Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 21 May 2019

Could Maggie Rogers be pop’s new Joni Mitchell?

After finding fame when she made producer Pharrell Williams cry, the young artist explores her plaintive singer-songwriting touch on her debut album

Maggie Rogers live in London, 2018. She is a name to watch this year. Getty 
Maggie Rogers live in London, 2018. She is a name to watch this year. Getty 

Ever since a video was posted online showing pop super-producer Pharrell Williams being moved to tears while listening to a recording of American singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers’s track Alaska in 2017 – while she sat next to him, somewhat uncomfortably – her career has sky-rocketed.

She was snapped up by a major record label, sent out on a solo tour of the United States and found herself recording a debut album alongside some of the best beatsmiths in the business. Rogers, now 24, bears the overwhelming nature of new-found fame beautifully in the breezy Light On, where she sings: “Would you hear me out / If I told you I was terrified for days.”

This moment is one of the many penetrating confessions in Heard It in a Past Life, which has many tracks taken and reworked from her 2017 EP Now That the Light is Fading. The album hints at Rogers’s burgeoning songwriting skills, but the unbalanced collection does feel like an album more concerned with showcasing talent than being a cohesive piece of work.

First up, we need to discuss the song that started it all. Placed in the middle of the album, Alaska remains a superbly layered piece of folk-tronica. The drum loops and deft sonic details, such as the subtle yet rhythmic finger snaps, create an eerie backdrop for Rogers to let loose with dynamic soulful vocals. The success of the track powered the direction of the new songs, which are similarly electronic, on the poppy side. Where Alaska’s appeal lies in its mix of modern sounds and vintage folk songwriting – a Joni Mitchell 2.0 if you will – the track The Knife is the sound of now. The synths percolate and Rogers’s vocals are straight R&B.

While tracks like the charging Give a Little (inspired by US students walking out of school due to US gun violence) and the electro-gospel stylings of Light On are amiable, there is a nagging concern that the gaggle of producers are only allowing her to operate within narrow confines. This is confirmed by the better second half of the album, which acts as a more natural development from the folksy Now That the Light is Fading. Rogers’s voice aches in the touching piano ballad Falling Water, with its lyrics alluding to the natural world: “I never loved you fully in the way I could / I fought the current running just the way you would / And now I’m stuck upstream.”

Back in my Body is the kind of life-affirming album ender that could fit in Adele’s latest album – after all, it was co-written by its producer Greg Kurstin – Rogers’s lack of vocal histrionics gives its message of resilience grace.

The album points to one thing: Rogers is a name to look out for. Her debut is solid, but just a start. If producers leave her be, she will be well placed to deliver on her promise as an artist.

Updated: January 31, 2019 06:39 PM