INTERVIEW: Maggie Rogers

Gerard Marcus

Back in November of last year, we had the honor of premiering a wonderfully raw and emotional live video of NYC-based singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers' single Blood Ballet. Its intimacy made for a prime example of the power of folk music, but even before the video was out was hinting that she had plans to explore different sounds. We had a chance to meet up with Rogers at Veselka in the East Village where we discussed her start in music, her love of songwriting, how she ended up in folk music, and where she's headed next. If you're in Brooklyn, make sure to catch her tonight at the always awesome Baby's All Right.

TC: Let’s start with some basics. How did you get started in music?

Maggie Rogers: Well, I started playing the harp when I was about seven and was totally obsessed with classical music. Really into Gustav Holst and Vivaldi and Chukovsky. You know, it’s funny looking back now because I find I was drawn to strings back then and so much of my music now focuses on string arrangements.

TC: Strings are beautiful.

MR: Definitely. But yeah, I was really into classical music and started playing piano and guitar in middle school. Had some boys break my middle-school heart, as it goes, wrote some songs about it, and then actually went to boarding school. Went to St. Andrews School in Delaware. Have you ever seen Dead Poets Society?

TC: Yep!

MR: Well, while I was at St. Andrews this girl from North Carolina lived across the hall from me. She would always ask me to tune her banjo and I just started keeping it more and more. That turned into an obsession that led to me going to the Berklee School of Music's five-week summer program. While I was there I won the songwriting contest, and that gave me a boost of courage to start writing more. My senior year I turned a broom closet into a little recording booth and recorded an album which got me here in New York.

TC: What sparked your interest in music?

MR: I was in high school, or actually late middle school, and wanted to lock my door, sit in my room, and play guitar all day. I was just kind of obsessive.

TC: If I'm not mistaken your a pretty solid banjo player as well?

MR: Yeah, and it’s so funny I ended up being a banjo player, because when I was young my mom was obsessed with neo-soul, so the records I remember from my youth were like Erika Badu, Lauryn Hill... So I knew Lauryn Hill from her music but I never had any real visual representation—like, I never really paid attention to the album covers or anything—but I remember all the songs. I was in a music history class a few years ago and the teacher put on Erika Badu's Baduizms and I heard it and realized I knew every word. And I was like, “What is this?” [Laughs].

TC: Do you think it had any sort of subconscious effect on your music?

MR: Totally! I was in a Motown class a couple years ago where we were just singing and playing Motown, and everyone thought I was just this folk girl from Maryland. They were surprised that I actually have a lot of strong R&B and soul tendencies. If I get put in that context I’m thrilled and really feel the music.  It influences me even moreso in the modern day. I don’t know if could exactly say what kind of music I’m making now. I can say, though, that it’s definitely not folk.

TC: So when you started locking yourself in your room constantly, what were you listening to?

MR: Middle school... I remember in the sixth grade being really into 311 and Incubus and, like, The Used, which is really funny. I remember also getting into Vampire Weekend, they’re first record I listened to on repeat. Or maybe that was a little later? In the eighth grade I went from angsty emo girl to being really into jam bands like Phish and The Grateful Dead, and people like Jack Johnson, blah blah blah. I was really into most things at some point, and trying to find things that I thought would be popular next and how that happened. Which I think was an early sign that I would end up being a musician. In high school I strictly listened to folk music for the most part, because I didn’t have access to anything and had this painting teacher who showed me The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Carol King, etc., which was really my first exposure to that type of music. It was almost like I had been transported to the past. My high school had no internet, no cell phones, no TV, and everyone listened to Bob Dylan all the time. It was super funny. Then from there I picked up bands like Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, and others.

TC: When did you start writing your own songs?

MR: Eighth grade.

TC: You still remember them?

MR: I think so? Still some, definitely. I remember my first songs that I wrote at camp. It was supposed to be a joke, like the verse and chorus were supposed to be a joke, but in writing it the verse actually got very real and I was like, “Oh shit! This might be a thing” [laughs].

TC: Did you have anyone help you early on? A person you could bounce ideas off of?

MR: Nope, it was just me. No real musical community. That’s why I went away to school, because I lived in such a rural area and there wasn’t really access to good higher education or music. So suddenly being thrown into a world were there was was incredible.

TC: How many instruments do you play?

MR: Harp, piano, guitar, a little bass and drums, banjo, ukulele, harmonica, recorder. I mean, everyone plays recorder.

TC: I know a professional recorder player.

MR: No way!

TC: Yeah, he’s amazing. It can be a really beautiful, fluid instrument when played right.

MR: So many people look at it as a joke.

TC: Yeah, I bet they wouldn’t if they heard him. He’s so good.

MR: Yeah, I’m a really amateur musician.

TC: How so?

MR: I’m just not great at music theory and have, like, a very basic concept of all the instruments I play. I can play any song based on the chords and from knowing how instruments work but...

