“Just yesterday somebody told me that I was intimidating,” Maggie Rogers tells me, ambivalent chuckles bookending her statement. Rogers and I are on a transcontinental phone call discussing her new record Heard It in a Past Life, which dropped in January this year, as well as the ever-swelling attention and tumult (and criticism) accompanying it. A genuine fan of the singer-songwriters’ whimsical, open-hearted pop tunes since long before this interview was scheduled, I find myself curled up on a couch in my office, shoes off, chatting with Rogers like a long-lost friend. “I guess if being intimidating means that I’m a powerful woman in charge of my craft then I’ll take it,” she continues. “But there’s another part of me that’s like, oh man, I want to be welcoming and warm and kind.” Rogers sighs into the speaker. “I think there’s a way to be both. I just don’t know what the right word for it is.”
As a woman who has also been on the receiving end of “intimidating” (a backhanded compliment that Rogers and I agree has undeniably gendered undertones), I would never betray the tribe by labeling her with a word whose synonyms, according to a quick dictionary search, include “frightening” and “threatening.” “Inspiring” might be the word Rogers is grasping for, though it doesn’t pack the same commanding nuance of “intimidating,” which she certainly deserves. In 2016, the 24-year-old recording artist (then a senior in college) catapulted to instant stardom after a video of Pharrell Williams listening to her song “Alaska” went viral. In the clip, which the internet hastily christened “the Pharrell video,” Williams tears up upon hearing the track (which Rogers reportedly wrote in 15 minutes) in a masterclass at NYU. Rogers hasn’t tired of talking about that video, though she has grown weary of the language the press generally uses to describe it. “I’m trying to reframe the Pharrell video in my mind as ‘the NYU video,’” she says, “because I’ve realized that calling it ‘the Pharrell video’ takes my agency out of it.”
From what I can see, Rogers’ “intimidating” qualities are simply positive attributes not typically encouraged or highlighted in women. She is well-educated and accomplished at a young age: In high school, she took home a prestigious songwriting award from Berklee College of Music; she then went on to obtain degrees in English literature and sound engineering from NYU. Rogers also has a self-possession that seems to threaten men in particular: “Some dudes,” Rogers laughs. “I don’t know what to do with them.” Among these dudes is a reporter at The Independent who opened a recent profile of Rogers with this: “Rogers is climbing all over my questions. The 24-year-old singer-songwriter once toyed with being a journalist, and has strong opinions about how I’m conducting our interview. … When I ask her if she is bored of talking about [Pharrell], she says framing it that way is ‘negative’ and ‘annoying.’ ‘A better way to ask that,’ she suggests, ‘is ‘how did it feel?’”
As a journalist, I feel relieved to have been spared this level of ruthless examination. But as a spectator, I find Rogers's perspicacity delicious.
It's not that Rogers enjoys giving people a hard time. Instead, it's that down to the interview questions she’s asked and even the shoes she wears (typically a pair of steel-toe work boots, she tells me), Rogers doesn’t take her work lightly. A true neurotic creative type (I say that lovingly), it is critical that everything she touches represents her art truthfully. (This is clear even on our photo shoot; Rogers reacts viscerally to clothing that doesn’t make her feel like herself.) Authenticity and emotional nakedness are intrinsic to Rogers’ work and very character—the interesting contradiction is that these qualities strike me as the polar opposite of intimidation. “Dude! I’m elated to hear,” Rogers smiles through the phone as I tell her I’ve been binging the second song on her album, “Overnight,” nonstop. “It’s so cool to hear your experience of the record,” she says. “Now that it’s out, I’m constantly thinking about the amount of incredible opportunity and connection to this wide world that I’m making and growing.”
Rogers offers a solution to the mystery of how someone can at once seem both threatening and relatable: It’s because to see someone living with such a lack of self-apology incites feelings of insecurity in onlookers that don’t do the same. “There’s a part of being intimidating that I think is really a compliment,” she says, “because it means that you’re sort of, unrelentingly yourself.”
That’s not to say that Rogers doesn’t have fears. After all, to her, fame and the whirlwind that comes with it are still brand new. Below, read Rogers speak in her own words about self-care in the wake of stardom, her creative process, and her quirky style evolution.
ON ESTABLISHING A SELF-CARE ROUTINE (AND BOUNDARIES):
“Self-care has become really important to me on the road. It just seems like establishing self-care routines is a part of being this age. I’m having a very unique experience [with my career]. But at the same time, whenever I talk to my peers—friends from college or high school—I realize what I’m going through is actually really normal 25-year-old stuff. It just looks different. I’m in this touring grind, but all my friends are in med school and law school. They’re building their lives, too. I think everybody my age is just in this space of working, figuring things out through the work and dedicating themselves to something in order to grow.
“Part of self-care for me is that I’ve started becoming more purposeful about professional handshakes. It’s something I realized specifically on my tour with Mumford & Sons—because nobody hugs Marcus Mumford, but everybody hugs me. And by everybody, I mean people I interact with professionally—photographers, journalists, people at radio stations. People want to hug me. And I know it’s because I’m little and I write about my feelings and I’m a woman. But a big thing for me has been finding boundaries. What are the things I save for my friends and family? Because I’m already sharing so much.
“Somebody asked me the other day, ‘If people know your music, do they know you?’ And my first response was ‘Definitely not.’ But then I thought about it, and I was like, Actually, I’m really transparent and vulnerable in my music, which feels like a privilege given to me by this audience that makes me feel really held. I’m also pretty transparent in interviews. So I guess if you know my music, you’re not far off the mark from knowing me.”
