Sabrina Carpenter and Maya Hawke on Rethinking the Pop Star Playbook
After getting her big break in 2014 on the tween sitcom Girl Meets World, Sabrina Carpenter has finally escaped the prefab pressures of Disney-kid stardom by snatching back her artistic identity. She followed up her first four albums with 2022’s Emails I Can’t Send, a more dangerous departure that saw the 24-year-old performer finding vulnerability in pop star problems like public breakups and internet hate. Taylor Swift took notice (she asked her fellow Pennsylvania native to help kick off the international leg of her Eras tour), as did the Catholic Church, which beefed with Sabrina over the video for her single “Feathers” (YouTube it). Someone else who’s been paying attention is the actor and singer Maya Hawke, who called Sabrina up to unpack the complexities of pop stardom.
WEDNESDAY 6 PM JAN. 3, 2024 NYC
SABRINA CARPENTER: Hi, how are you?
MAYA HAWKE: I’m good. I just got to Atlanta. I’m getting ready to start shooting tomorrow, and I’m so happy to be talking to you.
CARPENTER: Thank you so much for doing this. How are you feeling? I love Atlanta.
HAWKE: I love Atlanta, too. At times I’ve felt really lonely out here, but after doing three seasons of the show [Stranger Things], it’s a different vibe and I’m feeling really good. I just made a sweet potato stew.
CARPENTER: Oh my gosh, you cook? My dream friends are friends who cook.
HAWKE: I cook. [Laughs] Wait, where are you?
CARPENTER: I’m in New York. I’ve told you this, but I live here half the time so I go back and forth. But this is the first year I’ve spent in New York City watching the ball drop, so I feel like I actually live here now.
HAWKE: You didn’t just watch the ball drop, you performed, right?
HAWKE: What was that like?
CARPENTER: Surreal. It’s something I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a little girl, but for some reason it doesn’t click until you’re actually up there and Ryan Seacrest says your name.
HAWKE: I watched it and you’re such a showman. You fill the room and the production happening around you melds with the music so well.
CARPENTER: I genuinely feel the same way about you and your songwriting. Every time I see you perform you have such a genuine, raw portrayal of emotion.
HAWKE: Thank you. But part of why I look up to you is that the visual aspect is really hard for me. I love to paint and I love to act and sing, but connecting the dots between the three is a really big challenge. I’m curious, did it come all at once or have you been piecing it together slowly?
CARPENTER: I like to keep my eyes and ears open for things that resonate with me because that’s what brings my world to life. But most of the time I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. The more I keep creating, the more ideas just come out of the woodwork.
HAWKE: It’s like collage.
CARPENTER: Absolutely. It just has to be true to you, as clichéd as that sounds, because there’s no formula, as much as people like to think that you sit in an office and people tell you what you should wear and how you should act onstage.
HAWKE: Yeah. It’s more like you sit alone in your room and people call you and go, “What are you wearing? What’s the plan?” And you’re like, “I don’t know. Maybe this?”
CARPENTER: And then you end up finding what makes you feel comfortable. For me, clothing has had a huge part in that. It’s been a process of finding out what actually makes me feel comfortable. And oh my god, I’m not going to be comfortable in what I’m wearing right now in three to four years. But I have to follow what I feel at that moment.
HAWKE: That’s such a zen way to think about it. Sometimes I look back at things I did early on, like, “I wish I’d known what I now know about myself,” so that I could’ve been more consistent. But if I hadn’t experimented in all the ways that I did, I don’t think I would be myself now.
CARPENTER: The mistakes lead you to knowing yourself the most. If I didn’t wear the hideous things I wore when I was 13, whatever fedora I had, I don’t think I would’ve been the same person I am today. Also, what a humbling experience to look back and be like, “I’ve changed.” That’s a really good sign that you’ve lived life the way you should.
HAWKE: I think so, too. I wanted to ask you about the organic growth of “Nonsense.” That song wasn’t a single, right? A fan found it and then it exploded, as far as I could tell.
CARPENTER: Yeah. Sometimes I get insecure about pop music and the fact that it can’t always resonate with people. So it was really special for me to experience that song having its own life, maybe because it felt like the closest to my true personality, as silly as that sounds.
