In the music video for Maggie Rogers’ single ‘That’s Where I Am’, she dances across a New York bridge during golden hour with reckless abandon. She twirls and punches the air in a turquoise, feather lined jacket, charging ahead at full speed as ecstasy beams across her face, like she’s finally found herself at the end of her own coming-of-age film. It’s the kind of joy that’s boundless, unstoppable – almost feral. It tells you everything you need to know about her new album ‘Surrender’ – that Rogers is ready to live larger, sing louder and feel deeper than ever.
Two months before the album’s release, NME meets Rogers in the dimly-lit restaurant of a central London hotel just before lunchtime, where the US singer-songwriter reflects on the spectrum of emotions she unearthed during the writing process. “Joy and anger are two motions that really ask you to full-body give in,” she says, coffee and half-eaten porridge in front of her. “When you’re feeling them, they completely take over. So much of this record is about giving into feeling.”
It was a process of surrender that, unsurprisingly, proves taxing to open up about. “Post-pandemic, this takes so much more energy,” she says after taking a second to reset, just two questions in. “I’m trying to be really present with you, and I’m just struggling a little bit. So stay with me.” She’s already moved NME’s dictaphone closer to her so she can speak a little quieter, still fatigued from jetlag, having flown into London just a few days before.
It’s been over three years since the release of her debut album ‘Heard It In a Past Life’ – a soul-baring journey through heartache, growth and self-discovery – which NME described as the work of an “idiosyncratic talent” who writes “empowering, honest songs about falling hopelessly in love, getting your heart broken, discovering your self-worth and picking yourself up off the floor”. It was an album that propelled Rogers even further into the spotlight, setting her up for a huge world tour and garnering praise from the likes of John Mayer and the Obamas – the latter pair even sending her a letter in which they described themselves as “huge fans”.
The album also earned Rogers a Best New Artist Grammy nomination in 2020 (she would lose out to Billie Eilish) and boldly reintroduced a singer who was always destined to outgrow her fairytale story of internet discovery. In 2016, a clip of Pharrell Williams being visibly moved by Rogers’ song ‘Alaska’ during a songwriting masterclass at New York University (NYU), her alma mater, went viral. Within the first few moments of the song being played, Williams bobs his head to the buoyant melodies and breezy cadence of Rogers’ voice, glancing at her with awe and excitement. “I have zero, zero, zero notes for that,” he says. “I’ve never heard anyone like you before, and I’ve never heard anything that sounds like that.” It was a life-changing moment, helping to secure Rogers a record deal and launching her music career, albeit one that “totally ignored all the work I’ve been doing in my entire life,” as she told NME in 2019.
“I wanted to make a portrait of my life right now and tell the truth”
But where Rogers’ debut was a portrait of transition and acceptance, her second record, co-produced by Kid Harpoon [Harry Styles, Florence + The Machine] is about trying to make sense of the emotional intensity of the past two years. “‘Heard It In a Past Life’ was really my chance to tell my side of the story of this big moment where my career was sort of launched, and there’s a lot of heartbreak and emotion and relationship within that, too,” she explains. ‘Surrender’, by contrast, is “way more about my intimate, internal life, because that’s all that was going on”.
A slew of emotions radiates throughout the album’s 12 purging tracks – channelled through distorted production and dense guitar riffs, balanced against hymnal piano compositions and raw, acoustic melodies – which paint a textured portrait of Rogers’ life at the time of writing, from romances, to friendships, to the state of the world around her. It’s the unapologetically honest work of an artist who spent the downtime of the last two years thinking deeply about what she wanted out of life, asking how she could live a “sensual, full-bodied” existence. “When I hear the record now, when I hear that joy, I also hear the tension of the anger, and I think it makes the joy feel earned.”
In early 2020, Rogers relocated to the coast of Maine, New England to move back in with her parents. It allowed her to make music the way she did as a teenager, without pressure or expectation. “I got to just slow down, be a person again and have desires outside of work,” she says. She fell into a natural rhythm of making music that she hadn’t experienced since she was 17. “In taking that pressure off, I was like, ‘Just don’t worry about anybody hearing this. You don’t need to think about that yet. Just write what’s on your mind. Try and make a portrait of your life right now and tell the truth’. And I think in that, I then became more unfiltered.”
Rogers was raised in Easton, Maryland, where she grew up learning to play the harp, piano and banjo. As a teen, she wrote and recorded music in her bedroom, some of which are immortalised in two hauntingly raw EPs ‘The Echo’ (2012) and ‘Blood Ballet’ (2014), which can still be found on the singer’s Bandcamp profile. The former helped her secure a spot at NYU, where she turned her musical upbringing to a more structured curriculum.
