Maggie Rogers Is a ‘Feral Joy’ Ambassador
THIS SUMMER, A few hours before the release of her second album, Surrender, Maggie Rogers paused for a moment onstage at New York’s Webster Hall. She’d just performed the album’s loudest, angriest track, “Shatter,” when she proclaimed: “I need a shot.” She’s so real for that. The half-joke worked, as a plastic cup of tequila made its way from the venue’s back bar through a crowd of people dressed in white to Rogers, who downed it, seeming bemused yet grateful.
The gesture was a snapshot of community camaraderie that few might appreciate as much as Rogers herself, who wrote her thesis at Harvard Divinity School on the spirituality of public gatherings. “The most spiritual experiences I’ve experienced in my lifetime have been onstage or in a crowd,” she says. “It was really good tequila.”
Freedom, community, and release — all infringed upon by the pandemic — are key themes on Surrender. Singles “That’s Where I Am” and “Want Want” are anthems for what she calls “feral joy,” tributes to the great reemergence that has taken place from the isolation of the last couple years. The album made a damn good summer soundtrack, even if Rogers won’t tell us where she goes out to party. (Longtime New Yorkers understand.)
Since her 2017 breakthrough, the Maryland-raised singer, 28, has notched a Best New Artist Grammy nomination on the heels of her studio debut, Heard It in a Past Life; sold out Radio City Music Hall; and taken a “full step forward” with Surrender, the album she was celebrating that night in New York, among many other highs. During some time off from the new album-era grind, Rogers told us about it all.
What’s the reception been like to Surrender?
It’s been wild. Last night, I was sitting at a bar in L.A. with some friends, and a guy in his mid-twenties stopped me and said, “Your music means a lot to me.” … Growing up in a rural area, I’ve spent so much of my life working to get to music. I feel so much reverence for music and what it means to be a fan. It was a really hard record to make and a really special record to make. Hearing that my experience of doing that work is giving anybody some peace or catharsis is, as an artist, all you can really ask for.
What do you see as the biggest difference in your sound between your first album and this one?
There’s two. First of all, the drums are a significant difference. I really wanted and needed music that could be physical, because it was such a non-physical time. I needed music that had that level of catharsis that I could feel in my collarbones, in my chest. But most significantly, honestly, is my voice. I grew up not really knowing I could sing, which is a weird thing to say . . . there were writers who could sing, and then there were motherfucking singers. The example I always use is my college classmate Cari Fletcher, who I will never forget — when we were 18, I played the banjo and wrote these quiet folk songs, and Cari had the biggest voice I had ever heard. Still to this day, one of the most phenomenal singers I have ever met. It’s taken me some time to really grow into the fact that I am a singer.
Which tracks mean the most to you on this one?
My favorite to play live right now is “Be Cool.” It just plays itself. “Begging for Rain” is my most baseline “me” song. That’s the kind of song I’ve been writing for 15 years. I wrote that song alone with a guitar on my front porch in Maine in the summer in 2020. It was the songwriting process that reminded me the most of when I started writing songs when I was 15, just sitting with the guitar and my notepad and letting something come through.
“Be Cool” sounds like a friendship love letter during the pandemic. Do you feel like people sing about friendship enough?
It’s not something I thought about, but I guess there’s a lot of songs for friendship on this record. I think it’s specific to the time when the record was written. In the beginning of the pandemic, I was surprised by who the people I really held close to were. We’ve all been through something that is so deeply unexplainable and is impossible to give language to or wrap our heads around. When I’m in my forties and fifties, I’ll remember the people I spent this time with.
The road trip you sing about on “Anywhere With You” — did you actually go? What did you see?
[Laughs.] No. The answer is no. I basically made an entire [other] second record that isn’t going to come out in Maine before I started Surrender. It was sort of “Light On,” part two. It was half a step forward but not a full one. “Anywhere with You” came at the end of that batch. It was the first song that Holden Jaffe [a.k.a. Del Water Gap] and I had written in 10 years. He was my old bandmate in college and was up visiting with some friends in Maine.
What I love about this record is the addition of craft. I really had time to spend on all of these songs. I wrote “Want Want” in, like, 20 minutes and then I spent the next three days with craft: How do I get the tongue twister in this chorus perfect? “Anywhere With You” is that in so many ways because of how that song unfolds and is such a journey. I rewrote the tempo shift in the bridge maybe 16 times.
The line “All I ever wanted is to make something fucking last” on “Anywhere With You” is an album standout. How do you interpret it?
I believe in it in a really plain way. I want to make art that can stand the test of time. That’s what my favorite records are, when I think about Neil Young or David Bowie or Lauryn Hill — records you can come back to anytime. Music at its best expresses something so deeply personal to us that it becomes completely universal.
“I want to make art that can stand the test of time. That’s what my favorite records are — Neil Young, Bowie, Lauryn Hill.”
Are those songs you made in Maine that didn’t make this album in the vault for good, or do you see yourself revisiting them?
I don’t know. There’s some I needed to process personally. They could come out. “That’s Where I Am,” which is one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever made, I wrote the lyrics top down with the melody in under 10 minutes, which is the same way I wrote “Alaska.” Sometimes there’s just a story you carry around for a long time until you know how to tell it.
