The Nashville songwriter goes deep and personal on her stirring new album
Songwriter Maia Sharp has been working with A-list artists since she started her musical career over 25 years ago.
In 1995, Cher cut her song “Don’t Come Around Here Tonight” and, since then, she’s had compositions on albums by The (Dixie) Chicks, Bonnie Raitt, Lisa Loeb, Trisha Yearwood, Edwin McCain and Terri Clark. She co-wrote three songs with Art Garfunkel for his Everything Waits To Be Noticed album, but she says she never envisioned herself as a performer.
VIDEO: Art Garfunkel with Maia Sharp and Buddy Mondlock “The Thread”, The Bluebird Café 2003
“My dad is a singer, songwriter and producer. My mom and dad sang together in a high school band, so it was a music centric house. I grew up in LA. We had a piano and a bunch of guitars laying around, which I picked up and played informally. In junior high, they offered music classes. My dad was driving me to my first day of school and an oboe solo came on the radio. He said, ‘If you play oboe, you might be able to find work.’ A year into oboe, I saw how much fun the sax players had, so I switched. I got into college as a performance major on sax, but realized songwriting was my first love. I’d tinkered around with the piano and guitar at home, so I started writing with piano. When I went to the same places every time, I went over to guitar. I had the theory and charting skills and knew what chords went together, so I just went out and did it.
“Once I seriously started writing, I knew that’s what I had to do. I thought maybe I could get other artists to record some of my songs. Cher was my first cover and I was writing with other L.A. artists for their projects, but realized if I wanted to get all my songs out into the world, I’d have to become a performer and get up on stage.”
Sharp continued writing and began to perform. She also started producing and made albums, both as a solo artist and in the duo Roscoe & Etta, with Anna Schulze. She’s had songs in heavy rotation on AAA radio, most of them fitting easily into the pop category. Two years ago, she moved to Nashville and began working on Mercy Rising, an album with a more serious tone.
“The past couple of years have been rife with change,” Sharp said. “My marriage ended just before I moved to Nashville. I was feeling emotionally stuck and looking for a way through. I tried to shift my perspective, but it wasn’t working. On this album, I had things I needed to say as an artist, to help get me through this stuck place. It’s the most confessional album I’ve ever made. It’s riddled with truth and unapologetically real. I had more to share and work through and music has always done that for me. I don’t usually think about where the song is going to go, unless I’m writing with, or for, an artist. This time I sat down and wrote songs for me.”
Sharp said it took three years to write the songs on Mercy Rising. “This was the most difficult time of my life. I was full of longing and didn’t know what the hell was going on. You find yourself feeling something so strongly and then realize that no one else is sharing your perception. The writing helped me work it out. I feel better now that the songs have been written.”
The basic tracks for the album were cut at Resistor Studio, with her friend Joshua Grange engineering. He also played electric guitar and assembled the rhythm section of drummer Ross McReynolds and bass player Will Honaker. “The four of us recorded the basic tracks,” Sharp said. “Joshua’s electric guitar ideas are full of sonic signatures and he’s a fantastic steel guitarist as well. When the sessions were done, I took everything back to my home studio and recorded acoustic guitars, piano, Wurlitzer and vocals. I wanted it to be as lush as possible. I needed it to be a wall of beauty, so I called masterful string player Chris Carmichael. He played and arranged all the strings on ‘Mercy Rising’ and ‘Whatever We Are.’ He sent me 36 tracks of cello, violin and viola. I was speechless.”
The songs on Mercy Rising explore the down side of relationships, with a rare emotional conviction. The title track is a quiet ballad that opens with Carmichael’s ambient string textures playing off of Sharp’s high string guitar fills. Her quiet voice expresses the longing for a lover who will never return her affection. “Junkyard Dog” is an understated jolt of funky R&B, with howling electric guitars and the thumping of a bass drum supporting Sharp’s wailing vocal. “When the World Doesn’t End” is a bluesy lament that dives deep into the anguish one feels when a relationship ends. Sharp’s dramatic piano chords and sustained notes from Grange’s steel guitar support the artist’s grief-filled singing.
Sharp’s vocals are understated throughout, letting her lyrics and the rich arrangements carry the emotional weight of the songs. “Singing is just a part of the package. I’m not a Whitney Houston kind of singer. I’m mixed above the band a bit, but you can still feel the power of the instruments behind me. I always think about the arc of each song. I like to find whatever the song is asking for. Since I have my own home studio, I can take as much time as I want in that search.”