The world and Pharrell Williams met Maggie Rogers at the same time, effectively. Though she later said she had no idea he would be in her Master Class session at NYU when she presented her track, "Alaska," much less that the interaction would be filmed and put on the internet, Pharrell’s reaction went viral; one of the giants of music production told this college student he had zero notes to better her track, “Alaska.” The clip made its way through Reddit onto music blogs and Rogers was booked to play live sessions at radio stations around North Amerca. Two years later, her debut album, Heard It in a Past Life, makes its way into the world.
In a short time, Rogers has built a persona singular for a woman in pop. She brings her unique, ethereal voice, with its timbre so reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, to ground her commercially ambitious debut in something grittier. She looks like a natural girl with a Glossier-esque sheen, a hiker whose nomad lifestyle inspired “Alaska,” who grew up beside a river in rural Maryland, a fan of classical and folk music whose first instrument was the harp; in short, she’s an outsider loaded down with authenticity. But that’s far from the whole truth about Rogers, who went to St. Andrew's boarding school in Delaware followed by a stint at Berklee College of Music in Boston and the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU. She signed a deal with Capitol Records after a bidding war and through her own label, Debay Sounds, starting her off with a degree of control on the business side that few new artists enjoy. That’s right: Despite her legitimate cred, this is a privileged woman and artist.
The reason she doesn't stumble, as others have done when they attempted to “be authentic,” is her incorporation of naturalistic elements, where so many studio productions are (and sound) machine-made. “Past Life” and “Fallingwater” are based on piano compositions and instrumentation (the latter produced by former Vampire Weekend keyboardist turned pop producer Rostam Batmanglij) while “Say It,” “Light On,” “Alaska” and “On + Off” feature samples from real drums and guitars as well as sounds gathered in nature (think a babbling brook and her hand hitting her jeans-clad leg). Where Rogers chooses to dance away from her folk roots towards pop, she goes along with producer Greg Kurstin. Kurstin is one of the most in-demand composers in pop music, having worked on blockbuster and/or trailblazing albums for Kelly Clarkson, Adele, Katy Perry, Sia, Lily Allen, Halsey, P!nk, Charli XCX, Lana Del Rey...the list goes on.
All five of Kurstin’s tracks are more polished and radio-ready than the rest of the album. His influence is particularly heard on the lead single, “Give A Little;” were the lilting synths sound more like Kurstin’s recent work with Beck than Rogers’ classical-meets-folky vibe. And then there are the lyrics; despite its shiny pop packaging, “Give A Little” was a song Rogers wrote after watching the March for Our Lives as the Parkland survivors fight to make their demands for gun reform heard. While our best and biggest pop stars, from Taylor Swift to Beyoncé, craft songs that put their lives at the center of the narrative and reflect on culture through their experiences, Rogers is masterful at rendering particular experience into a universal one. She does it on “Past Life,” where she laments the feeling of a “change a’coming” (echoing Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”) that could be about the darkness of our current political climate or simply a song about growing up. That broadness of lyric writing is a hallmark of her folk music roots, from the definitive American folk song “This Land Is Your Land” to “The Color Song,” which Rogers modernized on her previous EP.
As a pop star, Rogers is interested in a kind of intimacy that has nothing to do with Tumblrs or Instagram posts, but through lyrics that inspire deeply personal introspection.