Maia Sharp is a highly productive songwriter, performing musician, and producer, and she divides her time between writing songs for herself and writing songs for others, but in both endeavors she often collaborates with co-writers. Her songs have been recorded by The Chicks, Bonnie Raitt, Trisha Yearwood, Cher, Art Garfunkel, Lisa Loeb and many, many more. Sharp also takes part in the program Songwriting With: Soldiers which pairs songwriters with soldiers or their family members to tell their very personal stories via the universal medium of music. In recent days, all of these experiences have pushed her further into using autobiographical elements in her music and this has challenged her to value the power that personal experiences can bring to songs.
In 2019, she moved from California to Nashville, and when you think about what’s happened in and around Nashville, as well as in the wider world, between that time and now, you get a sense of how intense Sharp’s moving experience has been, from a major Tornado to Covid, to severe winter weather leaving her “isolated on top of isolated.” But it’s the major life changes that coincided with her move and adjustment to Nashville which you’ll find expressed in alluring and surprising ways on the album Mercy Rising out on May 7th. The level of honesty in the songs that Sharp co-wrote with a number of collaborators is something which ties them all together, and the wide range of musical traditions you’ll also find on the album are an intrinsic part of the wider storytelling going on. Maia Sharp spoke with us about Mercy Rising, her approach to telling her own and other peoples’ stories, and how she discovers what kind of song a given work-in-progress wants to be.
AH: How important is live performance for you generally? Do you do live local shows in Nashville?
Maia Sharp: Normally my live shows are on the road. I haven’t quite learned the Nashville ropes yet, but I assume that it’s similar to Los Angeles, which is that you don’t want to play it too often. Even living here full time, I was planning on maybe playing a show every couple of months, and most of my live shows would be on the road. Usually, I play live shows around a release for a couple of months. I’m one of those artists who has not chosen to be on the road 200 days a year. Otherwise, I like to focus on writing for the next one or writing with and for other artists. I’ve always tried to straddle the fence on that and write with and for them as well as for myself.
AH: I’m sure that takes a fair amount of organization and discipline to try to keep all of those areas in motion all the time. How long have you been aware of a need to balance those things in your life?
MS: It’s been important to me since the very beginning. I started this whole ride in 1997. My first song recorded by another artist was in 1996 with Cher and my first album came out in 1997. I’ve always loved the feeling of having another artist record my song and I’ve always wanted to keep the artist side up. I’ve learned over the years that they serve each other. I’ve happened upon many opportunities as an artist because of what I did as a writer.
One example is Bonnie Raitt recording three of my songs. That could have stopped at the songwriter front, but she wanted me to come in and record some of the harmonies I had written on a song, then she wanted me to recreate some of the horn section work I had done on the song, which was a dream come true. Then she asked me to open some shows for her. So if she hadn’t heard me as the writer, I would not have had that opportunity as the artist. There have also been plenty of times when it happened the other way around, where I would open for somebody, then we’d have a day off, and we’d write a song. Then I’d end up with a song on their album. I want to keep both things up, but in keeping both up, they can help each other.
But as you mentioned, yes, it’s been important to me from the beginning, but I haven’t necessarily been great at the balance of it until probably ten years ago or so. It is hard to plan that. I’ve learned the nuances now because I’ve been doing it so long. There have been times when one was definitely giving me more returns than the other one, but just as a soul-satisfaction, I needed to do them both.
AH: How does all this play into the times when you’re co-writing or co-creating?
MS: That kind of plays into both sides of things, because when I’m writing for my own album, I don’t think that I have to write for me alone. Most of my new album is co-written and I love that. I’ve also collaborated from the very beginning. I feel like I grow from that and need that. When I’m writing for other artists, most of the time it’s with the other artists, so I have to keep the collaborative muscle going. I also really enjoy the assignment of getting outside of myself. If an artist has a story they want to tell, I’m there to help them tell their story and I really enjoy that.
I started writing with an organization called Songwriting with Soldiers about four years ago, and that is the Olympics of this. You sit in front of an active duty serviceman, a veteran, or a member of their family, and they tell you whatever they want to tell you. Often it’s a lot, these experiences that I can’t understand. I can’t understand them but I have to be wide open, hearing it. I’m there to make a song about what they have been brave enough to share with me. The rawness of that and the requirement of having zero ego is an awesome feeling. It’s that thing of when you’re writing with another artist, but to a whole other level. I’ve been doing that on a regular basis for the last four years or so.
AH: That sounds like a pretty shocking proposition in many ways. You’re sitting down with a total stranger who is probably going to talk about trauma and try to articulate something meaningful and unexpected. And that’s potentially cathartic. It’s for them as much as for other people, right?
MS: Yes, absolutely. The power of sharing the story is a two-way street, both for them to get that story out and for someone else to hear it, having thought they were the only one to ever feel that way. To be a witness to that myself, I walk away feeling like I’ve just learned something I couldn’t have learned in any other environment. It adjusts my perception of my own life, too, and what constitutes a problem. I realize that I don’t have anything to complain about. It’s a very powerful thing, and they say how much it heals, too. I feel like the power of music is why they are able to share such heavy stuff with someone they just met. It’s just awesome.