During her time at university, she dabbled in music journalism, and is credited as a transcriber in Lizzy Goodman’s romp through the ‘00s indie-rock scene, Meet Me In The Bathroom. Last year, Rogers revealed that she had enrolled at Harvard Divinity School to do a master’s degree in Religion and Public Life – a new course designed for “experienced professionals” who want to understand the “complex ways religion influences public life”.
Her decision to return to education coincided with a time in which she was living with intention, asking what it means to live a beautiful life and seeking a means to break out of the “eerie” numbness brought on by the uncertainty of the pandemic. ‘Surrender’, as a result, charts Rogers’ “natural evolution” to tell the truth of the person she is right now. It’s an album that, while originating in more remote settings, is inspired by the city that was formative in her artistic growth. “I think that there’s often this desire to create this binary of city-country, but it’s not really that simple,” she says. It’s the same reason why, in the past, she has been labelled a ‘nature girl’, telling NME in her last cover interview that she felt “nymph-fetishized”.
“I cold emailed David Byrne to appear in my video – he feels a part of this record”
It was a stereotype people were drawn to because of songs like ‘Alaska’ (“I was walking through icy streams / That took my breath away”), and tracks that would sample organic sounds like birds or falling trees, along with the appeal of her natural-looking style – long hair and freckles, which she didn’t cover up in photoshoots. But such misconceptions only sought to push the singer into a box. “I think that people like to make things smaller so they can understand them,” she says. “I never really quite understood it.”
Rogers’ perception of the world around her, paired with the fluent ability to narrate her own personal growth so poetically, has allowed fans to connect deeply to Rogers’ music, finding a part of themselves in her own lyrics. “As a storyteller, I feel like my work is to feel as much as possible and report back. And being able to explain my life or my own existence, that’s my artform,” she says. Scan the YouTube comments of her songs and it won’t be long before you find someone recalling the air being knocked out of them on their first listen, or that they discovered the singer at a time in their life when they needed it most. “I heard this song for the first time when I had depression, and it gave me a sense of hope,” one comment reads on the video for ‘Light On’, in which she sings that everyone told her she “should be so happy now” when her life was the picture of success.
In pushing through her own sense of apathy, Rogers was able to create her most visceral, life-affirming music yet – propelled by roaring instrumental arrangements and vast, powerful vocals, as if her lungs have grown in capacity. The album’s biggest anthem ‘Want Want’ is about sensuality and sexual freedom, opening with a drum fill and waves of dense, grungy synths that reminds the singer of Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’ – a huge sonic departure from the crisp, polished finishes on ‘Heard It In a Past Life’. At one point, Rogers descends into a howl so cathartic that most people would have probably made a similar noise when they first got to experience dance floors and live gigs again.
It’s the fiercely joyful voice of an artist who discovered that the beautiful existence she was seeking could be found in the pleasure of life’s most simple moments. “It’s about a glass of wine or the lighting in here, or the way a silk feels on your skin,” she says. In ‘Want Want’, it’s “sticky floors and fluorescent lit bathrooms” as she wrote in a press release, which was accompanied by a music video in which Rogers dances around one of her favourite New York karaoke bars in a fluorescent wig.
Lead single ‘That’s Where I Am’ channels a similar carefree energy – a song that sounds like Rogers is bellowing out to the whole of New York from the top of a skyscraper. Serving as her love letter to the city that never sleeps and the place that became the backdrop to all her “claustrophobic fantasies” during lockdown, it’s an ode to tantalising pleasure in the most unlikely of moments in a city that “winks back”. “I longed for someone to sweat on me. Spill their beer on my shoes. Be too tall for me to see at a concert,” she said in a press statement.
The music video also features cameos from classic New York characters – The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser, photographer Quil Lemons and Talking Heads’ David Byrne. “I cold emailed him,” she says of Byrne. “We’d never met. I’m a massive fan. And ‘Strange Overtones’ was a song in the pandemic that I just deeply connected to and played over and over and over again. So he feels a part of this record in my brain because I was so connected to that song.” Byrne was immediately up for the invitation. “[He] was just like, ‘Yeah, I’m getting my haircut downtown tomorrow. Where? What time?’. The timing – and the stars, it seems – aligned for Rogers. “He was like, ‘Yeah great. I’ll ride my bike over. I think I can hang for like 20 minutes’.”
