Maya Hawke Conquers the Worlds of Screen and Song

"I don't need to be this other person. I can just be 'me,' and maybe 'me' is somebody who deserves to make a record," says the 'Stranger Things' star

Photo: Celine Sutter

BY Laura StanleyPublished Aug 9, 2022

Actor and musician Maya Hawke describes herself as an exhibitionist when it comes to vulnerability.

In the music video for "Thérèse," the lead single of Hawke's second album MOSS (due out September 23 via Mom + Pop), she literally bares all in the middle of a forest orgy that gets busted up by the cops. Maybe the shadowy NSFW video is a bit shocking to see if you only know Hawke from her breakout role as Robin from Stranger Things, but as she stares right down the camera at you, Hawke is showing that she will not shy away from the things that scare her. 

"I get nervous, I get scared, I get sick, I get sad, but I've always had a weird thing about not feeling the need to hide that from people," Hawke tells Exclaim! from Los Angeles over Zoom. "Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing, I don't know."

On screen and in song, Hawke has the staggeringly keen ability to add dimension to a situation because she is so attuned to emotions. She summarizes her role as the brilliant, nervously energetic Robin by saying, "It's an unspeakable good fortune to be really well known for something that feels really true to you." Her songs, similarly, feel close to her heart.

Talking with Exclaim!, she speaks quickly and honestly, and it's clear that everything Hawke feels, she feels deeply. Hearing Hawke's enthusiasm for her work will convince you that there's still joy out there, if only you show a little bit of courage.

Depending on your age, Maya Hawke is either Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke's daughter, or Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke are Maya Hawke's parents. Growing up, her dad played a lot of guitar in their living room, leading singalongs and introducing Hawke to the music of folk and country greats like Joni Mitchell, Willie Nelson and Lucinda Williams.

When she was around nine, Hawke started taking guitar lessons. Her dyslexia made learning to read music difficult, so instead, she and her guitar teacher wrote songs together. By 13, Hawke had co-written about 12 songs, and she decided to play them at a café in lower Manhattan. She invited family, her friends and her parents' friends. She was terrified to perform, but she did it anyway.

"Weirdly, that should have been the beginning of something, but instead it was kind of the end at the time," says Hawke. "It was hard to bring all of these people together, and it was hard to share these personal feelings with them. It was vulnerable. I was just changing schools, and when I changed schools, I stopped taking guitar lessons and I started getting more involved with acting."

In high school, Hawke quietly wrote poems and songs for herself, and would then courageously send them to friends and crushes who inspired her writing. Mostly, though, she gravitated to the theatre department and took acting classes and performed in school plays. When her brother Levon picked up the guitar and excelled at it, Hawke didn't want to touch the instrument again.
After briefly attending drama school, Hawke found full-time work as an actor.

Her career is now blossoming. In September, fans will be able to catch her in the Netflix dark comedy film Do Revenge. She's also tied to a slew of forthcoming star-studded films, including Wes Anderson's Asteroid City and the Bradley Cooper-directed Maestro. But Hawke has always maintained an interest in writing poetry and songs.

"Once I was working, I realized that I really needed a creative outlet in my life that I had total agency over," she says. "As an actor, you're always auditioning and waiting to be given permission to do your work, and you don't really have agency in terms of what jobs you do and when."

While in Ireland filming her first acting job — the 2017 BBC miniseries adaptation of Little Women — Hawke started writing songs again and sent one to musician, producer and family friend Jesse Harris, who gave her some notes. They kept writing together and eventually had enough songs for her debut LP, a folk rock record highlighted by Hawke's soft, raspy voice entitled Blush.

Hawke was initially frustrated with Blush because it didn't sound like what she had imagined, and she wanted to pour more of herself into it. (She readily admits now how much she loves the album.) It sounds like an artist experimenting and discovering what feels good, which is exactly what it was. Making Blush was a transformative learning experience for Hawke. Through it, she met Will Graefe and Benjamin Lazar Davis, who were hired by Harris as session musicians and have since become good friends with Hawke, and are crucial in her development as an artist.

"[Graefe] would be like, 'Maya, do you like that idea? Is that how you want it to sound? How does that feel?' Rather than being like, 'Oh, this little actress wants to do a fucking record.' He'd ask, 'What do you want it to be?' He took it upon himself to facilitate me feeling less shame and therefore more curiosity," Hawke explains about recording Blush. "Jealousy shuts down curiosity, shame shuts down curiosity, embarrassment and shyness shut down curiosity. All of these emotions can shut down your ability to ask, 'What if?'"

