Maya Hawke Finds Strength in Numbers

In our latest Digital Cover Story, the singer, songwriter, and actress discusses her longing for ensemble projects, allowing her poetry to flourish in the present for the first time, and her new album, Chaos Angel.

Music Features Maya Hawke
Maya Hawke Finds Strength in Numbers

Maya Hawke is driving to Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina on her day off. She recently wrapped up another block of filming for Stranger Things (“It’s a marathon and not a sprint,” she says, “and everyone’s working together to get it done as quickly as possible for each other and for fans and as well as possible”) and, by the time this article comes out, her new movie, the Flannery O’Connor biopic Wildcat (directed by her dad, Ethan), will be out in select theaters. Hawke has kept a busy schedule since the last time we spoke, starring in the blockbuster Stranger Things 4, beloved Asteroid City and Academy Award-nominated Maestro, as well as dropping her sophomore album, Moss. We get caught up chatting about how much of a sweetheart her Wildcat co-star Steve Zahn is instead of diving right into the music. And to someone like me, who is certain that Saving Silverman is one of the most underrated films of the 21st century, it feels good knowing that Zahn is, in fact, one of the good ones.

“He’s just a 100% quality human being,” Hawke says. “Heart in the right place in every way, unspeakably fun to act with. There’s a scene in [Wildcat] where we’re driving in a car together. We didn’t have a lot of time in the period car, and we were just going to drive around in a circle and shoot it until we got it. We were acting and, all of a sudden, I started spitting cherries at him unprompted. I was supposed to just toss them in his lap, and I started pretending to eat them and spit them at him. An actor who wasn’t as much of a prince might have been annoyed about that, but he wasn’t. He just played right off of it and was so funny and so charming. He raises the standard of work for not just the cast, but for the crew. Everyone brought their A-game when Steve was on the set.”

Two years ago, before she met Zahn and made a bang-up flick with her pops, Hawke told me she was in her “folklore era,” because it was the defining album of the pandemic for her, which is when she wrote all of Moss. “The musical palette that it set up was so beautiful,” she says. “I wanted to live in it and make music inspired by it.” Logically, one has to wonder whether or not Hawke is in an “evermore era” of sorts on her new LP, Chaos Angel. “This record feels really like me,” she clarifies. “I think it’s the most ‘me’ thing I’ve ever made. Maybe it’s the ‘Maya Era.’”

Chaos Angel is Hawke’s third studio album in four years, and it’s a multi-dimensional singer-songwriter album that finds the multi-hyphenated star charting bold, ornate and lush new directions. Chaos Angel never plateaus; it only soars upwards. There are risks burgeoning that were all but absent on Blush and Moss: Her “born with my foot in the door and my mind in the gutter and my guts on the floor” line in “Missing Out” feels self-aware to a confident fault; the Auto-Tune on “Better,” which jumps out immediately as a transition from the grandiose fingerpicking on “Big Idea” to the echoing harmonies of “Hang in There,” works because it’s used as a conduit to make an entire arrangement out of Hawke’s already-gentle voice.

Hawke made Moss in 2021 with Benjamin Lazar Davis, Christian Lee Hutson and Will Graefe in, as she calls it, “a sprint.” The plan was to record a few songs but, after the Stranger Things 4 filming schedule changed, she found herself with two weeks off instead of two days. “We were like, ‘Let’s make a record,’ so I tapped back into my journals and wrote a lot of new stuff,” Hawke says. “I was in a really emotionally volatile place, so there was a lot to tap into—in the wake of the pandemic and what had happened to all of us and my reflections on it.” Moss only scratched the surface for her, though, as Chaos Angel is diaristic and refreshingly personal. Hawke wrote most of the album before the Wildcat shoot began (though the “Lucy wants to write the next Great American Novel, she can’t even read the bottle” couplet in “Missing Out” is on the nose, too), save for the title-track, which germinated in-between filming blocks and sparkles with Catholic imagery akin to O’Connor’s own faith—letting the mermaid metaphors of Moss bloom into that of angels on her latest effort.

“I’ve been really lucky to have had an in-depth and broad religious education without [being] put into any religious box or dogmatic way of thinking,” Hawke says. “I was taught about a lot of different traditions and what connected them—raised under the guise of the Dalai Lama’s expression that all religions are fingers pointing at the moon and the moon is something that no one can see and no one can define and that’s what the real higher power is.” She found inspiration in a passage from one of O’Connor’s latters to Betty Hester in 1956. O’Connor wrote: “From eight to 12 years it was my habit to seclude myself in a locked room every so often and with a fierce (and evil) face, whirl around in a circle with my fists knotted, socking the angel. This was the guardian angel with which the Sisters assured us we were all equipped. He never left you. My dislike of him was poisonous. I’m sure I even kicked at him and landed on the floor. You couldn’t hurt an angel but I would have been happy to know I had dirtied his feathers—I conceived of him in feathers.”

