IF YOU WANT Stranger Things spoilers, don’t ask Maya Hawke. “I’m of no use there,” the 24-year-old confidently says on Zoom, from a house her mom, Uma Thurman, rented in Sag Harbor, New York. “My character doesn’t have a ton of spoil-y story points. I’m comic relief.” Hawke — whose father is Ethan Hawke — plays Robin Buckley, the charming, closeted band geek who fends off monsters with her sidekick Steve Harrington (Joe Keery). But when she’s not saving the town of Hawkins, Hawke is also a musician with a lush new folk album, Moss, out Sept. 23. “All I really want out of a record is permission to make another one,” she says. “I just want people to like it enough.”
You’re releasing this album on the heels of the latest season of Stranger Things. Do you usually work at this quick pace?
You’re talking to someone who was just like [whiny voice], “I need a vacation!” But I have a super-overactive brain. I have an anxious desire to prove myself that will never go away, so I always want to be working harder and doing more than my perceived opponent that doesn’t exist.
Does that desire to prove yourself come from the fact that you’re the daughter of two celebrities?
Maybe that’s part of it. I have no idea who I would be if I was somebody else. I feel like the only way to handle the nepotism thing — which definitely gives you massive advantages in this life — is, you will get chances for free, but the chances will not be infinite; so you have to keep working and do a good job. If you do a bad job, the chances will stop. That’s my ethos.
How do you deal with the haters who call you out for nepotism?
I don’t really interact with either the haters or the complimenters very much. I love this piece of advice I’ve gotten, which is that if you read the good reviews, they’re partly true, and if you read the bad things that people say, they’re also partly true. You’re not God’s gift to humanity, nor are you a little dirty garbage rat. You’re neither and you’re both.
Do you see yourself as a singer who acts, or an actor who sings?
I don’t love labels. But if I had to give up one, I would give up singing. Acting is my greatest passion, but that’s because I have spent more hours in my life studying it and doing it. I’ve always had a real romantic idea about being excellent at one thing. I’m not excellent at acting yet, but I am further along the way of knowing it and understanding it really well, both from a historical perspective and a practicing perspective. So because I’m further on my journey of knowing a lot about it, I would have to pick that.
Before you titled this album, you wrote about moss on your previous record on “River Like You”: “I tame the moss on the rocks.” What does the plant signify to you?
That’s so cool that you noticed that. I definitely am, like everyone, super inspired by nature. Classically, a rolling stone gathers no moss, right? I’ve always been confused about that metaphor and about whether or not that is a good thing or a bad thing. I think that in the arts, being a rolling stone — always moving, being a lone wolf — is really celebrated.
[But] I think that my generation is different than the ones that have come in the past. We party less hard. We’re much more interested in nature walks and staying alive and saving the planet than we are in staying up till 4 a.m. on some kind of bender. There’s a big self-care emphasis. The pandemic brought everyone to that place of being like, “Wow, I’m going to lose my mind and go crazy unless I figure out how to take care of myself while sitting still.” This was a pandemic record, and I called [it] Moss because it felt like feelings and emotions that were gathered while sitting still.
Unlike your generation, though, you’re not really into social media.
I don’t have a strong connection with it. I mean, am I probably on Instagram for an hour a day? Yeah. I would be a liar to say anything else. It’s a huge part of our lives — a huge income generator if you can build a following, and a huge connector to make friends and meet other people who are like you. So it’s impossible to dismiss it as a part of my life, but I definitely don’t want it to be a bigger part of my life than it is. I’d love it to be a smaller part. I don’t interact with strangers on it very much, so that’s the part of it that I veer away from.
The album was partially worked on at Long Pond Studio. Are you a Swiftie?
I was a huge fan of Folklore and Evermore, especially “Cowboy Like Me,” which is not one of the singles. It’s my favorite track on both of those records. That was where I was like, “Whoever mixed this song, I want to have mix my music.” It was a slow song, but it still had this drive forward, and that’s the feeling that I wanted.
John Low has been mass mixing my songs since “Blue Hippo,” and he was already in there mixing the first 12 songs we sent him, and so it just made sense to go to him to record the last two and to approve all the final mixes. That’s why we went there. It’s amazing and the lake is gorgeous, and it’s a beautiful place to record music.
You co-wrote several of these songs with Christian Lee Hutson. How did you start working with him?
Christian’s friends with Ben [Lazar Davis], and so Ben got in touch and somehow I got lucky enough that Christian had some time. It was instant chemistry between the two of us. He wrote exactly what I heard in my head, but better. His music is the music that I would dream of making myself. He’s a brilliant person.
Marshall Vore engineered the album — another collaborator of Phoebe Bridgers.
It all happened super accidentally, but I’m a huge fan and ended up very much in the Phoebe world of Christian and Marshall.
You close the album with “Mermaid Bar.” Can you tell me the meaning behind that song?
I’d had an idea to make a new mermaid folk tale movie story. Then I was like, “Eh, I’m probably never going to do that, so I’ll just write it as a poem.” I’ve always been super obsessed with mermaids. Since I was a kid, I would go out to the beach on a full moon and lay in the ocean and pray to God to turn me into a mermaid. I’ve always had this feeling, that mythology was super important to me as a kid.
I was feeling really sad, but I had people around me who picked me up and introduced me to a new way of being that made me less sad. You find as an adult these people who re-parent you, and these relationships and friendships that ground you and introduce you to a new way of being an adult that’s different. They become your chosen family.
So I had this sort of vision of all of them being around me at this mermaid bar and us all being these lost souls who let our childhood die in this moment of jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge metaphorically, and then finding each other in the reeds and in the water and building this little community of lost mermaids. It’s a story song, and I’ve always wanted to write one.
