On Maya Hawke’s New Folk-Pop Album, ‘Chaos Angel,’ She Embraces Musical Drama She Once Rejected as ‘Actorly’: ‘It’s About Becoming Less Fearful’

Singer, songwriter and actor Maya Hawke speaks quickly, but thoughtfully, when discussing her new musical work. It’d be natural to think there’s a sense of haste at work, when she’s talking to Variety late on the day that her new album, “Chaos Angel,” just dropped, while filming Netflix’s “Stranger Things” in Atlanta, and preparing to hit Nashville the next day for a live show at Third Man Records. But Hawke’s fast patter is actually the sound of an ever-evolving, inventive mind.

“I have a hectic life, but I have a great life,” Hawke says, taking a break from filming the final episodes of “Stranger Things.” “That doesn’t mean that I don’t have days where I want to rip my hair out and not get out of bed, but I’m enjoying it all at this moment.”

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As well she should. After a couple of coyly evocative, sad, spare folk-pop albums (“Blush” and “Moss”), “Chaos Angel” reaches further into Hawke’s emotional truths and interpersonal relationships and, often, comes up happier. Along with that lyrical psychic shift, “Chaos Angel” has a more expansive sonic palette of opulent harmony and rich orchestration than the records of her immediate past.

“I haven’t gotten very far from home, but I have been rearranging the furniture,” she says, in regard turning the folk traditionalism of her first and second albums on their ear for “Chaos Angel.” “I always wanted it to sound good more than I wanted it to sound new.”

One of her new album’s tracks – its title tune – was penned as she filmed 2023’s “Wildcats,” which had her father, Ethan Hawke, directing her as Flannery O’Connor. But the rest of “Chaos Angel,” and its real origin story, begins immediately following the release of “Moss,” her sophomore album. “I worked on ‘Wildcats,’ went on tour for ‘Moss’ for three weeks, then went straight into the studio to make this new album.”

Even in the midst of promoting “Chaos Angel,” the 25-year-old gets to talking about the next album that she has formulated in her head. “The next thing I’ll do when I get off this call is talk to my record label about opening up the budget for my next record… I’m always writing,” she laughs, pointing to the future of her writing as the thing that is most important to her.

“I am an addicted and obsessive writer. That makes me happiest.”

Before the release of “Chaos Angel,” Hawke wrote notes about the beginnings of her new album and its initial inspiration. “My life felt out of control, and disorganized. I wasn’t happy. And I wasn’t making the people around me happy, either.”

Ask how that pertained to getting started on “Chaos Angel,” Hawke states that there are “mantra-ish things” that she wrote down — like “If you’re OK, I’m OK” – that became a focus for her as she steered the new songs.

“Finding these repeated phrases, I was interested in breaking patterns. I found that in my mid-20s, I finally realized the mistakes I was making… multiple times. Friendships and relationships that would collapse over the same issue. It’s a classic growing up thing. You reach a certain point and realize that you’re the problem. On this record, I tried to narrow in on what those problems were, what the hypocrisies were that I was experiencing. By labeling them, hopefully, I could break them.”

maya hawke album interview
Maya Hawke

Connecting dots between 2020’s “Blush” and “Chaos Angel,” a listener may find the emotions of her newest lyrics more naked, looking further inwards, as opposed to the more observational tone of her previous work.

“I’ve never held anything back when I’ve made my records,” says Hawke. “I never tried to be less me. And I wasn’t ever being shy. But as I got older and got to know myself as a human and as a writer, I got better at describing my feelings, having self-awareness, knowing where I am and how to talk about it… This record is more personal, is more vulnerable, and the writing feels closer to me. But I hope I feel like that every time I make a record.”

During a new song like “Hang in There,” Hawke sounds as if she is extending the power of mantra to someone very dear to her life – an actual person, as opposed to someone more metaphorical.

“I can’t tell you the exact real characters because it would pull them under too much fire, but I can say that I enjoy hearing people’s interpretations of this song, including one where a future self is talking to a past self,” she said. “Someone extremely important to me in my life had a really destructive partner. Some people are just touched by the luck of the devil … and it took a long time to unwind and separate from that and become an individual again. So, the song is about helping someone through an impossible time, where they’ve been really hurt and will find no justice. They have to find that justice within themselves.”

While describing the circumstance of “Black Ice” (“my favorite song on the record”), Hawke sings a snippet of its words and melody before launching into a story that starts with a child’s Christmas at home with the family and ends in an airport lounge in adulthood, reminiscing about home.

“’Black Ice’ is about breaking down what aspects of your childhood you want to take with you into adulthood and what you want to leave behind,” she said.

And the creepy, discombobulated bad dream voices that fill the backgrounds of “Black Ice” like noisy ghosts at a séance? Hawke ties those spooky sounds to her own childhood, digging deep to talk about her own issues of depression in her youth.

“I was taken to see these spiritual guide witches as a little kid, and they would lay crystals all around me, and help me talk to my spirit animals,” Hawke says matter-of-factly. “The voices on ‘Black Ice’ come from a recording of one of my sessions that I found later as an adult. I was moved by the magic of the whole thing, and that my childhood was filled with such magic. Some of the things they said to me was way too much responsibility for a little kid, like calling me ‘an angel in human form.’ I’m no angel in human form, by any stretch of the imagination. But there were times, as a kid, that I felt a responsibility to make other people in my life happy, to bring joy, to fix things and make people get along… I had to unwind that sense of responsibility, that classic ‘older child/eldest girl’ complex.”

