A Glacial Pace

No one knows fast like Maggie Rogers, whose music career came on like an avalanche, having gone from college graduation to playing sold-out shows at Radio City Music Hall seemingly overnight. Rather than racing further ahead, she has chosen to make her next music release a collection of past work: Notes from the Archive: Recordings 2011–2016. As she readies its release, she reflects on the unnatural pace at which artists are expected to create, what glaciers have to teach us about time, and how quarantine reminded her of what it is to be a human being.

INTERVIEW BY WILLIAM DEFEBAUGH

PHOTOGRAPHS BY DANIEL SHEA

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This story appears in Atmos Volume 04: Cascade. Click here to order your copy.

William Defebaugh

In “Alaska,” you write about walking off someone, walking your way forward over glacial plains and icy streams. How would you characterize the role of nature in your life?

Maggie Rogers

I think it’s about letting things happen. It’s interesting how the press often asks me about being inspired by nature and why it plays a big part in my work—but the simple truth is: It’s just a part of my life in the same way it’s a part of everyone’s life. My relationship to nature is not any greater than anyone else’s. It isn’t a defining factor in my life; it’s an indivisible part of my life in the same way it is for everybody else. Everything is nature. It’s not something that makes me unique; it’s this thing we’re all a part of.

William

I’ve been thinking about this also through the lenses of both the environmental movement and the social justice movement and how it’s so weird that we are even being labeled activists, because the things that we’re acting on in 2020 relate to just being a conscious human being—a whole human being. It’s about holism.

Maggie

It’s about human beings reattaching ourselves to the idea of being and allowing the experience of being a whole human being to be offered to all beings. It is holism—I love that. I’ve come to understand that a lot of my pull towards the natural world is a greater metaphor for a trust in the process. Even thinking about what’s happening to glaciers in relationship to this pandemic—it’s a mirror. It’s forcing us to stop.

William

It’s like the Earth’s screaming for us to slow down. And we never think about slowing down, about what’s good for our ecology. We’re just thinking about output, output, output.

Maggie

And you see that in art, too. This culture of constant singles, constant content. Art doesn’t move forward from constant production; art moves forward from reflection. You have to know what you’re saying, because no one can just speak. If you think of the idea of a glacier—you have to take the time to look at the water that’s melted. That’s why this time has been so special to me, because it’s been the first time I’ve been able to settle back into what life looked like before my career took off. Where I am in the woods, my last name doesn’t feel like baggage I’m carrying with me all the time. I just feel like a person again. So, it’s been this really amazing period of getting to check in and see what I look like now as a woman. What are the ways in which I’ve grown up and become that woman in the last four years? What does it look like as I’ve grown into my independent self and gone out into the world, and how have these experiences shaped me?

 

Do you think that this will change after the pandemic? We’re talking about a return to the human being, and the key word there is “being”—being is what connects all of us. The thing that this virus has asked us to do is to just be, to deal with the things we notice when we are forced to just be.

“Art doesn’t move forward from constant production; art moves forward from reflection. If you think of the idea of a glacier—you have to take the time to look at the water that’s melted.”

Maggie Rogers

William

I think of it through the lens of: What is the end goal of all of this productivity? If you were the most productive you could possibly be for your entire life, then what? In the blink of an eye, you would get to the finish line realizing you spent your whole life trying to get there.

Maggie

Yeah, is that the goal? So much of my work over the last two years has been about taking space in an industry that asks me to consistently fragment myself and trying to find a holistic through line with it. I’m a musician, but I truly get to be a musician for like four months out of the year. I’m a songwriter, creator, producer four months out of the year, because there’s this idea that you make a record, and then you do promo, then you go on tour for a year, and then you start over—and you’re expected to just pick back up. But I have had times on the road where I would just be crying because the only thing I want to do is make music and it’s not possible. It’s also binary, the idea that I have two ways of being, which are on and off. And that’s not the way it works. It’s not natural. All of this is to say, the question is not: What is all this productivity for? The question is: Whose definition of productivity are you working under?

William

Especially in the music industry, which asks you to put out a new record every two years.

Maggie

You’re thinking about just staying afloat. Which is exhausting. It’s like doggy paddling so that you can tell everyone that you know how to swim. It’s interesting because the start of quarantine for me aligned completely with exactly what I was supposed to be doing, which was resting. And it actually forced me to do it. Because the idea of slowing down was so foreign and scary, but at the same time, I was pushing myself, I was exhausted and had no more lifeforce left. So, when quarantine started, I felt people around me starting to do a version of the same thing: fighting the pace, being reluctant to slow down. And as I’ve had to learn, productivity and fear combine to make really shallow work. You’re not talking about the depths of the sea. You can’t get really deep without being able to hold your breath. But you don’t get to the point where you can hold your breath until you can learn how to breathe.

