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

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.

“I feel more awkward not-dancing than trying to keep myself from moving when I hear music I like,” Rogers explained to the audience at the Spotify show. (Later, she remarked good-naturedly that “There’s nothing more awkward than listening to your own music in front of other people, but that seems to be a hallmark of my career so far.”)

Watching her perform, in music videos and on stage and even in those unguarded, intimate moments, it becomes clear that her music has a home in her body. She understands the sounds she’s making with her hips and shoulders and hands as much as she does with her mouth. Which makes particular sense when you remember that Rogers has color-sound synesthesia: These songs come to her visible and physical, not just heard but seen, too. Writing music is, for her, also a form of painting; no wonder her visual palette and her physical vocabulary are as specific, idiosyncratic, and immediately recognizable as her signature sound.

Which is not to say that the album is monotone. Rogers dips into various genres in the course of Heard It In A Past Life: “Say It” has the slinky groove of ‘90s R&B, and the insistence of the drums on “Burning” begs for a Haim cover. The piano ballad “Past Life” gives shades of Lorde’s “Liability.” In fact, one of the most interesting things Rogers does on “Past Life” is to evoke disparate women in pop — you can catch glimpses of Taylor Swift’s lyrical gift for turns of phrase, and Carly Rae Jepsen’s buoyant joy, and Lucius’ ferociously intricate musicality — without ever actually sounding like any of them. She remains sui generis, wrapped up in her own project and on her own path.

Heard It In A Past Life is a heady project, obsessed, as the title suggests, by questions of the spirit. It’s full of regrets and returns, relationships ended but not abandoned, which is fitting for an album written by a person in her early 20s trying to navigate the movement from one life — as a child and student — to her next one, as an independent artist and woman.

But it ends on a different note, with the driving, anthemic “Back In My Body,” which situates Rogers in the physical, and in the present. The song opens with another evocation of surrender, and the grace it can allow: “I was stopped in London when I felt it coming down / crashing all around me with a great triumphant sound / like the dam was breaking and my mind came rushing in,” she sings. “I was stopped in London / and I was awakening.”

This is the thing that Maggie Rogers does better than anyone else. Her music is a container for one of the most ephemeral experiences in the world: The point of revelation, the split-second when change is actually happening, and you can feel it on your skin and in your marrow. It’s the smallest breeze blowing and the sun on your face as something slips away from you, and you feel, suddenly, the freedom of the space that it will leave in its wake. It’s music that makes you feel equally human and animal: It reminds you of your own stories and it brings you back to the pulse of your heartbeat, and the way none of your own past lives matter when a beat kicks in, and you begin to move.

Heard It In A Past Life is out 1/18 via Capitol Records. Get it here.