Music/Interviews

Maggie Rogers is advocating for music that brings people together

Fresh off the release of her stellar debut album, Heard It In A Past Life, Maggie Rogers is rooting for a future that tightens the gap between artists, fans and culture.

April 18, 2019

Maggie Rogers didn’t sleep well because of the full moon. In fact, she never sleeps well under a full moon but this one in mid-March—super and in Libra—was especially potent. Rogers is telling me this while we’re tucked away in a green room upstairs at Toronto’s Phoenix Concert Theatre a handful of hours before her second sold out show. Her tour manager mentioned that some palo santo was recently swung around the space to clear it out. Rogers offers me gluten-free pretzels to snack on, getting up, too, to grab me a cup of water while talking about the steps she is taking to reduce the use of plastic water bottles on tour. “I had this moment the other day with a bunch of water bottles,” Rogers says. “They are just everywhere. Venues have them—giant cases. So unless you strongly stipulate otherwise, you just have a ton of water bottles. And I am really passionate about the environment and have always carried a water bottle.”

In person, Rogers is direct. It’s easy to feel flustered around someone so sure and confident. She has a firm handshake, frequently makes eye contact, and liberally says “dude” in a way that feels natural and conversational, and warm. She fans out for a moment talking about Broken Social Scene, with whom she recently performed “Anthems For A Seventeen-Year Old Girl” at SXSW.

The singer’s rise is so well-documented that to mention it here feels like a betrayal to known facts. But, briefly: in early 2016, while still at NYU during a master class session, Pharrell fell hard for her self-produced song “Alaska.” The video of it went viral and so did Rogers. Soon after, she released an EP, Now That the Light Is Fading, and has since been on tour for the better part of two-and-a-half years.

This January, she released her dreamy and spirited debut album, Heard It In a Past Life, a record that bows to the legacy of bewitching pop women like Stevie Nicks but gestures toward what pop’s future could look like. It’s a raucous collection of songs that weave in the folk elements of her earlier musical background with electronic and R&B flourishes that make powerful, intimate pop hits. Heard It In A Past Life, an album title that sounds more like a soft shrug than a statement, is infectious and percussive, causing the body and heart to move profoundly.

Despite being welcomed in the pop world, and proclaimed a “pop star,” Rogers insists that she’s not a pop idol. At least she doesn’t see herself that way. Being a viral sensation with great songs, however, invites a little bit of (unwanted) labelling and projecting. She says a few times that she is merely a human being and pays little attention to any other qualifiers around her work. Much of the public conversation of Rogers’ music and presence in cultural consciousness has veered to the side of unbelievable that her career came to be as it did. For instance, a former Elle editor wrote a lengthy feature of Rogers in 2017 that mostly emphasized the massive amount of envy she felt of her former intern’s rise to immediate fame; serving to undercut much of the work Rogers had accomplished on her own. Rogers has an extraordinary story, no doubt. But this narrative of simply falling into success, without working hard on her music, is unfortunate and incorrect.

Consider what is to become of our generation of viral stars in the future. So many people may be in crisis of identity later on if they are exclusively known for the one time many people shared their work with no other regard than that. Under these circumstances, it’s understandable to be vocal and firm about the work you’ve put in before, during, and after that “moment” in case the internet or anyone feels the need to remind you how you came to be here.

When I say things like pop or rock star, idol, Rogers comfortably points out that is my language not hers. She says she is in the eye of the storm that is her life so it’s hard for her to see what’s happening around her until it settles for a minute. Then she can become critical of it, examining the minute details.

When I first arrived for our interview close to 5PM, I spotted about five or six fans already lined up out front of the venue. Rogers lights up when I tell her this. This is the moment that feels the most authentically Maggie Rogers. It’s worth emphasizing that providing space for joy or emotional reprieve as a performer—in addition to being able to unknot her own life through music—is why she does this at all. Not for labels or a viral story.

A.SIDE: Since you’re in Broken Social Scene territory—

Maggie Rogers: Ohhh baby!

I have to ask you about that SXSW performance.

Dude, that was insane.

Yeah?

I am a giant Feist fan. I follow Feist on social media and she posted about La Force’s song “You Amaze Me.” It became one of my favourite songs of 2018. Ariel [Engle], La Force, connected on Instagram. She reached out over my European tour where we were in nearby cities and we were trying to make each other’s shows. But when I realized we were [both] at South By—AHH! I have to see Broken Social Scene. I’ve considered flying to cities ‘cause they never play. So the fact they were at South By… I was there just drinking and eating tacos and hanging with my friends. I was just like kickin’ it. I messaged Ariel like, “dude, all the lines for your shows are super long. Do you think I could come? Could you put me on the list for one of your shows?” And she was like, “Totally! But also, do you want to sing with us?” And I was like—[holds face in shock]

And it was “Anthems For A Seventeen-Year Old Girl” too, right?

She was like, “Do you want to sing ‘Anthems’ with us?” and I was like [Rogers gasps, growls]. There’s a photo I posted that my friend took of me getting the text message like “I don’t know what to do!” It was amazing.

I’m always so interested to hear someone not from Canada or Toronto explain why they love BSS so much.

Oh god, their music is just so emotional. And so cinematic but, also, it just makes me feel. There’s such a good sense of groove. And singing “Anthems” with Ariel reminded me, too, of like the presence of meditation in their music. You sing “park that car, drop that phone” like 18 times. I’ve always thought about songwriting structure in one certain way. And on stage, too, I’m thinking about performing and entertaining. This is a whole other thing, like, being able to be onstage and feel what it’s like to just get in that train. Just chugging along on that thing, repeating and repeating and repeating.

Honestly, it’s the same reason I love dance music, because the whole thing is building this tension and releasing it. They do it in a really particular way. I guess for a while I thought dance music meant dubstep and I was like “I hate this shit.” Turns out I really like dance music or house music. It’s the same as BSS: getting into a groove and being consistent.

The one thing I would love to do before my time on this Earth comes to an end is see Feist perform “Lover’s Spit” with the whole band.

Oh man, I saw her perform it once just with Kevin and a piano. She sits down and says, “Alright, Kevin, break my heart like it’s 2005.” And I was just like [groans] “you go, girl.”

I want to get into a couple questions about you. It’s been a little bit since you released Heard It In a Past Life and now you’re doing the tour here to support it. How do you feel about supporting it this time around versus the EP a couple years ago?

It’s pretty similar.

In terms of how you feel about it?

Oh, I don’t know yet. I think the thing about being on the road is that you can’t process. I’ll let you know in like a year. You’re just hyper-present. When you have a consistent home, you notice change because there is a constant in your life. When you’re moving every day it’s a lot harder. I can tell you how I’m feeling on a singular day. I don’t know if I trust my emotions if I’m touring.

I read in a couple interviews before that Heard It In A Past Life is a bit more reactionary to some of the stuff you felt while your were touring the EP.  

I think the biggest thing right now is that it has been so exciting seeing the way the record has been received in the world.

Did you see people lined up already out front right now?

I didn’t know that!

I don’t know where my comfort level is with it yet. I’m sort of just trusting it and trying not to psych myself out too much.

Yeah! There are like five or six people out front.

Oh my god! Last night was the loudest crowd we’ve ever had. I’ve been touring for two-and-a-half years and these are the first show where people had even the ability to know the words because I didn’t have a record out. So I was playing where people knew four songs but I’m still playing an hour set. Just a lot of people listening, which is super cool, but it’s really fun to play where everyone knows. There have been so many exciting—not goals, but goals that I didn’t even know were possible. Dreams you can’t say out loud. Like Radio City [Music Hall] or Saturday Night Live. It’s just unbelievable.

It’s big!

[laughs] It’s really big! I don’t know where my comfort level is with it yet. I’m sort of just trusting it and trying not to psych myself out too much.

With everything that is going on?

With the growth. Because this is… I come from a DIY scene. Broken Social Scene is my favourite band. I come from an art culture and a culture of making things that are much more intimate. I think my biggest thought as [this] gets bigger is doing whatever I need to make it continue to stay intimate even though the size is growing.

This leads well into my next question. In an interview you did nearly two years ago with Elle, you said that becoming personally vulnerable, and making music out of that vulnerability, “is the best way I can do the most amount of good in the world.” How do you connect that with the work you’ve done recently? And going forward? Also, the experience you’re creating with this intimate feeling.

Well, — sorry I am just taking in your question. [pauses] It’s the same as it was then. I haven’t been doing this for that long. Then and now, we’re talking about a span of months. We’re not talking about five years. My intention as far as making music has stayed the same, which is like… well, I guess there are different parts of it. I make music because I need to process the world and think about my life. And understand it.

Performing is very different. Performing feels like energy work. I don’t love touring. It’s really hard. It’s really difficult. It’s emotional. Most artists fucking hate touring. But I love the show and, more than anything, I love what the show is giving. There is so much darkness in the world. Whatever I can do in this moment in time to bring people together, to create community, give people a place where they can feel or release, that feels more important than anything else.

When you are part of culture, you represent a mindset, an archetype, a theme, a way of living. A value set.

You mentioned that you’re in the early bit of your career, and something I’ve been thinking about is how pop is definitely changing, and you can see the transition happening even if you’re not directly looking at it, scrutinizing it.

I think you’re on the cusp of that. Your sound is rooted in old rock and pop elements and structure but you use the same electronic and R&B flourishes that have existed before but are so much more dominant now. I’m wondering how you feel about being part of the zeitgeist that moves pop forward.

Oh, I don’t know. It’s crazy. I remember seeing that the New York Times put me on the Popcast, which I love, like “ah, what the fuck!” I didn’t listen to it but it’s crazy that I am at a place where I am a part of culture because that in itself feels so weird. [laughs] That feels very strange to me. I think that was the biggest thing with the album release: a shift, having people talk about it as a thing, this containable thing. Because it’s never been a thing. It’s just been me.

Being labeled as a product is a totally different thing. When you are part of culture, you represent a mindset, an archetype, a theme, a way of living. A value set. Politics, all of these things. I don’t know how I feel about that yet because it feels so foreign. It’s like being at the eye of a tornado. Everything is moving around me and I’m like “I don’t know!”

So then maybe in terms of being a fan, what do you see in the world that you’re in and the music you love and what’s being made?

I just really love songs. I also really love tracks but I think the two have been kind of mixed up and mumble-jumble for a little while. We’ve always been in a songwriting landscape and then we had the ability of technology and home studios, a total influx into music. We, as a culture, are learning to work with this new instrument that is the digital interface. And I think, like, I don’t know. It’s just like being a kid: you get a new toy and then figure out how it fits into the rest of your life. I think we’re at that point figuring out where digital production and software fits into what we’ve already known and loved about music.

I don’t really want to focus on the viral aspect of your story because that has been so overplayed but I do want to focus on the digital aspect. From what I understand you had a semi-Luddite life growing up. You didn’t have a cellphone for a really long time. Now the digital world is your working space, it is how you support yourself. How do you feel about that in terms of your own songwriting and what you want to accomplish?

I don’t think it affects my songwriting but I think that the digital stuff… I think it’s awesome. We talk about social media all the time but it’s this amazing tool where, before a show, I can search my name on Twitter and find that girl who bought scalped tickets and is stuck outside and I can put her on the list.

So much of this job, even just getting on a stage, which is an elevated platform, separates you from people. I think in all of this I want to make that gap a lot smaller.

I don’t think people see pop stars as that empathetic or wanting to close that—

I never claimed to be a pop star. [laughs]

No, that’s true. I also read that in a Vulture interview you did where you didn’t know if you could be a pop star or a rock star. I think you can be both at the same time.

I think I am both.

As a pop performer, you mean so much to so many people and represent something. Even though you are like “I am a person, this is my job,” —

I think it depends on how much of that you let in.

Do you let that in?

All these words you’re saying it’s like “whoa, dude!” But it’s not a reality I am part of.

A pop reality?

I think the reality you’re speaking about my work in is in cultural criticism. Which is one of my favourite things. But the way I am thinking about it isn’t in cultural criticism, it’s just my life. So you’re talking about being an idol or whatever you said but that’s not stuff I think about or focus. Here’s the thing, truly: I’ve been on tour since July. I went home for Christmas for, like, three days. How you measure any of this public stuff, I don’t know.

We are in this weird age where it is quantifiable because there is a number on my Instagram or whatever the fuck that means. But the number on my Instagram doesn’t match what my ticket sales are or what my engagement rate is. There are all these different metrics. Before Instagram, it was your ticket sales. Before ticket sales, it was—

CD, album, whatever.

Yeah, I don’t know. But for me, it’s like the public stuff is measured in, “am I recognized when I go to Target?” “How is it affecting my life directly?” What I’m trying to say is that I don’t feel it. Because I’m in this routine touring, and I’m just like doing my thing every night. I play, I wake up, I go for a run, I eat gluten-free pretzels. I think the eye of the storm is the visual I keep thinking about as you ask me these questions. It keeps growing around me. I think this is the biggest thing: not only does my life look the same, my friends look the same, my bedroom in L.A., which is a temporary room in a house of five friends from college, is a quarter of the size of the dressing room. This is like three times the size of my bedroom. I live in a closet, I have a rack of clothes. I remember my manager coming over and walking in and being like, “wow, big pop star, huh?” But it’s what I need. I’m not interested in this shit, I just want to make things.

I do like when people talk about making stuff and their process because there is a human element to it. We’re just so used to not seeing the real humanity behind something—

Well, that’s the thing that frustrates me. That’s when I get scared, overwhelmed, frustrated, mad—when people forget I’m a person. If anyone comes up and asks me for a photo and doesn’t introduce themselves first I’ll stop them and make them shake my hand. I’m a person, you’re a person. If someone comes up and says, “Can I take a photo?” No! Introduce yourself! You’re being rude. I’m happy to give you this thing if you treat me like a person. Usually, we’ll introduce ourselves and then have a conversation. If we just take the photo then no one will actually talk to me. I want to connect in a way that’s meaningful.

I have to point out that we are in Mercury Retrograde with a few more days to go. I was thinking about your own public relationship to astrology and all of that.

I mean! I check my Co-star like any other girl. [laughs]

The moon last night. Phew.

I didn’t see it! It’s probably why I didn’t sleep. I never sleep on full moons. I didn’t sleep at all last night. I was like, “what the fuck? Maybe I’m having a hard time getting back into tour vibe.” Duh, it’s a full moon.

It was big and beautiful and I really felt it. Full moons always make me feel itchy. It doesn’t matter what sign it’s in but I just get itchy.

I think in the way that I am talking about astrology, a way to sum up the whole conversation: There are these things that I love. I’m into astrology. But I think a brand would be like, “yes this is one of my tenets of the gospel I’m preaching.” But as a person, I’m like “yeah, I like astrology! Sick!” It’s not something I’m trying to advertise. Like yeah, I check my Co-Star!

Do you have the Moon app?

I have one called Deluxe Moon?

Here—in case you ever want to download it. It’s called Moon and it tells you the cycles and moon and sends you little message for a new moon or full.

Wait, can I see what it looks like? Moon! Got it. I appreciate your Self-Care folder. That’s the one thing I’m really trying to dial in right now, my self-care.

This I recommend too. It’s called The Pattern. It’s astrology centric but it doesn’t specifically say anything astrology related but it shows you the things you’re going through. It is wildly accurate.

The Pattern? And Moon. Sick. My guitar player and I have the same sun, moon, and rising.

What are you—you’re a Taurus?

Taurus, Scorpio moon, Gemini rising. Or maybe the other way around.

I’m a Scorpio sun, Scorpio rising, Virgo moon.

Damn! We feel things. [laughs]

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You can catch Maggie Rogers in Toronto on at Echo Beach. You can grab tickets here. 

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