In her new album ‘Surrender’, Maggie Rogers has quite possibly provided one of 2022’s defining pop masterpieces.
Words: Jessica Goodman. Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.
Maggie Rogers is living her best life. Five months ago, she was styling her way around New York City with David Byrne, The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser, and photographer Quil Lemons, filming the music video for one of her new singles. Three months ago, she was heading to the Colorado Desert to perform on the main stage at one of the world’s most popular music festivals. Now, with the release of her second album imminent, she’s taking the world by storm.
In the six years since she was first propelled into the spotlight via viral video, she’s become a force to be reckoned with. Search her name on YouTube now, and the results are in the thousands. There are music videos and concert clips, TV performances and red carpet interviews, fan covers and song tutorials, and compilation videos with titles like ‘maggie rogers being the purest person on the internet for 15 minutes straight’ – an impressive accolade and – as this particular videos 8000+ views seem to agree – it’s not wrong.
Talking over lunch in the restaurant garden of a central London hotel, Maggie is entirely in her element. She beams as she chats about how much she appreciates being able to travel to promote her new record, and practically glows as she enthuses about an album listening party she held for fans earlier in the week. Conversing about making music and about the connection it brings, there’s the very real sense that this is what Maggie Rogers has always been meant for – and she’s making the most of every moment.
“I got everything I’d ever dreamed of, and so much more, on that first album,” she reflects of ‘Heard It In A Past Life’. She recognises her sentiment as one that might seem cliché, but as she goes on to describe the experiences that record brought her – touring the world, playing in front of audiences everywhere from Saturday Night Live to Sydney Opera House – her sense of appreciation and wonder is so tangible it practically speaks for itself.
Having spent so long on the road even before she released that first album, touring to promote her 2017 EP ‘Now That The Light Is Fading’, if she ever felt the weight of any expectations around creating a follow-up, it wasn’t while making her new record, but while making her debut. As such, going into making album two she describes herself as having felt blessedly pressure-free.
“I felt like there was a real sense of freedom with this second record,” she expresses. “Now that I’ve achieved everything I could ever possibly dream of, I was like, ‘I’m going to make something I really fucking love.’” Retreating to her parents’ house in Maine – where she spent the majority of lockdown – Maggie found herself not only removed from the pressures of her work, but returning to making music the way she did when she first started writing songs.
Surrounded by jagged coastline and unforgiving ocean, it was there that she laid the foundations for the album we now know as ‘Surrender’. “All the time in lockdown gave me the space to make a record as if no one was watching,” she conveys. It should come as no surprise, then, to hear that with her second album Maggie has created some of her most intimate songs yet. “I was making music and writing songs just to explore my internal world and pass the time,” she describes. “I think, in that way, this record is super personal, really vulnerable, and really raw. I am really writing about my personal life, which I usually feel is really private.”
“This record is super personal, vulnerable, and raw. I am really writing about my personal life”Maggie Rogers
Opening up can be a daunting thing even without an audience, never mind an audience that spans across the globe. That said, when it comes to her songwriting, honesty is something Maggie can’t create without. “To write it all down and then be here, and you’ve heard a bunch about my personal life?” she asks, grinning as she describes the interview we’re currently in the middle of. “It’s super personal and really weird,” she laughs, “but I don’t know how to do it any other way.”
It’s this instinct for honesty – coupled with her ability to take characters and emotions and paint them into life through her melodies and words – that makes Maggie’s music so relatable. “There’s a real power in that connection,” she conveys. “I feel like, if I share my vulnerability, and it resonates with you, it means that I wasn’t alone in feeling what I felt.”
The need for affirmation is a deep-seated one. Love, loss, confusion, comfort, anger, amazement, whatever emotions you might be feeling, the sense that you’re not alone in feeling that way can be transformative. It can sustain you through highs, lows, and everything in between. It’s what draws us to art, to music, to songs, and when we connect with them, it provides a sense of catharsis, of fulfilment, that keeps us going through the chaos.
This need for connection, to make sense out of the turbulence we live through, is one Maggie was innately aware of while making ‘Surrender’. “I feel like so much of the record I was trying to create or dream up the world I wanted to live in,” she details. “Making a world for myself, making a world to escape to, a place to go live outside of where I was… I needed that. I needed to believe things were going to be okay.”