She adds, "It's amazing how much people and a bad teacher can shut you down, and how much we shut ourselves down. GarageBand has been around since I was a kid, and I used to feel like I can't do tech. And then, after having a couple of positive experiences learning how it works, it's like, 'Oh, I can do this! Why did I feel so shut down?'"

Before the pandemic hit, Davis and Hawke started writing together and made plans to record an EP over two free days in between acting projects that Hawke had in L.A. When COVID temporarily shut down the filming of one of those projects, two days turned into two weeks and they decided to make a full-length album instead. They recruited Graefe, Davis got in touch with his friend Christian Lee Hutson (a close collaborator of Phoebe Bridgers), and MOSS started to form. 

"Once we were working on the record, [Graefe, Davis and Hutson] were so good about teaching me stuff," Hawke says. Following three days of rehearsals, they spent two weeks at Marshall Vore's L.A. studio. After wrapping up some acting projects, Hawke wrote two more songs with Hutson, and she and her band went to Aaron Dessner's studio, Long Pond, in Upstate New York to record MOSS's final two songs.

"[Music] has always been a place of real community and joy for me, more than it has been something where my ego lies," she reflects. "I really love having collaborators and bringing people together and writing together. I love sitting in the studio, I love the social aspect and the intimacy of the experience. No matter what my relationship to making my own music has been, music has always made me feel really connected with people."

MOSS's songs began as poems, and Hawke's collaborators helped shape melodies and wrote instrumentation. For these poems, Hawke collected pieces of herself by scouring high school notebooks, memories, and even an essay she wrote for a college class she took over the pandemic. When Hawke writes with other musicians, she is very specific about which poems she sends to whom, tailoring her work to the other person's songwriting style. On "Backup Plan" and "Hiatus," both songs Hawke wrote with Hutson, Hawke zooms in on small details: a bike lock, an eyelash, a key carabiner.

"I call Christian the Bob Dylan of little things," she laughs. "He's the master, in my opinion, of finding small objects that represent the whole. I wrote ['Backup Plan' and 'Hiatus'] for him in that way, because I know that he gets excited by lists of things."

MOSS is largely percussion-free, and Hawke describes it as having a pulse rather than a beat, which is driven by Hutson and Graefe's interwoven guitar parts. There's also an ease about MOSS that feels like the result of Hawke's devotion to being open. She stopped being jealous ("It's such a stupid emotion!") of her brother's musical talents, and throughout the pandemic, she let him teach her about guitars, sounds and melody. Her MOSS collaborators made her feel safe, and she found her stride as a musician. Hawke is not playing a part — she has grown to become a distinct songwriter and compelling artist.

"I wouldn't say I felt confident — it's not that I feel like I'm good at music. It's that I felt like I was more confident in using the skills that I have," Hawke says about making MOSS. "I'm really good at language, with feeling, and storytelling. So, okay, I'm going to take these musicians and direct them like I'm directing a film, and that's going to be okay. I don't need to be this other person. I can just be me, and maybe me is somebody who deserves to make a record."

MOSS is a sad record; Hawke succinctly describes it as such. And while it's not explicitly a heartbreak record, Hawke admits to being heartbroken while making it. A line that she plucked from her past and reshaped for MOSS stings long after the record is over: "I don't need anyone to hurt me, I can do that myself."

But the songs are not about heartbreak, Hawke insists: "They are collectively, to me, about welcoming in the new you."

In Robert Browning's poem "Porphyria's Lover," Browning's protagonist kills his lover so that she remains pure forever. On "Over," Hawke writes from the point of view of the woman in Browning's poem who, in Hawke's version, fights back and escapes. It's a song about being tough enough to become a new version of yourself.

"To me, ['Over'] is about how I actually have to get through my childhood. I can't die here. I can't stop growing. It's not over, I have to keep growing up every day, keep reinventing myself, keep staying strong, and keep insisting on the permission from myself to grow up and be older and be an adult and be a woman," Hawke says.

"The line 'I'm going to have to be stronger than I wanted to be' is me realizing, 'Oh shit, I thought it was over. I thought the fight was over.' Basically, I thought that as soon as I graduated high school, all of my childhood trauma would be erased and I would just have a clean slate and be a happy adult. But oh no, it's not over. I have to keep being strong. It's never going to get easier. It's always going to be a different little fight, a little monster that you have to kill."

"Mermaid Bar," the closing track of MOSS, stemmed from an image that Hawke had of a girl jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge to kill her childhood self and to transform into a mermaid. In her new mermaid form, the girl finds a community of other mermaids whose sanctuary is a bar where they all hang out and re-parent one another. Hawke has always been obsessed with mermaids, and, as a kid, she would go to the beach during full moons and perform ceremonies in hopes of turning into one.

Maybe Hawke hasn't become a mermaid yet, but she's transforming nevertheless.

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