On ‘Heard It In A Past Life,’ Maggie Rogers Spins Pop Songs Into Revelations

01.17.19 1 month ago

Capitol Records

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Maggie Rogers was introduced to us as a fully-formed phenomenon, a brand-new It Girl all the more compelling for her apparent disinterest in her It-ness. In the viral video that first made her famous, she’s a senior at NYU, wearing jeans and a black blouse and a chunk of bone on a string as a necklace. Her long, ginger-blonde hair is loose and wavy, and her face looks bare of makeup.

She’s explaining to Pharell, who has dropped by her songwriting master class at the Clive Davis Institute, how she used to make classic folk songs, but then she spent a semester abroad in Paris and fell in love with dance music; now she’s experimenting with trying to combine the two sounds.

Then she plays him her song “Alaska,” and pretty much all he can say in response is: “Wow.”

“Alaska” is included on Rogers’ major-label debut, Heard It In A Past Life, of course, and it still shimmers and crackles like it did the first time we heard it; the line cut my hair so I could rock back and forth / without thinking of you will still make your breath catch in your throat every time.

It is immediately followed, however, by a song that undoes some of “Alaska” and that video’s myth-making spell: “Light On” allows Rogers to introduce herself not as that prodigy, a nymph, a myth or a sensation, but on her own terms, as someone flawed, and hurt, and hurting.

“Light On” is about work, and pain, and what it feels like to be someone everyone has an opinion about. Rogers is raw about the isolation that precocious notoriety can create, singing “Oh, I tried to stop it, tried to slow it all down / crying in the bathroom when the noise got too loud / with everyone around me saying ‘you must be so happy now.’”

At a recent album listening party hosted by Spotify, where Rogers debuted Heard It In A Past Life to a small group of fans, everyone was listening respectfully, intently, but when that line come on, we all sang along. Probably no one else there had been scrutinized as intently and ruthlessly as Rogers, but the line was the thread that tied the room together: Everyone knew intimately what it meant to be looked at, but not at all seen.

The songs on Heard It In A Past Life are all beautiful, lush with layers of Rogers’ clear, elastic voice, but they’re also driven by beats that speak to her Paris revelation that, as she told Pharrell, the way a drum makes a body want to move is “the most natural thing.”

“I understood the release of it,” she says, of nights spent dancing in clubs and feeling, viscerally, how important rhythm was to a song. “Since there was a fire, people have been beating sticks together.”

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Rogers’ music is very much meant to move bodies, to move in and through and with them. From the first echoing pulses of “Give A Little,” you feel these songs in your blood. They’re precisely about release: Lyrically, they’re trying to figure out what it means to let go of something, and whether and how that’s different than giving up. (On “Fallingwater”: “I never loved you fully in the way I could / I fought the current running just the way you would / And now I’m in the creek / And it’s getting harder / I’m like falling water.”) Musically, they’re space where you can stop thinking, and give your body over to the sound.

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