On 18th December Maggie Rogers released Notes from the Archive: Recordings 2011-2016, a compilation album tracing back the years before her stratospheric career launch in a viral video of an NYU session with Pharrell Williams. The collection has been released on Rogers’ own label Debay Sounds, and an alternative version of the release with an audio commentary is available.
When Rogers announced the album, I was in love with the idea of the endeavour before I knew what the music sounded like. As one of the most cinematic origin stories in the business, it can feel like Rogers has a career built on one moment, a moment open for all to see on Youtube: (Link here). But of course, a career could never be built on one moment. What a wonderful experience – if incredibly anxiety inducing- that session with Williams must have been. But Notes from the Archive cracks open the narrative that only really serves PR people and short attention spans. Notes deconstructs the tidy convenience of the label ‘overnight success’, revealing the hours of dreaming and making, and space for the growth of skills and confidence that build an artist. I can see Rogers now, moving her head to ‘Alaska’, hyper aware of Williams there listening. It’s so special to be able to watch someone’s life change like that. But I can’t help but feel the real privilege has been to now see her sing her heart out in a cramped apartment in clips shared in the leadup to Notes’s release. We see the impulse that earnt Rogers her audience.
And not only has Rogers done this theoretically valuable thing in releasing her back catalogue, she has done it in style. Don’t skip Notes thinking just because the tracks were made before a big label put their name to her that they are any less worthy. These 16 songs, 6 previously unheard, came from the same talent that gave us ‘Alaska’, ‘Fallingwater’ and ‘Light On’- younger yes, but the same talent, just with less eyes on it.
‘New Song’ with Del Water Gap is a blinding standout: ‘for now we’re mistaken in thinking we fit’. The outro sits perfectly on that edge in her voice that ties your heart in knots. The whole collection, actually, is a testament to the earnest strength in her vocals that is so entrancing. It holds its own in the busier band tracks early in the album, tracks like one of my favourites ‘Together’ where you can taste the flavour of Heard it in a Past Life. Another track, ‘Resonant Body’ is timelessly special- the mixing of Roger’s voice calls from afar as the banjo part trickles over you. It sounds a bit like pins and needles feel just as it stops hurting and you are getting your foot back. Electronic details are used sparingly and bring stamina to the song’s magic. A similar spellbinding effect falls from the first melody of piano ballad closer ‘Satellite’. Rogers’ voice lurches in a way that will bring you butterflies whilst the combination of strings and piano will send you spinning. And then the addition of brass? Emotional upheaval.
Notes has reminded me of bands and band members, practice rooms and small gigs, bigger small gigs, guitar teachers and equipment. The people, the places, the things, and the music that defined my teenage years and my ambitions. It’s easy to relegate early experiences as incidental at best, or more likely embarrassing. Think of artists who delete their back catalogue once they are signed. But once you got somewhere you want to be, is it healthy to totally wipe away what got you there? Promise me you’ll put it on Soundcloud at least.
Notes has brought me a perspective that I want to bring into this new year. It’s all part of one life, everything you do, and you can’t skip any of it no matter how much you’d like to. Like Rogers has done with these 16 tracks, one day you will lay out a good portion of your experiences and see the path you took. There is a path, even if right now it looks like it begins in your room and ends in the kitchen or the bottom of the garden. Remember, in 2021, that whatever you are doing is a process. Even when it doesn’t look like it, you are undergoing a continual moulding and remoulding, a process of change and recovery and influence. It’s one long old journey whether you can extricate yourself enough from the moment for a second to glimpse some of it. You are moving forward. You are not stuck.