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Nine Songs
Maggie Rogers

Taking in folk, pop and neo-soul, the songs that inspire the singer/songwriter are stories of childhood innocence and the self-discovery of adolescence.

03 August 2018, 08:00 | Words by Eleanor Philpot

From being nicknamed the banjo girl at school to making Pharrell Williams’ jaw drop at a song-writing class, Maggie Rogers approach to music has always set her apart.

Yet rather than following a premeditated path, Rogers’ musical journey has always been intuitive and natural. “A lot of musicians start by making a lot of noise, where you have to learn how to be loud in order to be quiet, but I had the opposite trajectory.”

Talking to Rogers about the pivotal songs in her life it’s clear how years of eclectic listening and music lessons, where as well as the banjo, she learned to play the harp, guitar and piano, have helped to mould the Maryland native into one of the most enthralling modern songwriters around.

Rogers’ love of folk music may come as no surprise, her breakthrough “Alaska” and recent single “Fallingwater” mix hip-hop and electronica-tinged compositions grounded in the delicate melancholy synonymous with the genre.

When we talk about the recurrence of folk songs in her choices, she says it goes back to her inherent love of song-writing. “Folk music has influenced my song-writing the most. They’re just songs communicated simply, whether it was Nick Drake or Joni Mitchell, these people taught me how to tell stories.”

Rogers explains that other genres choices hold equal importance to her, both for artistic and sentimental reasons. From childhood experiences of classical music, where she recalls a “super-vivid memory of what the CD cover looked like, putting it into my boom-box and watching the light in the room,” to being stunned by Björk’s electronic sounds and revelling in the pure-pop of Carly Rae Jepsen at college, each of Rogers song choices act as a milestone in a journey of artistic self-discovery.

“Venus, the Bringer of Peace” by Gustav Holst

"Early on I remember being really into Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky and just wanting more and more classical music. Because of that my mum bought me The Planets on CD and I was obsessed with all of the songs as a kid.

“I’ve always been attracted to string arrangements and The Planets is string heavy, it’s really beautiful, Debussy-esque stuff. I was also super into astronomy at the time - I took astronomy lessons from a really young age - so the fact that the pieces had to do with the planets when I was studying them after school was nice too.

“My mum always told me that classical music was about telling a story and that it was up to you to figure out what the story was; since I’ve always been a visual artist I loved the idea that you could tell a story without words. It’s one thing to tell someone how you feel, but I think music often has the ability to physically show that to someone.”

“Ms. Jackson” by OutKast

“Once I started taking harp lessons, the trips there and back became this special time that I had with my mum. I remember she had this cherry red convertible and she would strap my harp in the back, which is a crazy image! In the car she would play me whatever she was listening to, which always had a tone of Neo-Soul - Lauryn Hill, Mary J. Blige, Macy Gray and a lot of Outkast.

“It’s funny, in high school I was known as ‘the banjo girl’ because all I listened to was folk music, but when I was studying music in college I realised I had these natural R&B tendencies, especially with the way that I was singing. I remember one day I walked into class and my teacher was playing The Miseducation of Miss Lauryn Hill. I swore I’d never heard it but I knew every word and I was so confused. Then I put it together and I realised that it was what my mum had been playing in the car and in the kitchen, so it was this strange discovery process.

“As a kid I was never shown The Beatles or Michael Jackson and I didn’t hear the Rolling Stones until I went to college, but I realised in that moment that my parents had been educating me in popular culture, it just looked a little different.”

“For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti” by Sufjan Stevens

“I heard this song when I was fifteen, when I was at boarding school. I remember coming back to my room and hearing it coming out of my friend’s bedroom, so I went in to find them and I was like “What is this?!” I was immediately drawn to it. At that time I had been playing guitar and piano and writing songs and I was still listening to quite a bit of classical music, but I heard this song and realised that I wanted to play the banjo.

“That year I made it my mission and started to exclusively play that instrument. It was also in high school that I started recording and producing my own records and my first band had banjo, violin and cello, so I owe that to Sufjan.

“I always went to really small schools, so there was only like five, ten or fifteen people that were into playing music and I was always the only woman. Early on in high school I would try to play music with these dudes and I would always have a really hard time, as they all played guitar, so quite often I didn’t get to play. When I started playing banjo I saw this new way in, as I was the only one who played it.”

“Move” by S. Carey

“Where I went to high school was super off the grid - there were no computers or Wi-Fi or cell phones, so I had a record player and I would listen to All We Grow whenever I went to sleep. Since ‘Move’ was the first song off the album it came to signal the end of the day, which was a very special creative time.

