Many lives have a dividing line. For 25-year-old US singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers, that line is a five-minute video from 2016, which shows her presenting her song Alaska in a music class at the Clive Davis Institute Of Recorded Music at New York University. There was a surprise special guest at school that day to assess the students – Pharrell Williams. The video of his shock and awe when he heard Rogers’ song went viral. Rogers was offered a recording contract with Capitol soon afterwards and her debut album Heard It In A Past Life was released earlier this year.
BARRY DIVOLA: You started playing harp at the age of seven. How on earth did that happen?
MAGGIE ROGERS: I think it was because of something I saw in The Little Mermaid. This tells you what kind of family I come from. At seven I asked my parents if I could have harp lessons and they said yes. My mother would drive me an hour each way to those lessons. It made me so happy. My parents were always so supportive and they continue to be.
And then you progressed to the banjo, another unorthodox instrument.
Well, in between the harp and the banjo I learned to play guitar and piano, but when I got to high school I found that there were like seven dudes who played guitar. I’d show up to play and never the get the opportunity. I realised that if I learned to play banjo, I’d be the only one and I’d always get to play. So I got really good at banjo.
Were you into bluegrass and folk?
At high school I was listening to a lot of indie alternative music, like Grizzly Bear and Sufjan Stevens and Beirut and Bon Iver.
I loved reading Meet Me In The Bathroom, Lizzy Goodman’s oral history of New York rock in the 2000s. In the acknowledgments it says you transcribed all those interviews.
Oh, that was an awesome job. I was 18, 19, 20 living in the East Village and studying music at school and I got to work on the book for three years. Lizzy is like my sister, we became so close. I got to listen to hours of uncensored interviews with my favourite musicians in the world talking about making some of my favourite music in the whole world, and they did it all in the same neighbourhood where I was living. It’s really affected my career as a musician. I got to hear about all these artists and how they did what they did. It also made me change how I looked at the world around me. For example, I’d take a different route to school because I wanted to walk past that one bar with where Julian Casablancas punched Ryan Adams.
You took a month-long solo hike in Alaska that sounds like it was a pivotal moment in your life. Why did you decide to do that? And what happened out there?
When I was 18 I moved from a small town in Maryland to New York City. I’d spent my whole life fighting with every ounce of energy to get to live music. Suddenly I was in NYC and seeing 4, 5, 6, 7 shows a week. I was exposed to a whole new way of living. I think the first year of college is really intense for a lot of people. It’s a really big transition. I was going through some personal things and I needed a rest. That flight or fight instinct is something I come back to. I always choose to run. I went to Alaska and when I was walking I was processing. That’s something I still do when I walk or run every day.
Two-and-a-half years later you write this song called Alaska for your end-of-semester project, inspired by that hike. And you’re told you’ll be presenting it to a special guest at music school. Did none of you have any idea who it was going to be?
We really didn’t know. We knew there was going to be a special guest but we had special guests at school all the time. It wasn’t an abnormal thing to have artists or A&R people or heads of record labels. It could have been anyone.
How did you react when you saw it was Pharrell Williams?
I remember just thinking, “Oh gosh, it’s my turn to present today!” I also remember thinking, “He’s got perfect skin.”
If you’d known Pharrell was going to be there, do you think you would have presented something different?
No. This is the crazy part if this story. I didn’t have anything else. It was my day to present because my teachers were like “We’re worried Maggie, because it’s the end of semester and you’ve been struggling with writer’s block”. It was a thesis-level production class. The song was the first one I had made in two-and-a-half years and it was a week old and it wasn’t even finished. There’s no way I could show anything else because I didn’t have anything else to show.
Did it really take 15 minutes to write?
Yeah, but that’s how I always write. So many songs on my record happened in ten minutes. I don’t write very often but when I do I always know what I have to say. Now musicians who are just starting out ask me, “How will I know what my sound is?” I say, “You are your sound. If it comes from you, it is you. It’s that simple.”
So a couple of years on from being that wide-eyed girl sitting next to Pharrell, people are now coming up to you and asking for advice?
It’s crazy, isn’t it? Because I mostly have no idea what I’m doing. That’s what I tell people: “The secret is that I’m winging it.”
Maggie Rogers plays Astor Theatre on 21 May with support from Stella Donnelly. Limited tickets still available from: https://premier.ticketek.com.au/shows/show.aspx?sh=MAGGIAST19