By her own admission, Maggie Rogers is an unlikely candidate “to become a person of the internet.” She grew up in a rural town on Maryland’s eastern shore; she played harp and banjo and wrote folk music; she runs and hikes. So when, early last summer, a Youtube clip of Pharrell Williams’s stunned response to one of her songs went viral, Rogers did what she knew: She picked up her backpack and departed for the French Alps.
“I was just kind of overwhelmed. I put the song out and left that day,” Rogers, 22, told me. It was an afternoon in late January, and she had just arrived in Columbus, Ohio, about to play the sixth night of her first headlining tour. (This, like going viral, also feels surreal to her, but she approached it as if she were leaving for a backpacking trip rather than a lineup of sold-out venues.)
“I got to have some time away from technology,” she went on. “It’s kind of awesome now, because I’ve set up this expectation where if I leave and I’m like, ‘Bye guys, got to go to the backcountry,’ everybody gets it because that’s what I did at first.”
Going viral is a funny thing. This time last year, Rogers was studying music production at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. She was putting the finishing touches on a new song, “Alaska,” inspired by a recent backpacking trip over an Alaskan glacier, when Pharrell stopped by in late March to host a masterclass. She played him a rough cut of the track; his reaction—near-speechless, teary-eyed with astonishment—was captured on video and uploaded to Youtube the same month.
Nearly three months later, Rogers had a finished version of “Alaska”—as well as an entire EP of material to go with it (Now That the Light Is Fading is out this Thursday). But then the internet sleuths at Reddit stumbled on the clip. From there, it went everywhere.
The story Rogers tells to introduce her track in the video, which has been viewed over two million times, now feels well worn: After a decade of writing and recording folk music, Rogers felt creatively stymied. “I’ve always defined myself as a musician, and suddenly I couldn’t make music,” Rogers explained to me. Like many college freshmen, she felt in flux: “I wasn’t really sure what I sounded like because I wasn’t really sure who I was.”
She stopped writing for nearly two years and left New York to study in Paris for a semester. While abroad, she visited a friend in Berlin, who invited her to go clubbing. Rogers was dubious.
“When someone said, ‘Let’s go to a club’ in New York, it often meant heels and tight dresses and money,” Rogers said. But in Berlin, it meant something else: “You have to wear sneakers,” Rogers recalled her friend explaining. “If you don’t, you won’t get in because they’ll know you’re not there to dance.”
It turns out Maggie Rogers loves to dance. And in Berlin, she learned she also loves dance music. “It’s been really fun to see what happens to my body when I don’t have an instrument attached to it,” she said. She dances in all her videos, for “Alaska” and “Dog Years” and “On + Off,” surrounded by a crew of women performing in sync around her. The settings are invariably rustic, rural environments—a camp Rogers attended as a child, a clearing of sapling trees. Now That the Light Is Fading has dance music in its bones, but it’s rooted in nature.
When she returned from abroad, Rogers felt liberated and ready to make music again. The sound that emerged is the synthesis of her decade of folk and her newly discovered poptimism. A professed synesthetic, visuals and colors are inseparable from her songwriting, so she first made a mood board comprising swatches of color and images “that determined what I wanted the music to sound like,” she said. Each track on Now That the Light Is Fading is a different sonic color: “Alaska” is a light blue, “Color Song” a deeper midnight; “Dog Years” is a vivid green; “On + Off” and “Better” are orange and purple.
Freed of one self-imposed narrative as a folk artist, Rogers found herself subject to a different one imposed on her by everyone else when the Pharrell video surfaced—that of the viral sensation. In the video, the musician’s eyes grow moist; he compares her music to the Wu-Tang Clan, Stevie Wonder, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups: “It’s singular.”
And here’s the thing about “Alaska”: It is really, really good. But Rogers is playing it cool. “I’m kind of a terrible musician,” she said, before amending: “I’m a very functional musician. I play just about every instrument in a band setting, functionally. But I should not be taking solos.” Her strength lies in writing and producing. “Alaska” combines a buoyant, danceable backbone, natural samples she picked up while hiking in Alaska, and her sweet, reedy vocals: “I was walking through icy streams that took my breath away,” she sings. Then, in the bridge: “I walked off you, and I walked off an old me.” She sounds like someone who finally figured out what she wants to say and how she wants to say it.
After Rogers returned from her post-viral expedition last year, she released a second single, “Dog Years,” the penultimate track on Now That the Light is Fading. “Putting that out felt so good, because then I became more than ‘that Pharrell girl,’” Rogers said. “It’s really easy to go viral, but I think it’s really hard then to have a career.”
“Dog Years,” which has racked up nearly five million streams since it dropped at the end of 2016, bridges the divide between the singular success of “Alaska” and Rogers’s broader vision. “I count my time in dog years, swimming in sevens, slow-dancing in seconds,” she sings. “’We will be alright,” she repeats over and over, as if reassuring herself. Present is her preoccupation with the passage of time; she creates a sense of time and place through natural sounds and electronic beats. (In “Dog Years,” she layers wind chimes and birdcalls with handclaps and ambient synthesizers.) That fixation is right there, too, in the title of the EP. “My music used to look like a sunrise,” Rogers said. “Now, my music feels like dusk.”
Rogers posts diary entries, song lyrics, and letters—handwritten in a notebook—to her Instagram. In late December, she wrote, “In 2016, I graduated from college. I went ‘viral,’ wrote an English thesis, and finally got rid of the professional clothing I’d kept in my closet all these years ‘just in case.’ I became a meme, a published writer, and made some songs I’m really proud of. I signed a lease to my first apartment and a record deal on the same day.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, each of these landmarks, Rogers has no plans to slow down. She and her best friend Eliane, who she met in Alaska, have made a pact to hike the Pacific Crest trail Wild-style and the Appalachian Trail by the time they turn 30. She’s made plans for the latter already—“after the full LP cycle,” she said. (She’s already begun work on the follow-up album to Now That the Light Is Fading.) “You can catch me, summer 2020, somewhere on the trail.”
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