Stepping away from Hawke’s lyrics into her willingness to bring such diverse sounds to what was once a spare, folkie brand of instrumentation, the more moodily atmospheric “Chaos Angel” is bigger than anything in her past without losing the nuance of her lyrics. Sonically and melodically, “Chaos Angel” is bold without eschewing the folksiness of her two previous records.

Expanding her sonic palette comes down to confidence and education, in Hawke’s estimation.

“I think that’s about becoming less fearful,” she says of the more vivid atmospheres and chamber/string vibe of her new album. “I was afraid for a really long time of putting anything additional on my voice or on my tracks. On albums like ‘Moss,’ I really just wanted it to be my words, my voice and the melody. I felt like if I manipulated my voice, people would accuse me of being fake or that I was just an actress who brought in a ton of musicians to make her sound great. So, I wanted to keep everything extremely bare bones. You could accuse me of being bad, lame or stupid, but you couldn’t accuse me of not being myself. Now, as I’ve learned more about making music, I started testing myself. If I think there should be a harmony there, great! If another drum track sounds cool, let’s do that drum track.”

Talking about her earliest moments of recording when she didn’t know the language required to express her thoughts, Hawke is refreshingly honest about what she doesn’t know.

“I might’ve wanted something to sound brighter, heavier or sadder, but if I didn’t know the language, I might leave it alone. Now, I have that vocabulary and work with the same people, repeatedly, who understand me when I say something should sound heavier, or perhaps could score a Tom & Jerry cartoon.”

Hawke quickly credits co-songwriters and band members such as Jessie Harris (Norah Jones’ one-time foil), Benjamin Lazar Davis (from Okkervil River) and Christian Lee Hutson (a producer on “Chaos Angel,” and close collaborator to Phoebe Bridgers) for coloring between the lines of her songs.

“Christian has been so encouraging to me as a musician, helping me to make the transition from a being a poet in a band to sort of being a musician,” she says of Hutson, a multi-instrumentalist and co-songwriter. “That’s how I knew that Christian would wind up as the album’s co-producer.”

Along with the pluses of lyrics digging deeper and production techniques going farther on “Chaos Angel,” Hawke’s vocals, too, are more comfortably expansive and, yes, actorly and dramatic. If anything ties Hawke, the singer, to Hawke, the thespian that audiences have witnessed on “Stranger Things,” “Maestro” or even the black comic “Do Revenge,” it is the nuance of her singing voice.

When she mutters “I was born with my foot in the door, and my mind in the gutter and my guts on the floor” during “Missing Out,” it is in a perfect stage whisper – a verbal talent she eschewed on “Moss” and “Blush.”

“It is actorly,” Hawke says emphatically about working on characters for each song with her producer Hutson. “On ‘Big Idea,’ we came up with a disenfranchised frat boy, a bored singing character. Christian might say something like, ‘On the next track, pretend that you’re drunk. Or do it like you just ran a marathon and you’re exhausted and angry.’ We tried a bunch of things to bring each song to life differently.”

Surprisingly, perhaps, Hawke says that she was never very proud of her singing voice, with a fun story to go with it.

“My voice as a singer is very limited, the range. I don’t belt. I had a stronger voice as a teenager, then I got vocal nodules during drama school when I played Napoleon the Pig in a musical version of ‘Animal Farm,’ and lost my voice for six months. I didn’t get surgery because I didn’t want to lose the spirit of my voice, but I’ve been working on it. Besides, when I speak, I talk really loud, and say so many words. I am, however, proud of my voice as an actor and try to carry on the thing that I do like about me into my music, instead of crying into my pillow about the fact that I can’t do a run like Ariana Grande. What can I do? Put personality, character and storytelling into a vocal moment.”

Hearing Hawke mention Grande may bring to mind her most recent comments about Taylor Swift. During an interview with Great Britain’s The Face, Maya shared her Swiftie side by stating that she was a “lifelong fan” of Taylor’s and that her talents as a writer made her something of a “Messiah.”

“What rises to the top with me, with Taylor, is the songwriting,” says Hawke. “Her writing – the breadth of storytelling in each song – is extraordinary. Taking people from the beginning to the end of a story, concisely, with an emotional tension build and release, all in a three-minute song, is very difficult to do. Borderline impossible. Yet, she does it over and over and over again. You think that she’s going to be out of songs, and then her rhymes get more intricate, her subject matter becomes more sophisticated. Which is another reason I admire her so much – it is so difficult in this industry, for anybody, but especially for women, to avoid being eaten up and spit out by the public. But she has endured and then some.”

Considering Hawke’s endurance – as an actor, as a singer-songwriter, as one who has lived within the shadow of limelight since childhood – and the clever depths of emotion on “Chaos Angel,” it’s worth noting that her storytelling abilities are strong, and only getting stronger. On moments such as “Promise” and “Better,” Hawke’s storytelling, from its structure to its tension, is crisp, cosmopolitan and vividly picturesque – the very things that she loves about Swift.

“When I started, I had a really powerful moment with my song ‘Thérèse’ (on ‘Moss’) because it was the first time people were really listening to my music and got attached to my songs,” says Hawke, mesmerized by what a great song can do. “Watching people dissect those lyrics – care about them, learn and sing them back to me – was transformative for me. I’m very proud of the songwriting on the new album. My favorite songs, like Keith Carradine’s ‘I’m Easy’ [from the film ‘Nashville’], are where the verses change the context of the chorus each time. ‘Chaos Angel’ is exactly what I wanted to express, something where I had an idea, then by the end of it, the chorus takes on a new meaning each time.”

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