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The Inescapable Aura of Maggie Rogers

With her debut album ‘Heard It in a Past Life,’ the 24-year-old NYU grad is making good on her once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and asserting herself as a bold young artist

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On a dismal and drizzly late-January afternoon, Maggie Rogers and I are standing at the counter of Magic Jewelry, a tiny shop in New York’s Chinatown. Its walls are cluttered with orbs and talismans and crystals, but it also happens to be one of the only places in town where you can have your aura photographed and subsequently analyzed by a self-professed expert. Taking off her floor-length tomato-red puffer jacket, the 24-year-old Rogers plunks down in front of the electromagnetic camera with a casual and efficient familiarity, like she’s dropping onto a chiropractor’s table for a quick tune-up. The camera snaps. No, this is definitely not the first time Maggie Rogers has had her aura photographed—but admittedly it’s not my first time, either, for we are both women who spent a decent chunk of our 20s living in New York City. It is, however, the first time either of us has had her aura read in the company of a complete stranger, and it is a little more awkward than we had imagined. “When I first suggested this, I didn’t realize how intimate it would be,” Rogers laughs, as we wait for the photos to develop. “Like, five minutes after meeting someone, having your aura read in front of them.”

Still, vulnerability is something Rogers is constantly courting on her long-gestating first album Heard It in a Past Life, which had been released a few days before we met up. (It just debuted at no. 2 on the Billboard 200.) “It feels like a breath,” Rogers tells me. “Having it be out, I feel like I’m finally on even footing. I feel full-bodied and really grounded.”

Rogers’s music is at once solid and breezy—it has a pop sheen, yes, but also a few splinters in its fingers. “Maggie rogers makes me want to build a porch and buy a wolf and keep it as a pet,” Vulture editor Hunter Harris recently tweeted, as a compliment. The truth is not that far from the myth, or the meme: Maggie Rogers did indeed play Saturday Night Live barefoot, draped in a gossamer red frock. Rogers’s breakout song, “Alaska,” was inspired by a solo hike she took between semesters at NYU. Maggie Rogers picks a tarot card from her deck every morning (the day we met she’d drawn the Ace of Wands, an impassioned new beginning—the karmic equivalent of a lit match). And yes, Maggie Rogers suggested that I meet her at an aura photography store. Still, she has a wry self-awareness about it all. “You would think that I would fall perfectly in line, but I’m not really into crystals,” she says at Magic Jewelry, as we eye some prohibitively expensive hunks of rose quartz. “I haven’t gotten there. I’m into Palo Santo, singing bowls, meditating—I’ve got my shit. But I’m not quite a crystal gal.” She mischievously lifts an eyebrow. “Yet.”

Still, when the photo of Rogers’s aura comes out, it has the vivid neon colors of a rainbow Fruit Roll-Up: yellow, red, and a huge blob of electric green. That last color signifies the heart chakra, the Self-Professed Aura Expert explains, and Rogers is just about exploding with it. This is a hectic time in her career, the woman says. “What does it say about things outside of my career, though?” Rogers asks. Not a whole lot, the woman tells her—career is front and center for now. At first, Rogers sees this reading as something of a cop-out, but reflecting on it later she finds that it makes sense. “My life has been really run by my work in the past two years,” she says, “and for really good reason! I had an insane opportunity and I ran through the door with open arms. But now I think I’m trying to find a balance.”

Rogers knew it was going to be a gray day, she says, so she wanted to liven it up with color. She’s cocooned in that blazing red jacket, underneath which she’s layered burnt-orange long sleeves beneath a white T-shirt and white jeans. She’s wearing very little makeup, if any at all, save for a streak of glitter over each eyelid. Although I consider myself an annoyingly speedy walker, made permanently impatient by six years of living in New York, Maggie Rogers has me beat: As we traverse the Chinatown streets, I always feel about half a footstep behind her. But perhaps that is because she is on a determined quest—for pork buns.

“I started writing songs when I was like 13,” Rogers says as we settle down for dim sum in the cavernous banquet-style restaurant Jing Fong, which she used to frequent in college. “It was something I did just to process my life.” Because she’s 24, many of her early forays into songwriting are easy to find online: She recorded and self-produced an album called The Echo while still in high school. It’s still up on Bandcamp: mostly just Rogers’s plaintive voice and her intricate banjo playing. The Echo showcased technical prowess and ambition even when it betrayed a teenager’s somewhat limited worldview: There’s a song in which she liltingly thanks the tree in her yard, the chickens on the farm, and even the dog hairs on the sofa. (She grew up on an expansive farm in Eastern Maryland.) Rogers would eventually mature as a songwriter, but The Echo served its purpose since it got her admitted to the competitive Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU.