One place she found that feeling was in films. After watching 10 Things I Hate About You on a transatlantic flight, she was inspired to write a song that channelled all the hope and optimism she was searching for. “I had this thought that it would be nice to write a song that sounded like the end credits to a movie,” she describes. “End credits, they’re when everything’s worked out. I think I needed to believe that there was going to be a happy ending.”
Said song arrives in the form of lead album single ‘That’s Where I Am’, a gleefully freewheeling ode to love and the belief that (as she sings in the chorus) “it all works out in the end”. In true teen flick anthem fashion – like Lindsay Lohan’s ‘Drama Queen (That Girl)’ before it, and Myra’s ‘Miracles Happen (When You Believe)’ before that – the video features the singer styling her way through an array of iconic outfits with a boundless sense of empowered resilience. It’s an open invitation to revel in the triumph and satisfaction of a happy ending, a dose of hopeless romanticism as an act of resilience, even if it’s just an escape – real life, after all, is rarely that straightforward.
“The other day, someone asked me what I learned during the pandemic,” Maggie states. “I learned I was really angry. I didn’t know. It took the quiet for it to come out.” When she started writing for this record in her parents’ garage two years ago, this is the path she thought ‘Surrender’ would walk down. Fuelled by frustration at the state of the world, it wasn’t until she started playing the songs back that she found the hope she’d subconsciously been fighting to find already existed in what she was creating. “I was shocked,” she laughs. “I used the record to process a lot of feelings, but it sounds really joyful.”
While, on paper, that might read like a cataclysm of emotion, on ‘Surrender’ it feels like two sides of the same coin. “Joy and anger, they’re both feelings that totally overtake your body,” Maggie explains. “I think that it makes the joy feel hard-won. I believe it when I hear it because you can tell that I fought to get there.” Listening to the record, you can hear the fight. It’s in every heartfelt echo and screaming hook, pent up in delicate chords and unleashed in thunderous refrains. Even in the stripped-back, quiet moments, there’s an instinctive power to these songs, one that feels raw and untameable – and purpose-built for the stage.
These are songs for muddy fields. They’re songs for when you don’t quite know what time it is, or who most the people around you are, or even quite where you are. They’re songs for not being able to hit the high notes but singing them anyway, songs for screaming and dancing along to with strangers and just being in the moment – and none fit this description more than ‘Shatter’.
With its rapturous chorus refrains of “I don’t really care if it nearly kills me,” and “I’d do anything just to feel with you”, the song is an ode to fear and resolve and fighting and feeling alive, delivered with so much thunder it feels capable of bringing the roof down from any stage it’s performed on. “Oh my god, it was all I wanted,” Maggie exclaims of performing live. “I think I felt so numb in the pandemic that I really just wanted something that could be embodied in that way. I wanted that live feeling.”
It’s an energy that can be felt throughout ‘Surrender’. “Playing music… It’s my favourite thing to do in the whole world,” she declares. “It had also been my life for so long, so it was what I knew.” Inspired by British festivals in particular (“they’re my favourite music experiences I’ve ever had as a fan”), with her second record, the pop star has made an album full of songs made for getting lost in. But more than that, these are songs made to stay with you. These are songs made to last.
“Making this record, after making ‘Heard It In A Past Life’, I was keenly aware of the fact that I was going to play these songs millions of times,” she describes. Knowing how big a part performing live will play in the life of any song she writes, it seemed natural to her to write songs with that destination in mind. “I’m going to live inside them – for a couple of years, but if they’re good, for the rest of my life,” she continues, then shrugs. “I might as well like them.”
The live stage is something Maggie’s spent a lot of time thinking about over the past couple of years – and not only in the context of writing and performing her own music. “Going to concerts, that’s always been the most spiritual experience I’ve ever had,” she conveys. “Coming out of the pandemic, I really wanted to think about community and about how we come together and how we create meaning, and I really wanted to think about power.”
To do this, she returned to formal education, enrolling to study for her masters at Harvard Divinity School. “Trump’s probably going to run for re-election, and I’m going to be on stage with a microphone,” she states. “What do I do with that?” Through her studies, she set about educating herself on the best and most ethical way to use the platform she’s been given. “It felt like the best way to spend a year, just really thinking about how to dismantle systems of oppression, how to bring people together, and how to create a structure around being an artist that would keep the art really intact for a long time.”
