Maggie Rogers has the kind of “origin story” would-be musicians dream about, one where everything just comes together, bit by bit, at exactly the right time.
The 24-year-old singer grew up in rural Easton, Maryland, but attended St. Andrews, a prestigious boarding school in Delaware. There, she learned to play the banjo and furthered her intrest in the harp as well. By her junior year, she had snagged a songwriting award from Berklee College of Music. And by the time she graduated from high school, Rogers had produced a 10-track album, The Echo.
That project landed her a spot at the prestigious Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University. After her first year, she spent a month backpacking in Alaska and, later, studying in France. But when she returned to NYU she hit a writing wall.
So what do you do when you have writer’s block in one medium? Try your hand at another, of course. Which is exactly what Rogers did, interning for Elle and taking other writing gigs. Add in a little more travel, and Rogers’ musical writer’s block slowly dissolved.
Then things changed. Fast.
During a masterclass at NYU featuring Pharrell Williams, Rogers’ artistic ability attracted the singer and producer’s attention. Quite the honor. And one that soon became a catalyst for her “overnight” success. A video of Rogers and Williams went viral, and Rogers’ life flipped upside down in a single day back in 2016.
Now, three years later, Maggie Rogers has released her 12-track debut: Heard It in a Past Life. Filled with pop-synth, folk and alternative sounds, the album reminded me of a combination of Florence + The Machine, Lorde and, perhaps, a touch of Ingrid Michaelson.
Heard It in a Past Life is filled with honest, thought-provoking lyrics that follow the singer’s personal journey and tell a story of someone who is simultaneously looking at her past while expectantly longing for all that is yet to come.
“Fallingwater” recognizes how hard it is to move forward after a relationship ends: “Hold on, I thought that I was doing so well/Oh, like everything was under a spell/Now it’s getting harder.” In “Retrograde,” Rogers honestly confesses where she’s at after another failed relationship: “And I am just the shape I’m in/Ooh, here I am, settled in, crying out.”
“Burning” tells of a loving man who helped Maggie relearn vulnerability (“Let me help you wake you up/Let me help you break you up/Let me help you open up”). “On + Off” is about finding someone who helps you move toward emotional stability (“And then I see you/When I feel like I’m drowning/And then I see you/It’s OK … I’m OK”).
Rogers sings about her struggles and lessons after her video with Pharrell Williams went viral in songs such as “Past Life,” “Say It” and “The Knife.” In the latter, she shares how her sudden journey into fame opened her eyes in some ways: “Oh, the knife of insight brought me to my knees/Broke me down and taught me how to see.”
Walk off the old you, embrace the new you, and learn about who you are—these are the themes in the songs “Alaska” and “Back in My Body.” In the first, Maggie says “I was walking through icy streams/That took my breath away/… And I walked you off/And I walked off an old me.” In the second, she says of her time abroad, “I found myself when I was going everywhere.”
Similarly, “Give a Little” offers a collective call to put aside our old selves and move forward together with a clean slate, learning to love: “If you would open up your heart/Drop your weapons, drop your guard/Just a little trust is all it takes/ … Maybe we could learn to love each other.”
“Burning” and “On + Off” hint slightly at sensuality. In the former, Maggie calls a special man her “lover,” and in the latter she sings of someone, “You turn me on.”
“Overnight” mentions getting “wasted,” being “high” and sipping whiskey. And in “Back in My Body,” Maggie says that she “puffed along a cigarette” that made her sick.
We hear the f-word once.
In an a feature article about Maggie Rogers in her former magazine, Elle, Maggie said that expressing her vulnerability through music is “the best way I can do the most amount of good in the world.”
Vulnerablility is just the right word here. If we set aside Rogers’ sultry sounds, her incredible range and her engaging ability to mix various styles, we’re left with lyrics that are raw, emotional and clear. We’re left with what’s honest.
At times, that honesty and authenticity gets expressed in some problematic ways, such as the album’s lone f-word and brief nods to using alcohol and marijuana. A couple of minor moments hint at sensuality as well.
That said, Maggie Rogers’ debut doesn’t assault listeners with explicit content. Overall, it’s an artistic creation that chronicles the significant moments and relationships that have shaped this emerging young singer’s life.
Kristin Smith joined the Plugged In team in 2017. Formerly a Spanish and English teacher, Kristin loves reading literature and eating authentic Mexican tacos. She and her husband, Eddy, loving raising their little guy, Judah. Kristin also has a deep affection for coffee, music, her dog (Cali) and cat (Aslan).