Maggie Rogers: A line in the sand
In the video for Maggie Rogers’ "Alaska," what starts out so simple — the singer walking through a forest at dusk — quickly escalates, as if by magic: A beat drops, dancers and revelers arrive, and suddenly the forest feels more like a nightclub. It’s an enchanted transformation, the kind Rogers has become increasingly familiar with since a clip of Pharrell’s stunned reaction to her music exploded nearly two years ago.
"That was honestly the craziest thing that has ever happened in my entire life," the 24-year old singer explains of her viral moment in her new feature Artist on the Rise: Maggie Rogers. "That was the wildest, line in the sand, before or after moment in my entire life."
Since that moment, Rogers has been profiled by Vogue, performed on Saturday Night Live, and earned praise from critics for her songwriting chops and captivating music videos. In the last 12 months, her videos have received over 20 million views, while her subscriber count has ballooned past 150,000. And all of this before the singer dropped her debut LP, which debuted at #2 on the Billboard 200.
Released in January, Heard It in a Past Life, is a love letter to her past and future selves, as well as to the fans who propelled her music and videos to new heights. "The record is about the two years of my life when ‘Alaska’ changed everything for me," she explains. "Suddenly my life was very public and people knew my face or my name and it was really, really overwhelming for me for a long time."
This reaction to the stress of newfound fame is not surprising coming from Rogers. A natural talent, the future star grew up playing the banjo, harp and guitar along at her home -- a farm in rural Maryland. As her formal musical education blossomed, so did her curiosity in different sounds and techniques. "When I was in high school and was first learning how to produce music and work with music software, whenever I got stuck, I would just YouTube something," she recalls. "You can really learn almost anything on the platform. There are so many — not only answers, but people who will actually teach you. And that is incredibly powerful."
These early explorations led to a high-school-aged Rogers spending a summer at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Foreshadowing her future YouTube success, Rogers uploaded a clip of a 2011 performance from that summer’s Songwriters Showcase on her channel. "This is the moment I decided I wanted to be a musician," she explains in her Artist on the Rise episode as the clip plays. "It was this overwhelming sense of, ‘This is exactly what I need to do with my life, and exactly why I am here."
That resolve followed Rogers to NYU, where she enrolled in the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. It was there that she had her transformative run in with Pharrell Williams, the then artist in residence at the university's Tisch School of the Arts.
But her experience navigating from relative unknown to viral sensation was not without its challenges. "I had a tough time with it at first because suddenly I felt like a lot of it was out of my control," she explains in the 2018 documentary "Back In My Body." "There were suddenly expectations of who I would be. And you never want to disappoint people, but you just can't ever be someone other than who you are."
Rogers’ debut finds her processing these feelings in her songs, and establishing her voice in the process. Tracks like "Light On" are a poignant reaction to the trappings of instant celebrity: "Oh, I couldn’t stop it/ tried to figure it out/ But everything kept moving/ And the noise got too loud," she confesses. The song is a startling reminder that, for fledgling artists, sudden success is often complicated by other emotions. As Rogers explains, "in doing this record, I finally get to tell the whole story—and the whole story never looks exactly how you might think it might."
For Rogers, the telling of that story isn’t limited to just the songs — she’s also hands-on in conceptualizing her music videos. "I'm a really visual artist and the only place for my visuals to live is on YouTube,"she explains. "It's still this really essential component of how I express myself and connect with fans, and how I get to discover and share work." Recent entries in Rogers’ already-swelling catalogue of clips include the dreamy travelogue "Light On," in which she sleeps in the back of her car and cuts loose on an abandoned stretch of interstate, as well as the sunny SoCal vibes of "Give a Little" and the ethereal desert setting of "Fallingwater." As with the clip for "Alaska," these videos exemplify Rogers’ preference for natural, outdoor settings and delicate textures.
With tour dates lined up through the summer and a new album to promote, YouTube’s latest Artist on the Rise is gearing up for her biggest year yet. What started out so simple has become something very special. But today, having acclimated to her newfound success, Rogers is taking it all in stride.
"There is a certain level of democracy in the way my career started," she says, "that things get popular on YouTube because people are watching and sharing them, and not because a label bought or paid for them. It could just be a video of someone in their bedroom or in my case, a video of me going to school. It means that real creative thought comes out on top. And that is incredibly empowering."