“There were 30 of us in a class and we worked together and had almost every class together for four years,” she says. “Those people are my family, and there’s a bunch of people from school that I worked with on [Heard It in a Past Life].” The most famous part of Rogers’s story took place in that program, but for an audience that eventually ballooned to well over 30 people. She refers to it simply as “the video”: During a masterclass workshop at Clive Davis, Rogers played her song “Alaska” for visiting guest instructor Pharrell Williams. It’s remarkable to behold: For the entire three-minute song, Skateboard P is rendered speechless. “I have zero notes for that,” he says at the end of the clip, which eventually went viral. “I’ve never heard anyone like you before, and I’ve never heard anything that sounds like that.”

Quite a calling card; there is something vaguely “Ally Maine in A Star Is Born” about Rogers’s whole story, to say nothing of her proclivity for Palo Santo. But the next challenge, for Rogers, was proving she was more than just “that girl from the Pharrell video”—and sometimes proving even less than that. “The amount of times people have said, ‘I love that song Pharrell made for you,’” she says. “And even though it’s fundamentally like, come on, what they’re really saying is, ‘I love your work.’ I’m grateful someone heard it. But it was like … wow, I really lost all agency pretty quickly there.”

The word “agency” comes up several times in our conversation, and Rogers knows that as a young female artist interested in traversing certain boundaries—between folk and pop, performing and producing, a solo career and collaboration—it’s something she must learn to assert deliberately. Still, she knows she cannot control every reaction to her music and how it is perceived. In a largely unfavorable Pitchfork review of Heard It in a Past Life, the critic Laura Snapes wrote, of Rogers’s collaborations with producers like Greg Kurstin, Kid Harpoon, and Rostam Batmanglij, “Considering this student’s idiosyncratic work left one of the most successful producers in pop history speechless, the sight of so many big-ticket pop aides on Heard It in a Past Life’s credits is depressing: It feels symptomatic of the fate of young female pop producers not to be trusted with their own voices.”

Rogers sees it in another way: As a young, burgeoning studio rat (“I get really emotional about mixing”), what could be a better education than getting to work side-by-side with some of the best pros in the industry? “It’s been great, because I just wanna learn, and if you don’t work with other people, you’re never going to learn, or grow,” she says, joking that, after graduating from her recording program, working on Heard It in a Past Life felt a little bit “like grad school.” That was especially true of her sessions with Kurstin, who’s worked with everyone from Kelly Clarkson to the Foo Fighters, and who won a Grammy for producing and cowriting Adele’s “Hello.” “Every time I walk into his studio, I automatically feel inspired,” Rogers says, “because whenever I’m around him I just feel like anything is creatively possible.”

Before the Pharrell video, Rogers had another fateful (if less public) run-in with a seasoned musician, the singer/songwriter Sharon Van Etten. “I met Maggie when she approached me after my performance at Neil Fest,” Van Etten wrote to me via email. The two connected, and not long after Van Etten invited her over to her place for coffee. “She came over and she humbly said that she writes songs and I asked her if she would play me one,” Van Etten says. “What I heard was so beautiful … Maggie is a really good songwriter and her voice is crystalline. It is exciting as a friend to see her find herself and not get lost in the fray.”

Another of Rogers’s improbably cool “grad-school-like” experiences came when she was hired as an assistant to the music journalist Lizzy Goodman; Rogers transcribed hundreds of hours of interviews with bands like the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs for Goodman’s early-aughts-NYC oral history Meet Me in the Bathroom. Rogers said the experience gave her insight about how the industry has changed in the digital age—mostly for the better, she believes. “In 2000-whatever, people very much identified their personhood with what genre they listened to,” she says. “You were a punk, or you were into country. I just don’t think that’s realistic anymore. I think genre only really exists to sell music. I don’t think any creators right now are actually thinking about genre, because those boxes are gone, as far as identity. Everybody listens to everything. The lines don’t really exist so much anymore.”

