The soulful singer-songwriter has populated her life with sisters and brothers she found along the way--all a product of timing that's a product of work.
Maggie Koerner has a voice that demands a witness. Originally from Shreveport, the singer-songwriter currently lives in New Orleans and has gathered a dedicated following due partly to her year-long stint as Galactic's guest vocalist, but in large measure it's due to her magnetic voice. Her songs are soulful melodies etched in pain, streaked in jubilance. Something about her seems spiritually fated, but perhaps it only appears that way because she's so determined that she seems to will opportunities into being.
Koerner will play Jazz Fest's Lagniappe Stage Friday at 2:15 p.m., and when she talks about her life, it becomes clear that she is fiercely loyal and dedicated to her relationships with others. She refers to her close friends as sisters and brothers, and her extended family abounds. Every time she explains her own music, she can't help but acknowledge the help others have given her. Only five minutes into our conversation, an excited fan hears the name "Maggie," sees her, and gushes about the many times she has seen Koerner perform live. "I'm doing an interview, I'm not this narcissistic!" Koerner insists, then happily spends the majority of their short chat praising Galactic's music and work ethic.
Maggie Koerner moved to New Orleans three years ago. Her first friends in New Orleans were local musicians, and their influence opened the city up to her, or to what she calls, "the quietness of it." Her friendships arose out of a combination of magical circumstance and a desperate, dogged desire to be surrounded by people she admires -- in Koerner's world, it seems hard to separate the two.She met fellow singer-songwriter Kristin Diable not in a studio but on a tourist-filled street.
"I met Kristin on the street in the Quarter," Koerner says. "We have the most kismet, amazing, meet-cute story ever. If we got married, it would be the greatest. She's like my sister." Producer Brady Blade introduced Koerner to Diable's music years ago, but it wasn't until Koerner came to New Orleans during a family vacation that she ran into Diable on Royal Street. And again at a wine bar, where a mutual friend of theirs was performing. And again, just driving past her on the street. "The running story is I stalked her until she became my friend," Koerner says, laughing.
These kinds of stories pervade Koerner's career. There's the time she and Kristin Diable were in Marseilles, France and by chance met two Parisian musicians who worked with Fink, a musician Koerner has loved for years. They gave her Fink's contact information, and a few months ago she went to Berlin to write songs with him. There's the time she became friends with David Shaw of The Revivalists (another "brother") who helped her land the touring gig with Galactic. There's the time she wrote with John Shirley of Cardinal Sons (of course, she considers them brother-sister bands) and discovered they were perfect collaborators and could write a song within an hour. There were the times she scatted over a song and picked out the right melody and lyrics to "Hey Na Na" and "Dolla Diva" for Galactic's hit songs. She transformed the scat "Oooz a dobba deeba" into the lyrics "You's a dolla diva," and when Shaw asked what that even meant, she made something up on the spot.
"I said, 'You know, dolla diva? That person who comes into the club and acts like they're fly as shit, but they've just got a dollar on 'em. They're acting like they've got money and they're cool as shit, but they're fronting.' And he was like, 'Okay, that works.'"
It's easy to say all of this was meant to be, that Koerner has a particular ability to find the places in the universe where she resonates in perfect tune with circumstances around her. The fortuitous moments wouldn't have presented themselves, however, if she wasn't constantly excited by their possibility, and so determined to find them.
A good student and hard worker throughout her life, Koerner said she started to come into her own in her twenties, finding her identity and like-minded souls that constituted a new kind of family. She fought hard to get her foot in the door and earn the respect of musicians she admired.
"I started choosing with my heart instead of doing what I was told," Koerner says. "In Shreveport, I had to go out and find the music people. It was like being in high school again. They had their own thing, they were a bunch of really cool dudes, some of the best musicians and singer-songwriters that I know. And it was hard. I felt like an outsider, that they thought of me as that girl that wanted to hang out with them. Through the years I got close to some of them, but it's hard for me because sometimes people think I just want to be rich or famous. But no - I want the whole career."
