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Maya Hawke’s necessary acts of chaos

20 May 2024, 10:45

Embracing imagination as an act of faith helped Maya Hawke find a new level of self confidence, she tells Sophie Leigh Walker

On 17 January 1956, the author Flannery O’Connor wrote of guardian angels in her journal addressed to God. The slender volume was penned fitfully in searing bursts of youth and loneliness in the confines of her mother’s Andalusia Farm in Savannah, Georgia.

Her body had failed her, by now atrophied with lupus, though her mind – the most singular in the Southern Gothic tradition – raged on with questions of the paths not taken, the lives not lived. She wrote: “Between the ages of eight and twelve, I used to lock myself in a room every now and then and making a ferocious face, I whirled around with my clenched fists, beating up the angel. It was the guardian angel which, according to the nuns, we were all provided. He didn’t let you go for a moment. I despised him to death.”

It was an image that left its mark indelibly upon Maya Hawke, and one which she found herself revisiting as the curtains closed on the first act of her twenties. Her third album, Chaos Angel, was written during her own crisis of faith: “I couldn’t understand how I kept ruining my own life," she says.


For all the world, however, it would appear that Hawke’s particular guardian angel plays favourites. Born to actors Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, her childhood was steeped in the creative arts; the supporting cast of her life being those in possession of exceptional mind and talent. This acknowledged advantage stoked within her a relentless passion and curiosity, yes - but also a suffocating desire to please, to make something worthy that could be entirely her own.

As a teenager, she turned her hand to acting, having earned acclaim for her performance as Robin Buckley in Stranger Things before going on to star in films by Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson. Hawke’s charisma and execution, even in her minor roles, is not unearned. Her music, however, was for a long time an act of personal communion – a part of her life suspended from judgement. As a child, she would write lyrics to other people’s songs as an outlet for a private emotional experience. A self-confessed poor student at learning the music of others, her teacher changed tack and helped her to realise her own, showing her how to complicate and improve her instincts as a songwriter. “It excited me as a tool for communication, as a way I could tell someone I had a crush on them or tell my mom I was sorry,” she reflects. “It was a way of communicating my inner world.”


She was thrilled by finely-spun wordplay of Fiona Apple’s Extraordinary Machine, the exacting simplicity of Bright Eyes and the way Taylor Swift granted young women the confidence to speak about their interior lives. There’s more. There is always more. Hawke froths with enthusiasm for art, for music - for particular lenses through which she can see the world and make sense of it. She talks excitedly but not without eloquence. Years spent loving and learning poetry have made her prone to offering up smooth, perfectly rounded turns of phrase like stones ripe for skimming. But then, always, she apologises for herself.

Her debut album Blush, released when she was twenty-two, is “barefoot”, while Moss, its successor, was “bloody” – not unlike how your first foray into adulthood can feel. Especially so, if the world is watching you.


Blush, she reflects, “is very sincere and poetic, steeped in a love of real instruments.” There is not a single electronic instrument on the record; it is understated, a collection of folk-indebted lullabies that allow for her natural rasp as if she’s whispering in your ear. “I love playing in a band. I love live music. I love poetry and metaphor - and that record is full of poetic forms,” she enthuses, telling of the sonnets and villanelles which she reimagined into songs. Moss arrived, however, “like an emergency”; born of an intensity that she relates to an introduction to the modern world and an end to her Blush-tinted ideals. But with that came singular acts of storytelling: the animation of Balthus’ Thérèse Dreaming which birthed her most beloved song so far, and profound reflections that burrow under your skin, as with “Sweet Tooth”: “Saw a movie everybody hated in an empty theatre in Duluth / Swear I really loved it, love is such a better thing to do.”

Which brings us to Chaos Angel, the hard-earned accumulation of those experiences. It’s the density of Blush and the modernity of Moss, while staggering out of the tunnel of her early twenties as her eyes adjust to the unfamiliar. “I was on the precipice of a major transition, in many ways,” she shares. “Making this record was about finding love for parts of myself and decisions I’ve made that I had a lot of guilt, shame and regret for. It’s about saying goodbye to a certain kind of self-hatred while I was learning about dating and relationships while my career was just beginning. I’ve finally moved into a space of more self-forgiveness and calm.”