“I love that image, and it exploded into my imagination and split itself up all over my record and brought forth the bridge to the final track on the album, which then defined what that song was about to me—and then I fit the rest of the record into that,” Hawke says. Greek mythology, too, is an undercurrent on Chaos Angel—the project existing on the foundations of a “god of love learns they are full of wreckage and ruin” idea within its tapestry of Catholicism and Hindu concepts of rebirth—those reference points acting as guides for Hawke’s songwriting in spirit and in practicality. She didn’t want any throwaway pieces or waste on Chaos Angel—and such a goal turned her into a rigorous editor who put herself through extensive rewrites. “If you’re making a puzzle, sometimes the hardest part of it is the sky—because each piece looks the same,” she says. “But when you look at some of them individually, they aren’t actually beautiful. They’re just a piece of blue or green or red. They’re useful, but not beautiful. And my goal for the puzzle that was Chaos Angel was to have the picture that you make of the puzzle, where you see the whole thing be beautiful, but also where, if you zoomed in on each puzzle piece, each puzzle piece was beautiful on its own.”

Those puzzle pieces start to make sense when you notice the immediate sonic difference between Moss and Chaos Angel, especially the focus that’s lent to the drumming on the latter. The guitar and piano are both still as front-and-center as ever, just as they have been for four years now, but the use of percussion on Hawke’s latest is so noticeably intentional. And bringing that element into her vocabulary didn’t just change the colors of her playing style but it opened her up to a new collaborator: Mike Riddleberger, who performs primarily in Jack Antonoff’s band, Bleachers, and joined Hawke for a month in 2023 for some gigs in the States. “Having Mike come on this three, four-week tour and feeling how singing with him changed how I sang and how I performed, it grounded me in the song and on the stage,” she says. “It felt like it gave me a better tool of connection toward the audience, and I just fell in love with singing with him as a drummer and how it made me feel.”

Chaos Angel was recorded almost immediately after the last show in Columbia, Missouri finished, with Riddleberger joining Davis, Graefe, Hutson, Bridget Kearny and Jonathan Low in Hawke’s inner-circle. Hawke came into the studio with more than 15 songs. 10 wound up making the final cut, as she spent far more time workshopping each draft, editing all of the songs intensely and wanting them to “exist in a way where it wasn’t dependent on production at all.” In turn, the bones of these tracks are like tried-and-true folk staples, with melody-forward construction—playable in a living room on just a guitar or piano, or minimal enough to be sung acapella to someone walking down the street—and production as an aside. “[Chaos Angel] sounds the way I’ve always wanted something to sound,” Hawke says. “The songs themselves are strong enough where it didn’t even really matter what we were doing. What we were doing was gravy! That was my goal. And Christian’s goal in producing the record, too—he wanted us to go in really confident in what we’d written and not overly reliant on what we were going to record.” For all three of Hawke’s albums, her focus has always been on the songs. But that’s never been truer than for Chaos Angels, as tracks like “Big Idea,” “Hang in There” and “Promise” are more filled-out and complete than ever.

The standout element of Chaos Angel is how splendid Hawke and Hutson’s musical chemistry and partnership has become. Hawke met Hutson through their mutual friend Davis during the Moss sessions. Around that same time, Hawke would write a poem and send it to an instrumentalist, who would then send her music back for the poem. “I would give notes and we would work on it if it wasn’t right,” she says. “But, for the most part, that’s how it worked. Christian was one of the first people I’d ever met whose songs he sent me back—‘Luna Moth,’ ‘Sweet Tooth,’ ‘Backup Plan,’ ‘Driver’—were exactly what I had imagined. For the most part with my other collaborators, I was always blown away by what they sent me—but it was really different from what I heard in my head. Christian’s [instrumentals] were exactly what I heard in my head, just better. That made me feel really seen and like my imagination was extremely held.”

Where Davis and Graefe pushed the door open for what Hawke saw as possible for her own musicianship, Hutson’s production ideas and input were always in line with Hawke’s. “It was an incredible thing to have someone there who was intensely my advocate of wanting the songs to sound like what I wanted them to sound like,” she says. “Christian really encouraged me, too—that, just because I hadn’t gone to music school, it didn’t mean that the melodic ideas that I had for my lyrics weren’t of value. I think that encouragement and support and belief, as well as how in-tune our instincts are, was hugely inspiring. It made me feel strong.” Hutson moved into a producer role for Chaos Angel, while Davis and Graefe stuck around as co-writers. Hawke admittedly longs for ensemble projects in her acting work, but you can see that carry over into her music career, too. “I like it when musicians write on the record that they’re working on, because I think it gives them a different sense of ownership over what they’re making,” she adds.