“Also, S. Carey just has these amazing, overlapping harmonies. I’m proficient at a lot of instruments, but a lot of them I just learnt so that I could write songs, I’m not a great soloist but I can keep up. My real instrument is my ear and the thing I think I can do better than anything else is sing harmonies, hear harmonies and sing with other people. Singing with other people gives me more joy than anything else and this record is so harmony heavy and dreamy, which has definitely affected a lot of my early recordings.”

“Close My Eyes” by Arthur Russell

“I became obsessed with Arthur Russell when I moved to New York City, through learning about his time living on the Lower East Side he became a window to the city’s culture and history for me. The first thing I found of his was a folk record, which made a lot of sense considering the kind of music that I had been listening to, although he’s a very experimental cello player.

“I was starting to get bored of folk music and it was affecting my creativity - within a certain genre there’s a limit to where you can go. Arthur Russell’s creativity was so fluid and without genre and it was the first time I started to think about art as a stream of creative thoughts that didn’t need to fit into any kind of box or subculture.

“When I stopped thinking about genre I was able to think about who I wanted to be and what sounds represented myself and my personality more clearly.”

“Here’s Where the Story Ends” by The Sundays

“’Here’s Where The Story Ends’ is one of my all-time favourite songs. After I went to New York I stopped playing the banjo and I started to play the electric guitar in a couple of different bands. I started to get more into slacker rock and hanging out at DIY venues in Brooklyn. I remember being in Dallas, Texas, in my friend’s garage, playing bass and my friend Kraus played us this song. After a couple of seconds in I was like, ‘What?!’

“The Sundays were my introduction to British rock and this song was important in pushing me to write louder rock music. Harriet Wheeler’s voice and vocal inflection helped me to understand that I could still write songs with the same intention and emotional structure as I had before, but that I could just communicate them differently.”

“Jóga” by Björk

“Björk is essential for me. She’s the reason I moved from writing just folk or rock music and becoming more interested in electronic sounds. The thing that’s important to note is that at the time I was playing banjo EDM was popular in the States, so I thought that all electronic music was dubstep.

“I had this alienating perspective of electronic music, so when I started listening to Björk the first thing that I noticed was how insane her string arrangements were, but then as I started exploring her back catalogue more and getting into her electronic stuff it made me realise how electronic music and electronic sounds could feel human and natural. As my schooling went on, and the courses were getting more difficult and intense, I would turn to Björk for inspiration as a female producer and as an artist, the way she communicates her vision is so unfaltering.

“On Jóga the string arrangements are so lush and classical, but it also has an industrial beat and her melody over the top is broken but so emotional, she uses her voice as this powerful instrument that also has a narrative power.

“It was the first song that made me realise that I could combine all the things I love - whether it’s pop or classical or electronic music – and those elements could find a happy medium but still feel natural, intrinsic and comfortable.”

“Run Away With Me” by Carly Rae Jepsen

“This record came out the summer before my senior year in college and around that time I was heavily into working on my final project. I was thinking a lot about the music I wanted to make moving forward, I’d make folk music and rock music, but I had always felt pretty far outside of pop music.

“So when this song came out my roommate Mary - who had been my roommate for three years - looked at me and said, ‘Mag, you’ve always said that you don’t like pop music, but you should see your face when this Carly Rae Jepsen song comes on.’ ‘Run Away With Me” was the first pop song that I ever really fell in love with and it made me understand there was a version of pop music that I could make, that could combine all the things I love.

“I grew up being so serious, because I was so passionate about music from such a young age. I was so focused, I never really partied or went wild; I just spent a lot of time alone writing or planning band practices. The way I was approaching music didn’t really represent my age or where I was in my life, I wasn’t having fun with music in that way.

“This song made me realise I could honour the lighter side of life in my writing. I could write about going out with my friends, or sex, or something I was feeling that day because I wanted to write about it. I realised that my songs didn’t have to be a direct reflection on my morals or something more serious, it could just be a diary entry about what my week looked like.”

“Happy and Sad” by Kacey Musgraves

“The chorus to ‘Happy and Sad’ goes ‘Is there a word for the way that I’m feeling tonight? / Happy and sad at the same time / You got me smiling with tears in my eyes / I never felt so high.’ That’s a really accurate depiction of everything I’ve been going through over the past two years and largely what my record is about.

“I had a video of me that went viral the day that I graduated from college, so as if my life wasn’t changing enough, my private life also became very public, very quickly. I ended up with this job that I’ve wanted my whole life, but on terms that didn’t feel like were my own.

“’Happy and Sad’ encapsulates that feeling. Everything is going exactly how I wanted it to but there’s an inherent sadness alongside that, which is a disorienting feeling - to be experiencing both of those emotions at the same time, where you don’t know how you feel.”

Maggie Rogers plays at London's KOKO Aug 29 and 30 and her new single Give A Little is out now
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