Maggie Rogers

Maggie Rogers: How a 20-Page Business Plan Took Her From NYU to 'SNL'

Maggie Rogers slips into a booth inside a no-frills bar on the East Side of Manhattan and kicks her Western boots up on the checkered upholstery. “OK, bring it on,” she says. It’s a Thursday afternoon, and Rogers is on something of a press blitz before heading home to celebrate Christmas in Easton, Md., the rural town where she grew up playing the harp, taught herself guitar and eventually picked up the banjo. At 24, she’s three weeks away from the highly anticipated Jan. 18 release of Heard It in a Past Life, and she’s got sparklers in her stomach. “I’ve thrown the most vulnerable part of me up into the air,” she says. “I’m waiting for someone to catch it.”

Rogers, who has long, ash-blond hair parted down the center and a face full of freckles, garnered widespread acclaim following her Saturday Night Live debut in early November. In what was a grand slam of a performance, she took the stage barefoot to belt out “Falling Water,” the single she has described as both “a cry for help and a battle cry.” The whole five-minute set felt like watching a caterpillar become a butterfly.

She still hasn’t seen it. “I just remember at the end opening my eyes and forgetting there were other people in the room,” says Rogers. But the singer-songwriter is probably best known for a different clip -- the wildly endearing one from 2016, where she shows up to class during her final semester at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music and Pharrell Williams is sitting there unannounced alongside her teacher.

Rogers tells the Grammy-winning artist about “Alaska,” the not-quite-finished homework assignment that unifies her many selves: the nature-loving Marylander; the pink eye shadow-wearing New Yorker who toyed with a literary career when songwriter’s block kicked in; the study-abroad student who discovered dance music as a form of meditation in Berlin’s club scene. There are subtle hints of Joni Mitchell and Lorde in the song, but Williams’ wide-eyed reaction telegraphs what he ultimately declares: “I’ve never heard anyone like you before.”

Rebecca Miller
Maggie Rogers photographed on Dec. 20, 2018, at Stay Gold in New York.

From there, the story arcs as you would imagine. The day after Rogers moved out of NYU housing, the video went viral, and major labels began courting her. “It’s a press dream that fits really nicely into a box with a big bow on it,” she says today. “But the reality is my career started with a song that wasn’t finished and a video I didn’t know was going on the internet. It happened so out of my control. Usually you get to take a second and say, ‘This is who I am.’”

Behind the viral storm, in other words, was a multidimensional person. A terrified one. So to reclaim what the internet had flattened, Rogers turned to the blueprints she had drafted while in school. She founded her own imprint, Debay Sounds, and brought a bound copy of her 20-page final thesis -- a business plan that went so far as to outline potential brand partnerships -- to label meetings. She also wrote her own contract, one in which she licensed her music to Capitol but retained ownership over all of her masters.

“From a strict business perspective, the Pharrell video gave me enough leverage to say, ‘These are the terms, who wants to do the deal?’” she says. “I was a 22-year-old woman who got to walk into a boardroom and be the one in control.”

Rebecca Miller
Maggie Rogers photographed on Dec. 20, 2018, at Stay Gold in New York.

There is no pretense to Rogers today, just as there wasn’t in the Williams video. Mumford & Sons’ Marcus Mumford, whom she opened for this past month on an arena tour, says that with Rogers, “you get proper integrity. She is who she is, all the time.” Yet while the adjective “authentic” baffles her whenever people use it (“I’m like, ‘What the fuck? Of course I’m me’”), what she maybe hasn’t fully synthesized is that the ability to be her bona fide self is a result of this business savvy. Rogers has outright protected the very thing so many pop stars often can’t.

Equally as important was the control she asserted over her path. Four days after signing with Mick Management (Sharon Van Etten, Leon Bridges) in July 2016, Rogers bolted from the country -- first to Malaysia, then to France, where she lived on a farm commune without cell reception for a summer. Time and space allowed her to process who she was in the aftermath of overnight change, and by the time she came back, she was ready to spill all the rumination into her debut.

Heard It in a Past Life, which includes production by Greg Kurstin, Ricky Reed and Rostam Batmanglij, beautifully builds upon the unique indie-folk/dance amalgam she developed at NYU -- it’s just a hell of a lot bolder. Rogers has the neurological condition known as sound-to-color synesthesia; when she hears certain notes, corresponding colors appear. So while her senior-year EP was a palette of “timid light pinks, light purples and light blues,” she says the 12-track full-length is “lapis lazuli and deep vibrant reds, colors that take up space.”

It’s also a diary of how Rogers shed her exoskeleton and discovered what had been waiting there all along. She sings about it in “Light On,” the swelling, synth-heavy empowerment anthem that earned the singer her first No. 1 -- it topped Billboard’s Triple A chart (replacing, in fact, Mumford & Sons). “The craziest thing is I didn’t know I could sing like this -- ever. My voice has changed or I’ve grown into it, woken up,” she says. “I came to a place at the end of the year where I realized I’ve been trying to do [music] for a lot of lifetimes, and this life is the one that lines up. The universe was going to make it happen whether I was ready or not.”

Maggie's Magic Makers

Emily Lazar -- President/Chief Mastering Engineer at The Lodge
Her Role:
 Grammy-nominated Lazar, who has worked with artists including David Bowie, mastered Heard It in a Past Life. 
On Collaborating:
“Maggie and I bonded immediately. We spoke at length on the specific sound she was looking to achieve on her tracks and also about the difficulties artists sometimes face during the recording and production processes.”

Marlene Tsuchii? -- Co-Head of International Touring, CAA
Her Role:
As a global agent, Tsuchii has helped plan Rogers’ 33-city world tour that kicks off in Dublin on Feb. 15.
Top Moment: “We literally screamed on the phone together when we heard the news about her SNL appearance. That pure euphoria and joy epitomizes Maggie’s spirit.”

Olivia Bee -- Photographer-Director
Her Role:
A close artistic collaborator, Bee photographed the album art and directed the music video for “Light On.”
Creative Spirit: “When we shot ‘Light On,’ we’d gotten a flat tire and, knowing we wouldn’t get to our location, pulled over on the side of the highway. We had been shooting a lot of lip-sync, but this time I asked Maggie to just let the music move her. What followed was the most beautiful interpretation of music in someone’s body I have ever seen. It felt transcendent.”

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 12 issue of Billboard. 

Maggie Rogers Explains How She Created 'Light On' | How It Went Down | Billboard