David Remnick: Maggie Rogers came on the music scene in 2016 when she was 22 years old and had a viral hit song called Alaska.
Rogers' debut album wound up on a lot of best-of lists. This summer she released a much-anticipated follow-up called Surrender.
Kelefa Sanneh: I don't know if this is considered a hot take in this room, but I think it's even better. Please, let's remind her how excited we are to have her in this building and on this stage, Maggie Rogers.
David Remnick: Staff writer, Kelefa Sanneh, welcomed Rogers to the stage at a New Yorker live event just a couple of weeks ago. The evening was something special because she was there to talk with a mentor of hers, a musical legend, the renowned hip-hop artist, producer, and band leader, Questlove. Now let's turn things over to Kelefa Sanneh.
Kelefa Sanneh: I knew about Questlove way back when he was merely considered the greatest drummer in the history of hip hop. That was a long time ago. These days he's everywhere. Co-Founder of The Roots, musical director of The Tonight Show, six-time Grammy winner, recent Oscar winner, [applause] and the director of a forthcoming Sly Stone movie. I can't wait. Many of us think of Questlove as a kind of musical professor, but Maggie, he was actually your professor at NYU. What did you learn?
Maggie Rogers: It was pretty remarkable. It was my senior year of college. I was taking a class on Michael Jackson's Thriller and in the middle of the class, Prince died. It also became a class that was really about 1999 and Thriller. I think it was the week that we were studying the correlation between the two records. It was awesome.
Kelefa Sanneh: You're making me feel really old. In my day, we had nothing like that in college.
Maggie Rogers: I think it was a very specific NYU, like we're going to do the thing course.
Questlove: In my day we had nothing like that. I had to create it.
Maggie Rogers: Thank you for doing that.
Kelefa Sanneh: Do you remember Maggie? What impression did you have of her back then?
Maggie Rogers: Do you?
Questlove: It's weird.
Maggie Rogers: I don't know.
Questlove: You know what's weird about that particular class because there are so many standouts. The Take A Daytrip guys who produced Lil Nas X. That was the first time in which, in my head, by the second week, I was like, "Oh no, these students are smarter than I am." Normally, I'm a know-it-all in this very specific area, but it's like now I have to go home and do three-hour studies on certain symp patches and drum machines and all those things
Kelefa Sanneh: I was going to say, I would think it would be impossible to stump you. You talked about Michael Jackson and Prince. What's the discussion like when you're talking about musicians like that?
Questlove: Well, there's a general theme that initially I was doing a study on. I'm really obsessed with why people sabotage momentum. A lot of times artists might be in a position where they get to a particular pinnacle and then they do something called the departure album, which is a cutey artistic way of saying I'm scared to attempt the Stillman Louise jump over a mountain cliff.
Especially with the Thriller situation. I asked a question last year beforehand, which is basically like, "How many of you are familiar with Thriller, like at least have heard of it?" Most of the answers of those 28 students were sort of like, "Yes, my grandma has that record." It's only six of them maybe heard it once or twice or three times. I thought that was an interesting way to go.
Maggie Rogers: I had never really listened to Prince before. I grew up in rural Maryland. There was a lot of bluegrass growing up. My parents weren't super into music. My little brother has really sensitive hearing. There were all these reasons. There was sometimes a lot of music if it was just me and my mom, then I got to music really like self-discovery as I was growing up. It was so sick to hear Prince for the first time as a 22-year-old in your class.
Kelefa Sanneh: I can't imagine being a college kid, Questlove is your professor and he assigns you, Prince.
Maggie Rogers: It's pretty magic.
Kelefa Sanneh: He's like, "I think you're going to like this record."
Questlove: I didn't even pull out the bells and whistles. The first year, the Beastie Boys came for finals and I had Wendy and Lisa from the Revolutions come in and teach class.
Maggie Rogers: That's insane.
Questlove: Did DeAngelo come to your--
Maggie Rogers: Not my class.
Questlove: That was the year before. By the fourth or fifth year, I felt confident enough that I didn't have to pull out any bells or whistles. Sorry about that Mag. I definitely remember your version of Billy Jean. Really made an impression.
Maggie Rogers: Oh my God.
Questlove: No, but it made an impression on me and Harry, my co-teacher.
Maggie Rogers: That's so funny.
Questlove: Harry Weigner-
Maggie Rogers: I completely forgot about this.
