LOS ANGELES — A few Tuesdays ago, the 24-year-old singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers’s single “Light On” displaced Mumford & Sons’ “Guiding Light” at the top of the first Billboard adult alternative songs chart of 2019 — one of the publication’s niche charts, but something she could get jazzed about all the same, if she let herself.
“My parents are really excited,” she said hours after the news broke, huddled beneath a heat lamp on the back patio of a restaurant on Silver Lake Boulevard. “But they don’t know what it means either. They were like, ‘Are you excited? We don’t know if we’re supposed to be excited.’”
Rogers wasn’t quite sure either. She started out as a banjo-slinging folkie, but broke through with songs like “Alaska” and “On + Off,” whose sonic textures reflected her growing interest in electronic dance music and mainstream pop. Perhaps appropriately, she has both a folkie’s suspicion of airplay charts and No. 1 hits as markers of artistic success and a pop star’s understanding of self-promotion as a job requirement. After some internal debate about whether to note the news on social media at all, she posted a tweet that included a string of exclamation points but began with the word “WHAAAAATTT” — celebratory, yet noncommittal.
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In photographs, Rogers brings to mind a millennial version of Sissy Spacek circa “Badlands” crossed with Lana Del Rey; what the pictures don’t capture is the articulate intensity she exhibits in conversation, especially when she talks about re-establishing control over her career after an unexpected brush with viral fame — a moment that led to labels knocking down her door, but one she ultimately found quite destabilizing. Her third album and first on a major label, “Heard It in a Past Life,” is due on Friday.
Rogers grew up in rural Easton, Md. Her father is a now-retired Ford dealer; her mother, a former nurse who introduced Rogers to Erykah Badu and Alanis Morissette, now works as an end-of-life doula. Rogers was writing songs by age 13; at 17, she produced and self-released her debut album, “The Echo,” which channeled the pastoral spirit of early Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens. The demos for that record helped her secure admission to the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. In New York, she played in multiple bands and “overdosed on live music”; during a semester abroad, she visited clubs in Paris and Berlin and fell in love with house and techno.
During this time, she also found herself unable to write songs, even as graduation loomed and her music-production classes demanded it. “All my teachers were really frustrated with me,” she said. She began seriously considering a career in music journalism as a fallback; she interned at Spin and Elle and worked as an editorial assistant to the writer Lizzy Goodman, transcribing hundreds of hours of interviews with the leading lights of the early 2000s New York indie-rock boom for Goodman’s oral history “Meet Me in the Bathroom.”
Then in March 2016, during the second semester of Rogers’s senior year, Pharrell Williams — an artist-in-residence at N.Y.U. at the time — visited her music-production class to critique student work. Rogers brought a demo of “Alaska,” on which her supple soprano bobs and weaves over a sparse shuffle beat that brings to mind Williams’s own work with producing partner Chad Hugo as the Neptunes.
In a video that subsequently blew up online Rogers plays her demo for Williams, whose face contorts in surprise and delight while he listens. “I’ve never heard anyone like you before,” he tells her afterward. “That’s a drug for me.”
Coming from Williams — a category-killing industry icon who’s worked with Migos and Ed Sheeran, indelibly stamping his imprint on 2000s pop as well as hip-hop — this was a career-making endorsement. But it wasn’t one Rogers had sought out, and she says now that she was unprepared for the attention that came with it. “As a producer, as a songwriter, I’ve spent a lot of time either in my bedroom or in studios, alone,” she says. “Suddenly I was in the public eye in this way that I had absolutely no control over. It was really scary.”
She compared processing that video with a more recent broadcast moment: her early November appearance previewing her new album on “Saturday Night Live,” which was met with a mixed response.
“This thing happens when you’re like grossly overstimulated, your memory changes,” she said. “It’s the same reason why I haven’t watched any of my S.N.L. performances. It’s just, like, I want to keep that for me. And I realized from the Pharrell stuff when you watch it back it changes your memory. And I want to really protect the way I’m remembering things.”
“Heard It in a Past Life” is a collection of buoyant electronic pop songs, but the lyrics are unmistakably the work of an introvert struggling to recalibrate. “Oh, I couldn’t stop it,” she sings on “Light On.” “Tried to slow it all down/Crying in the bathroom, had to figure it out/With everyone around me saying ‘You must be so happy now.’” The first line of the opening song, “Give a Little,” is “If I was who I was before”; the last track is a triumphant ballad called “Back in My Body.” Rogers is not coy about the work’s autobiographical component; she describes the album as an attempt to process everything she’s experienced since 2016 and take back control of the narrative around her career.
“Part of success is having a good story, and as a journalist I totally understand,” she said. “But it meant that my many, many years of focus and hard work got kind of prepackaged into a Cinderella story. I’m super grateful that it happened, but it left me feeling like I never got to be a full human in the experience.”
After the Pharrell video caught fire, Rogers quickly found herself the focus of an old-fashioned record-company bidding war; one prospective label wooed her with her a first edition of Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse.” Rogers took a hard-nosed approach to this courtship process. Many of the executives hoping to sign her were industry veterans who had been mentioned or interviewed in Goodman’s book; before meeting them, Rogers cross-referenced their names in her database of transcripts.
“I would show up with ammo,” she said. “Really minute stories from their lives, like where they were on 9/11, or that time they tried to sign the Killers in 2007. And during these interviews, inevitably, when I was the only woman in the room and these men started talking over me, I would pull out these stories and people would look at me like they’d seen a ghost.”
Rogers eventually signed to Capitol and an EP, “Now That the Light Is Fading,” appeared in 2017. But she did insist on taking a bit more time with a full-length album — a decision that challenged, but didn’t discourage, her new label home. “Ultimately we trusted her, because nobody knows her better than herself,” said Michelle Jubelirer, the chief operating officer of Capitol Music Group. “It became very clear early on that there was a lot more to her than a viral moment — that she was an artist with a real soul, and something to say, and a modern pop star with a strong female point of view.”
Rogers found promoting the EP psychologically draining. She’d studied branding and marketing at N.Y.U., but branding and marketing herself was a different challenge. Even when interviewers complimented “Alaska” by telling her “I love that song Pharrell made for you,” Rogers felt obligated to be polite. She remembers feeling like she’d allowed a “cocktail party version of myself” to take over.
“I became pleasant,” she said, which was not the goal. “ The only thing I wanted to do in my music is be human, and communicate all the aspects of that, which often means being vulnerable. Those are the kinds of artists I’ve looked up to and the kinds of artists I’ve worked really hard to be like. Being pleasant is great, but it’s not the whole picture.”
“The Pharrell video cut my body and soul in half,” she added. (Her tone suggested that this experience had been painful, but also on some level fascinating.) “I felt such an intense sense of displacement, and I’m only now to a place where I can like breathe normally again and start to relax and remember who I was before this.”