The single “Thérèse” was inspired by Balthus’ painting “Thérèse Dreaming.” What was it about it that moved you?
Walking through the Met, which I did constantly as a kid, I was always taken by this painting, because so many of the young women were these kind of dainty, feminine, old fashioned-looking paintings, and she wasn’t. She was man-spreading, and had this confident position of her hands and wasn’t looking at the viewer. She had this unselfconscious ease to her that was really inspiring to me, and made me feel seen. I was like, “That feels like it looks like me.” This masculine young girl, not this flouncy, fairy princess.
Did your connection change when you learned about its controversy?
I was really taken aback when I heard about the controversy, because I literally had not thought about the creator. I’d only thought about the person. Of course, if you start thinking about the creator, you’re like, “Oh, wow, yeah, there was a day where that girl was in the studio. Was she safe? Was that okay?” All those questions come into play. But this is not a political agenda. It’s me describing feelings that I had about art.
Your video for the song shows you in an orgy in a forest, getting arrested by the cops. How did the painting bleed into the video?
Something about that triggered a feeling in me about prepubescent sexuality, and curiosity that existed in daydreams in your bed and in games you’d play with your friends that were fundamentally safe ways of exploring your sexuality. Then puberty comes and your sexuality doesn’t belong to you anymore; it belongs to the world. It becomes this weapon you possess as a young female. But that wasn’t your choice; that’s society saying you’ve got a gun in your pocket and you’ve got to protect it.
My emotional reaction to the painting felt connected to that. It’s about the viewer and the creator, not about the girl. I wanted to make it about the girl again, both in my own life and in the song.
You were topless in the video, which seemed to be something people focused a lot of attention on.
I had one dark moment where I switched the YouTube comments from top comments to most recent and started reading really hateful things. I got so upset. Then I was like, “Maya, you made this because people are upset by this kind of thing and you don’t think that they should be. So, what? You think everyone’s going to like it? If everyone liked it, then it wouldn’t need to exist at all.” So I put myself to sleep doing some kind of smile meditation through that feeling.
You wrote about moss on your previous record, on “River Like You”: “I tame the moss on the rocks.” What does the plant signify to you?
That’s so cool that you noticed that. Classically, a rolling stone gathers no moss, right? I’ve always been confused about that metaphor. In the arts, being a rolling stone — always moving, being a lone wolf — is celebrated. I think my generation is different. We’re more interested in nature walks and staying alive and saving the planet than we are in staying up till 4 a.m. on some kind of bender. The pandemic brought everyone to that place of “Wow, I’m going to lose my mind unless I figure out how to take care of myself while sitting still.” This was a pandemic record, and I called [it] Moss because it felt like emotions that were gathered while sitting still.
Have you seen Reality Bites? Winona Ryder is in it … with your dad.
I haven’t. I know Winona pretty well, and of course I’m a giant fan of her work and of my dad’s work, but there are holes in having watched my parents’ movies. Some of those movies feel like such a big deal that we’d all want to sit down and watch them together, but it’s rarely the right time where everyone’s like, “Let’s get together and watch my movies!” I hadn’t seen Pulp Fiction until a couple years ago. I still haven’t seen one of the Kill Bill movies. I’ve got some big holes.
The last season of Stranger Things was filmed a while ago. What was it like to sit on the show’s secrets for so long?
I know that there have been dramas about people spoiling things at press events, but no one seems to press me very hard on it. I’ve never gotten any angry calls from Netflix. Maybe it’s because I go on talk shows and say, “I don’t know what happens!”
Millie Bobby Brown has said that the Duffer Brothers need to start killing characters — the cast is so large it can’t even fit in a photo. Do you agree?
Well, it’s the last season, so people are probably going to die. I would love to die and get my hero’s moment. I’d love to die with honor, as any actor would. But I love the way that the Duffer Brothers love their actors. The reason that they write so beautifully for me and for everyone else is because they fall in love with their actors and their characters, and they don’t want to kill them. I think that’s a beautiful quality that they have, and I wouldn’t wish it away.
I really can’t have Robin die, because I’ve been dreaming of a Nineties spinoff featuring her and Steve.
Where we go to New York and we’re just partying in the clubs and figuring our shit out. Normally I wouldn’t really be a proponent of a spinoff, but if I got to do it with Joe Keery, I would do anything. He’s so funny and wonderful and smart, and he’s got great boundaries. He’s an excellent coworker, and I would do anything with him.
Are you shipping Steve and Nancy?
I think that Robin’s definitely shipping Steve and Nancy. I think that Robin definitely wants whatever would make Steve the happiest, which appears to certainly be Nancy. I personally think that the thing that’s so beautiful about the show: it actually has never really been about romance. People are always shipping characters in that show, but really that show’s about friendship.
There’s such an over-emphasis in media that we consume about romantic love, and it being the ultimate destination that we’re all supposed to arrive at. Find this one perfect person and then everything’s good and the story’s over. Part of me would ship it way more if the story wasn’t ending, but there’s something about our female heroes always getting endings — which is them finding the right guy — that I’m super over.
Like you said about “Mermaid Bar” and finding your chosen family.
I think that’s what adult life is really about: those friendships that you find, and those other little weird sea creatures that you discover in the big ocean of the world, who have your back and help you grow up into the kind of adult that you’re going to be and build this network of support. I think that the show is really wonderful in that way, it has all these beautiful friendships. I hope that Nancy — whether she’s with Jonathan or Steve — gets an ending that feels rewarding in that way, too.