Maggie Rogers: ‘I was thinking a lot about Irish folk music because it’s my ancestry’

Maggie Rogers: ‘I was thinking a lot about Irish folk music because it’s my ancestry’

During the darkest, weirdest months of the pandemic, Maggie Rogers retreated to a cottage in coastal Maine and gazed out at the churning north Atlantic. The expanse reminded her of the riverside town where she grew up in Maryland, some 800km to the south, and of Ireland, from where her family hailed generations previously.

“There’s something about that ocean,” says the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter (28), whose vociferous club of cheerleaders includes Pharrell Williams, Harry Styles and Taylor Swift (who labelled Rogers’s cover of her track Tim McGraw “heavenly”).

“It being cold and rocky and unforgiving and [evocative of] wool sweaters. And that to me is a space where I feel so at home. I made the heart of my new record in Bath in the UK. It isn’t far away [from Ireland]. It’s that same grey, green — I’m getting tingly talking about it.”

We’ve all had our fill of pandemic albums, whether it was Taylor Swift trekking to upstate New York to make Folklore or Charli XCX parlaying her Los Angeles claustrophobia into How I’m Feeling Now. As early as summer 2020 there was a sense musicians had articulated everything that needed to be said about the great shutdown.

But Rogers’s new LP — the one she conceived staring out at the tumultuous sea and assembled in grey, green Bath — argues that there is space for one more. There has been a lot of music about the pandemic. But Surrender, which has just been released, is unique in capturing what it felt like to live through those 24 months of rolling lockdowns, Zoom quizzes and emotional pins and needles.

Hope and despair, intensity and levity, fear and friendship — these are the poles between which the project loops. That electrifying duality is exemplified by the new single Horses, where Rogers sings her way out of ennui and anguish against a stirring country-rock arrangement. “I see horses running wild, I wish,” she croons. “I could feel like that for just a minute.”

She isn’t quite a star yet. but Surrender looks set to catapult Rogers up pop’s pecking order. Draw a line between Taylor Swift and Phoebe Bridgers and there, somewhere in the middle, you will find her and her new record.

Surrender has the aura of bottled lightning, with songs that crush you with their empathy and emotional heaviness. The feeling she was trying to catch, she says, was “numbness”. “The numbness of the pandemic. The monotony that came with nothingness.”

I made the heart of my new record in Bath in the UK. It isn’t far away [from Ireland]. It’s that same grey, green — I’m getting tingly talking about it

Rogers was born in Easton, Maryland, in 1994 and grew up on the Miles River, which wends its way into the great oozing estuary of Chesapeake Bay. Her father sold cars for Ford and her mother was a nurse. Raised on their eclectic musical tastes — veering from Vivaldi to Erykah Badu — she put together her debut album while in high school and was from there accepted to New York University’s prestigious Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.

Pharrell’s endorsement

It was in 2016, in her final year at NYU, that she had a life-changing encounter with super-producer Pharrell Williams. She and her classmates had been told to each prepare material for a showcase. No one knew Williams would be on hand to critique their work. Twenty minutes into the presentation, Rogers played Alaska, her shivering, studiedly woozy torch song.

“I have zero, zero, zero notes for that,” says Pharrell. “I’ve never heard anyone like you before, and I’ve never heard anyone that sounds like that.”

Pharrell’s endorsement changed everything. Rolling Stone hailed her as a cross-generational mash-up of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Haim. She toured arenas with Mumford & Sons (starting in Dublin). And in January 2019 she released her major label debut, Heard it in a Past Life.

The album would go on to win her a Grammy nomination for best new artist (she lost out to Billie Eilish). The quiet, studious girl from the Maryland sticks had arrived.

“That record was just so dreams beyond dreams,” she says. “Everything I ever could have imagined happened.”

The acclaim and the touring were fantastic. And yet as her life in the spotlight spiralled on and on, it dawned on her she couldn’t keep going forever.

“I had to take some time to have some gratitude and reflection,” says Rogers, who in 2021 undertook a master’s in the ethics in pop culture at Harvard Divinity School. “I had to breathe for a minute.”

Electric Picnic

Rogers started coming to Europe early in her career. One of the inspirations for Heard it in a Past Life was a lost summer clubbing in Berlin, which encouraged her to layer her folk songs with dance grooves. Surrender is, for its part, informed by her memories of Electric Picnic, which she played at in 2018.

“I was thinking about the physicality of music festivals. Thinking about Electric Picnic — these amazing festival experiences I’ve had. The bass in my collarbone. Having beer spilled on my shoes.”

Lockdown also gave her space to reflect on where she is from and where she is going. Growing up, she had an intense awareness of her mother’s Irish heritage. Or, more accurately, an awareness of how little she knew about it. This was why, at NYU, she wrote her dissertation on the role played by folk music in Ulysses. Above her desk, as she toiled, was a map of Dublin.

In my English thesis in college, I wrote about Irish folk songs as a form of narrative within Ulysses. To me, it’s a way to connect to my ancestors and to honour them

“I started out making folk music and was thinking a lot about Irish folk music specifically because it’s my ancestry,” she says. “The United States can be a beautiful melting pot. But there are a lot of people who are cut off from their heritage. Part of what Ellis Island was about is letting go of your roots. I’ve had a real craving to connect to my ancestry.”

That craving led her to Joyce.

“In my English thesis in college, I wrote about Irish folk songs as a form of narrative within Ulysses. To me, it’s a way to connect to my ancestors and to honour them.”

The spiritual turmoil of lockdown was accentuated by other upheavals. Black Lives Matter convulsed the United States. And then Donald Trump ran for re-election. During the campaign, Rogers and her friend Phoebe Bridgers vowed that, were Trump to lose, they would come together to cover the Goo Goo Dolls song Iris.

Their version duly appeared. And yet, as the US reckons with the recent reversal of Roe v Wade, it’s worth asking — did Trump lose in the long term? And even if he did, for how long will it be possible to keep at bay the wider forces he unleashed?

Rogers takes a moment to answer: “I don’t know if I care to speak to that in The Irish Times. What I can say is that I wrote so much of my record during those times. There are a couple of different songs — whether it’s Begging for Rain or a Different Kind Of World — that speak to that more directly. I have found my greatest solace in this time in making music. And in finding a community. And keeping the people I love close. That is the way I have gotten through all of this.”

Surrender is out now

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