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Maggie Rogers interview: ‘I’ve learnt how to make noise’


Whenever Maggie Rogers had a crush on someone in school, she’d tell them to their face. “I felt like if they knew everything,” the 28-year-old musician says, “then they couldn’t hurt me. I’ve always been that way in my songwriting, too. When you wear your heart on the outside, no one can hurt it. Because I’m in control of giving it up.”

Rogers radiates control, wielding it just like any other instrument. It’s in her wailing harmonies, which ricochet into lush, unexpected contours yet never once become erratic. It’s how, in a fame-making video from 2016, her gaze stayed locked determinedly to the floor when she played her song “Alaska” for an awestruck Pharrell Williams, who saw in the then-22-year-old NYU student a future superstar. And it’s there in person, too, Rogers steering the conversation with authority and ease. She is both affable and guarded in an instant. Earnest and cynical. Wide open and withholding. A master of suspense.

It’s June, and we’re in the busy lounge of a central London hotel. Rogers is tucking into a bowl of chicken salad, and insisting I try the squash and feta. We’re talking about God. “Studying religion is just studying power,” she explains. “It’s how people create meaning. How we come together.” When she toured in 2019, she noticed her fans kept asking her big, unanswerable questions about life and morality. “I was like… whoa, I trained to be an artist. I worked really hard to be good at writing and producing records. I didn’t think about that other stuff.” Critics would call her live shows almost divine in nature: Rogers wild and ethereal, her audience caught up in Elysian rapture. “There’s plenty of data on young people turning away from traditional religion, because it hasn’t kept up with social progress. But people still want to be part of something bigger than themselves. For me, I’ve always found that in music, so I’m not shocked other people find that in music, too. I just wanted to know more about what’s happening there. What is that relationship?”

Adrift in the pandemic, Rogers enrolled in Harvard Divinity School. She graduated in May with a master’s degree in religion and public life, her work revolving around the spirituality of public gatherings – like concerts – and the ethics of power in pop culture. “I really believe my job is to feel as strongly and as powerfully as I can,” she says. “And to report back on what that experience was like for me. If I can do that, I can maybe help someone else feel their way through life, or make art to help them make sense of something.”

Relatable themes have always underpinned Rogers’s work – her 2019 major-label debut Heard It in a Past Life housed tales of romantic denial and crying in the bathroom – but are accelerated on her new record. Surrender is tight, swaggering, sexy, playful, regretful and nostalgic. At times it feels trapped, in keeping with its mid-pandemic recording. Rogers ruminates on friends, lovers and old scars suddenly picked at again. Then it erupts into glorious euphoria. The production becomes a wall of noise. Rogers’s vocals are all rich exhortations and cathartic abandon.

It also feels autobiographical. Vulnerable. “I’ve got all this anger trapped so deep inside that started burning the summer my heroes died,” she sings on the shiny, Bowie-referencing “Shatter”. “I told you I loved you when we were just friends” – she admits on the roaring single “That’s Where I Am” – “You kept me waiting and I hated you then.” On the pleading “Symphony,” she seems to grapple with her own flaws: “I know there’s times when I can be a lot to handle and I’m working with a therapist to take care of it.”

I spent a long time having to convince people I actually wrote my own music … I mean, the amount of times I got [told], ‘I love that song Pharrell made for you!’

I want to ask her about some of these. Is she in therapy? Her expression shifts. “Isn’t everyone?” Yeah, a lot of people, I say. How has therapy helped her, though? “I think therapy’s a good thing for everyone,” she says. “And so much of my therapy is art. It’s really the way that I think and move through the world.” But does she have an actual person she talks to? “Can I ask why you’re pushing me so hard about whether or not I have a therapist? It feels pretty personal.”