Questlove: -who runs Universals'-
Maggie Rogers: He's amazing.
Maggie Rogers: The assignment was to remake Billy Jean and my--
Questlove: She did a departure version of it.
Maggie Rogers: I chose to go yacht rock.
Questlove: That's when I realized like, "Oh, damn-
Maggie Rogers: Thank you.
Questlove: -I think she might be the one." Because I was often wondering like of all my students, which ones will I be backstage in 10 years like "Questlove. Okay. I'll wait out here."
David Remnick: Questlove talking with his former student, Maggie Rogers at a New Yorker live event earlier this month in Manhattan. Staff writer, Kelefa Sanneh hosted. Just ahead, we'll hear a live performance from Maggie Rogers.
This is The New Yorker Radio Hour, more to come.
This is The New Yorker Radio Hour, I'm David Remnick. There aren't many things that I enjoy more than listening to great musicians talk about their craft and the meaning of what they're doing. It was a real treat for me to be in the audience during this conversation between Ahmir Thompson, better are known as Questlove, and Maggie Rogers. Some years back Questlove was teaching at New York University and Rogers was one of his students.
In 2016 just after finishing NYU, her career took off, but after building a big reputation in the indie music world, Rogers hit pause and she went back to school, Harvard Divinity School. Here's Rogers and Questlove, joined by The New Yorker's Kelefa Sanneh at a New Yorker live event to talk about music, religion, and much more.
Maggie Rogers: Well, I think in the pandemic, I started really thinking about what I wanted from my life, but also I started asking a lot of questions about what music means to me and what are the things that mean the most to me? How do I define success? What do you do with power when you have it? The most sacred moments I've ever had in my entire life have either been on stage or in a crowd around music. I found when I finished touring, Heard It in a Past Life, I was so deeply burnt out. I hadn't been creative in a really long time.
There was this mismatch of trying to tour, exhausted my body and brain so that I couldn't write music, but filled my soul so much because I was feeling so connected. The sort of third part of this was really wanting to create some sort of sustainable system for myself where I could really think about how to move within this industry and this craft in a way that could make me as creative as possible and in that, as free as possible but also if I really am going to sit here and talk about the spirituality of music, I then really need to go think about what does it look like to decide that's a spiritual discipline.
What is the relationship between the artist and the audience, and what are the ethics of holding that? I don't know if I have a ton of answers, which is also why I love studying religion, because there are no answers, but that's why I went to school.
Questlove: Now, I have a question.
Kelefa Sanneh: Yes. I bet you do.
Questlove: It's like we're meeting for the first time.
Maggie Rogers: Yes, I know.
Questlove: Well, now, I'm curious. How old were you when you truly felt the joy and the discovery of music? Where just magic was happening every day and this singer and that singer, and you're making secret tape. Well, I'm dating myself with tapes, whatever.
Maggie Rogers: The magic, I have this memory of laying on my living room floor listening to classical music. My mom told me that there was a story there, but I had to hear it. I was just like picturing what all these instruments could mean, and trying to decode this secret language. Then I don't know, middle school is when I was making tapes and was just so deep in.
Questlove: The reason why I ask that is because I think I had to discover two years ago, I have to figure out where nine-year-old Ahmir is, somehow I lost that. The pandemic either meant that you were going to heed the call of the universe and realize what your destiny is and return to the essence of where you should be in life, or you're just going to succumb and panic to death. I did a little bit of both, but for me, I'd often tell people now, the goal is just to be 8 or 9 or 10 or 11.
Kelefa Sanneh: It sounds like for both of you, there is this notion of maybe protecting yourself a little bit or finding a way to protect yourself. You mentioned Michael Jackson. I think you've talked about Britney Spears and these people that are consumed by their fans or their so-called fans. It makes me wonder what is that relationship, that hunger, that greed, that people like me, people who love music, but aren't musicians and just want a new album and want more music. What is that relationship between the fan and the musician? Are we the enemy?
Maggie Rogers: If you're the enemy, I'm the enemy too, because I want that in the same way. I think so much of my interest in this comes from having this unbelievably deep reverence for music and for the process. As far as the fan-artist relationship, the word that I have become way more comfortable with other than fan is community because to me deeply feels like an ecosystem. Where when I sit down and write down my most vulnerable feelings for sport or profit, [laughs] when someone hears that or connects to it, it's often this moment of feeling like I'm not alone.
