'I'm just happy to get to feel': Maggie Rogers looks back on 3 years of a non-stop life
The singer talks about her ever-changing relationship with her debut music — and her favourite Canadian band
"It's crazy, I'm the first artist to do more than one night here, and only one of four to ever sell out a night here. It's really special to have that space and time here."
Maggie Rogers is in awe of the evening ahead of her, talking over the phone right before her second consecutive show at Thompson's Point in Portland, Maine this past July. A stunning, riverside venue with a scalable capacity of up to 7,500, Thompson's Point is a homecoming of sorts for Rogers. While she's from Easton, Maryland, she spent many formative summers at a camp in Maine, which is heavily featured in her 2016 video for "Dog Years." Strewn across the Eastern Seaboard, Rogers' parents and friends are all showing up for these shows.
This latest record-breaking moment feels par for the Maggie Rogers course. In 2019 alone, she's played to giant crowds at Coachella and Glastonbury, graced the stage of the Sydney Opera House, played nearly every late-night and daytime show you can name and, just two days after this Portland show, shared a stage with Dolly Parton, Brandi Carlile, Linda Perry, Sheryl Crow and others at the first all-female headlining event in the Newport Folk Festival's history.
It's a big year, considering her debut album, Heard it in a Past Life, only came out in January. And while she is grateful for this life, being on the go every day isn't easy.
"Touring is a really, really hard thing to do, but I also feel really grateful I get to do [it]," says Rogers. "But it is really mentally and physically taxing in a way that I've never quite understood."
While she's been touring the songs as a set since they were a finished package in April 2018, Rogers has been moving at breakneck speed for nearly three years.
In 2016, just months away from graduating from New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, Rogers played her now hit song "Alaska" for class guest Pharrell Williams. A blend of influences stemming from Rogers' earlier folk songs, sounds collected in nature and the Berlin nightclub music that she'd recently fallen in love with, "Alaska" hit Pharrell hard. The now viral video of his reaction — sitting at 3.2 million views and counting — led to multiple label bids.
Rogers founded her own label imprint, Debay Sounds, and brought her 20-page thesis/business proposal with her to label meetings. She eventually signed to Capitol Records, negotiating to keep the rights to all her masters. "I was a 22-year-old woman who got to walk into a boardroom and be the one in control," she told Billboard earlier this year. The narrative of that viral video may have been out of her hands, but Rogers wasn't letting go of her future.
She released an EP in 2017 that featured subsequent hits "On + Off" and "Dog Years," and with January 2019 came Heard it in a Past Life. It premiered at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, and featured producing collaborations and co-writes with the likes of Rostam Batmanglij (formerly of Vampire Weekend), Greg Kurstin and Kid Harpoon — the whole project executive produced by Rogers.
With a tour schedule that ends at Miami Beach Pop Festival in November, Rogers has been on the road for so long that "home" is now a return to her parents' place now and then. Having spent so much time with a set of 12 songs that have stretched and grown with the now 25-year-old, we wanted to ask Rogers what her body of work means to her right now, and how this much touring has affected her.
She spoke to CBC Music briefly just before that second, and sold-out, Portland show — and she elaborated on her all-time favourite band, who happens to be Canadian.
Editor's note: this Q&A has been adjusted for length and clarity.
What's it like to perform the songs on Heard it in a Past Life now, six months after you've released the album?
I've actually been playing this record live for over a year, which is kind of crazy. I started touring last April. But it's been cool, I mean I think I just realised that I've had so much fun with it. Because touring the record is so different than recording a record. I listened back to some of the album versions the other day, and was so shocked at what they actually sound like versus what I've gotten so used to playing live every night. And I think that's really the beauty of it.
If you create, it's like creating a creature in a lab, you know, like I produced [these] songs on a computer and then to have them out in the world, grow and morph and make changes and stretch sections based off the reaction of a crowd or how we're feeling a certain night or just a group of musicians playing with each other. It's been so cool to be able to feel these songs really living and breathing out in the world.
I've been talking to musicians about how they stay mentally healthy on the road, and what they need while touring and creating. What works for you?
I think trying to find a holistic existence, which is probably a larger conversation about culture within this industry, or like, creating a schedule, but there's a lot of practices that I'm really serious about, like running, and eating well, and a really measured relationship to drugs and alcohol. And my band meditates together every night before we go onstage, but you know, I think it's just trying to create some semblance of a home, in your suitcase, which is a really weird thing to do.
I don't know, touring is a really, really hard thing to do, but I also feel really grateful I get to do [it]. But it is really mentally and physically taxing in a way that I've never quite understood. And it changes my body and my brain in really specific ways, like my memory has gotten really bad. You are very stimulated. I find myself in a kind of constant state of overstimulation. And it's hard because when I'm in that state, I can't — I think that's the biggest thing. When I'm in that state I can't write music. And that's my favourite thing to do in the whole world. So it's a weird give and take.
