About three months ago I heard a song, and I knew it was one of those songs. You know, the ones that seem bigger than a single melody with words and a beat and lyrics? The kind that sound poised to interrupt a whole year’s worth of pop and remake it in three minutes. It reminded me of the way I felt when I first heard Lorde, though it didn’t necessarily sound like Lorde.
It didn’t sound like anyone I could think of, the song seemed to exist in its own vacuum, incorporating beat, rhythm, and harmonies into a completely new glitchy folk synergy. It was like the best simple and sweet parts of folk music mixed with the momentum and rush of dance music.
The song was “Alaska” by a New York-based musician named Maggie Rogers, and it turns out, I wasn’t the only one who was blown away on a first listen of Rogers’ work. Actually, as the internet goes, I was a couple months late. But it wasn’t my fault, up until mid-December “Alaska” was the only song Maggie had released.
Her career infamously launched when Pharrell was offering constructive criticism at a master class for NYU students at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. Hearing Maggie’s initial single made him tear up. He had zero notes for her song, compared it to the Wu Tang Clan and called her “singular.”
In her introduction to Pharrell, Rogers talks about growing up in a very rural part of eastern Maryland, and how traditional folk music and banjo playing had always been the focus of her work. That all changed when she had to take a couple years off school and traveled to Europe, where she had what she describes as a “spiritual experience” with dance music that changed her life, and subsequently, changed her work.
Whatever spiritual impact Rogers absorbed via her experiences with dance music, she was able to carry that flame with her, and use it to light up her own compositions. Take some time to listen to her old 2014 record on Bandcamp, below, and compare it to where she’s at now. Her songs are still intricately constructed and lyrically sound, but they lack the spark her new music possesses.
They sound like songs that are searching for something, not songs that help other people find themselves. The difference is palpable, the difference is intangible. So the transition from good to great music always goes, so the struggle to explain what happened? always lingers. Whatever you want to call it, newly armed with this spiritual understanding — or fundamental appreciation — for the release and euphoria of electronic music, Rogers began to incorporate those sensibilities into her folk melodies, turning out tracks that are simultaneously glitchy and pastoral.
They can soothe you, or bulldoze you right over. They might inspire quiet reflection or wild dancing, depending on your mood. “And I walked off you,” she sings on “Alaska,” with glorious, enviable freedom, “And I walked off an old me.” The music becomes a source of renewal, and the impetus to renew oneself, a stunning accomplishment for an artist of any age, let alone one so young.
After “Alaska” got an official video and release as a single, Rogers followed it up with “Dog Years,” proving that track wasn’t just a fluke, and that she had real depth as an emerging artist. Where “Alaska” cracks like ice, “Dog Years” unfurls like an animal in motion, with bird calls and whirring metallic percussion carrying it toward a loving conclusion. It’s a love song in motion, promises of loyalty over shifting, sultry production that neither slides into doe-eyed earnestness or hysterical declarations.
I’m tempted to invoke Florence + The Machine’s massive whirlwind pop carnival, “Dog Days Are Over,” strictly because of how cathartic and celebratory they both are, but sonically they’re completely different. At least we know dogs can inspire great pop songs of all stripes. Like Florence though, Maggie understands how to use the tools of massive pop production to elevate her intimate songwriting without watering it down.
In the meantime, Maggie keeps building out her sound, her latest single “On + Off” is the clearest to build out on EDM’s pivotal “drop,” letting the bottom fall out right before she launches into the spiraling, fluttering folksy chorus. These three songs will all be included on Rogers’ debut EP,Now That The Light Is Fading, which will be out on 2/16. Just before it comes out, she’ll be performing the song that started it all, “Alaska” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Mark your calendars for that appearance, because though she’s headlining a spring tour, nearly every single date has already sold out.
Here’s the complete tracklist for her debut EP, Now That The Light Is Fading
1. “Color Song”
3. “On + Off”
4. Dog Years”
It’s rare for an artist to have the kind of instant success Rogers has achieved, but then again, it’s stories like hers that remind us just how long things lay dormant sometimes before they’re ready to awaken. I think listener and artist alike can find comfort in that thought, and find even more in her work. Regardless, Rogers is remaking pop music in her own image this year, and you’d be wise to sit up and take notice now.
Now That The Light Is Fading is out 2/17 via Capitol Records. Pre-order it here.