 

I think the thing is, too, that nature is adaptable, and as part of nature, we are adaptable. So, you get used to a pace and you’re able to sustain it. The idea now, as I’m sitting back, that I can sustain a touring pace is fucking insane. Thinking now about what my energy, what the flow, what the chi of my day looks like, the idea of me being on a plane every day and on a bus and not really sleeping and the adrenaline and being constantly surrounded by people and still feeling completely fine—it’s just a different baseline. And now, our baseline is shifting. And we’re seeing it in reverse. Any friends I’ve talked to about distanced social gatherings say the same thing: You just get tired faster. People’s baselines have shifted to provide for this slower pace, and I think it’s also revealed how far off the mark we were. You get addicted to this adrenaline or this speed or the constant movement. And when you have that constant movement, you never have to stop and look around, you don’t have to notice things because you just keep moving forward. Or at least, that’s what it felt like for me.

William

And what is your creative process like when you’re moving at that pace?

Maggie

Oh, my creative process doesn’t happen at that pace. If I’m surrounded by people all the time, especially if I have to get onstage or talk with journalists or any of those things, I naturally have a shield that comes up and down. Even though I am present and authentic in all of those moments, I still can’t let my shield down enough to really be vulnerable to do creative work. Because when you’re moving, there’s just no time in between. It’s also really really impossible for me to get off stage and do creative work in between sound check and getting on for the night, because there is almost a dehumanization when you fragment yourself like that. I really don’t want to be an active participant in my own commodification. The question I keep asking is about how to keep a holistic thread through this lifestyle that is inherently fragmenting.

PHOTOGRAPH BY S. HOLDEN JAFFE

William

Well, that’s the whole thing that we’re talking about: this fast paced machine of a workforce that we’re all a part of. It’s mechanizing.

Maggie

When my career started, particularly because of the way it started, I felt deeply bisected. It felt like my life got cut in half. Suddenly, there was this huge line drawn in the sand, and there was a before and after. It was honestly a jumpstart. I went from being at my college graduation to my first Vogue shoot in under three months. In six months, I was performing on late night TV. There was no time to acclimate. You just have to move on and try and figure out who you are on the other side. You have to be grateful for the challenge but true to yourself at all costs.

 

My work these days has been about trying to undo that bisection and allow myself the space to just be. Part of that is putting my archive out. This winter, I’m releasing 16 songs from those beautiful, slow, developmental years, entitled Notes from the Archive: Recordings 2011–2016. The tracklist works backwards, starting with my shoegaze rock band at the end of college and working its way to home recordings, just my 16-year-old brain and a banjo. I’ve known for a long time that this is something I had to do before I put out another record, because there’s a part of me that’s so deeply missing from the story right now: the 10 years of work that have led up to this moment. I have a whole body of work that I don’t want to leave behind. This record feels like honoring that work, putting the pieces of the story back together, finding my way from bisected to whole. Now, I’ve finally been given the space to let ideas develop and let myself develop. And as I’ve been working on a new record, I see the pieces all coming together and coming full circle.

William

I love that you use these words like bisected and fractured, and how in a lot of ways, this project represents you putting those pieces back together.

Maggie

Yeah, and the glacial pace of it all. I can’t emphasize the 10 years of work enough, because I think that it shows that I really took the time to develop as an artist and get here. And I think that if anybody devoted themselves to a single thing—it’s really logical, right? If anyone devotes themself to one profession for 10 years, you either achieve some version of success or you change careers. The difference is that those 10 years for me started young. Not many people start their active career when they’re 16 or 17. So, it may look like I’ve achieved all this success, but you would too. I just started earlier. You would too, if you worked at one thing for 10 years. You would either achieve success or change your path.

William

Right. And it plays into this idea that I think we all have that things just happen really easily and quickly for everyone else. From an outward perspective, some people might think that you just emerged from school, emerged from the womb, as this fully fledged artist, without seeing the journey that led you there.

Maggie

For me, I think education is—it’s so at the heart of my story. I took the time to really learn the craft, and I’m still learning. I always found power in knowledge. Because especially with the music industry or with music or as a woman in the world, the more I could learn and the more that I could do myself, the less it felt like my vision was mitigated. I always measure artists by the distance between their brain and their instrument. And the goal is to always be making that distance shorter, so that when you have a creative thought, you can execute it.

