Hunter Hawkins | Credit: Courtesy

Phase, the debut recording by Santa Barbara native Hunter Hawkins, sounds so self-assured that it would be easy to assume that she’s always been this way. What you are hearing, however, is far from the whole story. Growing up in a world that rewards compliance and discourages individuality, true self-expression often gets hidden behind closed doors. The journey she took to get to where she is now is one that a lot of young artists could learn from.

Having been identified at an early age as a musical prodigy, Hawkins fulfilled the image of a teen pop star — “bubbly, feminine, and primarily pink.” As a freshman in high school, she was already competing successfully in Santa Barbara’s Teen Star and winning leading roles in musical theater productions, but despite this early success, she felt there was more to her than these outlets could express.

Leaving conventional high school in her sophomore year for Middle College allowed Hawkins to pursue her passion in the professional musical theater world, where she began to attract attention from talent agents and famous mentors. After an early round of college applications yielded a frustrating set of waitlists, Hawkins moved in a new direction — Los Angeles, and the positions behind, rather than in front of, the camera.

In the summer of 2019, close mentor Kenny Loggins encouraged Hawkins to join him at the Hawaiian Songwriting Festival, a trip that changed her life. Having a longstanding practice of writing poetry meant that writing lyrics came relatively easily. The process of songwriting just felt so right. Writing original songs allowed Hawkins to take a peek inside her mind and find a new perspective. “I could take a look at my life in a way that was more observant and didn’t come from a place of needing anything to be fixed,” she said.

“I had been searching for authenticity for so long,” Hawkins told me, adding that it was through this practice that she found a sense of expansion that had not previously been available to her. It was this shift in outlook — from trying to be a perfect teen pop star to writing her own songs — that led her to explore gender fluidity and bisexuality as well as freedom of self-expression. On Phase, each carefully curated song has a corresponding image and color that helps depict the fascinating and empowering story of Hawkins’s complex but beautiful life. Now content and flourishing in her new self-created role, Hawkins sees her struggles with early success and disappointment as blessings in disguise that, when mashed together, created a beautiful harmony of a person.

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