“Trump’s probably going to run for re-election, and I’m going to be on stage with a microphone. What do I do with that?”Maggie Rogers
She’s already putting what she’s learned into practice. For the public presentation component of her Master of Religion and Public Life degree (which she was awarded earlier this year), she submitted her performance at Coachella Festival. As a by-product of her doing so, her fans earned their own accolade too. Fans on her discord server have realised that anyone who watched can add “participant in a demonstration for a graduate-level thesis on the spirituality of public gatherings and the ethics of power in pop culture” to their own achievements (and their LinkedIn).
Maggie’s academics and her music were always going to be intertwined. Both her new record and her graduate thesis share the title ‘Surrender’, a title she says she’s been holding on to since summer 2019. “’Surrender’, to me, is about letting go, being present, feeling all there is to feel,” she portrays. “There’s been so much death in the last couple of years that making a concerted effort to feel the most alive, to feel pleasure, to really define what does it mean to live a beautiful life…” These are the emotions, the wants and needs, that have shaped her writing for the past two years. “In my thesis, I was exploring that in the way of what it means to be an artist and to think about the art as a spiritual practice,” she explains. “On my record, I’m exploring it through personal feeling.”
Feeling is exactly what she has always strived to create. Whether you’re angry, joyful, somewhere in between, all of the above, or more besides, ‘Surrender’ is all about experiencing those feelings. Much like the artists she references throughout these songs – David Bowie, Dolly Parton, Britney Spears – are a part of her own story, with the release of her new record, she hopes maybe her music might offer a soundtrack to yours.
Like the characters in her songs, the artists she namechecks have all been a part of crucial moments in her life. “The first album I ever bought was a dual purchase between ‘Baby, One More Time’ and the orchestral score to the first Harry Potter movie,” she laughs, explaining the importance of Britney in her life, who she references on ‘Be Cool’. “That sort of tells you everything you need to know about my personality.”
The album’s most iconic reference appears on ‘I’ve Got A Friend’. If you’ve ever been still awake in the early hours after retreating from a night out, curled up next to a friend and telling them you love them, then you know how this song feels. The track is stripped back, reverently heartfelt, and boasts the ready-to-send-social-media-into-a-tailspin lyric, “I’ve got a friend who’s been there through it all, masturbates to Rob Pattinson staring at the wall,” that can only come from knowing someone inside and out.
Asked if the actor is aware he’s mentioned on the record, Maggie pauses, then bursts out laughing. “I hadn’t thought about that actually,” she eventually admits. “I wrote it because I wanted to write a love song for my friend.” The friend in question, she assures us, has already heard the track and knows it’s found a home on the album. “I wrote it for her, just as a friend. Then when I was thinking about putting it on the record, I got her permission.”
Recorded at Electric Lady, the track features a whole host of friends – both playing instruments and as background characters – including Clairo, Claud, and Jon Batiste. “It was just all the people I love who were around,” Maggie fondly recalls of her time at that studio. “We went to New York because we were feeling like the record needed a little bit of community.” So that’s exactly what she and co-producer Kid Harpoon found.
It was while they were in New York that Maggie had her most productive day of songwriting yet. ‘I’ve Got A Friend’ was recorded on the same day as two other album tracks: lead single ‘That’s Where I Am’ and her latest single ‘Horses’. An anthem of desperation and resounding strength, this is Maggie Rogers at her most emotionally raw.
“It’s one of my favourite things I’ve ever made,” she describes. “I felt like I was going to break the whole time I was making it. But everyone felt like that then.” Born out of anger and relentless will, ‘Horses’ channels the energy of a storm in all of its wild ferocity. Finding heartbroken acceptance in the admission that “it’s not worth it if I can’t touch the ground” and forging her own blistering empowerment with the lyric “I see horses and I know there’s a way”. This isn’t just Maggie’s songwriting at her most exposed – it’s Maggie at her strongest.