You know what it is to be me and the best songs communicate human emotion as simple as possible. I always think about, I Want to Hold Your Hand by the Beatles, and no matter who you are you know what that feels like. I think that music when it's at its best has the ability to remind us that no matter who you are or who you voted for, or what's going on in your life, you know what it's like to feel sad, or you know what it's like to feel joy, and those central emotions connect us.
Kelefa Sanneh: We also know that sometimes our favorite music does not come out of joy. Sometimes the music that we love comes out of really hard times, and sometimes as a listener, I realize like, "Yes, my favorite artists, I want them to be happy. Sure, but what I really want is great music."
Questlove: Not to Mary J. Blige fans. If I have ever seen a conversation about fans are depressed when she's happy, but they love her when she's depressed because they're evidence sorting for their own emotions, which is sad that we often do that. I don't know for me, it's weird because even as I try to explain this to you now, I'm realizing why I taught those courses at NYU because I think pre-pandemic, I came from such a hard self-deprecating place with my art that every Roots' album would be a complete 180 from the album that came before.
It's almost like artists will try to ruin something like I'll quit the job before you fire me. It really took a lot of working on myself in the pandemic to ease out of that place of comfort where it's like I have to be depressed to make music or like that. Even artists I work with, the first thing they say is like, "Oh man, I got to get back with my ex so I can have some arguments." Embracing joy it's almost like a taboo, but I think now at least with this generation they're turning that narrative around where you have to embrace joy.
Kelefa Sanneh: That's Questlove the musician, you're also a listener. As a listener, do you embrace joy? I imagine as a listener, you still love some music that is dark.
Questlove: You know what I do now? I challenge because now me as the director is coming and I think that there was a fear that I was going to lose my music Jones. I had a routine where every Sunday I would force myself to listen to any music that -- A lot of times when we go on our playlist things, it's always like we have our go-to mix. We listen to the things that we're comfortable with and things that we know. I'm like, "Okay, I want to learn new music." Surely, there's 5,000 songs out there that can change my life.
I used to do this thing where every Sunday I'd listen to music or buy all these records and two to five hours, every Sunday, just listen to music and absorb it. Then once the movie happened, I started losing that routine and I got fearful. Now I have a new challenge where I have about 300 people that every month I have to present them 30 songs, as I say this, I'm like, "Wait, are you on this list?"
Maggie Rogers: A watch list.
Questlove: Okay. [laughs] Sorry. These are 300 very notable figures in the world, and to me, it's like, oay, if you can satisfy these hard-to-please artists and find 30 songs that are amazing, or at least they'll connect to two or three of them. Then that will force me to keep my routine up. No one's asked me to do this. No one's paying me to do this.
Maggie Rogers: It's sick.
Kelefa Sanneh: Are there any former presidents on the list?
Maggie Rogers: What?
Questlove: Yes, there are.
Questlove: Well, it started with him. I used to make his playlist, and then I slacked off.
Kelefa Sanneh: This is George W. Bush you're talking about?
Questlove: Bingo. I slacked off, and then I guess in the summer he was like, "Hey, where's my music?"
Kelefa Sanneh: Maggie Rogers, Barack Obama, and 298 other people.
Maggie Rogers: I'm in for that dance party.
Questlove: It's an impressive list.
Kelefa Sanneh: That's a good start.
Questlove: It keeps the pressure on for me. It's almost to the point I know half of my management teams are always like, "Oh, that's what you're doing at night instead of working on your synopsis or whatever." For me, now I'm obsessed with, by the 15th, I have to have a fresh set of 20 songs. I'm only up to 13. When I'm done with this, I'm going to dive into a thousand more songs.
Kelefa Sanneh: I'm going to try and make it 301.
Questlove: I'll gladly add you to the list.
Kelefa Sanneh: Maggie, how do you think about that? You take this time off, you go to Harvard Divinity School. You're thinking about what you need to just be okay and to be functional as an artist, but you make this album that like a lot of my favorite albums is a little bit emo or maybe more than a little bit emo.
Maggie Rogers: I think what I've learned about joy is that your capacity for joy only expands with your capacity for anger. I think those emotions are really similar. They both take over your body and have this swell in this way that you have to just or you get to just give in. So much of this record is about joy, but it's also really about anger and there was a moment where I was saying to a friend like, "How did I become the joy girl? I'm so much trouble, what happens when I'm having a bad day and someone wants to talk to me about joy?" which I'm having an okay day.