And Hutson’s impact can be felt from “Black Ice” all the way through “Chaos Angel,” notably in the pacing of Hawke’s singing. On “Dark,” she sings with an airiness that doesn’t overwork the poetry. “I’ve got agency, but imagine me lying naked in your lap before a gathering of screaming fans” sounds like something from the Quitters universe. When I spoke with Dan Campbell for the short-lived Songs That Bind series last summer, he something about Hutson’s work that I’ll never forget: “One of the things that he does really masterfully across Beginners is, in the first line of the song, it should be like you walked in on the middle of a conversation and your interest is so piqued and you’re trying so desperately to catch up, because you want to know what’s going on.” There’s a sense of that intimacy on “Dark,” when we are dropped into a line like “I don’t wanna cry in your T-shirt ever again,” as if Hawke and the person she’s speaking to have been going at it long before I, you and everyone else arrive.

When Hawke started making music professionally, she was an intense minimalist—out of style and fear. Blush is dry in that way, but not detrimentally. It sounds like someone taking a concentrated and restrained first step out into the sometimes-confounding reality of the music industry. “I felt like, if I used too many producorial tricks or if I danced too much or smiled too much or doubled my vocal or used electronics, people would think that I bought a record, that I was no good and couldn’t write and couldn’t sing, and I just got a good producer to make me sound good and it was just a classic vanity project,” she says. “With each record I make and with each show I play, I’m getting less and less afraid of being ‘exposed’ and more and more confident to just try things and not make any choices out of fear, but make them out of love.” With that, Hawke, too, has learned more about the music she makes. “When I first started, I didn’t know what a rubber bridge was. I didn’t really know what a Mellotron was,” she admits. “I knew what a piano was and what a guitar was and drums. I just wanted to use the tools I knew about and accompany my poetry and put out songs that I thought were honest. And now, I just feel like I have more tools and I’m more confident to play with them.”

Moss was, in Hawke’s own words, a “back to school album.” On it, she backtracked and used present-day relationships to make better sense of her own formative childhood moments. There’s a song on Chaos Angel, “Missing Out,” that hints at a similar type of innocence—but it was written from Hawke’s perspective only a year ago, when she was 24 and hanging out with her brother Levon at Brown University—yet making Moss liberated Hawke’s writing and allowed her to craft a project that is a collage of snapshots of relationships deconstructed into different paths worth taking. “[Chaos Angel] is very ‘twenties,’ and I don’t mean the time period. I mean the age,” she laughs. “I’ve tried to take a picture of different kinds of relationships, so it’s not a love record or a romantic record. I tried to take pictures of what friendships are and what romances are and what parental relationships are and what a sister relationship is and focus on my mistakes and all my faults in each of my dynamics and try to photograph them and freeze them so that I had the capacity to grow from that.”

They say you have your entire life to write your first record, but then you only have a year or two to make the next one. Hawke’s budding songwriting career has been under a microscope ever since she released the singles “To Love a Boy” and “Stay Open” in 2019 and signed with Mom+Pop soon after, so she’s been tasked with working out the kinks of her own style in front of an audience for five years now. “If I was a different kind of artist, I would have taken a lot longer to put out [Blush],” she admits. “I would have—instead of performing in public or practicing in public—practiced in private. My first record would be a combination of songs from Blush and Moss, and then I would have made [Chaos Angel]. But I’m the kind of person that, as soon as I write something, I want to send it to people. I want to show where I am now and what I’m working with now. I embarrassingly am the kind of person who likes to learn in front of people. I wish I wasn’t.” Now with three albums and a still-growing filmography to her name (she’s set to star in Inside Out 2 later this year), Hawke is far away from the sparse, self-imposed minimalism of Blush. The fear is subsiding, and Chaos Angel sounds optimistic, full-bodied and belovedly worn-in already—if only because it captures Hawke someplace we can all rise up to meet her in, enraptured by a musical flora she’s taken five years to perfect.

Two years ago, Hawke felt like writing Moss allowed her to be a teenager again. “When I was 19, I felt like a very old woman,” she told me. The tide has changed for her now, though. “I feel much younger,” she confirms. “I feel like I get younger every year, mentally.” And while many jokes have been made about how the Stranger Things kids will be far too old by the time the fifth season drops, it’s undeniable that the cast is packed with musicians: Gaten Matarazzo has a history on Broadway; Charlie Heaton used to drum in Faye Webster’s band; Finn Wolfhard’s band the Aubreys absolutely rips; Joe Keery just had his first Top 25 hit on the Hot 100 with the viral song “End of Beginning.” But, given the show’s daunting and intensive filming schedule (on top of the cast doing other acting projects, too), doing a full, sweeping tour is nearly impossible. Keery has had that problem often, only playing a handful of shows as Djo at a time (and he hasn’t played a public gig since 2022). Hawke has had similar trials, only having done one real stint of gigs since Stranger Things 4 premiered in the summer of 2022, but she can already tell how performing on-stage has changed her own approach to the craft altogether.