Hawke masterfully side-steps specificity in her interviews, so much so that she often leans into it comically. She tells me how she would “have a feeling, suppress the feeling, and would not talk about the feeling – and then, I would make a radical, life-changing decision based on the feeling I had suppressed and not talked about.” Now, she is less reactive; there are less decisions born of fear. These broad strokes are rewarded with incisive lyrics that offer glimpses into her closely-guarded life: stretchmarks on stomachs, fingers running along an inseam, and the bitter truth that sometimes good things happen to bad people.

“Between each record, I’m closing the distance between the music that I hear in my head and the music that is coming out of the speakers,” says Hawke. It was an effort between herself and her partner Christian Lee Hutson who has worked closely with Phoebe Bridgers throughout her career. “I trusted Christian to really make me feel like this was mine, and to advocate for me and help me figure out what I wanted in a way that it wasn’t just a great idea, it was my idea – which might not even be a great idea, but it was the only idea that was right for that project.”


It’s a project warmed and uplifted by close friends, including her longtime collaborators Benjamin Lazar Davis and Will Graefe, alongside vocals from her brother Levon and fellow Stranger Things actor Sadie Sink. When Moss was written in one fell swoop, Chaos Angel was intentional and a product of slow evolution. “Sometimes, a person can start to hate their record, but I listened to it and I’m like, ‘Well, that’s what I meant to make. That’s what I meant to do’, she says. “Whether or not I liked what I meant to do is up for grabs, and will probably change over and over again throughout my life, but it’s definitely what I meant to do. And that feels so good.”

Chaos Angel is a story which unfurls across the album’s ten parts. As she delved into Flannery O’Connor’s dark interiority for her lead performance in Wildcat, the biographical drama directed and co-written by her father Ethan Hawke, the image of fighting her guardian angel felt akin to the way we wrestle with our own instincts. “Whatever your gut tells you is your guardian angel speaking to you,” she tells me. “But sometimes, you don’t want to listen to that at all and you fight with it – you fight with your best self. And so I came up with this character for my guardian angel, but I wanted to imagine her as being as flawed, human and confused as I was, and am still.”

Hawke’s guardian angel had gone to a prep school in heaven to be trained for the position of becoming an angel of love. On her first earthly mission, she tries her best to enact love and peace – but everything she touches turns to chaos. Her failure to fulfil her purpose leads to self-hatred; she runs to hide in the woods, withdraws from a world in which she does not belong to protect others from herself. The self-hatred turns to guilt, and the guilt sparks anger at her creator. An angel born to love believes she is an angel of conflict. She retraces her earth-bound steps to confront her maker, and on her way back, passes by all the things she thought she had destroyed. “Through the cracks of destruction there grew beauty, and love,” Hawke explains. “She realises that change is the necessary ingredient for love, and chaos is a necessary ingredient for change. She is both the angel of chaos and she is the angel of love, and those things have to work in unison with each other.” The album’s final, titular song is an anthem of self-acceptance.

This realisation was something she found in her own life. “I had an epiphany, of sorts, a couple of years ago when I was extremely sad,” she reflects, “and I understood, even though it’s a super cheesy line, that there’s no light without the darkness. It came to me with intense clarity that the only thing you know for sure is that when you’re ecstatically happy, someday, you will be sad. It’s the only place for that to go. But equally, you can know that when you’re really sad, happiness will be inevitable. We live in flow-like waves, and the only thing you can know for sure is that whatever is happening now is going to change. You can’t hold too tightly to either your happiness or your sadness.”

"Making this record was about finding love for parts of myself and decisions I’ve made that I had a lot of guilt, shame and regret for."


Hawke grew up with many spiritual ideas, but without any specific doctrine. Her father’s family is Christian in the Southern tradition, while on her mother’s side, she is the granddaughter of Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman. “I grew up kind of steeped in all these different ideologies,” she shares, “and so as I was getting to work on [Wildcat], the big thing that was confusing to me was the idea that her pursuit of writing might be in conflict with her devotion to God. I wanted to really understand, if you didn’t grow up with that level of take-it-or-leave-it religion, what angels would be like.” She explored Catholic angels, Hindu deities and other promised protectors. “I think they give us some sense of importance in a giant, ever-expanding and exploding universe where we’re not sure if we have any meaning at all… There are mysterious parts about being human, and we create ideas with which to help understand them, you know?”