The air goes out of the room. I think we’ve crossed wires. I tell her it was just one of the lines on the record that struck me, that felt particularly human and honest. I read the lyric back to her. Does she feel like she’s a lot to handle? “I don’t feel the need to explain the lyric.” That’s totally fair, I say. “It’s super vulnerable,” she agrees. “I’m trying to think. What can I tell you about that lyric? Do I think I’m a lot to handle? Like… sort of? But not more than anyone else. I’m not trying to be a diplomat either, I just think everyone went through a lot in the pandemic. I would tell you that any of the people I’ve lived with during a traumatic crisis were a lot to handle. And I’m sure I was, too.”

I say that asking about her lyrics may have been the wrong approach. “I’m happy to elaborate on lyrics,” she says, “but I don’t know if the right thing for me is to be, like, ‘this is specifically about this one conversation with this person’. That doesn’t feel interesting to me as a listener.”

She explains that Surrender is a record about “that sense of being alive”. It has no fixed narrator. No steady subject. “The ‘I’ is usually me, but the ‘you’ is always different,” she says. It’s why she writes in the second person (“You”) and rarely – if ever – in the third (“He”, “She”, “They”). “First of all, because I don’t want gender to be a part of the conversation, but also it means that the ‘you’ of it can shift for me all the time. Like this record is about a relationship, but it’s also about myself, and about my relationship to New York City. Sometimes I’m singing to a person, sometimes I’m singing to me.” Often she doesn’t have total clarity about her work until she performs it live. “Every night on tour, something else comes up [in it]. I’ll catch it and be, like, whoa – I didn’t even know that was in the song.”

We return to our squash and feta. I ask if success changed her. “I feel pretty similar to who I was,” she says. “As much as I could. I still feel pretty chill. My best friends are still my best friends from college.” Were they surprised when she blew up like she did? “I don’t think so. I think I was the most surprised. The way that it happened was surprising. But I’m a goal-oriented person. I always knew what I wanted.”

Her career, though, is “so much bigger, weirder and cooler” than she ever could have imagined. “Success has given me a level of creative freedom where now I just get to make music and focus on art and have conversations with people in nice hotels.” She scans her surroundings, breathing it in. “I’m really f***ing grateful that this is my life, and sort of shocked by how it all turned out. I’m 28, and when I was thinking about what I wanted for my life when I was starting my twenties, this is just kind of unfathomable. I’m trying to just enjoy it. I’ve watched so many people I love die over the last couple of years. It could be over tomorrow. I don’t want to sweat the small s***. Like, it doesn’t matter. I just want to enjoy the fact that I get to eat this beautiful f***ing squash and that someone wants to talk to me about my art.”

She shuffles in her seat and says she’s a lot more relaxed than she used to be. When that Pharrell video was everywhere, she struggled. Record labels relentlessly courted her, and Heard It in a Past Life was recorded in just two weeks. “It really stressed me out,” she remembers. “I found joy in it, but I was also knotted up in it. I spent a long time having to convince people I actually wrote my own music. Or that I actually was a producer. I mean, the amount of times I got [told], ‘I love that song Pharrell made for you!’ I have a f***ing college degree in music engineering and production. I started my career before #MeToo. It was sh***y.”

‘I felt on the defensive a lot of the time. I was ready to fight’

(Olivia Bee)

What did all of that spark in her? “I felt on the defensive a lot of the time. I was ready to fight, because I felt really backed into a corner. The whole thing was so sensational, and I didn’t feel like a person inside of it. My fists were up.”

And today? “Now I’m like…” She lets out a dramatic exhale. “It can’t hurt me. I mean, I’m sure it will again. I’m not saying I know how to do this perfectly. I’m just saying my approach is different. You can hear that in the music. My voice is bigger. I’ve learnt how to make noise. I figured out how to use my instrument.”

It’s nearly time to wrap up. We talk about her vaguely surreal appearance on Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch three days before, and the forced intimacy of interviews. Sensing there was a bit of tension earlier, I say that I understand the tangle of deciding what to share with the world, and what to keep close to your chest. “Totally,” she says. “But I also met you halfway, you know? It’s all good.” She hovers a moment. “And isn’t it so much more interesting that way?”

‘Surrender’ is released on 29 July


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