The music world has been patiently waiting for a follow-up to Maggie Rogers’s triumphant indie-pop record “Heard It In a Past Life” — the 2019 album that would eventually lead to a Best New Artist Grammy nomination and widespread critical acclaim. True Rogers superfans know, however, that “Heard It In a Past Life” was far from the singer-songwriter’s debut. Rogers’s catalogue extends far back into her past, beginning with a talented teenage girl and her banjo. Rogers, before releasing new music, intends to honor this past — songs that have floated around small New York City venues and lesser-explored corners of the Internet — with the release of “Notes From the Archive: Recordings 2011-2016” on Dec. 18. In this compilation, Rogers’ past work finds a permanent foothold.
One may wish to listen to the archival collection without interruption, but Rogers also released a version interwoven with personal commentary. In these commentaries, Rogers divides the record into four sections and puts each in context — a rock EP, a sophomore folk record, a college band and her musical debut. With anecdotal wisdom throughout, the record takes on structured form, and the autobiographical noise of her then-unreleased music takes on new meaning. The record is also retroactive in structure, beginning in 2016 and ending in 2011. In her introductory commentary, Rogers describes hearing herself get younger as “hilarious” — it is also a genius way to illustrate growth. Once you reach the end of the record, in Benjamin Button fashion, the listener gains both a unique retro-perspective on how artists grow and evolve as well as a sense of glowing pride for the young, naive version of Rogers that has yet to learn her power.
Beginning in 2016 with an indie rock EP, the record starts off on an ethereal, hazy, guitar-heavy note. Rogers, in her commentary, reminds us that this EP was created simultaneously with “Now That the Light Is Fading” — her 2016 indie-pop project that would contain the otherworldly “Alaska,” her breakthrough track. Her versatility is on full display in this portion of the album — Rogers can make dreamy rock just as well as electronic pop. A highlight of the rock effort is the opening track, “Celadon and Gold” — it’s a bit removed from the confessional lyricism of her folk roots, but nonetheless a solid, head-bopping tune with impressive ambiance.
Part II of the record begins with Rogers’s 2014 self-released folk record “Blood Ballet,” in which Rogers’s vocal and lyrical style are more central. “Little Joys” is a stand-out track, an emotive ballad complete with haunting strings. There is a stroke of pure innocence in the folksy track “James,” dedicated to her highschool boyfriend, where Rogers sings, “No don't be a stranger, no don't go too far / And though you love places that have lots of stars / Just know in the city, you'll always have a place to stay.” It is a record brooding with coming-of-age sentiment, but also the confused musical identity of a young artist, in a new city, attempting to find her sound.
Part III of the compilation is the shortest, but one of the most fun to listen to. Rogers, for at time during her college days at NYU, was in an alternative band called Del Water Gap with childhood friend and frequent collaborator Holden Jaffe, who is still the band’s frontrunner — you may have heard his 2017 indie hit “High Tops.” Rogers chooses to include just one Del Water Gap song, “New Song” — it never got a proper title — which is preceded by a 17 second clip entitled “(Does It Feel Slow?)” The clip is merely an audio snippet of Holden asking Maggie if his pace is off — a seemingly insignificant outtake, and yet reified on the compilation. Rogers immerses the listener in that makeshift studio setting in honoring the mistakes inherent to the process of writing songs in a tiny dorm room.
By the time the end of the compilation is reached, Rogers is at the earliest point in her creative past. Though written and recorded in high school, her self-released debut “The Echo” is still a confident body of work. In her commentary, Rogers concedes that her tastes have since changed, and her skills in music production have obviously improved — but she still feels that “The Echo” stands as valid testament to the formation of her identity. The track “Kids Like Us” mourns the transience of youth — “And they will all be wishing they could just be kids like us / But I'm getting older with each day / And soon I'll be wishing too.” The track feels especially bittersweet, as we know exactly what will become of the young Rogers over the decade to come.
Rogers is a pop star, but she is also a devout lover of the creative process. Equipt with a degree in music engineering and production from NYU, attention to detail is an integral part of what makes Rogers a stand-out act — but she had to let go of that perfectionism in order to present these songs in their original form. Mistakes and missteps are inevitable in amateur recordings, but they allow for a raw, textured and honest account of how Maggie Rogers, the pop star as we now know her, came into being. It is obvious that Rogers doesn’t wish to merely ride the coattails of the commercial success of her folk-pop debut, but call special attention to the hard work that prepared her for that lucky break. The popular narrative of Rogers’s career has often been misconstrued to include her “discovery” by Pharell Williams as the origin point and exclude the rich foundations of her musical past. “Notes From the Archive: Recordings 2011-2016” is a testament to Rogers’s reverence for artistry and pays necessary tribute to a past which informs her future.