Occasionally Rogers comes off as an overly earnest recent college grad optimistically in love with the world (“I really believe that knowledge is power,” she says at one point in our conversation), but by and large she’s thoughtful, sharp, and noticeably precise with her words. Actually, she wishes the rest of the industry would follow suit: “The way we credit people on records—I think technology advanced so quickly but the language with which we describe things and credit people for things hasn’t caught up,” she says. (She later admits she was also an English major.) “Like the difference between a producer and an engineer, or a producer and a writer, are really different now because of the way technology works. The roles are so overlapping, in the same way that genre is. I just don’t know if we always have the language.”

It all comes back to that question of agency, of course. “I think the place I’ve come to is: I know the work I did. I know why it feels like me, and that’s because I did the work,” she says. “What somebody else thinks or assumes is beside the point.”

The morning after her Saturday Night Live debut, Rogers took a long walk through the East Village with another one of her newer collaborators, the former Vampire Weekend musician Rostam Batmanglij. He had accompanied her on piano during her second performance of the night, of a song they’d produced together called “Fallingwater.” Rogers seemed a little stiff during her first number, the heartening mid-tempo “Light On,” but on “Fallingwater” she seemed to be channeling from somewhere else. Most of the comments on the YouTube video are about that opening note (“Daaaaang that first note was gold!”) but Rogers sustained an otherworldly intensity throughout the entire five-minute song.

“I still haven’t watched it,” Rogers tells me, of the “Fallingwater” performance. “It was so special, but it was also very emotionally intense. Rostam and I talked about it when we went for a long walk the next morning. … We talked about everything, just recapped. We both were like, ‘I don’t need to watch it. I was there. I know what you sounded like.’”

Rogers’s music is often about this crucial navigation: It is the sound of someone figuring out how to stay sane in an insane world, to shake off the FOMO and feel comfortable turning your phone off for a little while. “And I walked off you, and I walked off an old me,” she coos on “Alaska,” her ode to the mind-clearing serenity of a solo hike (presumably far from a WiFi signal). One of the most wrenching moments on the record comes during “Light On,” when she lets out an Alanis-esque wail against the chatty misinterpretation of others: “With everyone around me saying, you should be so happy now!”

But “Fallingwater”—all acrobatic vocals and sweet release—is her most cathartic song yet. She wrote a demo of the song in 2016, not long after graduating college, when she was still in her apartment in New York. A few months later, she brought it to Batmanglij in the studio. (“I love him so much,” she gushes. “My first band in high school used to cover Vampire Weekend. They were my favorite band forever, so to get to work with Rostam on something is like … it’s funny, because even with harmonies or melodies, I’ll sing something and he’ll be like, ‘I like that,’ and I’ll be like, ‘I learned that from you!’”) Rogers estimates that there were somewhere around 40 different versions of the song, and that she spent nearly a year and a half tweaking it. “[Batmanglij] taught me about having patience with songs,” she says. “I know exactly the moment when the snare comes in [on “Fallingwater”], because we tried like five different things and that was the best one. But for a long time that song was only about two minutes long. We didn’t know how to finish it, and then I had this crazy dream with the humming part. I brought it to Rostam and was like, ‘I got it!’”

“That’s a funny thing about being friends now with people I deeply admire, I kind of need to chill my fangirl,” she says. Sometimes it’s difficult: Although she’s trying to meet up with Sharon Van Etten for lunch on this trip, Rogers is “so fuckin’ heavy into” Van Etten’s new record Remind Me Tomorrow that she’s not even sure she can hold a conversation with her. “I really can’t even hang out with her right now, in the best way,” Rogers says, shaking her head in the kind of awe Pharrell once showed her. “I’ll see her in, like, a month, but I can’t even do it right now. I literally told her, dude, we can’t hang right now. It comes from making really vulnerable music, and then people connect on a really deep level.”

At one point, I bring up her early banjo-driven solo recordings: “Those records were so …” Rogers interrupts me to provide her own adjective: “Solitary!” While some might see her move toward more pop-oriented sounds as a departure from her roots, Rogers says it’s a way of letting go, growing, and getting out of her own head. “If my instrument is voice, fine—but I wanna be in the band,” she says. “It’s so much fun to play music with people, and it’s lonely otherwise.” Aside from Remind Me Tomorrow, another record she can’t stop listening to is the densely-populated rap group Brockhampton’s latest, Iridescence. She admires its communal spirit more than anything—the idea that letting others in doesn’t necessarily mean you have to sound like anyone other than yourself. “That’s one of the most important things, being open,” Rogers says. “It can be pretty easy to exist in a bubble, and I don’t want that! That sounds like it sucks.”

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