“A trusted advisor of mine came to see one of the first shows of our European tour [in 2023], and then they came to see one of the last shows when we were back in the States,” Hawke says. “They were like, ‘Wow, the progress that you’ve made from that first show [in Italy] to 15 shows later, is so intense. You are so much more confident just a couple of weeks later.’ They were like, ‘What would happen to you if you did it for a year?’ I don’t know, but I know that I’m getting more and more interested in playing guitar on stage—more and more interested in touring.” Hawke used to be afraid of playing live, but that fear is quickly becoming a blend of excitement and inspiration—and she’s getting better and better at it. There’s a goal on the horizon for her, too: “I feel more pulled towards touring not just because I’ve been enjoying it more, but [because of] my record label and my music manager, who have just been so extremely supportive and have been so willing to fit their work into the demands of my acting career and take a backseat for the last couple of years,” she continues. “I’m excited for the opportunity to give them the energy and time that they deserve for the work they’ve put in and really go on a proper tour and honor everyone’s work, including my band’s, and really invest a bunch of time into it.”

And she’s been practicing the holistic joys of investment by trusting her own gut and following her muse—which is why the visuals around Chaos Angel are some of Hawke’s best yet. Building on the sublime, digital camera fever-dream pastoral of something like “Sweet Tooth” from Moss, the videos for “Dark” and “Missing Out” were directed by Alex Ross Perry and both fit together like interlocking fingers. Even the album’s cover is integral and intentional, as it’s a take on the poster for John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence. Hawke has even curated individual lyric videos for all 10 tracks, and the “Dark” companion video plays around with the idea of someone abandoning a cult (or, metaphorically, a mindset) and inviting more color into their world (and, aesthetically, lingers in the same world as the “Thérèse” video). The “Missing Out” video plays on Hawke’s songwriting, too, serving as an on-screen metaphor for “watching other people’s lives happen over the internet and on the computer and feeling like you’re missing out on something and you’re just stuck in your house watching the world go by.” Just as Hawke’s reputation as one of the best up-and-coming actors in the world continues to sharpen, her creative eye has followed suit.

“The visuals were more important to me—and clear to me from the jump—than anything I’ve ever done,” she says. “I knew I wanted to work with one director and have one consistent visual world-build. And I knew about this character that I wanted to emphasize, the Chaos Angel as a take on Thérèse—because I realized that these themes of magic and girlhood and confidence and confinement and misunderstanding were one of the main things that threaded through my musical career from the beginning, whether it’s from the ‘To Love a Boy’ music video or the ‘Blue Hippo’ music video or the ‘Thérèse’ music video that that was where I was coming from, as a consistent theme—which I never intended, but it became clear to me for this record. I was like, ‘Okay, well I believe in all that stuff. Why don’t we double down and double down with clarity?’”

Maya Hawke’s self-awareness of how acutely her work nurtures themes of womanhood, sexuality, agency and curiosity is refreshing, especially when you consider how centered in bygone, periodic references her confessional music really is. On Moss, it was the painting of Thérèse; on Chaos Angel, it’s Greek goddesses and Allen Ginsberg references. As a songwriter in her mid-20s, the timelessness of those eras that keeps demanding Hawke’s interest is a philosophical one with real-world implications that are worth surrendering to. “Give up, be love, give up, be loved,” she hums on “Black Ice”; “Falling is the fastest way to make an old friend,” she assures on “Wrong Again.” There’s a romanticism about Hawke’s work that is anything but dated—existing like its own spectrum of nostalgia, historical reverence and an encyclopedic knowledge of intimacy across centuries. It’s why Chaos Angel is as ambitious as it is—Hawke understands that, to conquer something, you must be able to name it, too. If it can be deconstructed and turned inside out, then it’s worth making your own.

“I think we have to understand our past and where we come from to gain context for where we are now,” she says. “It’s like the classic expression ‘you have to learn your manners to ignore them.’ There are lots of people who disagree with that—and I by no means say that it has to be true for everyone else—but it just is true for me. The more I know, the more I have to say and the more actual perspective I have on what I’m doing and thinking and where it comes from. When you know the history of your idea and how many other people have had that idea before you, it lets you deepen your idea and it gives you more inspiration and more ideas. The history of art and writing is the history of theft, so it’s just getting a broader and more bountiful range of what to steal from.”

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s music editor, reporting from their home in Northeast Ohio.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin