Maggie Rogers Didn't Plan On Becoming Famous—Really.
Two years after making Pharrell cry in a viral clip seen by millions, the "Alaska" singer-songwriter has emerged as pop music's most reluctant superstar
Have you ever dreamed about becoming famous overnight? It’s a pretty standard fantasy, but it wasn’t something Maggie Rogers had ever really thought about — until it happened to her. She was a senior at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute in 2016 when she signed up for a class. But it wasn’t just any class. It was one with musical polymath Pharrell Williams as a visiting lecturer. During a critique on the final day of the seminar, she played for him “Alaska,” the first song she’d written after a two-year period of writers’ block. Perhaps you’re one of 3.2 million people who watched Pharrell’s speechless, tearful reaction to the song on YouTube — but by the time Rogers graduated a few months later, she was the subject of an intense bidding war between several major record labels. Since then, she’s played Coachella, appeared on SNL, attended the Met Gala, and dropped her major label debut, Heard It In A Past Life. And yes, she’s aware that the whole thing is A Star Is Born-esque. And yet: “Who the fuck wants to be famous?!” she exclaims in a manner so candid you’d think we were old friends.
We’re sitting in folding chairs outside a small guest house on a sprawling estate in Topanga, CA, where Rogers, now 25, has just completed a seven-hour photo and video shoot, part of which required her to balance on a tree branch while wearing a baby blue tulle jumpsuit by Adi Karni Vagt and a massive Jacquemus sunhat. She did so gamely, thanks in part to coconut water, dark chocolate, and a soundtrack of Aretha Franklin.
Now she’s happy to be back into her regular outfit of light blue Ganni cowboy boots, kick-crop plaid pants from a thrift store in Kansas City, and an embossed leather blazer thrifted in her hometown of Easton, MD. Though her question was clearly rhetorical, I rattle off a list of people who do aspire to fame: Instagram influencers, Bachelor contestants, YouTube vloggers, the Kardashians, Donald Trump. Plus lots of other, less outwardly thirsty people.
“What I’ve always wanted to do is make music, and I understand the natural response is, well don’t you want people to hear the music? But the answer is kind of like, I don’t care,” she says, her speaking voice deeper than when she sings. “Or, it’s not that I don’t care, it’s that it’s irrelevant to the process of making itself. And that is the single most important, powerful, spiritual thing that makes me feel alive and makes me feel like me.”
Musically, Rogers defies classification. Her lyrics are empowered and honest, with all the trappings of today’s top pop anthems: coming-of-age themes (“Back In My Body,” “Give A Little”), cryptic hints at love lost (“Overnight,” “On + Off”), and #relatable lines like "I remember seeing you at a party / take a big sip of my whiskey / and then leave quickly / and pray you missed me.” Her crystal-clear vocals are heavily folk-influenced (comparisons to Joni Mitchell abound) but she embraces the kind of experimental electronic beats that make her festival-friendly. The result is a mash-up of new and old that’s earwormy and easy to listen to, but still feels smarter — and cooler — than much of the other stuff on the radio.
Even beyond her unique sound, Rogers is a very different kind of pop star. While other singer-songwriters like Lady Gaga, Adele, and Taylor Swift maintained a glamorous sheen even when they were coming up, Rogers, at least at this stage in her career, rejects that. Nowhere is this more evident than in her music videos, which show her in everyday clothes like cowboy boots and sweatshirts instead of costumes or elaborate designer looks, doing everyday things like driving, hanging out at the skatepark, and walking around in the wilderness of her parents’ estate.
She has a few things in common with 17-year-old Billie Eilish, 2019’s other breakout prodigy. Both have a unique, photogenic look, have been embraced by the fashion world, and maintain that authentic rawness many of their pop predecessors lack. Both racked up millions of Spotify plays long before their full-length LPs even dropped. But Eilish’s sound is darker, weirder, and more bass-heavy, while Rogers’ music is airier and more wistful. That she cites Patti Smith, Björk, and Kim Gordon as professional heroes might give an idea of where Rogers hopes for her career to go.
Rogers envisions Heard It In A Past Life, which dropped in January, as the formal introduction she never had a chance to make to her fans, or to people who may still know her as that girl Pharrell discovered. The titular “past life” refers not just to Rogers’ pre-fame existence, she says, but also to actual past lives she feels she may have had.
“The way that everything changed was so exact,” she tells me. “There was such a strange alignment of 'Alaska' being the first song I had written in a couple of years and it going viral on the day I graduated from college and all of this other weird shit. At a certain point, I was sort of like, I swear to God, I’ve been trying to do this for a lot of lifetimes, and this is the one where it finally lines up.”
While many iterations of her story have portrayed her as a banjo-playing farmgirl who stumbled naively into the big time, this is only a version of the truth. Rogers did grow up on a farm playing music, starting with the harp at age 7, then piano and guitar by the time she was in middle school. She also plays the banjo. But her childhood was far from hardscrabble; her father was a successful Ford dealer, and her mother was a nurse who introduced her daughter to Erykah Badu and Alanis Morissette early on. She attended the prestigious St. Andrews boarding school in Delaware, where Dead Poets’ Society was filmed in 1989; there, she turned a broom closet into a makeshift studio in order to record her first demo, which she submitted in her college applications.
