Right before COVID-19 engulfed the nation—forcing communities to sequester, lockdown, grieve, and repeat—Maggie Rogers was at the Grammys. Nominated for best new artist on the heels of her debut major-label album, Heard It in a Past Life, the internet sensation-turned-IRL pop star had finished touring the record and was preparing to take a few months to rest. “Inevitably, that’s what I got to do,” she tells ELLE.com. “The first three or four months of the pandemic, I just waited around and was existential with everybody else.” But eventually, Rogers remembered something she loves to do in tedium: making beats. “I came back to making music in this super simple and unguarded way that just had to do with passing time and trying to process emotions and having fun with my friends.”
From that process came Surrender, Rogers’ album out July 29. Featuring 12 songs written between April 2020 and November 2021, Rogers says it chronicles a time that was “pretty intense, not just from a career perspective but emotionally too.” Heard It in a Past Life—her 2019 album that detailed what it was like to be thrust into the public eye—was a natural extension of Rogers’ 2016 viral moment playing her would-be hit song “Alaska” for Pharrell in her NYU classroom. In contrast, Surrender is bolder, funnier, and somehow even more personal. Across the dance-ready record, Rogers sings about sex, love, friendship, fear, freedom, oppression, community—the things she’s working through and what’s already saved her. “[Surrender] is back in my private life, because there was nothing else going on,” Rogers says. “It felt really empowering to tell the truth in that way, and to acknowledge the fact that I’ve grown up, and I’m going to talk about exactly what my life looks like.”
As for what life has looked like publicly the last few months: In the span of a few weeks this spring, Rogers performed at Coachella, attended the Met Gala, and then graduated from Harvard Divinity School with a master’s in religion and public life, a program the university describes as being “for experienced professionals who wish to develop in-depth knowledge of the complex ways religion influences public life related to their career areas.” Rogers focused on the spirituality of public gatherings and the ethics of power in pop culture. And while she’s kept her studies fairly close to her chest, she’s revealed that her degree has already influenced her approach to performing (her Coachella set was actually part of a grad school requirement). “How do you use music as a tool to bring people together?” she muses, offering one of the questions she set out to investigate. Now, as Rogers releases Surrender into the world, we’re sure to get a peek at her answer.
When I make visuals, I’m always starting with where I’m being naturally drawn. To me, this record so much is about the starkness of the pandemic and what came up in that quiet, which is a very loud record. I wanted things to feel really direct, which you get from that album cover. But I think I’ve always leaned toward the classic or the simple; making things that feel classic is always the goal. I think I’ll be trying to do that my entire life. I’m just picking things that I like. I wish I had more to say about that, but I think that’s maybe the most important thing then, that there’s not a big boundary between my creative choices and my personality, which is why it’s my name on the marquee.
I don’t think there is a difference. I think who I really am is who I am as an artist, especially on this record, because I think that I came back to songwriting in a way that feels as vulnerable and intimate as it did in high school or college, when I was making songs just for myself.
Yeah, exactly. I started this record at my parents’ garage, and I got to have a studio space for one of the first times in a long time. I got to have a real creative practice. I had that in high school, but in college I used school studios, which weren’t always open, and then I was on tour, so I was always cobbling it together. The idea of being stationary, as someone who is a touring musician, just makes my mouth water.
I’ve always turned to music or acts of creative imagination to create the world I want to live in, and in the quiet, I found distortion to be incredibly therapeutic and really calming. I’ve said a couple times that it became a chaos I could control, but I really meant that. Same with drums. With this record, I just felt so numb all the time. I wanted to make something that I felt really physically. I felt really homesick for music festivals, too. I wanted a record that would be really fun to play live. It was that hopeful [idea of] this will end, touring will come back, and I will get to go play these loud, energetic songs that I can feel so deeply within my body. I really thought I made an angry record, and when I listen back now, it sounds super joyful. I think joy and anger are really tied, but it sounded like that without me even trying. It’s where I instinctually went to, because I think it was a really nice place to escape into.
Oh my God, so much. But I think that’s so much of what creativity is, right? You create the world you want to see, and these acts of imagination inevitably become super hopeful. Also, I always make the record that I want to hear. In making this record, I was distinctly aware that whatever I made, I was going to probably, or hopefully, play for the rest of my life, and that’s not something I really had thought about before. I definitely wanted to make a record that I would be happy living inside forever.
It has, again, to do with the full existence of living. Maybe being more grounded in myself and having that time away to realize that pleasure is a really important way of being in relationship to the world. It is not something worth compromising or not talking about just because I have a public space, and I’m probably going to get some negative feedback. Sensuality feels like a way of being in relationship to the world that leads with the senses, and that to me feels like a really important component of what it means to me to be an artist. To not speak fully to that practice or to that way of orienting yourself towards the world—in order to embrace my full existence as a woman, it felt really important to talk about that or to acknowledge that part of it.
My graduate studies honestly feel really private. Not in any way that I want to obscure, but I just graduated, so I’m still processing it. Studying spirituality is such a deeply personal practice. A lot of what I was writing about had to do with ways that I was interested in navigating or thinking about my public life, whereas my record feels like a real intense navigation of my private life. It’s really deeply [a] first-person narrative experience of a time in my life. My graduate work was a lot of research and theory and criticism and thinking about how to keep that practice sacred and protected in a world where, the reality is, it is also my work. It is something that’s commodified, and I think once you add business to anything, it gets more complicated, inherently. How do I embrace all of that nuance and really think about the ethical boundaries of that? And how do you use music as a tool to bring people together? Maybe that doesn’t explain the title super well, but I think a lot about performance as a practice of presence. Music is the moment where I sort of stop thinking and just start being, and that to me is an act of surrender. That is sort of the line between the two.
There are a lot of songs on this record about friendship, because, like anybody else, I feel like friendship became such an essential part of my life in the pandemic. Your friends really became your family, or your chosen family, and I really think about friendship as a form of religion, as a way that you hold your people close and keep those bonds sacred and show up for people. I knew when I made this record that I wanted to write a love song for my best friend, who has so deeply been there for me on the road and off the road through the first four or five years of my career. I wrote it for her birthday as gift, and then, a year later or whatever, asked for her permission to put it on the record. But I wrote it just as a gift for my friend. The background noises were all recorded at Electric Lady. The talking voices are Clairo and Claud, the piano is Jon Batiste, the bass is Pino Palladino, and the guitar is Kid Harpoon. And I guess I’m yelling a little bit at the end, too. [Laughs] There’s a moment where I’m like, “Oh my God,” and it’s me just reacting to Jon being a master.
Absolutely not. [Laughs] You’ve got to gatekeep.
This interview has been edited and condensed.