Maggie Rogers Reflects on Grad School, Going Viral and How Britney Spears Inspired a New Lyric

The Grammy-nominated alt-pop star opens up about her new album Surrender

Maggie Rogers.Photo: Holden Jaffe

A new era of Maggie Rogers is upon us.

Last week, the Maryland native, 28, released her ambitious sophomore album Surrender, a follow-up to her acclaimed 2019 debut Heard It in a Past Life, which earned her a best new artist nomination at the Grammys the following year.

Rogers — who famously brought Pharrell Williams to tears when she was studying at New York University in 2016 — has lived a lot of life since her first LP's release. In addition to weathering the COVID-19 crisis, she also went to graduate school, earning a Master of Religion and Public Life degree from Harvard Divinity School in May.

Here, Rogers opens up to PEOPLE about reinvention, returning to college and why she's a "big pop music nerd."

This album was born out of the pandemic. How did it come together?

It started in Maine, which is where I was for most of the pandemic. I had just finished the Heard It in a Past Life Tour when COVID happened. I really just spent the first amount of time resting and being present, or trying to anyway. I could write to process my feelings and nobody ever had to hear the songs. I basically wrote a second record that'll never come out, just writing and playing music for fun. And I was able to use that time to really grow and expand.

I was making a world for myself to escape to — something that felt physical and embodied and maybe a little bit chaotic, really emotional, joyful at times, but through this underbelly of anger. And eventually, friends started to come live with me that summer. After dinner, we'd have a glass of wine and go write songs. Then come the fall, I really felt like I had done enough — I'm laughing, because I had written about 100 songs. I had done plenty of solo exploring.

Maggie Rogers.Olivia Bee

The pandemic was a time of reflection for a lot of people. What have you learned about yourself in the past couple of years?

I think in making this record, the big thing was that it was the first time I got to have a consistent creative practice in a really long time. I had it in high school, but I used school studios in college, and then was just on the road and … I learned that I was actually angry and that I had some anger to work through. And I think from that anger bloomed just an immense amount of joy. So much of this record and what Surrender is about is just about giving into feeling. I think in the pandemic, I felt so numb and this record's about trying to feel as an expression of being alive.

And I think in that too, this record, it also has a lot about love, but a lot about friendship. I have always thought that friendship is a form of religion in the way that you keep your friends sacred and keep those bonds tight, is a way that your world is a reflection of yourself. What I learned also was maybe my greatest power comes from when I'm relaxed and in the flow; that I don't have to fight upstream all the time, that I can just go with it and I might make something that I really love and have a lot of fun doing it.

You found viral fame when a video came out of Pharrell Williams visiting your class at NYU, then you released your first album and started getting compared to Joni Mitchell, then you got nominated for the best new artist Grammy. How do you hold onto your sanity going through all of those changes?

Virality is such a thing that people are now aiming for on such a constant basis. I think it happened to me in just such a different time, different era. That video went viral on Reddit and on Facebook. It makes me feel so old, saying, "Oh my God, Facebook." But it was just a really different time. And I think through all of it, the way that I've stayed grounded is my friends. I have really good friends who have been with me on the road. I wrote a love song for one of those friends who toured with me forever, who really kept me in check and kept me down to earth. But also, I think things like grad school too, being a part of a community, being new at things … You learn a lot about yourself when you're new at stuff. In school, in the first 10 minutes it was like, "Why are you here?" And it's like, "Oh, I made a record about reincarnation, and I'm interested in spirituality." And me being "Maggie Rogers" is interesting for the first 10 minutes, and then everybody equally doesn't know something about the same subject.

My curiosity or hunger for life or interest in learning has been a real consistent way that I have done something else in between records. And it's always kept my feet on the ground, and I think that the biggest thing I keep learning is just how little I know.

You graduated from grad school earlier this year. Why go back to school?

In the pandemic, I got to be a person again. Being a musician is who I am to my core, but the goal overall is to live a beautiful life, and that can include things that are outside of music, and going to grad school is something I always wanted to do. I'm a touring musician that usually has a [schedule], and after a year and a half of free time, I just really needed some structure.

You give Britney Spears a shout-out on "Be Cool." Are you a Britney fan?

Oh, of course. My first CD was a dual purchase: …Baby One More Time and the Harry Potter orchestral soundtrack, which is maybe all you need to know about me. Big pop music nerd over here!

Over the past couple of years, people have really reframed what she means to pop culture. What does she mean to you as an artist?

When I'm making a record, I always think about it as a record of a period of time, but in the same way that I'm tracking my internal landscape, I'm also a person in the world. So, that Britney reference happened of course at the same time when all that [conservatorship] stuff was happening, because it's been a part of what the world looked like in the last couple of years. Britney, to me, she's so powerfully and authentically herself. In the song, the idea of listening to Britney, in my mind, is a version of embracing the fullest you. I feel so empowered and have had so many special moments in my life soundtracked by Britney Spears.

Maggie Rogers, Surrender.

In music, for female artists in particular, there is this expectation for constant reinvention. Do you feel the need to do that every album era?

It's funny because obviously, I look really different than the last cycle, but everyone has been "New era, new haircut," and I'm like, "No, I've had this haircut for two years, you just haven't seen me." And I've had short hair most of my life. Anyone that has known me in middle school, high school, college has seen a version of this form for me. This is a cycle I've been through five times in my life now.

Maggie Rogers at Coachella (2022).Amy Sussman/Getty

I feel that pressure, but also I don't know, I'm a jeans and a t-shirt girl, and I always have been; that's how I feel the most confident — it's what I feel the sexiest in. And I think as we grow and change, it's fun to play with different sides of your style and your sensibility. So much of that style is changing really naturally just because the way I wear everything and the way that I present myself to the world and what feels good to me as a woman really changed with short hair. I've always been really attracted to androgyny in some form. So that balance has just really naturally shifted between long hair and short hair. What you see is what you get and it's still who I am, and I'm not trying to hide or change that in any way.

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