Music

Pharrell Williams thrust Maggie Rogers and her song ‘Alaska’ into the spotlight. Now, with her debut album, Heard It in a Past Life, she’s taking a more rootsy, spiritual and sedate path to long-lasting success.

By Shaad D’Souza.

Maggie Rogers’ Heard It in a Past Life

Maryland-born singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers.
Credit: OLIVIA BEE

In 21 words, Maggie Rogers became a star.

“I’ve never heard anyone like you before. And I’ve never heard anything that sounds like that. That’s a drug to me.”

The words aren’t hers; they belong to Pharrell Williams, one of the most successful and revered pop songwriters of all time. While delivering a masterclass on pop songwriting to a group of students at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, Williams listened to Rogers’ song “Alaska” intending to critique it afterwards – as he had done with the other students in the masterclass – only there was nothing to critique. To Williams’ ears, Rogers had arrived, fully formed, ready to make pop music that could change the world. Within seconds of hearing “Alaska”, Williams had compared Rogers to the Wu-Tang Clan and Stevie Wonder. A spacey, quiet girl from small-town Maryland had flapped one of the most unflappable figures in modern music.

Rogers’ interaction with Williams was captured on film and soon went viral on the social media platform Reddit. Both “Alaska” and Rogers herself became sensations, in a kind of twisted origin tale that sounds like the preposterous fodder of Hollywood. One week, she was an intern at Elle magazine and university student playing around with drum machines and synthesisers for the first time; the next, she was being courted by major record labels and booking agencies who were primed to make her music’s next star. Rogers, for her part, has now described the fascination and hype around this viral narrative as “so fucking dainty”, believing it denies her any agency in her rise. Shortly after “Alaska”, Rogers released an EP, Now that the Light Is Fading, on Capitol Records, an imprint of Universal – the largest music company in the world. As it turned out, a lot of people found in Rogers exactly the genius Pharrell Williams had heard.

Those people may be a little disappointed by Rogers’ warm and humble debut record, Heard It in a Past Life, which was released late last month – nearly three years on from that first encounter with Williams. Little here attempts to recapture the surreal whimsy of “Alaska”, with its pattering drums and cooed chorus. While the track does appear on Heard It in a Past Life – along with fellow Now that the Light Is Fading highlight “On + Off” – “Alaska” feels rogue amid the album’s 11 other tracks.

In that first video with Pharrell, Rogers gestured towards the fact her first love was banjo music, and she was still in a period of restless experimentation finding her style. Heard It in a Past Life finds Rogers in her own Goldilocks point between heady pop aesthetics and the grounding of the folk modes she grew up working in. It’s on the whole more traditional than Now that the Light Is Fading, but what Rogers drops in terms of experimentation is more than made up for in her newly muscular songwriting ability. The songs on Heard It in a Past Life are forceful and rhythmic; she is done with seeming “so fucking dainty”.

It would be tempting to credit the handful of hitmakers-for-hire Rogers worked with on Heard It in a Past Life as the driving force behind the record, as some critics have. It’s an eclectic mix – Greg Kurstin, who has written hits for Adele and Sia, Harry Styles collaborator Kid Harpoon, Kesha collaborator Ricky Reed and former Vampire Weekend multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij. But these producers, with the exception of Batmanglij, are mostly known for their tendency to push artists to go bigger with their hooks and melodies. A defining characteristic of Heard It in a Past Life is how often, when faced with a choice between going anthemic and going microscopic, it chooses the latter. These are pop songs, for sure, and many of them would feel at home on the radio – on Triple J; they’re likely a little too rootsy for pop stations – but Rogers consciously pushes her songs to be smaller and simpler, even when it seems as if they’re busting out of their seams.