TC: I would say that makes you a pretty apt musician.

MR: Okay, apt maybe, but I’m not great at any one instrument. I’m really good at harmony. That’s my thing. I can sing and get harmonies right away. I have a really strong sense of melody and I can sing. Those are definitely my strong points. And everything else kind of happened to accompany my singing anyway. Like, I learned guitar because I wanted to sing and didn’t have anything to sing with, you know?

TC: Yeah, I get that. When did Berklee happen?

MR: Summer after my junior year in high school.

TC: Did you start recording before you went there?

MR: After.

TC: Okay, so talk to me a little more about Berklee. How did you find the program and decide to go there?

MR: Totally on a whim. I had some friends who went there for school, and I was starting my college process and realized that if I was thinking seriously about doing music in college, a little tryout over the summer would be a really good thing. It was cool. I lived in Boston and went to class. I learned so much from that program, especially when it comes to vocal and music theory. And it was the first time I felt creatively on fire. I was just making stuff all the time, and it was so crazy to feel that and be in a community of people who wanted to just sit around and talk about music all day.

TC: So you left and your time at Berklee is what inspired you to record something?

MR: Yeah! At Berklee when I won the songwriting contest, the prize was singing on a stage with a house band in the big auditorium. On stage I was like, “this is it.” With a band, on a stage, playing my music. It was this crazy feeling, like this is why I’m on the Earth. To do this. And so I got back and just started recording. It was nice because I never really fit in in high school. I had friends, but I wasn’t anyone's best friend per se. And also all my friends at the time were dating one another, so I just spent all my time in the little recording studio I made in a broom closet [laughs]. I felt like it made me unique and special in the middle of all that puberty stuff. So yeah, I recorded an album, and early drafts of that are what I sent to Clive.

TC: You recorded everything?

MR: Yep.

TC: Mixed and mastered it?

MR: Yeah.

TC: How was that process the first time?

MR: It’s really funny looking back on it, because at the time I had no real idea what I was doing. I recorded everything on a $300 Blue Microphone, which is crazy. Strings, piano, guitar, voice. More than anything it was just exciting. I just knew what I liked to hear, and I liked exploring getting it to sound they way I wanted it to. I was really careful and paid a lot of attention to detail because I just cared that much about it. It was natural. And of course I was going to mix it, because that’s how you make it sound exactly how you want it to sound. I didn’t even know what production was at that point. I was just like, “I’m going to make this.” All the drums on my first record were automated. Totally from the computer. All the bass is MIDI. It was just me licking around, but it worked out. It’s funny listening to it now. I still feel good about it. At least for where I was at the time. Even now, as a more educated engineer, I hear things that are a little weird but I still like it. I never really care about perfect recording or using the perfect microphone. I more just care about the music itself.

TC: So then you went to Clive Davis. Did you go in knowing what you wanted to do?

MR: Yeah, when I entered Clive I was in the mindset that I was going to be a musician. Well, I knew specifically that I wanted to be an artist. When I got here I thought everyone was so nice and that everyone just wanted to be nice to each other, and that I love art and the only thing that matters is making good art. I still think about that a lot. I still believe it to a certain extent, but I got punched in the gut a little by New York. Which I needed, because I was super naive and young, and now I know more how the industry works and I’m an informed maker of things. But yeah, I always knew that I wanted to be an artist.

TC: When did you release your record Blood Ballet?

MR: At the end of my sophomore year. That record was a lot more closure for me than anything. I released it because I felt a responsibility to the songs and wanted them to be out, but I didn’t necessarily put it out as an artistic statement. I played one show when the record came out and that was it. And then I had to take a break from music for a bit for multiple reasons, which has me super excited about now because I feel like myself again. For a while I felt like I was in a place where I was split into four or five bits, just scattered. I started to feel that there was a really strong dichotomy between the person I was—Maryland-banjo Maggie, really big hiker, nature girl—and the Maggie that’s lived in New York for four years, which is the Maggie that loves wearing shiny clothes and dancing and pink eyeshadow—you know, just lots of color and fun. They feel really at odds with each other. I’ve made slow, quiet, introspective music for a long time. And while I am a quiet, introspective person when I’m writing music, in reality I’m really pretty outgoing. So now I really just want to start having more fun with my music.

TC: Sounds exciting.

MR: Yeah, I’m really excited. Music feels like this open world of possibilities for me again. I get to just be creative and have fun. I think I might make dance music? I just want to wear crazy eyeshadow and dance. I love the idea of the healing power of movement and I love the idea of how primal dance is. Moving to music as a group is one of the oldest things that humans have done collectively other than, like, making fires. And if there was a fire people usually wanted to dance around it [laughs]. The idea of a pulse unifying a bunch of people in a room seems so crazy to me.

TC: Have you already started working on a project?

MR: I don’t have a project or a name. The overarching theme is that I was quiet and now I need to be loud. Right now it’s more just following melody and following what feels good.