Do your homework, kids. Maggie Rogers is a fine example of the good things that can happen when you turn up to class well prepared. “I moved out of my college apartment on May 31 2016. I went viral on June 1. I signed a record deal on August 31. It was a little wild,” says the 22-year-old from rural Maryland, who is about to play her first ever London gigs the week after releasing her fabulous debut EP.
The reason for such fast motion was a visit from superproducer Pharrell Williams to her class at New York University in March last year. Alongside a degree in English, Rogers was studying for a second major in Recorded Music at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute – named after the music mogul who founded Arista Records. Pharrell was there to hear her class play him some of their original songs and to offer them some advice. In footage that was widely shared on YouTube last summer and has now been seen almost 2.5 million times, he tapped along to Rogers’ song Alaska with increasing enthusiasm and a growing smile and offered her no tips for improvement whatsoever.
“I have zero, zero, zero notes for that,” he said as the song’s mix of gentle tribal rhythms and sparkling electronic R&B drifted to a close. “I’ve never heard anyone like you before and I’ve never heard anything that sounds like that… That’s a drug for me.”
Understandably, that clip was a major factor in her rise, so Rogers could be forgiven for being a little tired of telling the curious that no, she and Pharrell are not penpals now and the 10 minutes in class was literally the only interaction she has ever had with him. That day, she didn’t go out to celebrate. She didn’t know that the video would end up on YouTube. “I just thought, okay, that was a really great positive endorsement and a really cool thing that happened. I didn’t know it was going to be such a big thing.” She wandered over to a friend’s place in Chinatown and wrote another tune, Better, which appears alongside Alaska and three more warm, organic pop songs on her new EP.
“I ended up writing him a thank you note,” she tells me. “I’m sure we will cross paths sometime and I’m really looking forward to that ‘Hello’, because I think it will be a really exciting hug. But it’s funny, because based on the music I was making before, if you’d asked me who was the one gatekeeper or influencer who I’d want to hear my music, I don’t think Pharrell would be the first person I’d pick.”
Why should she have expected such a leap in her fortunes? In common with so many sudden internet music sensations, Rogers has been taking small, incremental steps towards this for years. At six she began learning the harp and went on to play it in a local orchestra. “I can’t believe my parents gave in! It was the most inconvenient instrument.” She had formal training in harp, piano and singing, but as a teenager also taught herself guitar, bass, drums and the banjo. At 17, she took a summer course at Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music, where she won a songwriting competition and performed on a large stage for the first time. When she arrived at NYU to begin learning music engineering and production, she was “the banjo girl”.
“I was moving in these bluegrass and folk circles, and you really didn’t need the internet for that,” she says. Yet as part of the marketing training that was incorporated in her music course, she had to be online. You can still find YouTube videos of old songs, including her Berklee winner, Anybody, and buy an album of hers from 2014 – Blood Ballet, which presents her as a folky singer-songwriter with a stirring, emotional voice – on the Bandcamp website.
It’s her pivot into electronic music that Pharrell agrees has given something unique to her sound. It’s the music of late nights and early mornings, filtered through the perspective of a nature loving banjo player who grew up on a corn and soybean farm and spends her spare time hiking. It was a visit to a nightclub in Berlin, during a period spent studying in Paris, that ignited a belated passion for dance music. “I had never thought to listen to a nine minute house song, but I began to understand the sort of mantra and meditation behind that. I was thinking about how everybody in that club was moving in sync and how completely instinctual the rhythm is, how integral it is to the way humans experience music. I had such a lightbulb go on, I felt so much joy.”
Now she has a foot in both worlds. Her EP begins with the sound of crickets and an interpretation of a campfire song she used to sing at summer camp. In two of her videos to date she’s got the jerky moves of the modern pop dance routine, but presented in the woods or by a lake with women wielding canoe paddles. “The whole goal of the project was to take pop music and make it feel as organic as possible,” she says. “I listened to birds and crickets, looking for the ways that rhythm appears most naturally in the world. I listened to the Smithsonian’s field recordings of pygmy choirs from Africa.”
Right from the beginning she had an unorthodox approach to music due to her synesthesia, a condition which means that she experiences sounds as colours. Pharrell has the same thing, funnily enough, as does Lorde, who described Rogers’ music as a “feather light sucker punch to the heart” on Twitter last weekend.
“It’s not like I see colours. It’s just for me an incredibly strong association between music and colour,” Rogers explains. “When I was little my mum would take me to see the orchestra, tell me to close my eyes and think about the story the music was telling. I always spoke about colours. I’d talk about how purple the oboe was. Now when I do co-production, I’ll tell the person I’m working with something like: ‘This synth needs to be more green,’ and it’s the most obvious thing for me.”
Before beginning the EP, she made mood boards of the colours she wanted each song to sound like. The title, Now That the Light is Fading, is meant to describe the overall feel she was after. “Each song is a different colour but it’s that moment in the day that I was trying to capture. It’s a dark, hazy midnight blue and a dusky pink predominantly, but there are also hues of dark green and orange.”
It’s a big red thumbs up from me. And as a far more notable fan has already established, Maggie Rogers is looking at an extremely bright 2017.
Feb 27-28, Omeara, SE1 (0871 220 0260, omearalondon.com); June 21, Electric Brixton, SW2 (020 7274 2290, electricbrixton.uk.com)
Now That the Light is Fading EP is out now on Polydor.