At NYU, she considered a career in music journalism, interning at Elle and for journalist Lizzy Goodman, with whom she still maintains a friendship (the pair had seen The Strokes perform the night before we met). She transcribed interviews with hundreds of musicians for Goodman’s book about the early aughts NYC music scene, Meet Me In The Bathroom, an experience she says gave her “permission to chill a little bit” when it comes to the ups and downs of her own music career.
Despite being young and relatively inexperienced when “Alaska” blew up, Rogers managed to negotiate a contract with Capitol where she licenses her music to them through her own imprint, Debay Sounds. This gives her a higher degree of control over her sound and image than most artists at her level typically attain. Her knowledge of what works for her is evident throughout the shoot: She knowingly pulls favourite pieces from a rainbow of vintage and designer garments, nixing one Navajo-inspired dress that she fears might verge on cultural appropriation; asks the makeup artist not to cover her freckles, and has no qualms politely expressing when she doesn’t feel comfortable with the set-up of a certain shot.
“I think this industry empowers a lot of women,” Rogers says. “It was a space where I, as a 22-year-old female, could walk into a boardroom full of largely white men and present a business plan and ask for funding. And they said yes.”
During a video shoot, Maggie was perched nonchalantly on a small wooden staircase outside the house, wearing a psychedelic button-down and the most perfectly-fitting pair of light-wash vintage mom jeans you’ve ever seen. Some of the crew was packing stuff up nearby, and everyone on this makeshift set kept getting hushed and shushed by the video producers. Finally, it was quiet. Until, in the middle of Rogers answering a question, a frog began loudly chirping in the nearby woods. Those of us observing snickered quietly and began glancing around, wondering what the solution to this vociferous amphibian might be.
“So… Are you guys gonna kill the frog now?” Rogers asked with a big laugh.
That Rogers knows how to manoeuvre around tension shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise. She has all the other trappings of the kind of person you’d probably have a friend-crush on — an easy charisma, hair that dries well naturally, enviable thrift shopping skills (she says it’s important to consider the fabric before anything else). “Cool Girl” may now be a loaded term, but Rogers is one.
She spends most of her time on the road, but otherwise has an apartment in L.A. with two roommates, which she says she uses as a place to crash and store stuff. It’s been important to her to stay in touch with the people who knew her before. That includes casting her friends from NYU — like Riverdale actress Camila Mendes and singer-songwriter Fletcher — as backup dancers whenever possible. “The ‘Give a Little’ video is all my friends from college,” she laughs, referencing the parts that show a gaggle of denim-clad girls laughing, dancing, and eating ice-pops. “Cause that’s the shit we used to do anyway. You know, make up weird choreographed dances on a Saturday night while we were drinking. That was 100% what I did all of college.”
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Yes, two of her BFFs from college are celebrities, but she insists that not all of her pals inhabit that world. “I talk to my friends from school, and the things I'm going through are super age-appropriate. All my friends who are 25 are in, like, law school and they're just kind of grinding shit out, and that's me on tour,” she says, referencing her breakneck travel schedule. But she knows the so-called grind is different for her. . “It’s like, oh, last week I had to go to some work function alone, and it was kind of funky: That’s normal. But, that function was the Met ball.”
Rogers, who loves fashion and doesn’t use a professional stylist, attended the gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute for her first time this year, wearing an ethereal floral gown with a plunging neckline and a beaded bodice created for her by Stuart Vevers at Coach. (It wasn’t necessarily camp, but it was definitely a mood.) There’s a particularly incredible photo of her from the red carpet, in which she tosses both sides of the flowing dress into the air as they form a kind of couture cocoon around her. Like many other partygoers, she describes the scene inside as “not super glamorous,” and “kind of like everyone’s still in high school,” though she says she still had a good time.
“For the Met ball, they were like, ‘Do you want diamonds?’ I’m like yes. ‘Do you want Champagne?’ Yes,” she recalls. “I was like, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to fucking do it. I’m gonna have big hair, just have fun with it. Because when you’re enjoying it, you’re present in it.”
While I’m on the edge of my seat hearing just the slightest hint of insider Met Gala info, Rogers insists she doesn’t really get starstruck, though she says she was excited to meet legendary Talking Heads frontman David Byrne recently. “But it does feel like this weird dinner party that everyone’s at solo, and you have to make friends,” she says. “I think that's the thing about the celebrity culture we have right now is that you forget that people are people. Everybody's terrified. Everyone's insecure.”
She did, however, manage to make friends at the gala with two other famous girls that seem very cool: Chloe Grace Moretz and Emma Stone. “Each of us were trying to dare each other to touch Kim Kardashian’s butt,” she says. “We were all being like, ‘Okay, that’s technically sexual harassment. Nobody touch her butt. That’s her own butt. ”
She laughs conspiratorially. For someone who never wanted fame, Rogers seems to be having a great time in the spotlight. Perhaps that’s because, with an acclaimed studio album to speak for rather than a viral video, she finally has permission to believe it’s all real. Or maybe, with a summer schedule that includes an Australian tour, solo gigs across the US and Canada, and festivals like Lollapalooza, Roskilde, and Newport Folk, there’s just not much time anymore to battle the demonic forces of imposter syndrome. Either way, it seems like a pretty good place to be.
“This is the first time in this journey where I’m really feeling relaxed,” Rogers notes. “I’m enjoying it, and that is a really beautiful place to be. I’ve found my peace.”