What was the easiest song on the record for you to make?
“Overdrive.” I had written tons of songs in Maine. I came to the real world for the first time in the U.K. to meet Tom [Hull, a.k.a. Kid Harpoon] with a really clear idea of what I wanted to make. I brought mood boards, I brought demos, I brought all these things. We walked in on day one and said “Let’s just try something.” I sat down at the piano and Tom sat down at the drums and it happened in the matter of an hour. We wrote “That’s Where I Am” immediately after, and that song also was easy…. So much of this record is just one vocal take, because it was about the rawness and the expression. It feels free. I’m just expressing myself. There’s a bunch of weird vocal shit on “I Got A Friend.” It’s live, it’s a moment!
You were nominated for Best New Artist at the 2020 Grammy Awards. What was that experience like?
I grew up watching the Grammys. They have always represented community to me, as I’m the girl who writes friendship songs [laughs]. When I was nominated, it was absolute disbelief, magic, exhilaration. Looking back, what I think about is how powerful that class of artists I was nominated against was. I remember feeling that way then, like something really special was happening. In the years before the Grammys, I played so many shows with Billie [Eilish] and with Lizzo, and I saw Rosalía play every festival. I’m really proud to have been part of that moment.
[At the awards,] I got to meet some artists I love. I was covering John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” that entire year, and then he was seated two rows behind me, and I got to spend time with him before he died. When I think back on the Grammys, the moments I spent with him are some of the most special moments in my life.
Some people define success as a Grammy nomination, or a win. How do you define success?
In so many ways, every goal I’ve ever dreamed of — Radio City, the Sydney Opera House, a Grammy nomination, getting to meet John Prine — they’ve all happened. Part of what Surrender means is being open to what life brings you. I feel really grounded and at peace with letting this unfold. My ambition has sort of run out in a way that feels so exhilarating.
When I think about what I want right now, or what success looks like… I got to wake up in this beautiful home, listen to Nick Drake, drink coffee. Those are the most perfect quiet moments to me. I’m surrounded by people that I love and I get to do this work that I love. The success has already happened because I got to make a record that I am so proud of and that I absolutely love. And I think people are going to let me make another one.
And you were an answer in The New York Times mini-crossword puzzle.
I mean! Honestly! I do the mini every day, and I race with my friends. All of my friends knew how much that meant, but also, like . . . my grandfather did the crossword every day. It was a thing we shared. I’m good.
Jon Batiste is on Surrender, and of course he took away the big award at the last Grammys. How’d you guys connect?
There is no person in the world like Jon Batiste. The night I wrote “Begging For Rain,” I was at a dinner with him in someone’s living room and I played it for him and he played a melodica along with it. There’s so much of this record that talks about feral joy — this joy that’s so explosive and fundamental to what it means to be alive. Nobody exemplifies that more than Jon Batiste. His creative channel is so open, and he lights up every room he’s been in. He’s also one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever spent time with. He was down the hall at Electric Lady.
Everybody that’s on this record was just around. That’s the best part about it. All of the people I love — like Florence [Welch] was working in the upstairs studio with Jack [Antonoff]. I had the big room at Electric Lady. Jon was in the small edit suite down the hall. Clairo and Claud were just bopping in because they’re friends with Jack. Ben Lovett was down the street waiting for his baby to be born.
This album has a lot of live-music energy. What are some of your favorite venues to play?
Bowery Ballroom will always be the biggest venue in the world to me. It’s a real push up at the beginning of your career to go from playing small clubs to being able to sell 600 tickets. Bowery Ballroom was always the holy grail. When I was starting out, I was like “OK, I love pop music, I’m going to do this and secure me a foundation so I can make all the weird music I want. As long as I can play Bowery Ballroom, I’m good.”
Have you found that any of the songs from this album particularly resonate with people live?
It’s been really cool to see people react to “Shatter.” I heard you were at Webster Hall — playing that song physically took my breath away. I remember being in the middle of the song onstage and thinking, “Fuck, I’m either going to have to let go of this or commit,” and I committed, and then it just, like, wrecked me. It’s been so special to see the reaction to “Horses.” That was a one-take vocal that was so emotional to record. To see all that emotion I put into it be received…and also “I’ve Got A Friend.” It’s a song that I wrote early on in the record process, and I really fought for it to make the record.
Like we said, big friendship album.
Big friendship girl, yeah. It’s been so weird to do all of this stuff digitally and not see people face-to-face or really connect. You have a release day…and you’re on Twitter. There has got to be more than this. This isn’t why I do this. I actually have the best fans in the world. You don’t choose your fans, your fans choose you. Every time I meet fans, I always say, it feels like we would all be at a house party together. If they weren’t exactly my friends, they were definitely a friend of a friend.
Last thing, because this album is so physical and there’s some great dance songs on here: Where do you go dancing in New York, what are you go-tos?
I can’t tell you! You’ve got to gatekeep!
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This story is part of Rolling Stone’s third annual Grammy Preview issue, released ahead of the start of first-round Grammy voting on Oct. 13th. We spoke to some of the year’s biggest artists about the albums and singles that could earn them a statue come February, made our best predictions for the nominees in the top categories, and more, providing a full guide to what to watch for in the lead-up to the 2023 awards.