 

So much of that education and that real slow process and the practice was about honing the craft. But I think it’s important, too, to note that the path wasn’t always linear. I thought I was going to be a music journalist. I went through long periods of writer’s block. I tried different things.

 

Notes from the Archive showcases four different phases of my early creative development. It starts with my shoegaze-y rock band at the end of college, which is crazy because I made that record at the same time as Now That the Light Is Fading and was sort of like, Okay, I love synths and I love guitars, so now what? I actually almost put it out right when everything was exploding just because it broke my heart to leave it behind, but I showed it to Sharon Van Etten, and she told me, “If you love these songs, save them, and they’ll find a home and their own light.” She was right. Then there’s my mid-college record Blood Ballet, where you can hear me starting to experiment with different types of production and kind of hone my writing. Then it works backwards to my first band, Del Water Gap, which I started with my friend Holden at the beginning of NYU. We used to play all around New York in bars and stuff with giant underage X’s on our hands. That was really where I started to cut my teeth as a performer and learned how to be a collaborator. And then, it ends with the oldest stuff, The Echo, my very first album that I wrote and produced and recorded from 16 to 18. It’s just banjo and strings and me learning how to engineer and mix.

 

All these phases were so crucial to me becoming the artist I am now. And it feels really important to honor that growth, no matter how weird or nonlinear. It was all so important to me. As I’m getting really, really excited and deep into making this new record, I can hear all the pieces. I’m coming back to themes and answering questions I had when I was 18. And it feels like coming home.

William

What’s so cool is that when you actually listen to the archive record, you get to hear such a full spectrum of yourself. And you hear these parts that maybe we got hints of on Heard It in a Past Life, but it’s almost like you’re hearing the origin story for all of these little notes of you that we get.

Maggie

Yeah. And I think it’s important for me that you can hear me learning. So much of it is just me engineering and producing and mixing. I left all of the mixes in their original form. I didn’t touch anything because I think all of those moments and imperfections are so crucial. It’s amazing when I hear it now because I can hear how much I’ve learned. And I think it’s so important that you can hear that growth throughout the record, and take all of that information, and maybe it makes you listen to something. I wanted you to be able to read between the lines. Both for my own personal repair and remembering that even though it was fast, I’ve been doing this work for a long time.

William

I love that you said it’s nonlinear, because it is nonlinear in the sense that you are going back to look at this work. I also love that it’s—speaking about ambition, it’s like we live in this culture that’s so obsessed with achieving the next thing and getting to the next project and questions like: Where are we going? Where are we going? Where are we going? And I think that’s part of why it’s such a refreshing statement for an artist to make, to say, “Yeah, okay. I know where I’m going, but I don’t want to leave myself behind.”

Maggie

Yeah. I think it’s really important for me to not let that part of me get left behind and to honor that work, because it was truly my first record and first complete artistic statement. Just because that person didn’t sell out headline tours doesn’t mean that she was invalid, and to disregard a body of work that defined so much of who I am would feel like a real crime against my 17-year-old self. That woman would be fucking livid.

William

I love that you say repairing the narrative, because there’s the story that was written about you, without your authorship. Now, you’re rewriting that narrative, but you’re rewriting it with the truth. That really comes through with the fact that you didn’t change these songs. You didn’t redo them in any way. And just as you said, you think it’s important to include the ways in which you were learning at the time. It’s like you’re rewriting the history that actually happened.

Maggie

Completely. And to stop being afraid of it. I mean, I think that the most important thing to me in art is to reflect the human experience. And the reality is: Being human is really messy. And it’s not perfect, and it’s not polished. The show where something goes wrong is always the best one, because you get to watch something real happen. My favorite moment of a song is always when someone’s voice cracks. It is everything that happens in between that is the most interesting. I can’t imagine how I’m going to feel when this comes out. I’m looking forward to my sense of imposter syndrome fading a little bit. It feels like standing in front of my audience naked—but I was always naked. It feels like my audience and I are having a full conversation. Because once you’ve heard this, there’s nothing left for me to tell you. It is the whole story.

William

I don’t know if you’ve thought about it in these terms, but if we look at things linearly from the release of the Heard It in a Past Life and then Notes from the Archive, it’s like you’re going from your past life to your past in this life. And it’s almost like catching you up to the present.

Maggie

Yes. This is where it feels like the real work begins. And that’s why I’m excited, because—putting this out, it feels like I finally step into the now. And it’s crazy that is happening in the middle of this intense global change. And we’re never going back. I’m stepping into this new reality that we’re creating every day with nothing. I don’t have any songs left in my pocket. I’m stepping in like, “Here I am, a 26-year-old woman, I’m good at what I do, I have worked hard to do this, and I’m ready to get my hands dirty. Let’s get to work.” It is so exciting, this idea that I’m going to be able to take my time. Slow, slow, slow, slow.

