Many lives have a dividing line. For Maggie Rogers, that line is a five-minute video from 2016. Nobody knew who she was before the video went public; after it went viral, everyone knew her name. But spend a little time with her and you realise something – Maggie Rogers has not changed much at all.
It all started with a harp. Looking back, she thinks she was inspired by watching The Little Mermaid. So when she was seven, she asked her parents if she could learn to play. Her mother would drive her to lessons an hour each way from their home in rural Maryland. She later picked up guitar and piano, but after being passed over for slots in school bands when so many boys were playing guitar, she switched to banjo and became engrossed in the rustic indie folk-pop of Grizzly Bear, Sufjan Stevens, Beirut and Bon Iver. Following graduation she left home to study at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University.
Singer Maggie Rogers.Credit:Olivia Bee
"So when I was 18 I moved from a small town in Maryland to New York City," says Rogers, who is now 23. "I'd spent my whole life fighting with every ounce of energy to get to live music. Suddenly I was in New York and seeing four, five, six, seven shows a week.
"I was exposed to a whole new way of living. I think the first year of college is really intense for a lot of people. It's a really big transition. I was going through some personal things and I needed a rest after that year. The flight-or-fight instinct is something I come back to. I always choose to run."
From left, Fletcher, Michelle Jubelirer and Maggie Rogers attend the Billboard Women in Music event in New York in December.Credit:Evan Agostini
In fact, she chose to hike. In Alaska. For a month. While she walked she processed everything that had happened in her life over the previous year. Without realising it, she was sowing the seeds for the big moment that would flower and completely change her life trajectory 2½ years later.
But before then, she had other fish to fry. She had literary ambitions. She had interned at Vogue and Elle and scored a job transcribing interviews for music writer Lizzy Goodman, who was working on Meet Me in the Bathroom, her mammoth oral history of New York rock from 2001 to 2011.
"I was 18, 19, 20, living in the East Village and studying music at school and I got to work on the book for three years," she says. "I got to listen to hours of uncensored interviews with my favourite musicians in the whole world talking about making some of my favourite music in the whole world, and they did it all in the same neighbourhood where I was living.
"I think it's really affected my career as a musician, because I got to hear about all these artists and how they did what they did. It also made me change how I looked at the world around me. For example, I'd take a different route to school because I wanted to walk past that one bar where Julian (Casablancas, of The Strokes) punched Ryan Adams."
Rogers decided to submit proposals to 33 1/3, the series of books about famous albums. She wrote sample chapters for both Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill and Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Long Ago. Her writing mentor at NYU, who was helping her edit the chapters, was Robert Christgau, the long-time writer and editor at The Village Voice and the so-called "dean of American rock critics".
But just as she was finessing her work in early 2016, she was told that she had to submit a song for her final semester at college. A special guest would be coming in to critique students and offer advice. This was not unusual. Many artists, A&R people and record label heads had visited in the past. Rogers dashed off a song in 15 minutes and called it Alaska. It was inspired by her month-long hike 2½ years previously and was an atmospheric dance track that featured the line "I walked off you and I walked off an old me", played out over finger clicks, a rolling beat and breathy keyboards.
The students assembled in class and the guest walked in. They were stunned to discover it was Pharrell Williams. When it was Rogers' turn, she sat down next to him and remembers thinking: "He has perfect skin."
What happened next has been viewed millions of times online. As Alaska plays, Pharrell is visibly stunned by what he's hearing.
You are your sound. If it comes from you, it is you. It's that simple.
"Wow! Wow! I have zero, zero, zero notes for that," he tells her when the song ends. "I'll tell you why. It's because you're doing your own thing. It's singular."
If she had known Williams was going to be there that day, would Rogers have second-guessed herself and done something differently?
"I didn't have anything else," she says. "That's the craziest part of this story. I'd been struggling with writer's block and I hadn't written a song in 2½ years. Alaska was all I had, it was a week old and it wasn't even finished."
Within a week she signed a record deal with Capitol and started writing the songs for her album Heard It in a Past Life. The songs didn't all take 15 minutes. Some took 10.
"That's just how I write. I don't write very often, but when I do, I always know what I have to say and out it comes. I've always seen music as a way to find out who I am and where I am.
"Now musicians who are just starting out ask me, 'How will I know what my sound is?'. I say, 'You are your sound. If it comes from you, it is you. It's that simple.'"
So a couple of years on from being that wide-eyed girl sitting next to Pharrell Williams, people are now coming to you and asking for advice?
"It's crazy, isn't it?" she says, laughing. "Because I mostly have no idea what I'm doing. That's what I tell people. 'The secret is that I'm winging it.'"
Heard It in a Past Life is out January 18. Maggie Rogers tours Australia in May.
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