Early single and album opener “Give a Little” is a prime example of this. It feels ready to explode at any moment, with a metallic sample and yacht-rock guitars slowly building towards some kind of implied climax. But instead she cannily subverts any expectations of an arena-ready chorus. Her vocal melody is wonderfully awkward, and it cuts through the potentially saccharine production like a knife through butter. Rogers’ prime skill as a songwriter and producer – she has production or co-production credits on the entire record – is in these quiet choices; they are what elevate her above the many similar Spotify-algorithm-friendly singer-songwriters currently making the rounds, such as King Princess and Anna of the North.

Indeed, asserting a unique and specific identity feels like a focus point for Heard It in a Past Life. “Give a Little”, with its chant of “You don’t know me / And I don’t know you”, is the first of a few songs alluding to the loss of self that came part and parcel with Rogers’ sudden ascension. But these are never typical struggling-with-fame tracks. For “Light On”, Rogers treats these whiplash-inducing life changes with a clear-eyed maturity. “People change overnight, things get strange,” she sings on “Overnight”, trapping all the surreal and weird facets of virality into a scant few words before knocking her concerns aside entirely: “I’m alright.” It’s refreshing to find someone as wet behind the ears as Rogers treating her work with nuance rather than bombast.

Major-label debut records often find themselves weighed down by attempts to appeal to cross-genre listeners – see, for example, the unfortunate digressions into trip-hop on Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die or the pop-punk tracks on Florence + the Machine’s Lungs. Heard It in a Past Life doesn’t sidestep this impulse entirely, but its few attempts to try new sounds are largely successful. The warped, homespun R&B track “Say It”, co-produced by Ricky Reed, revels in its sparkling day-glo production, which itself is countered by Rogers’ bittersweet hook: “I cannot fall in love with you.” One of the record’s final tracks, the Stevie Nicks nod “Retrograde”, takes its conceit and leaves it spinning on its axis. Rogers pulls metallic guitars and tinny kick drums into the zone of strange timelessness within which Heard It in a Past Life seems to exist. The record’s only true failure turns out to be the song that feels most in tune with what the “old” Rogers might have wanted to make – “Past Life”, a plain but hyper-emotive piano track, cheaply attempts to replicate Florence Welch’s knack for soothsayer balladry. Considering Rogers’ best songs are notable for their delicacy, the ham-fistedness of “Past Life” seems out of place.

Because of the quality and brevity of Heard It in a Past Life, though, one bung track is acceptable, perhaps even endearing. That “Past Life” is not even necessarily a bad track – just an unimaginative one on a record full of unique and unexpected choices – speaks to how high Rogers has set the bar for herself. Even the runtime – 45 minutes, just 12 tracks – is practically unheard of in the streaming age, when more songs equates to more streams and, therefore, more royalties. But it’s unlikely Heard It in a Past Life will set the internet on fire in the same way “Alaska” did anyway. It’s far too committed to its own brand of rootsy, pastel spiritualism for that. Instead, the album feels like one that will grow in esteem as her career continues.

When she first blew up three years ago, most assumed Rogers would release a few carbon-copy follow-up singles before floundering, as so many viral sensations before her had done. That’s an assumption that speaks broadly to the music industry’s habit of asking pop stars – especially young female ones – to go very big straight away or go home. We’re lucky Rogers didn’t choose either path.

Arts Diary

CULTURE Sass the Patriarchy

Northcote Social Club, Melbourne, February 6

CULTURE Sydney Lunar Festival

Venues throughout Sydney, until February 10

VISUAL ART Palm Island and Our People

State Library of Queensland, Brisbane, until April 22

VISUAL ART Place and Space

Mundaring Arts Centre, WA, February 8–March 31

CULTURE Australian Wooden Boat Festival

Venues throughout Hobart, February 8-11

VISUAL ART Heaven and Earth in Chinese Art

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until May 5

Last chance

EXHIBITION Supernatural

White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney, until February 3

VISUAL ART Picasso: The Vollard Suite

Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, until February 3

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 2, 2019 as "Canny Rogers". Subscribe here.

Shaad D’Souza
is a Melbourne-based music critic and former Australian editor of Noisey.