“I’m just trying to figure out ways to separate my personal and professional life. I have to ask myself what right have I given people to my intimacy because they’ve listened to my music? The reality is that my personal and professional lives fall in this sort of messy blurred Venn diagram. Because my professional life is my personal life; the two are very on top of each other.
Plus there’s a third element, which is the romanticism of what I do. There are elements of [making music] that feel like work, but the reality is that I get to do this thing that I love more than anything and call it my job. So I’m trying to figure out: Where are my boundaries? Where is my comfort level? That’s been the biggest thing that I’ve been focusing on over the last year or so. Because I want to stay fun, stay loose, stay young. It’s tricky to navigate. But as [my career] continues to grow, the one thought that I keep coming back to is that there’s so much out of my control.
“It can be scary, but it’s also really exciting because it forces me to be in this place (which I’m really grateful to be in) where I have to stay really open. I have to just trust that if I keep focusing on the music and coming back to the question of How do I make this feel like me? then no matter how this grows—or doesn’t grow—it will remain feeling comfortable, authentic, and something I can handle.”
ON HER SONGWRITING PROCESS:
“Trying to figure out my relationship to performing is an ever-evolving thing. Writing and performing are definitely two very different energetic expressions, and they take very different lifestyles. I’m definitely way more creatively fulfilled when I’m writing—it’s where my heart is. But it gets really difficult on the road because something that’s really important to me when I’m writing is having a consistent space. I live on a bus with 12 people right now.
“So I don’t write a ton on the road because there’s not a lot of private space. And the thing about my work is that it’s super vulnerable. I’ve been thinking a lot about social media and the daily asks in my life, and I think whether I’m on the road or off the road, there’s just a lot of overstimulation. So I’m trying to move at a slower pace. Writing is my way of processing. But it takes a bit of time to have some sort of reflection in order to do it.
“The record [Heard It in a Past Life] is so powerfully an expression of me reflecting on this past year and a half in my life when everything changed. I’ve got a little studio in a barn by my parents’ house in rural Maryland, and that’s a really nice place to write because it’s quiet and I can be outside of things and take my time. My grandmother’s piano is in that studio.
“I also realized recently how important a bed is to my creative process. Like in college, my bed was my workspace. I just need to be cozy. I can get down with a desk, but my apartment in New York was never big enough for a desk. Writing in bed is just a function of my life so far.”
ON HER ONSTAGE FASHION IDENTITY:
“Style onstage has been this constantly fluctuating question. At the beginning of my career, I was working with this incredible designer named Christian Joy. Christian designed all the suits for Karen O and Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes. She makes these incredible costumes. In the beginning, Christian and I were making these Matisse cutout–inspired jumpsuits and capes, and I think the reality of that was I was really scared, and it was helpful to have this colorful, fun, mystical suit of armor to wear every night. Then I think I got to a place where I was comfortable, and I wanted to pare down and feel a little bit more like me in my daily life, so I started wearing T-shirts onstage.
“But I think the reality is that onstage, no matter what you wear, it becomes a costume to some degree. So suddenly the clothes I was wearing in my daily life felt like a costume, which was really confusing. Now I’ve sort of landed on a hybrid, but [deciding] what to wear on stage is not something I feel like I’ve figured out yet. Now I have this crazy silver shirt that I bought in a thrift store in Kansas City and these red boots that I bought at a thrift store in L.A. Another outfit I’ve been rotating on this tour that’s super silly and fun is this velvet zebra two-piece that somehow I only wear on Friday nights in French-speaking [cities]—Paris and Montréal. Just when I feel like I need a little something extra.
“This is also the first tour where I’ve started performing in heels. They’re rubber and two inches and really thick. They’re nothing crazy. But it’s been amazing to feel how much changing my shoes has changed my performance. Because before, I always played in sneakers or flat boots. But playing in heeled boots gives me a new sense of authority on stage. It makes me stand differently and hold my body differently. It makes me hold the energy from the crowd differently. And then it’s this really beautiful ritual when I get offstage and get to take them off and be flat-footed and connected again. But stage clothes: Man, I’ve got no idea what I’m doing. I’m just figuring it out on the fly.”
ON HER PERSONAL STYLE EVOLUTION:
“Offstage, I’m really a jeans-and–T-shirt gal. I sort of live in this pair of steel-toed boots that I can’t get enough of. Although right now we’re in Birmingham and I’m wearing a dress, which feels very fun because I’m not really a dress girl. I normally wear a lot of tie-dye and denim. I love clothes that make me feel like I have movement and can make things in them.
“I like feeling like a working artist—having raw fabrics and open sleeves and waists. Not baggy; just flowing. I care about economy of movement. But I also love pairing that with something fun—a little bit of glitter eye shadow, maybe. I always say that my personal style is a combination of a space cowgirl and a San Francisco art teacher. I have this style alter ego that my friends call ‘your mom’s cool friend from pottery’—like a kaftan and something fringed and pigtail braids. Some sort of raw linen button-down. Funky jewelry.
“Getting dressed is such a special way to have fun. In my closet right now, I have a cow-hair jacket and these neon-green pants, and I will definitely wear them together. I think what I’ve learned, especially being a touring musician, is that I can get away with anything. I can decide that two things go together, and everyone will just accept it because I’ve made my life as an artist. Fans keep giving me cowboy hats, which is so fun. On this tour, I’ve gotten a red one with a bunch of Canadian flags, a pink velvet one, a rainbow rhinestone one. So sometimes I’ll just wear those around the venue. It’s just a fun way to play.”
Photographer: Mark Lim; Stylist: Nicholas Mackinnon; Hair: Yuhi Kim, Makeup: Linda Gradin
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