With four tiers of gaudy scarlet furnishings and gold balconies set beneath a large silver disco ball, KOKO is perhaps one of London’s most outlandish, and yet intimate venues, hosting an array of global artists including Prince, Elton John and Ed Sheeran over the years. Tonight, however, it is home to a new face on the pop scene: Maggie Rogers.
Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ blasts as Rogers run out, a whirlwind of silver tassels and waist length hair. It’s an apt anthem for an artist who bounds across the stage, mouth breaking into a wide grin, her white cowboy boots two-stepping towards the crowd.
“I’m Maggie,” she says brightly, before bouncing into her first song.
Her stage presence is electrifying to say the least; she closes her eyes and dances wildly about the stage, filling the room with not only her lilting vocals but also an infectious exuberance. Her joy is palpable.
Her set flits from spinning dance numbers to soulful acapela, a musical eclecticism that has seen her dubbed as the new face of “folktronica”. However, traces of her folk roots – she released two folk albums prior to her breakthrough EP – are clearly visible in her songwriting, which has a poetic, timeless quality, filled with literary metaphors and references to the wild landscapes of Northern America.
Midway through the set, she cranes her neck back to gaze up to the red ceiling and the balconies above. “We’ve never played a show like this,” she intones softly into the microphone, turning to her band, hand to mouth, shaking her head. It is perhaps this humility and gentleness, alongside her sheer talent, that has amassed Rogers a legion of dedicated fans, despite her limited discography.
Rogers burst onto the pop scene in 2016 when a video of Pharrell Williams reacting to her college assignment track, ‘Alaska’, went viral overnight, making her one of the rising stars of the digital music age, alongside figures such as James Bay and Alessia Cara who also began their careers online. However, two years after her career first exploded, Rogers still seems mildly in awe of her own achievements. She pauses between each song to speak frankly to the room, as though addressing a pub table, not a packed concert hall. She narrates her set with thoughtful anecdotes: “this journey has been overwhelming, in a good way,” she says, before dedicating a new song, ‘Light On’, “to all of you,” gesturing to the crowd, who, she notes, have made this all possible.
The last twelve months have seen female artists begin to redefine what it means to be a woman in the music industry today: just look at Janelle Monae, Kesha, Laura Marling, Emmy the Great, to name but a few who are pushing boundaries within their fields. It’s something Rogers herself touches on, as she introduces another new track, ‘Back In My Body’. She speaks gently but confidently to the crowd below: “I wanted to write a song about my body that wasn’t sexualised.” It’s an emotive and poignant performance that affects me deeply, and I am left contemplating her words as my bus trundles away through the dark city in the early hours of the morning.
It strikes me that so often, as women, we feel disembodied. We have grown to view our bodies as entities separate from ourselves, in part due to the way we see them consumed in the popular media. They are limbs to be groped, flesh to be claimed; we feel betrayed by them, scared of them, constantly aware of them. Pop music is part of this – the female bodily experience in pop is almost always an exercise in the male gaze, even when it is coming from the mouths of female songwriters. So Rogers makes a powerful lyrical and musical statement by observing the feminine form through a woman’s eyes, outside the bounds of lust and desire.
I let the lyrics play back in my mind as I walk along the quiet streets that wind towards my house: “this time I know I’m fighting/This time I know I’m back in my body.”
There is something fierce and yet humble about Rogers’ music, and her performance tonight, a quality that will no doubt see her turning more and more heads after her album release later this year.
Image: Chalk Press Agency