A person with long, light brown hair, wearing an ornate crown, thoughtfully playing a violin outdoor...

Liner Notes

Maya Hawke’s Liner Notes

The singer and actress shares the untold stories behind three tracks from her new album Chaos Angel.

Welcome to NYLON’s Liner Notes, a deep dive into the untold stories that went into the makings of our favorite tracks, straight from the artists themselves. Here, Maya Hawke breaks down three songs from her latest album Chaos Angel.

Weeks before the release of her third studio album, Chaos Angel, Maya Hawke is ready to just get it out into the world already. “I really made it as an album, and so to have to divide out singles and put them out cold... I’m really excited to have the whole thing out,” she says, calling from her temporary home in Atlanta, Ga., where she’s shooting the final season of Stranger Things. (“It's going great,” she says of filming. “It's really fun to be with everybody again, and it's already kind of sentimental, so it's all really good.”)

Released on May 31, the album reunites Hawke with regular contributors Christian Lee Hutson, Benjamin Lazar Davis, and Will Graefe, all of whom also worked on her previous album Moss. Recorded between The Outlier in Woodstock, N.Y. and Manhattan’s Electric Lady Studios, the album has become an instant hit to both listeners and critics alike, with Hawke’s songwriting at the forefront.

Here, the artist breaks down three songs from the album, sharing behind-the-scenes tales of the inspirations behind them and how they were made.

“Missing Out”

“Something clicked in me where I switched from this feeling of inadequacy around these Ivy League students, where I was just this kind of delinquent actress.”

The song was really written in a bunch of stints. The first round of writing on that song happened, unwittingly, on a day when my brother had a bunch of his [college] friends upstate for the weekend. He and I went for a walk, and when we got back, this fire had started in the brush near our house, which is an old wooden farmhouse. We had this panic of trying to put out this fire, but after, he and I sat down and we wrote the pre-chorus, “Well I was left like coals in leaves.” We walked around with that in our back pockets for a while and kind of forgot about it. At some point, I came up with this little tag that I thought would be a good thing in a song sometime, “Now I know it's me who's missing out.”

Later, we had this dinner and we were all going around saying what our wish was if we had one wish, and this one young woman said hers was to write the next great American novel. Something clicked in me where I switched from this feeling of inadequacy around these Ivy League students, where I was just this kind of delinquent actress. I mean, even somebody's mom at one point said, "Oh, it's so nice to be here with all of you. You'll have these relationships that you made at this Ivy League school for the rest of your life.” And I was just like, “Oh God, I'm going to vomit.” But when I heard her say that, I was like, "Oh, you don't want to write the next great American novel. You want to write the best novel you can write. You want to be specific."

I remember when I had generic ambition, when I was like, “I want to be a movie star.” But before I made the decision to do this work, I made sure I had gotten specific; that I would want to be an actor, even if I was an acting teacher, even if I was doing regional theater. That no matter what happened in the path, that I would always want to make this decision. And so in that moment at dinner, I started to have a lot of love for the things I had learned in my life and in the things I didn't, and released some of my jealousy.

The song came from those moments. The last moment was after a show I played in at The Colony in Woodstock. We went back to that house where we first wrote, “I was left like coal in leaves,” and we were just kind of jamming out in the living room late at night after the show. My brother and I started riffing that pre-chorus over, and I combined it with, “Now I know it's me who’s missing out.” Ben [Lazar Davis], my longtime collaborator, the producer of my last record, and a brilliant writer, started going, “Missing out, missing out, missing out.” I have the recording. It was this really exciting moment where you felt like the song was happening.

“Black Ice”

Sadie Sink is one of my favorite singers in the world and one of my favorite people; she was just in the neighborhood.”

This was the first song I wrote for the album. There was a day when I was in drama school, so this would've been 2017, a long time ago, and I was in upstate New York. I had to drive back into the city to go to class, and it started to snow, and I thought, "We could lie. We could just say that it snowed. We got snowed in, we couldn't even open the door, and we could not go back." Later, during the pandemic, I had a moment of really missing that time in my life and missing that person I was with. I started working on, “It was snowing when we woke up and we thought of staying home.” That melody came and I fiddled around with it. For years, I just had it for years sitting in my back pocket, and I would work on little other verses, and I tried to finish it, and it even had a different chorus at one point.