AH: The title track for this album feels incredibly relevant, and even though it was probably written a while back, it just gets more relevant. Something I like about “Mercy Rising” is that it doesn’t take the tone that I might expect it to, based on the phrasing. It’s not so much a prayer or a promise, but more like a statement of need, or even a demand or a summoning of what is needed. The word “mercy” can have religious connotations, though it can be much wider than that.
MS: That’s right on. Everything you just said about it is totally in the stew of this song. I didn’t mind the glance at potential religious phrasing, but I thought coming at it as if it is a constellation was mixing in some science that might temper those leanings. I’m not religious at all, though I’m kind of open to anything. It is a “summoning.” It’s about a moment of total frustration, asking why time wasn’t moving me forward at all. Why was I not feeling the healing that I should be feeling? It was a moment of feeling like I’d done everything I could to change a situation, but the feeling itself was not changing. Wondering what it was going to take was that moment of looking up at the stars and saying, “Show me a change.” It was written in Spring of 2019 when I had just moved to Nashville. A year later, that feeling that everything was the same every day did have a totally different meaning.
AH: I’ve never come across a song that expresses this specific kind of feeling, and I love that it does that, as well as it being highlighted as the title track. Do you see connections between this song and the other songs on this album, or is it more about a time in your life?
MS: It is definitely connected by a period of time, and I do feel a connection between the songs, but I’m not sure how I would articulate that across the entire album. The last three albums have become truer and truer at accelerated rates. There’s more and more real life. This one is absolutely the truest, the most drawn from actual events. Early on, when I first started making records, I wasn’t so concerned with that. Lately, it’s got to be real, and there’s so much power in sharing something that’s actually happened to you.
Maybe Songwriting with Soldiers has had an impact on that. Even if I think that the thing that happened to me is so unusual (P.S. It never is because it’s always happened to somebody else too…), somebody might be helped by hearing it. I know I will be helped by sharing it, so here we go. Whoever is telling the story, it’s okay to value your own experience because it might be valuable to someone else, too. I’m glad I finally got that through my head.
AH: When you were working on these songs, what usually came first, a musical concept or something more lyric-driven?
MS: It’s usually some kind of lyrical start. Sometimes it’s a lot. I remember with “Whatever We Are,” I wrote the first two verses of that on a drive back from South Carolina, about a six hour drive. Over that drive, I carved out how I wanted the phrasing to go and what I wanted to say. I brought those two verses in to my co-writers. That was the biggest chunk that I’d call a “start.” With “Mercy Rising,” I just had that idea and I wanted to figure out how to get it across. But it was just the two words. I guess they all started with some kind of lyric idea. I know people who sit down and start playing, then come up with an idea, but lately I’ve been starting with, “What do I want to say? How does the lyric feel? Does it want to be slow, does it want to be rocking?” The lyric is usually what dictates.
AH: I think that the song “Whatever We Are” is also a devastating song in a good way. It goes to the next level in terms of honesty, of real experiences and emotions that are hard to articulate. That song really goes in for Country elements in terms of sound, though there are a lot of different sound approached on the album.
MS: That one speaks directly to our point, since once I had the meter and the lyrics of the first two verses, it really wanted to be 6/8. Once it was 6/8 and it wrapped around to the title, it felt like the title should also be the end of the chorus. Those elements meant that it had to sound like a Country song from the ’50s. And the lyrics showed us that. Everything is totally true in that song. I actually wanted to take the point of view of a slightly more evolved version of me.
I wanted to occupy the position of how I wanted to feel, because I wasn’t quite there yet. I was still carrying around resentment, angst, and confusion that weren’t helping me at all. It was time to be okay with things and love no matter what. Writing from that point of view of how I wanted to feel really helped, and I think I’m going to do that some more. If I’m offered to play a song live, I usually play it, because every time I play it, I get a little closer to really feeling that way.
AH: That’s a really cool idea, that a song continues to progressively create change. There are so many interesting songs on this album, and a particularly punchy one is “Nice Girl.” I love the evolving narrative in it.
MS: My favorite part about it is that it leads you to think it’s going to be sweet. My soon-to-be ex-wife said that to me word for word. We are really close friends now, but this was during the really hard year of 2018. We were sitting on the couch redefining who we were going to be after 21 years of being together. She said, “You know what? It’s okay. I know you’re going to make some nice girl miserable someday.” We just paused and then she said, “You’re going to write a song out of that, aren’t you? You just thought, ‘That’s going to be a great song line’, didn’t you?” And I said, “Of course I did!” We just laughed our asses off for about an hour. It sounds kind of crazy, but that was a killer icebreaker. She’s given me some great song ideas over the years.
AH: I have so much respect that you wrote this song about something someone said to YOU and you are just putting that out there. I wouldn’t have known one way or the other based on the song. That’s bravery right there. This is also a song that morphs out of traditional sounds and ideas but is startling.
MS: We wanted to set it up in a sweet way so that people didn’t realize that it was going to go dark. We wanted the mean line to happen over the sweet chords.