heart as anyone I've ever known." Have you always been known for your big heart?
MR: I find a lot of power in vulnerability. There's a Björk quote where she roughly says the more selfish you can be with your work, the more generous you're being. I agree with that, and I really think that the more vulnerable you can make yourself, the more human and connected you become. More of what you're feeling just becomes part of what everybody feels.
AH: Has having this temperament made life harder for you in some ways?
MR: Definitely. I'm a sensitive person, so it's not always the easiest. I got a little bit of a slap in the face when I moved to New York. I really thought everybody would want to be friends; I had never met anybody with malintentions. But I think that was just a really important lesson that I needed to learn about the world. I still inherently believe in the good of people. Sometimes that gets me in trouble, emotionally, but I think being a sensitive person in the world helps. I make music. It's my job to feel a lot, and I'm really lucky — and grateful — to be in a place where my emotions and vulnerability serve a purpose that's greater than myself.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Abby Haglage is a writer in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, Glamour, Marie Claire, and ELLE UK.