I think that it's really not about, are you ecstatic or are you so down? I think it's about your capacity to feel and that is uncontainable. Maybe it's easier to recognize when we really feel super sad as a songwriter because the light suddenly is more beautiful and you're the main character of the movie and it's raining. Maybe that's just rain.
Questlove: Is this The Notebook?
Maggie Rogers: Yes, someone's calling to you but I think noticing when life's really great is something to write about too.
Kelefa Sanneh: How did you think about which parts of your life you wanted to share with listeners and which parts you didn't want to share? There's moments on this album, I love lyrics that don't feel like lyrics like when you say,-
Maggie Rogers: What do I have?
Kelefa Sanneh: "-I know there's times I can be a lot to handle and I'm working with a therapist to take care of it." It almost just sounds like a sentence until you sing it. How do you think about what you want to put out there and what you don't?
Maggie Rogers: This is the most vulnerable record I've ever made. I think part of that was because of the pandemic. I really came back to making music. I made my first records when I was 17. I had a little studio in my parent's bedroom and I was writing songs just to move through. I wasn't thinking about an audience. I was just thinking about what the truth of my life was and what I needed to say in order to be able to externalize it and understand it outside of my body. It's been a different experience releasing this record because it's so private. I name-check the person my best friend masturbates to, like it's private.
Questlove: Check, please.
Kelefa Sanneh: I believe Robert Pattinson is here tonight in the building.
Maggie Rogers: There's been a much larger mourning phase in putting out this record and I think we all got a little bit emotionally attached to some things in the pandemic and I put everything I had into this record. It's been a different experience to release it, but as far as what I choose to share and what I don't, when I make a record I really think about making a record of a period of time.
When I play back the highlight reel, there are just moments that stand out in my memory or I use records to write a letter to someone and the lyric you reference is a song called Symphony where I was really speaking to a loved one and saying like, hey, it's going to be okay. I feel like a lot of my songs are made trying to be like, it's going to be fine.
Kelefa Sanneh: As a music historian, do you think we're going to look back on this era and see it as an era when there was a bunch of pandemic-related music made?
Questlove: I think that before 2020, maybe 1969 was probably the banner year that people will remember most in history, but there's literally no way that you can't and it's almost like, I feel like this entire decade will be a paradigm shift and a redefining of what is expressed. Just the fact that she feels free enough to be honest about her emotions. I know we've had the term emo or whatever in musical or whatnot, but normally it's almost like a way to ridicule.
Kelefa Sanneh: Not for me.
Questlove: At least way back in the day if anyone like emotions, especially like Black people invented cool which cool seems what it's supposed to be cool, but really cool is a defensive mechanism which means I can't show you emotions. My poker face like, oh man, he's so cool. Cool is holding things back and those things means emotions. I'm really glad that there are now people that are willing to take the sledgehammer and just break the walls down because as she said, a lot of people in my generation are suffering greatly because they don't feel safe for the ability to express who they are or what they feel and so I think this is an important step.
Kelefa Sanneh: I got some questions from the audience that are popping up on my iPad. Someone wants to know, anonymously, have you found it difficult to discuss your sense of spirituality with the people around you?
Questlove: In our everyday lives?
Kelefa Sanneh: Yes.
Questlove: I can't shut up about it. I don't want to be that guy that like, I hate to use this cliche. I had uncles that came home from jail and they'll be super hardcore Muslim and all those things and then they'll be on fire for maybe seven years and then they'll slack off and everyone backslides or whatever. For me, I think I found spirituality more and spirituality is basically tuning into yourself and finding yourself, you go inward with spirituality.
I think, for me, I've been on fire about it. I guess those in my circle do a proverbial eye roll, "Oh, here he comes again. Yes, we're meditating Ahmir." That sort of thing. I think it's also important because I'm in a genre and I come from a people in which by my age, back when the Roots started we were in our 20s, not getting shot at the club was the life goal. We're like, "All right, we're not going to get shot in the park." Then we turn 35 and it's like, oh damn, there's a new thing.