William

Letting things happen.

Maggie

Glacially. I think that also feels really specific to where I am. Every major conceivable and inconceivable goal I’ve had for myself, I’ve been able to achieve. So, I’m in this space of learning how to dream again. The last time I really had space and time to dream was in college, and all I wanted to do was play at the Bowery Ballroom. I never even wanted to play Radio City, because it wasn’t something that I ever thought was possible. It just wasn’t in the scope of my dreams. And so, being in a place now where I’m learning to dream again, I’m finding that where I’m actually left is a place of being really open and just letting things come to me. I’m in the position of just saying yes and trusting and understanding what an insane fucking privilege that is. It is such a wild privilege to get to sit and breathe and think and move slow in this moment. There is such a massive shift and change in our country and consciousness happening right now. The slowness has also brought so much pain and difficulty for so many people. I’m educating myself and reflecting on my allyship and doing everything I can to trust that there is some greater life and light beyond all this. I have to believe this is all happening for a reason.

William

And you can’t have slowness without trust.

“I think that the most important thing to me in art is to reflect the human experience. And the reality is: Being human is really messy.”

Maggie Rogers

Maggie

Right. It all comes down to surrender. In my career, early on, I had such a tight grip on control—I think I had to at that time. I was in the process of defining how I would be presented to the public, and so many people wanted to be involved in that and thought that it should be a certain way, but I was the only one that could tell them it was going to be different from what they expected, or that I wanted to do things differently, or that I saw things differently. And so, I held really tight onto control. Now, I have people that I love working with, and I trust the process more, and I understand what my gut feeling is in reaction to different situations, and I feel like I’m able to guide the current more than having to be literally setting every stone.

William

Let’s talk more about your relationship to time. Earlier, you told me you were afraid of it.

Maggie

I think I’m actually starting to let go of it a little bit. I think it was really prevalent when I was 18 or 19—I just had this deep, deep, deep hunger to live.

William

Which is interesting, because some would say that all fears are really just the fear of death. And so, we become afraid when we feel like time is slipping through our fingers because we’re not doing what we need to be doing or want to be doing.

Maggie

Yeah, and I think I wanted to make sure that I didn’t die without living every inch of life. And seeing everything and having every experience and knowing what it is to be truly alive. I think that’s also been the interesting work of quarantine. All of that is very experience-driven. But what happens when all that’s gone and the only experience you have is of being inside your body? So much of my quarantine has been spent just breathing, really just having the meditation process, and doing that walk every day, and sitting, and sleeping, and just being. That is really when time starts to disappear. Or when I’m running: There’s this state in running when suddenly time just is completely gone—it’s the same thing in meditation. I think the change comes from age and wisdom. I’ve seen enough crazy fucking shit just perfectly intertwine and come together that I’m not worried about time anymore because I trust my time here. I trust death. I trust life.

William

Well, there’s a really interesting parallel here with this idea of achieving your dreams, and how you’re racing to get there, and you’re racing to get to the top. And then, you get there, and you’re like, Okay, now I’m here, so can I actually enjoy the view? Why am I still climbing?

Maggie

Right. What happens when you achieve all your dreams? What happens when you get to the top? That’s when the real work starts. For the first time, I’m finally not climbing. I’m not running at a wall anymore. Before, there was this giant wall that everyone said was insurmountable, and I was like, “Fuck you, I’m going to jump the wall.” And against all odds, and against even my own perception of what I was capable of, I did it. And well, now what? I don’t need to have a bigger crowd or make another record just to do it. That doesn’t do anything for me unless my heart’s in it.

William

You don’t need to fill a void. You’re not empty. You’re whole. Perhaps that’s it: Wholeness is the key to slowing down.

Maggie

Yes. The work that I’ve been doing is to not be affected by the pace or the expectations of others. In the end, what I want is to live a beautiful life in the way that I choose to define that—at the pace I choose.

Shop Atmos Volume 04: Cascade

Shop Atmos Volume 04: Cascade

In our fourth volume we explore the notion that every action is a choice—and each choice we make has a series of consequences, cascading across time. Water can conform to its container, or it can gather in force as whelming as a wave. What will you choose?

Shop Volume 04

In our fourth volume we explore the notion that every action is a choice—and each choice we make has a series of consequences, cascading across time. Water can conform to its container, or it can gather in force as whelming as a wave. What will you choose?

Shop Volume 04

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