I was going to ask if you've been writing recently.
I have been touring. I mean, when I'm touring I'm always, like, I write in my journal, that's been a really important process for me. I probably write four to 10 pages a day. And that helps with memory. And I'm constantly recording little melodies and just trying to catch everything. So I can put it together later, but I don't really know when that later will be either, you know?
Yeah. And when you're talking about memory, do you mean things like trying to recall your performance or kind of everyday stuff?
No I just don't remember the last three years at all.
That sounds a bit terrifying.
[Laughs] It's intense. Yeah.
Do you go back and read your journal entries to jog your memory?
Whenever I'm home sometimes, but I'm not really home that often [laughs].
So in the future, when you get back to writing, what kind of space do you need to do that?
Quiet time and space to reflect. You know, I think so much of writing is about cataloguing periods of time, but also about having perspective and to have perspective, you have to stop and be able to recall and look back and [it's] important. [To] process.
You mentioned earlier how you create a home from your suitcase while you're travelling. What does that look like?
If you think about packing, I'm not packing for a trip, I'm packing for my life. So in that suitcase is my costume that I iron, wash and books and palo santo and some fabric so I can make the hotel room sort of feel like my house in some way or — I don't have a home either, which is also part of it. So the suitcases literally are my home.
Earlier this year I interviewed mastering engineer Emily Lazar [who mastered Heard it in a Past Life]. She said that you two bonded over feeling pushed around, and not feeling heard, but hearing each other. What it was like to work with her on the album?
Yeah, I f--king adore Emily … she just was really responsive. She was really happy to make all my notes and changes, and really validated what I was hearing. And I think that that is a great thing about any collaborator is just trying to meet each other in the middle to some degree. She really, I felt like she was really trying to serve the work, you know? I think that's what any great artist does.
The thing with all of this is like, people ask me questions about really trivial stuff about my day, or about my reception of music ... but all that really matters is the work. It's really beautiful that all these people have shown up to my concerts but it's separate from the work in a way, you know, because once the work leaves me it belongs to other people, but it's the reason I feel like I exist. It's the reason to live in my world is just to make art. And so everything I'm doing is in service of that art.
And right now, we've been touring, it's a really complicated thing for me, my relationship to touring. Because I just love making music so much. And touring, even though it's fun, sometimes it takes away from my capacity to make music. And everything's just about the work. And I guess sometimes the work looks different on the road, but it's all just about trying to make great art. And so Emily was part of that for me, and trying to get these things mastered, but that's what all of this is about anyway.
You talked about how the songs have changed in terms of how you're performing them. How has your relationship to them changed?
I mean, it's crazy, because some of these songs I've been playing for, like, three years, [ones that] were on the EP and stuff, but I found a voice note the other day from "On + Off" and when I wrote it, it was like November of 2015. We're coming up on four years of that song. And it's crazy, like my relationship changes. And it's been really beautiful. I had sort of a big shift and change personally, in my life recently, and it's been really beautiful feeling all these songs that used to be about one thing, now be about something else. It's having duality within the songs, knowing the intention with which I wrote them and the time of my life that they catalogue, and also having this other part of it, where it's what they are meaning in my life now, expressing myself on a daily basis, you know?
I always imagine that can be tough if you don't want to remember something on that particular day, while you're touring so heavily.
I mean, I think it is a very strange thing to be a musician, because you commit to sharing your most vulnerable moments of your life over and over and over again every night and making it your job [laughs]. But no, I don't think that there's any moment I don't want to remember or try and put something off. Because the reality is, the only thing I want to do while I'm on this Earth is just feel and make things. And so part of that is feeling full spectrum and feeling it. Everyone wants to feel happy all the time but that's not realistic, you know, and the full spectrum of feelings is beautiful. I'm just happy to get to feel.
You've said Broken Social Scene is your all-time favourite band. Do you remember the first time you heard them? What drew you to them?
I think I first heard them in college. I was a big Feist fan. I remember sort of getting turned onto Broken Social Scene via Feist. And Kevin Drew. I saw Kevin Drew open for Feist once. But Broken Social Scene, God, there's just something so inspiring. And music is so emotional and so meditative. I think it doesn't follow any common structure, but like the build reminds me of dance music and the way that they serve up these mantras that they just play over and over again. It's so experiential, you know? I'm really drawn to those kinds of artists and bands that have sort of a vibe. I would say Beach House is one of them, too. When you look at the lyrics and songwriting, it's just absolutely gorgeous, but it's music that when you put it on in the room, it immediately creates a world. And I think that that is some of the most difficult music to create, but also the music that can have one of the greatest and most positive effects on the world, like it's just translating directly, in so many spaces.