Maggie Rogers’ “Alaska” was born with the kind of serendipitous discovery story entire TV series are commissioned to replicate. She was one of many students at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, a school with enough largesse to commission Pharrell Williams for a masterclass. That half-hour listening session made it to YouTube in its entirety, but the highlight was obvious. Eighteen minutes in, when Rogers played an early demo of her song “Alaska,” a star was born: Rogers, in a casual sweater and jeans, eyes averted, wincing in that way one does when hearing their own voice; Pharrell, moved to tears, invoking Stevie Wonder and the Wu-Tang Clan in his praise. The video went viral on the musical enclaves of Reddit, always ready to laud anything that sounds acoustic or authentic, and thus followed everything virality brings: getting signed, a headlining North American tour, the interview circuit, and hundreds of thousands of fans from the get go.
Like most famous discovery stories, though, this one doesn’t quite start at the beginning. Though she’s since been fêted around as an entirely new voice, Rogers has four releases on Bandcamp dating back to 2012. Recorded in high school, they show great promise in a specific genre: banjo- and ukelele-driven folk indebted to Joni Mitchell and Patti Smith. There are hints at Rogers’ current expanded direction on these early tracks, in the cirrus flicks of synths on “Drift” off 2014’s Blood Ballet, the cello-enhanced “Satellite,” or the entirety of The Response, a remix album of 2012’s The Echo that proves Rogers’ music is amenable, at least in theory, to dance. But for the most part the Bandcamp material provides thoughtful examples of a genre that’s simultaneously thriving and, unless your surname is Mumford, deeply, deeply unmarketable.
Rogers credits her new, synthier direction on “Alaska” and subsequent five-song EP Now That the Light Is Fading to a year of clubbing in Europe, but an equally apt explanation may involve facts of the marketplace. Pharrell said “Alaska” was like nothing he’d ever heard, but in 2017 it fits right in: a gently lilting beat that vaguely evokes tropicalia (or, for that matter, the Neptunes in their prime) along with a falsetto pre-chorus that vaguely evokes R&B. The result isn’t far off from Broods, or early Ellie Goulding, or, to go back to the last time folktronica blew everyone’s minds, early Beth Orton. Follow-up single “Dog Years,” dotted with pan flutes, comes across as the exact midpoint of Peter Gabriel, Lorde, and “Bleeding Love,” and while no one’s done that particular intersection lately, the industry’s certainly revived everything in the vicinity.
Perhaps this is why Now That the Light Is Fading feels transitional, as if Rogers is unsure how far from trad-folk she wants to stray. On one end of the spectrum is “Color Song,” which consists of bird chirps, Rogers’ multitracked choral vocals, and not much else. The track’s melody drifts up and down the scale like an old hymn or trad-Americana cut as the lyric lingers on certain evocative details (when she sings the word “creeping,” her vocals are tracked a split second off one another, letting the consonants crackle in the air), and nothing anywhere suggests Pharrell’s involvement, spiritual or otherwise. “On + Off” floats Rogers’ voice above a choppy, Flume-like backing track and insistent piano loop, and “Better” lets her sink amid a drone; both directions are promising, but in separate ways that don’t quite cohere. Rogers is a promising songwriter when unattended—“Alaska” in particular is full of understated heartbreak, sort of like a PG take on Tori Amos—but the poppier tracks here often dissolve into soft-rock nothingness.
A lot of this might resolve itself in time. Rogers is still very young at 22, after all, and she takes several game attempts at subtlety throughout the EP—the pan flute, the guitar line rippling through “On + Off” like wind chimes, the featherlight harmonies. She has a platform. She’s got ideas. But like all discovery stories, the real reward lies in what comes next.