As a young woman with an independent style and sense of self, Koerner might have once had trouble earning the respect of established musicians, but that's in the past. She is used to writing the melody and lyrics to her songs, and she headlines her own shows now. In her song "The Prophecy," she sings, "I wanna plant something green on my front stoop / Watch it grow as I grow / for I am giving up this ghost." She was ready to abandon past demons and pursue a creative life, a life of growth, optimism fueled by the stubborn will of a plant growing through cracks in the concrete. Now, after years of constantly performing and writing music, she firmly considers herself a professional musician. Even her parents, who were initially concerned but supportive about her turn towards a creative life rather than use her degree in psychology, are on board.
"I started doing this for real at 23. When I got that Galactic gig, [my parents] started to see me as a professional musician," Koerner says. "Even though I already felt like a professional musician, driving the band and playing at a dive bar for four hours for $400. I felt like a musician, I was putting in the effort. But once I got on the tour bus, got the paycheck, was traveling the world, was playing for huge audiences--then my parents were like, 'Wow. Okay. We're not scared. You're really talented. This is not a hobby.'"
Though the year-long, international tour with Galactic was grueling, it made her a confident, thoughtful performer. Before the tour, she had performed for audiences of 100 people, at most. Overnight, she was playing for two to three thousand people at packed concerts across America and Europe. Koerner was barely fazed by the pressure.
"From the first show, I didn't allow myself to think about it really," she says. "I didn't allow myself to look at the audience before I got onstage the first night. I knew the songs, I was well-rehearsed. It felt like a natural transition because I was ready for that stage, and I'd been ready for that audience for so long. They might not have been my songs, but I got to explore these sexy, dancing-around, have-fun version of my music. Galactic taught me so much more of what I'm capable of as a singer and showman."
That period of her life not only gave her more confidence onstage, but it also pushed her to be a more ambitious, responsible songwriter. She was touring with Galactic during the same time the Ferguson protests were going on, and would wake up to CNN reports of new shootings and riots. She felt the urgency of the moment, and that she had a responsibility to a time that was pregnant with meaning.
"It got me thinking about my intentions as a songwriter," Koerner says. "I will continue to write songs about relationships because it continues to inspire me, and I think everyone can relate to the feeling of love or loss of love. However, I feel responsible as a songwriter, and feel that people with more status or power should feel responsible about what they're writing about. It's time we start writing songs again that spread the truth, that have the conversations that maybe we're a little scared to have. And I'm a privileged white girl. There're things I'm not allowed to say. I wouldn't say them because that'd be from a dishonest place. I have no fucking clue what things are like because I've always been in this body. But I do know that I can spread a message of how I want to live. We have a choice in how to live our lives. We can be foolish with our actions and words and be harmful to others, or we can wake up and go, 'I don't have to live like that.'"
When Koerner talks about her career, she is disarmingly confident about her future, and is looking for smart, practical ways to poise herself for a lifelong career. It's the same poise one hears in her music, when she doesn't back down from raw, vulnerable emotion or when she attacks a soulful passage with the lazy swagger of more experienced musicians.
"[I want] longevity. Respect," Koerner said, "I want a career that stands the test of time. I want my songs to do the same. I think I've grown a lot since the first album. I'm proud of them, but the growth in the past five years, I'm so excited to get the new music out.. I just want to continue to work with people that I like and respect. I want to write great songs, and I want to continue to make people feel."
Lagniappe :: The songs Maggie Koerner would put on for ...
a high-speed car chase, in which she had committed the felony:
"No Cars Go" - Arcade Fire
laying on a rooftop at 3am:
"Milk" - Kings of Leon
making breakfast in the morning:
"I put on Dr. John in the morning - 'Desitively Bonnaroo' on vinyl. Anything that's funky and happy."
if she was an alien princess driving through space:
"Maggot Brain" - Parliament-Funkadelic
hosting a dinner party for her closest friends:
"Always Fink - 'This is the Thing' or 'Blueberry Pancakes.' One of my favorite things to do in life is to have dinner parties. And I love telling people to go flip the record or go put on a new record. I love that. I have a lot of Cat Power, I'm obsessed with her."
And her favorite song to perform live:
"Of the new songs, probably 'Ellerbe Road' - that's a road in Shreveport."