Chaos Angel was also a necessary step towards being kinder to herself. “I went through a period of time where every place that I went, I thought people had heard something bad about me and were talking about it – I even thought that people who were being nice about me had heard something bad and were talking about it. When I wrote Moss, I was so sad, so stuck in that feeling of shame, that I couldn’t write about it fully. I hadn’t gotten out of it,” Hawke shares. “I felt like I needed to be working all the time, doing the most, and the public validation made me feel really good. I think that’s something young women, or young people do, especially. You treat yourself like clay. You meet a new person, and you’re trying to figure out as quickly as possible how to be the most desirable version of yourself for that person. Then I’d feel exhausted. I’d be somewhere going to some photoshoot in my underwear and a bathrobe when I’d just been on a plane and all I was able to eat was a plain pretzel. I was in a weird place, and I was like, ‘What am I doing here? How did I make all these choices?’”

The fragmentary “Dark” was written in a period when Hawke had severe anxiety about falling asleep. “I felt like my body wasn’t going to know how to breathe without my conscious brain telling me to,” she reflects. A doctor told her to accept that she was going to die – to let herself go. “I would say my goodbyes before I went to bed and be like, ‘Okay, this is it.’ And I didn’t die. But it helped me with my anxiety, somehow, just leaning into it.” The chorus of the song was written before Moss, an old chorus she could not bring herself to touch for a long time. “I wasn’t in a place where I felt like I could finish all my sentences yet,” she says. “It almost felt too real to me to finish that song and put it on that record. I didn’t know how to finish it yet, and I didn’t want to go near it.” With Chaos Angel, she finally felt able to put it to bed.


As I listened to “Missing Out” for the first time, one of the most textured and sharply written songs on the record, I was reminded of Sylvia Plath’s renowned fig tree analogy in The Bell Jar: “I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor… I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

Hawke always harboured an insecurity at having never gone to college. She had been visiting her brother there, feeling at odds with her agemates who were navigating this rite of passage together while she, instead, chose her career; adrift and in her own lonely orbit. The path she picked was the world’s envy, and yet with every decision she made, she felt the world was ever-narrowing. One night, while she was at a college party, they each shared one wish they wanted to fulfil in their lives. One girl said that she wanted to write the next great American novel, and Hawke realised, “I don’t want to just make something great, I want to make a specific thing. I actually think that the path to making something great is through specificity, rather than through open ambition. This is no shade to that person, I think she was just joking, but it made me realise that specific desire was the way to do something that would be meaningful to me. It became about all these different lives that you’re not living, and trying to make the best of what you have. It helped me let go of some of my demons and regrets.”

Portraying Flannery O’Connor in Wildcat awakened other epiphanies about creativity. “I brought my dad this project and the big idea, but I had a real confusion about how we could possibly make it a movie,” she reflects. “Nothing happened in her life, really. There was no grand love story, no crazy adventure – she was a young person who faced a tremendous amount of rejection, was diagnosed with lupus, moved home with the mother she hated for the rest of her life until she died. So then, he had this idea that actually, the event of her life is how far she could travel in her imagination and that we have so much power and capacity to go anywhere we want inside our heads. It’s a crazy ability, and we can try and understand contextualise our lives through the exploration of fictional storytelling.”

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Wildcat deftly tells the story of O’Connor’s life through its inextricability with her work. Her emotions, desires and fears manifest in the dramatisations of the stories themselves; O’Connor appears as her own hero and adversary, and often, her mother is cast as the example through which she exposes white hypocrisy in Jim Crow’s South. This lens through which father and daughter explored the nature of creativity itself is something that applies to Chaos Angel, too. “Really, it could be a thesis and almost a self-portrait about how creativity is a religion we practise, and the exploration of imagination is a form of faith, a form of prayer and meditation, trying to actualise an idea. That’s what we tried to make a movie about – even more than it’s about Flannery, it’s about that.”

What Hawke feels she has earned, on the other side of Chaos Angel, is self-confidence. That, and the grace attendant to letting something go. Without fear. “One thing I say, once you release a movie or an album, or any of these things, when you finish it, it’s a funeral. Because when a piece of art is being made, it’s alive – then, when you put it out, no more decisions can be made. It’s now dead. And then basically all of the people now get to decide whether or not they like your dead thing, the accumulation of its life. But sometimes you get really lucky, and people pick it up and take it on for themselves and give it a new life.” Maya Hawke is long gone, but as long as Chaos Angel is around, we will be divinely protected.

Chaos Angel is released on 31 May via Mom + Pop

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