I was singing it in front of Christian [Lee Hutson] once, just randomly around the time that we were working on Moss. He was like, "What's that?" And I was like, "Oh, that's nothing. That's just this little melody I've had for ages." He's like, "You wrote that melody?" Up until that point, I'd really seen myself as a poet in a band. I would always write my songs to music, but then I would throw away my music and think it was bad, and save my words and give them to someone who I thought was more equipped to write music to. And he was like, "That's the music for that song." And he really encouraged me between when I made Moss and when we made Chaos Angel to use my own melodies and to write my own stuff.

There are tons of melodies on this record and cord progressions that my bandmates wrote, that Ben, and Will [Graefe], and Christian and Jesse Harris] all added on. But there's also a ton of music that I wrote on this record. I almost wrote on every song. That's really different about this record, and it's because of “Black Ice” and because of Christian's encouragement that this record is what it is.

My friend Eliza Callahan, who is an amazing member of the band Purr, came and sang on the outro, and so did a bunch of other friends of mine. The vocals are from all the people I’ve worked with, or just friends of mine who were around Electric Lady when I was recording the outro. Sadie [Sink] has the most extraordinary voice I've ever heard in my life. Honestly, it's so in tune. We had to put it out of tune a little bit to put it with my voice, because it's making me sound out of tune. She's incredible and one of my favorite singers in the world and one of my favorite people, but she was just in the neighborhood. The idea of the whole thing was that my community was telling me to relax in magically isolated, singular vocals that become a choir.

“Okay”

“What I'm most interested in in music, at least right now, is, ‘What is the simplest way I can articulate the most complicated emotion?’”

The song is basically just one word, and the one where [the idea of a mantra] is most prevalent. I first wrote, “If you’re OK, then I’m OK,” on a napkin in a restaurant, which became the title of a poem I had written, and every lyric other than “if I'm OK, then you're OK” was in the poem.

The phrase came from a conversation I had had with a friend of mine, where I was exasperated because I was having a really difficult time with a really important relationship in my life. What everyone kept saying to me was, "But you know at the bottom of their heart they love you so much." And it had been said to me so many times, I started to be like, “Well, fuck that. Why do I give a shit about how they feel at the bottom of their heart? When do I get to see it? Because if it's not actionable, if I'm not experiencing that feeling, then of what value is it that it's there to me?” I was really thinking about codependent relationships and how if one person isn't OK, you are not doing well.

Within the poem, I really had said everything I wanted to say about it, and that what was sickening about it was the repetition, being unable to escape. I love this song by Phosphorescent called “You Can Make Me Feel Bad If You Want To,” and basically, I was like, “Oh, I could just do that.” In order to do that kind of repetition [in a song], you need to have a phrase worthy of repeating where the meaning can change every time you hear it. And I felt like I had found one, so I copied a thing I loved.

I haven't been in “poet mode" on purpose in a long time. Poet mode was my primary focus from 16 to 20, and I've tapped those poems for all their worth in my songs. It’s very rare now that I decide to write a poem, especially now that I've been working as a musician. If I have an idea for a poem now, it's become usually an idea for a song. This one was intended as a poem, but then I was like, “Well, I'll make it a song.” Now, it usually comes as a gesture of communication; when I want to tell someone something and I want them to really understand me, I try to write them a poem sometimes.

I think the main difference is that music is so powerful, and you can really elevate language with music. What I've learned is that if the language you're using is too elevated and you put music with it, it can actually become oversaturated and be ruined. There are a few people who do it really welL. To me, in music, what I'm most interested in, at least right now, is, “What is the simplest way I can articulate the most complicated emotion?” Here's a good example: There's a song on my first record called “Hold the Sun.” I still feel very positively about that song, but I wouldn't write it now. I would never put [something like,] “I want you” in a poem, for example. That's so simple, it's so direct, but if you put music behind “I want you,” you get some of the greatest songs of all time. But if you just write I want you on a page, you kind of get a sext, not a poem.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Chaos Angel is out now.