'Alaska' singer Maggie Rogers on wowing Pharrell and finding inspiration in nature for new EP
Rogers is mixing folk and electronic music in stunning new ways on 'Now That the Light Is Fading'
This time last year, Maggie Rogers was just a college senior trying to finish her homework when she got some life-changing feedback. “I’ve never heard anything that sounds like that,” Pharrell Williams said last February when Rogers played him her song “Alaska” during a master class at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, where she was a student. “That’s a drug for me.”
Rogers had written “Alaska” in about 15 minutes, and it happened to be the only song she had ready to present to her class. But when Williams’ stunned, GIF-able reaction to Rogers’ richly textured electro-pop was uploaded to YouTube later that year, it became an internet sensation—and helped Rogers score a major-label deal. (Contrary to some headlines, “I think it’s important to note that Pharrell did not cry,” Rogers says. “It’s very flattering that people want to add that detail, but there were no tears.”)
Making pop music was hardly Rogers’ goal when she started university. Growing up in rural Maryland, Rogers played the banjo and considered folk music her primary passion—she even released two albums of folk music independently. (You can listen to them here.) But trips to Berlin during a semester abroad in college sparked her interest in dance music. ‘I always thought clubbing meant tight dresses and expenses cocktails,” Rogers says. “Seeing people dancing to the same song for nine minutes made me realize how incredibly instinctual and primal rhythm is.”
So Rogers, 22, turned to the natural world for a crash-course in rhythm, studying patterns of water, frogs, and birds. Samples of woodpeckers and mourning doves are even woven into her new EP, Now That the Light Is Fading. Rogers recorded those sounds during a roughly two-year period of writer’s block in college, when she struggled to find inspiration in folk music. Instead of writing songs, she dabbled in journalism and took long hiking trips around the country with her audio recorder in hand. “I knew that one day I would be making music again,” she says. “I was leaving breadcrumbs so I could have things to play with.”
“Alaska” was one of the first songs she wrote when she picked music back up. Now she’s working towards a full-length album, combining her folk background with her interest in electronic music in ways that blur the distinctions between analog and digital. “Synthesizers and computers, they’re no longer the ‘other,’” she says. “We’re moving into a world where they don’t have to define the genre you’re making.” And while she hasn’t been in touch with Pharrell aside from a few Twitter interactions since their initial meeting, she’s looking forward to the next time they cross paths. Says Rogers: “That will be a warm hug whenever that happens.”