"We got to not get cardiac arrest and we got to take care of ourselves." By the time, a lot of my contemporaries, like the fact that Flavor Flav is 63 is one of the greatest things that I've ever heard in my life. Anybody that makes it over 60, like Ice-T, Chuck D, Flavor Flav, I'm so happy because a lot of us are just upcoming at 51, 52, 53, 54. I would've been, unfortunately in that list if it weren't for the world stopping and for me to really take an assessment of what my life was for those five decades before but people are tired of me, like, wake up, that sort of thing.
Maggie Rogers: My friends and I all feel fairly existential, so it feels like a really natural conversation. Also, I've been in deep conversation about systems of how we find meaning, like that's all I've talked about. Actually, I was with a close friend of mine in the music world who the other day was like, "Do you ever wonder why it all happens?" I was like, "Yes, It's all I've thought about for years."
Questlove: Your success or why your life is where it is?
Maggie Rogers: I think to me this is the interesting part because music is not a job. It's a way of being like, it's a part of you. To me, at least.
Questlove: I'm glad you know that at 20 because I had to learn that at 50.
Maggie Rogers: I know it because I feel it so inherently and that has been something I'm thinking a lot about. Sorry, I got so in it that I don't remember what I was talking about, but music rocks.
Questlove: Great deflection. All right, good.
Kelefa Sanneh: I love this question. Someone writes, I'm here with my dad and we've been talking a lot about how upbringings and family relationships shape our trajectories, our lives, our future relationships. How would you say your parents, family, and friends have affected you and your lives and your music? Big question.
Maggie Rogers: That's a memoir.
Kelefa Sanneh: I'll read it.
Questlove: Do you want me to go first while you think of an answer? [crosstalk]
Maggie Rogers: Quest's music rocks.
Questlove: Most people that know me. I'm forever going to use that as a way to-- "Look over there. Music rocks." Leave. I tell people all the time, I always attribute these two things to why I am the way I am about music. One, I grew up in a show business family and rule number one in my household, especially when you're the youngest person. I lived in a don't touch my stereo household.
As a result, I would love to make people think that yes, at the age of three, I knew the entire Nat King Cole catalog and the entire history of Weather Report and Miles Davis. The fact of the matter is that I wasn't allowed to touch the record player. I had some Stockholm syndrome way. With my sister and my father and my mother hogging my stereo, I had to take in all the music that they kept feeding me and feeding me and force-feeding me. It's like a musical version of [unintelligible 00:31:31] or whatever.
Wait, even I was impressed with that one. Then by the time I'm 16 when a lot of hip hop is sampling those records, then suddenly it was like, oh, I'm the smartest guy in the world because I know where this music came from, but it's that, and it's also the fact that my dad didn't believe in babysitters. Babysitters really wasn't a thing until the late '80s, like a stranger watching my kid while I'm on the road.
I had to get on-the-job training and as an oldie doo-wop singer. I was a seven-year-old in these nightclubs making myself busy, all of this. I would cut light gels. Like what a 10-year-old is allowed to walk into a bar and get a ladder and start marking. That was my job. Like to set the monitors and I would operate-- I was the richest fourth grader ever, I made $300 a week back in 1980 and that's because my dad, I had to work. It's like a firm, I had to work.
Between not believing in babysitters, between don't touch my cereal and no babysitters, that's how this knowledge was fed to me. I would like to think that I would've reached here on my own, but chances are probably not.
Maggie Rogers: I don't know. I think I'm really at the beginning of thinking about this question in general. When I think about this question, I really I was afforded the time effort, resources, energy, and love from my parents to be able to really explore what I was passionate about. That was the greatest privilege or gift. There weren't people in my family who were specifically interested in music.
It was really something I took ownership of. When Heard It in a Past Life came out my mom called me and she was like, "I hope you know that you did this. You were the one that asked for piano lessons. You were the one that applied to music summer camps behind our back. You were the one that made this happen."
Kelefa Sanneh: In a nice way.
Maggie Rogers: Yes, in a nice way.
Kelefa Sanneh: Not in a like, "This was your idea--"
Maggie Rogers: No. In just like, I hope you take a moment to really appreciate this because this was something you really like intuitively pushed for.
Kelefa Sanneh: Before I get off stage, I just wanted to thank you, Maggie, and Questlove for being here. Of course, thanks to everyone for coming out.
David Remnick: That's staff writer, Kelefa Sanneh talking with Questlove and Maggie Rogers at a New Yorker live event this month. We're going to leave you now with a performance from Rogers. It's the last song on our new album, Surrender. The song is called Different Kind of World.
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