Maya Hawke
Photo by Alex Ross Perry and Robert Kolodny
Emerging Masters

Maya Hawke: “I’m a lifelong learner”

Short Profile

Name: Maya Ray Thurman Hawke
DOB: 8 July 1998
Place of birth: New York, New York, United States
Occupation: Actor, singer, songwriter

Maya Hawke's new album Chaos Angel is out now via Mom + Pop Music.

Maya, would you say your creative work as a songwriter gets easier as you get older and more experienced?

It’s definitely not easier! If anything, the more I do it, the harder it gets. Because with each album, I feel like I'm raising the bar of what I can do. Have you ever heard about that psychological test where they have people take a math test, but first they rate how well they think they're going to do. And the people who rate themselves the best, do the worst. And the people who think they're going to do the worst, do the best. What they say about that is that the more you know about something, you more you know you don’t know. When I was younger and I was writing songs, I thought, “Wow, this song is amazing. I’ve just rhymed love and above!” (Laughs) And then you learn more, your bar gets a lot higher, your expectation for yourself gets higher. So the process only gets more difficult — but in a good way.

Apparently something that brings you comfort is craftsmanship — the idea of knowing how to do something well enough that you can do it even when you’ve had a bad day…

I think when I said that I was talking about acting, because I've spent so much of my life acting and learning about acting in school, and I feel like I have some level of craftsmanship with it. I can do it on a bad day. I can do it with a broken heart.

“I’m just hoping for the next opportunity to learn something. I see that as a much better God to worship than reviews or popularity or awards.”

Do you think you’re reaching that point with music?

I'm not there yet. I still don't have enough experience. But what I can do to protect myself from my lack of experience is do a lot of homework, and really feel prepared so that I'm not headed into a situation where I’m taken by surprise. Sometimes this happens when you're acting where you show up on set, and they've changed the scene you're going to do that day. You have to do a totally different scene that you're not prepared for. It’s scary and stressful— But I can handle it. I can do it, I have the tools to do it. On the other hand, if you told me that the day before my show, the setlist was changed and I had to add these four other songs to the setlist that I hadn’t prepared? I would cancel the show! I have friends who are incredible musicians, and they could do it. But I’m not at that level. I hope to someday be there, but I'm not yet.

You mentioned that you are really doing your homework and ensuring you feel prepared. How does that play into your creativity?

For example, with my latest album Chaos Angel, I did my homework better. When I was writing the songs and recording the record, I was building a visual world that I wanted to live in. Often the part of making an album where I start to hate it is when I have to retro actively build a visual world for it to live in: I have to come up with a title and music video ideas, and what do I want the photos to look like? What should I wear? What's the cover going to be? All those questions can be really hard to answer when you're no longer existing in the heat of the moment. It's kind of like trying to remember a dream, you know? But this time I was really building a map for myself to follow really helped me just to kind of enjoy it once I was finished with its actual making. So if I ever get the privilege to make another record, I will do the same thing.

After you put out your sophomore album, you said that your only hope from it was just to have the privilege to make a third.

Yeah, and I mean, that has been a really helpful way to think about it, because you can get so caught up in the game of the arts industry. For me, I think working in the arts is like having a bus pass; it can be hard, people have to trust you enough to give you money to make something, but if you can get a bus pass, all you really need is to get it renewed. And sometimes it can be renewed with a demotion, you can make another record, but you have to make it for less money, and that's okay, too. All that matters is that you can get on the bus, and that you can contribute, you can express yourself. I’m a lifelong learner, and I’m just hoping for the next opportunity to learn something. I see that as a much better God to worship than reviews or popularity or awards. Although, maybe if I started winning some, I would start to see that as a better gauge? (Laughs)

Were you ever worried about crossing into different fields in the way that you have? I think often people can be judgmental about actors who want to start making music, or singers who want to act.

I think that was very true in the nineties, that was the era for that kind of judgment. But I feel like we are in kind of a new era, I hope so anyway. I think the world is in so much chaos and in so much pain, that actually now enthusiasm is the move! It's way cooler to see a movie and love it. It is stupid to hate things! There's not enough good stuff anymore to really be that judgey. There are so many things that I feel make me like an unlikable cultural character, that singing to the mix… Whatever! People are going to say shit. But it makes me happy, so whatever.

“With my music, I try to facilitate a space where other people feel like they can believe in the dream. I want everyone working with me to feel a sense of ownership.”

I love that you seem really impervious to outside expectations.

It’s funny because when I'm making art, I do not care what anyone will think when they see it or hear it. I only care about what the song is asking for, that’s all I'm considering when I’m making something. But then I'm putting it out, and all of a sudden, this other character enters my head. And this character is not a rebel and is not a purist — this character just wants to be liked so bad. And gets heartbroken when she’s not liked. And I've been really trying to get the two guys to talk to each other. Because maybe the first guy has to start listening to people more when they tell them what is likable, or the second guy has to chill out. You have to make a choice. So I want to make exactly what I want to make, and I hope people like it… But thinking about it in the impervious way you mentioned helps me quiet the voice of the second guy who's so desperate to be popular.

I think that full-on belief in what you’re doing is how the best musicians think about their work, though. Do you also think that way when you’re working on a film where the dream is not entirely yours?

I've done parts in movies where I didn't believe in the dream. I have! It's not fun, I hate it. But I've done it. It’s usually more about me than it is about the project. So with my music, I try to facilitate a space where other people feel like they can believe in the dream. I want everyone working with me to feel a sense of ownership over the record as a whole. Because as an actor when I'm on set, I'm saying the words that the writer wrote, I am being directed in the vision of the director. But it's my song too, I am putting huge parts of myself into the characters that I play. And I wanted to facilitate a space for that in the record making process so that the instrumentalists who came in were actors in the play called Chaos Angel.

Do you think everything we’ve talked about in terms of your process sets you apart from your peers who are maybe making art for different reasons?

My “why” for making music and art is not better than anyone else’s! There was a time in my life where I would have maybe thought that, where I really felt like my way was the way. But now I know there are a thousand different ways. I love process and I am curious about other people's processes. Some people's processes are all about products, and that's amazing too because if the work is good, then the way you get there doesn’t matter. I know my way. And my way helps me have a healthy brain. If your way is working for you, then you don't need my way.