HAWKE: That makes total sense.
CARPENTER: I was at a really, really low point in my life about two years ago, so I was writing very few optimistic love songs. That one always stuck out, but I felt like it might discredit some of the songs on the album that were about more sensitive subjects, so it almost didn’t make it in. People in the past had told me my music didn’t have symmetry, that I didn’t have every song sounding the same, and that got in my head. So I’m grateful because the fans decided on their own that it meant something to them.
HAWKE: You talked about being insecure about pop music, and I was curious, did you consciously select a genre or did the style of songs you were writing just lend themselves to pop?
CARPENTER: Honestly, I don’t love the idea that a pop star is someone who makes catchy songs with easy-to-grasp concepts. It resonates with part of me, but I grew up with Stevie Nicks and Dolly Parton and Carole King and Patsy Cline, and that music didn’t necessarily feel like pop to me.
CARPENTER: I feel a lot freer and more excited about what I’m making now because I’ve realized that genre isn’t necessarily the most important thing. It’s about honesty and authenticity and whatever you gravitate towards. There were a lot of genres in my last album, and I like to think I’ll continue that throughout writing music.
HAWKE: That’s so smart. Your voice has so much capacity and clarity, and that lends it so well to how you’re producing because you can really jump the octave, for lack of a better term. I thought there was going to be a question here, but it’s really just a compliment. Your voice is incredible.
CARPENTER: [Laughs] Thank you so much. I don’t know how to take a compliment. How are you with that?
HAWKE: I deflect when I don’t agree with the compliment. I also deflect if I actually think the thing someone is complimenting me on is an insult. If they’re like, “You’re so quirky,” I’m like, “Thanks.” If I like the compliment, internally I’m a mess, but I’m just, like, “Thank you. That means so much to me.”
CARPENTER: I think being quirky is a compliment.
HAWKE: Anything can be a compliment or an insult. It’s all about what you were made fun of as a kid. I was bullied for being too quirky and weird, and now those things make me sensitive, but only because of my little child self that’s living inside my grown-up body. How did people react to you as a kid?
CARPENTER: Ironically, I was bullied for singing. I had really big dreams as a child, and it worked out for me. [Laughs] I did well in school, but I’ll be honest, I started homeschooling really young. This sounds so dramatic, but I felt safer learning the way that I did. I was in an online school, and then I started working at a pretty young age, so I got out of those little toxic circles that you sometimes don’t even realize you’re in because you’re so young. So I was grateful for that. Were you homeschooled?
HAWKE: I think because both of my parents were child actors, it was really important to them to not take me out of school. During my teen years I used to scream and cry at my parents, asking them to let me work, but they wouldn’t. I graduated high school and then I did a year at drama school and then I started working at 19. But I was always jealous of the people who got a head start.
CARPENTER: When I was younger a lot of people assumed it was my parents’ dream that they were trying to fulfill through me, and I always had to tell people it really had nothing to do with anyone but my 11-year-old self. But 19 is an amazing age to start having full control of what you’re doing. I started writing my debut album as a child and I would’ve never, ever put that out if I had started a little bit older.
HAWKE: I put my debut album out at 20 and I wouldn’t have put it out this year. [Laughs] But every time you change you look back and say,“I would have done it differently.” It’s all just organic growth. And it’s great you put out your debut album when you did. It started the train, and now you have Emails I Can’t Send and it’s extraordinary.
CARPENTER: Thank you. I definitely think timing plays a huge role in all of this.
HAWKE: It’s one of my favorite albums of the year. The whole thing makes you feel good, but the lyrics fill you with powerful thoughts about your own life and relationships. It doesn’t seem like you cut out any pieces of yourself to make this record.
CARPENTER: Thank you. I get chills when it’s received that way because I think one of the trickiest things for an artist is accepting being misunderstood. It comes with making art in any capacity.
CARPENTER: I wrote most of the songs on Emails I Can’t Send not intending to ever put them out in the world, because I don’t think I would’ve written those songs if I thought about other people hearing them.
HAWKE: I actually feel that in the record. I started listening with “Skin” and then did a deep dive of your other stuff, but this record feels like you plunge 1,000 feet deeper into your own gut, and I’m so grateful you did.
