My favorite song of 2016 was called “Alaska” by a little known musician by the name of Maggie Rogers. During Maggie’s senior year in college, she played the song for Pharrell Williams in a master class at New York University – a videotaped conversation that ended up going viral. Throughout the clip, Rogers looks up timidly to Williams through her hair, trying to judge his thoughts based on his facial reactions, hoping to get some sort of clarity. His concentration on listening intensifies as it continues.
After the 3 minute, 9 second song wraps up, Pharell remains almost speechless, telling Rogers that he has no notes for her. “It’s singular. . . . And that is such a special quality.” “I’ve never heard anyone like you before.”
Rogers wrote the song in 15 minutes.
This now famous exchange was written about everywhere you could look (The New Yorker, Washington Post and Rolling Stone are just a few) and the song is on its way to 66 million streams on Spotify. With the backing of an 10-time Grammy winning producer, Rogers’ started a bidding war with major record labels and ended up signing with Capitol Records. Katy Perry, Troye Sivan and Niall Horan are now her label mates.
As 2017 came, Rogers’ career began to take off. Before her first EP was even released in February, Rogers announced a tour, selling out shows with only “Alaska” officially out in the world – not to mention 0 announcement of a debut album.
The ride continued, with sets at a variety of festivals that summer, performances on late night talk shows and even an NPR Tiny Desk Concert. If you’ve read my reviews before, you know that I think you can interpret an artist the best by watching their Tiny Desk performance.
Rogers’ next song, “Split Stones,” was released in September of 2017: still no buzz around an upcoming debut album release. This frustration only escalated for Rogers’ fans as she continued to release new music in 2018 and even announced another headlining tour. In October of this year, Rogers finally shared that her debut album, Heard It In A Past Life, would be released in January of 2019: which meant more waiting.
Not to sound like that annoying music snob, but as I addressed in the opening paragraph of this post, I’ve known about Maggie since “Alaska” went viral. By the time her debut is released, I’d have waited just about 2.5 years for it. I’ve seen her perform twice. I am as dedicated of a fan as there is! Obviously it’s not up to her when her album is released, which is a con of signing with a major record label, so I don’t direct any of my impatience towards her whatsoever – but I particularly do not love seeing unreleased music live. It’s a lot harder for me to remain engaged in the performance and it’s very hard to understand what a musician is singing in a live setting!
For someone who’s into the lyrics of a song like I am, this can be a tiring process, but I knew that Maggie’s sold out show at The Riv in Chicago would be a milestone in her career and one not to miss.
Rogers shared on Instagram a couple hours before her performance that it was her biggest show to date: The Riv holds 2,500 people. The show was originally scheduled to be held at the venue’s sister property – The Vic Theatre, but due to demand, the show was moved (The Vic has a 1,000 max cap). Rogers was continuing her journey as a musician selling out tours before having a debut album released. Can you imagine if this was possible ten years ago? Was it possible? I don’t think so.
I made sure to get to the venue early to check out Mallrat – aka Grace Shaw – a 20-year-old musician (and rapper) from Brisbane, Australia, who’s also had her own share of viral success. I had heard Mallrat’s music more than once and was excited to see her on the bill as a supporting act on the tour: how often are you able to see an international artist this early into their career? Besides Lorde and One Direction…not many.
With the help from a DJ slash hype woman slash best friend onstage, Shaw started off shaky, seeming like she was unsure of the size of the crowd and the amount of people who seemed unfamiliar with her music. But as she continued singing her bigger songs like “Uninvited” and “UFO,” she was able to get the crowd warmed up and singing along.
Just about a minute into Rogers’ first song – she opened with “Give A Little,” I was completely blown away with her growth as a performer compared to the first time I had seen her in April 2017. She always had the energy needed to captivate an audience, but this time it seemed more natural, contained when necessary and bursting when she wanted to give more (no pun intended with the title track). Perhaps this is because of the fact that she was amped to play her biggest show ever, or that she’s learned to be more comfortable onstage, but probably a combination of both.
She continued her set with another of her released songs (she only has nine), called “Split Stones.” Two songs that the audience knew was the right way to start her 15-song set, but she lost the momentum pretty early on when she performed three unreleased songs in a row: “Burning, “Say It,” and “Overnight.” Like I mentioned before, it’s really hard for me to keep my attention on a performance when I don’t know the song – let alone not knowing three of them in a row! The songs sounded great and I’m really looking forward to hearing study versions, but hearing unreleased songs live before hearing the studio version is not my particular preference to hear music for the first time.
She picked up the momentum again with a performance of “Dog Years,” (probably in my top 3 of her songs), but lost again with TWO more unreleased songs performed in a row, followed with “Light On,” (released) and “On + Off” (released): two big crowd pleasers.
I will say that hearing “Back In My Body” live for the first time was something very special and I was able to hear most of the lyrics during this performance, so it didn’t bother me nearly as much that I was hearing a song for the first time in this environment. Maggie explained how the song was how she “wrote about her body in a way that it’s attached to my personhood and not my sexuality…” – a very poignant thing to say in 2018.
After a couple more songs and a (planned) encore, including a performance of “Color Song” completely acoustic to the entirely silent crowd (minus the couple obnoxious people shouting their professions of love for her), Rogers closed her biggest set to date with “Alaska.” The song obviously garnered the loudest cheers of the night (by far) – and reminding us of that timid, unsure 20-year-old looking for feedback in her college class that catapulted her to world tours and bidding wars with record labels.
If you’re just now joining us on Maggie’s journey to stardom: welcome. Based on how fast she’s moving now, she’ll be selling out stadiums by 2020.
11/12 – Boygenius
11/13 – Jessie Reyez