“I used to feel the need to prove myself – but I don’t feel that anymore”
It’s the same shoot-your-shot strategy Rogers used when she cold DM’d Florence Welch in 2019, inviting the singer to join her on stage at her Brixton show. Now the two are friends, or rather, as Rogers recently declared, she’s her “magical genius sorceress sister”. Last summer, recording time overlapped for their respective albums at Electric Lady Studio in New York, so they traded their talents. Rogers’ vocals feature on ‘Girls Against God’ and ‘Dream Girl Evil’ from Welch’s new album ‘Dance Fever’, who offered vocals and tambourine on Rogers’ track ‘Shatter’ in return.
“It’s a super small studio, and we know each other. So we’d have a coffee, go in, I’d see her after work, it was just really natural,” Rogers says. “I played her ‘Shatter’, and she loved it. And then I was like, ‘Dude, if you hear anything for it, or if you want to be a part of it, like, I love you’.” Shortly after Welch left the studio, she dreamed up an idea and asked if she could return to record it immediately. “She’s one of a kind,” Rogers adds.
Rogers is also set to bring an entirely different live energy to this album, her upcoming shows being appropriately named ‘The Feral Joy’ tour. Last year, she also described the work-in-progress as a record that she’ll “tour for a lifetime”. Watching the singer’s Coachella set back, it’s no coincidence that she looks so at home on stage, which sees her tap into that same unbridled joy that courses through her new music videos, performing with the kind of effortless, present moment flow that every artist aspires for. There was also more at stake than just the pressure of holding a crowd, with the performance actually serving as the public presentation requirement of her course. “A lot of my master’s degree was thinking about how we come together, how do we create meaning? What do I think the role of the artist is? And then how do I define that for as long as I choose to do this?”
It allowed Rogers to look closely at the fine details of how she crafts a performance, from the set list and rehearsals, to stage layout and clothing. “You know that meme of the girl with all the calculations above her head? I totally thought that was gonna be me on stage,” she says. “And then I just had a blast,” she adds with an infectious smile. “I couldn’t think about any of it, in the best way. Because I think that really, there’s so much about music that is unsaid, that is the best part.”
In studying the ethics of power in pop culture, Rogers is aware that fans often turn to artists to provide spiritual guidance, seeking wisdom in the universal, transcendent language of music that we often assume every musician is qualified to offer counsel in. “I’ve done that too,” she says. “I look to music or musicians to have some sort of answer.” Has her perception of this expectation, and the relationship between artists and their fans, changed after her studies? “Part of what led me to go to grad school was the friction between feeling this expectation of having an answer,” she says. “I really am good in the studio, and I’m really good on stage, and I know how to make music. But this other thing was not something I really thought about.”
On ‘Surrender’s’ closing song, ‘Different Kind of World’, Rogers reflects on the “state of the world”, but notes that “when we’re all riding together, I’m a different kind of girl”. “I feel like thinking about the state of the world has always been a part of my record process. It’s because I am a part of the world,” she says. “I don’t know how you go through the pandemic, or the election, or the amount of social change the last couple years, and not have it be a part of what you’re thinking in some way.”
“Reasserting joy feels like reasserting my fundamental right to live a full existence”
The world is feeling particularly dark when we meet in early June. A month before our conversation, a leaked document reveals that the US Supreme Court has voted to overturn the landmark Roe v Wade abortion rights decision, essentially removing the constitutional right to an abortion on a statewide level. Two weeks after we meet, it’s made official. “abortion is healthcare. bodily autonomy is a human right,” Rogers tweeted on the day the news broke, having been vocal about reproductive rights for as long as she has been in the spotlight. “I’m thinking a lot about joy as a form of rebellion. Because I also feel that sense of helplessness. We can’t give into that,” she says when I ask how she feels when everything seems worse than ever. “Reasserting joy feels like reasserting my fundamental right to live a full existence.”
When NME last spoke to Rogers in 2019, she was the picture of an artist who was thriving. She had recently performed on Saturday Night Live, toured with Mumford & Sons and finally had a debut album to share with the world. But while the singer was learning to embrace her story, Rogers was still some way from the artist she wanted to be. “I’m just excited for the day when my music is enough,” she told NME three years ago. Does she feel like she has finally arrived?
“Man, that was a tough era,” she says, looking taken aback by hearing the words of an artist who was still trying to grow into her fame. “I want to hug that girl. I actually feel like this is that day. I think I felt the real need to prove myself then that I don’t feel anymore. In that way, the music is enough,” she adds.
“That video going viral was like, ‘Now I have a chance to do this thing I’ve always wanted to, and it doesn’t look or feel like what I thought it would’. And now, I have a life as a musician that I get to define in the ways that I choose. And as we’re seeing in the United States, choice is the greatest sense of freedom.”
Maggie Rogers’ ‘Surrender’ is out now via Capitol Records