CARPENTER: Thank you. Unfortunately, you have to allow yourself to get to that point where you’re even able to do that, and until I made this album, I wasn’t at that place where I felt I could. The other day, this guy was like, “Life is so long. You just have to follow the things that make you feel something, whether that’s good or bad.” And I was like, “Wow, I always hear life is short.” But it made me really excited about the fact that I’m going to find my way through.
HAWKE: That’s a very, very important thing to remember. It’s both things. An hour can feel like an eternity and a day can go by in the blink of an eye. Time seems to be what you make of it and if you treat your life like it’s long, it will be.
CARPENTER: [Laughs] We sound like fortune cookies.
HAWKE: We do.
CARPENTER: I forgot to tell you, I saw Maestro two nights ago and you were amazing. I love seeing great art and movies that are really inspiring, because it always helps with my writing as well. Are you going into the new year with any sort of clichéd resolutions, like, “I’m going to join Planet Fitness?”
HAWKE: My only resolution this year is about friendship. I want to pour more energy into my friendships and try to remember everyone’s birthday.
HAWKE: And send them a little card and be the kind of friend I want to see in the world.
CARPENTER: This is why I said you’re a good friend. You cook, and now, even making an effort to remember birthdays is another level.
HAWKE: I think I’m revealing to you that I’m not as good a friend as I want to be, actually.
HAWKE: Even though I’m close.
CARPENTER: Handmade cards are my new favorite thing this year. I started making them over Christmas for all my friends and family, and it was such a fun thing to do. It makes you feel like a kid again. Stickers, glitter, crayons. That is my wave right now.
HAWKE: That is seriously cool. I’m trying to get into sending things in the mail for as long as it exists.
CARPENTER: [Laughs] Exactly.
HAWKE: Wait, before you go, I have a couple ridiculous questions for you.
CARPENTER: Oh, please.
HAWKE: So I have three little sisters. They’re ages younger than me that I’m not remembering and I don’t want to get it wrong in print. But they’re obsessed with you and they had a couple questions.
CARPENTER: That’s the best thing ever.
HAWKE: Okay. How do you choose the names of your songs?
CARPENTER: Ooh, good question. I choose the names of my songs by things I feel would jump out at me on a piece of paper, and usually my songs start with titles.
HAWKE: That’s extremely cool. Do you choose the names of your albums in similar ways?
CARPENTER: The name of my album comes through a miracle somewhere in the universe, and it usually comes the day before I have to turn in the whole thing, but I like to think I’ll get better at that as time goes on.
HAWKE: How do you decide what songs belong on the record and what songs don’t?
CARPENTER: I spend a lot of time with them, and the ones I still want to listen to after six months to a year, that feel like they’re still brand new, resonate with me the most. But sometimes that question is a bit unanswerable because it’s a feeling.
HAWKE: And lastly, are you working on another album?
CARPENTER: I am.
HAWKE: That’s very exciting for me and all of them.
CARPENTER: Will you tell them I say hi?
HAWKE: Duh. They will scream. Thank you so much for asking me to do this.
CARPENTER: I’m genuinely so grateful. You’re so awesome. Also, I secretly just asked you to do this because I wanted to have a conversation with you.
HAWKE: That makes me even happier.
CARPENTER: I know you’re starting filming tomorrow, so good luck. And I hope we get to hang out when you’re back in New York.
HAWKE: Me too. You’re just in town for the next month or so, right?
CARPENTER: Yeah, but I’m kind of everywhere, so just hit me and we’ll make it happen eventually.
Hair: Evanie Frausto using Bumble and Bumble at Streeters.
Makeup: Mitch Yoshida using Clé De Peau Beauté at Muse Management.
Nails: Juan Alvear using Essie at Opus Beauty.
Tailor: Nicole Allen at Carol Ai Studio Tailors.
Digital Technician: Desmond Reich.
Photography Assistant: Henry Lopez.
Fashion Assistant: Kaya Jean.
Hair Assistant: Austin Weber.
Makeup Assistant: Shiori Sato.
Production Assistant: Azra Schorr.
Nail Assistant: Louise Corbet.
Location: Rein Studios.