It’s a track she admits as being hard for her to listen to, even now. You can hear the weight of the emotion in her voice, her exhaustion and her passion all the clearer in the track’s rawness. Like most of the vocal tracks on the album, the vocals for ‘Horses’ were recorded in just one take. It’s a conscious decision she made on this record, wanting the energy of these songs to feel live, the emotions of these songs to feel raw. “The feeling, the emotion of it, the experience of it, it’s not super pretty,” she describes, “but it’s the truth.”
This is a sentiment that can be applied to the whole album. “There was something in me I had to get out,” she expresses. Finding an unexpected amount of catharsis in bringing these songs to life on record, the process of making her second record she describes as having left her feeling lighter, cleaner. “It is so nice that it’s like, over there now. It’s not inside of me,” she laughs. “I feel so much better now that I have gotten it out.”
Now, with the album about to be released into the world bearing her heart on its sleeve, she’s gleefully excited to see these songs and their emotions take on a life of their own. “When I think about sharing it, it feels really powerful,” she states. “There’s nothing about this record that I’m nervous about or worried about, because it just…” She trails off for a moment, considering her words. “It doesn’t really feel open to question for me, because it is the truth. It is what it is. And that’s weirdly really empowering.”
Once this record is out there, these songs are yours to make your own, to find your own meaning, catharsis, or even just enjoyment in. Wherever you are, whoever you are, as of right now, these songs are for you. Wherever and whenever you find them, these songs will still be for you. “I feel like I really don’t know the record I’ve made until I go tour it,” Maggie contemplates. “There’s something in the repetition, where things come out of the songs that I didn’t even know.”
“It’s all I want. I feel like it’s all anyone wants – to feel connected”Maggie Rogers
It’s one of the reasons she doesn’t use a lot of pronouns in her songs. “That was a conscious choice a long time ago, because I wanted the songs to feel open to anybody who wanted to relate to them,” she states. As well as this, it allows the songs’ meanings to evolve and grow along with whoever is listening and wherever they’re relating to the music from. “One night, it’ll be about a city. The next night, it’ll be about a friend, or a parent, or a romantic interest, or sometimes I’ll be talking to myself,” the pop star describes of performing songs on the road. “There’s space for me to come back to it with what I’m going through.”
You can experience this for yourself this autumn when Maggie hits the road across the UK and Europe for her stunningly named Feral Joy tour. “I think that joy can be a form of rebellion,” she comments of the tour title, “of really saying ‘I’m here and I’m alive’.” Much like ‘Surrender’, feral joy is a celebration of joy that’s hard-won. “There’s something biting or dangerous about it,” she details. “It’s that letting go that is completely unbridled. It feels like freedom.”
It’s something she can’t wait to revel in with her audience by her side. “I feel so fucking lucky,” she enthuses. “You can’t choose your fans.” Cackling at social media in-jokes, squealing over song-inspired nail art, and waxing lyrical about her experiences meeting fans at her listening party and at her shows, Maggie’s appreciation for her audience is just as profound and boundless as their appreciation for her.
“They’re the loveliest people,” she enthuses of her fans (who have recently settled on the fan group name ‘Magpies’) – and she’s not wrong. Her Discord server might actually be the most wholesome place on the internet. “There’s such a shared synergy and care and respect,” she continues excitedly. “I always feel like, if I didn’t know them personally, that they might be a friend of a friend. It’s that sort of community. What’s also cool is that I feel like there’s real space for conversation there, both ways, which I really fucking value.”
The respect is mutual. For her part, Maggie uses her Discord server to share lyrics and details of upcoming singles, offering song previews via phone hotline and taking feedback on what they’d like to see from her on social media, as merch, and more. In return, her Magpies offer that feedback, share #maggie-memes and fan art, and provide a place where they all can sound out and find truly heartfelt life advice.
“It’s all I want. I feel like it’s all anyone wants – to feel connected,” Maggie stresses earnestly. “That connection, that sense of understanding, knowing you’re not alone in feeling something…” It’s what drives her to create, what draws her audience to listen, and it’s never felt more vital than right now. “Things feel so weird and isolated and dark and crazy, so being able to connect to someone emotionally…” she enthuses. “I think it’s the most valuable thing in the entire world.” ■
Taken from the July 2022 edition of Dork, out now. Maggie Rogers’ album ‘Surrender’ is out now.