Posted May 9, 2021 by Jeff in Tunes

Maia Sharp Celebrates Newfound Freedom on Highly Personal Album

Photo of Maia Sharp
Photo of Maia Sharp

After living in the Los Angeles area for most of her life, singer-songwriter Maia Sharp moved to Nashville at the beginning of 2019. Once settled in the Music City, Sharp, who’s written for artists such as Bonnie Raitt, the Chicks, Lisa Loeb, Trisha Yearwood, Art Garfunkel, Cher, Edwin McCain, Terri Clark and many others while still recording her own albums, started recording Mercy Rising at Resistor Studio, a place owned and operated by her friend Joshua Grange, an accomplished all-around musician and engineer.  They tracked drums with Ross McReynolds and bass with Will Honker. Grange plays guitar on the album. At her home studio, Sharp performed and engineered acoustic guitars, piano, Wurlitzer and vocals, enlisting friends and co-writers Mindy Smith, Peter Groenwald, PJ Pacifico, Anna Schulze, Thomas Finchum, Cyd Greenwood and Gabe Dixon in to sing and/or play on the album as well.   

The album commences with the moody title track, a tune that benefits from an ornate string arrangement. Sharp takes a deep look inward on the highly personal tunes that follow as she chronicles the break-up of her marriage.

Sharp spoke to us via phone from her Nashville home.

What has it been like to be grounded from touring for the past year?
I’m not one of those artists who’s just on the road for 200 days a year. I spend just as much time at home to write as I do touring, but I really look forward to those times when there’s an album and I can schedule a few months of touring. It’s part of the balance. It keeps the mojo up. You have to keep your fearlessness up about being on stage. It makes me miss the other part of being home when I can write, so I really miss it. I think I will appreciate it more now. I’m sure a lot of us are going to. There are times when you are on the road, and it’s so grueling. You ask yourself, “What am I doing? I’m making 15 cents a mile. Why am I working so hard?” Now, I’m like, “Bring on that fucking 15 cents a mile!”

You moved from Los Angeles to Nashville in 2019. What was that experience like?
That was the beginning of 2019. I lived in California my whole life. There was a combination of things. I had been looking at moving to Nashville for a while, but it didn’t feel like a fit until right around then. There was a shift here, or I became award of a shift here. The timing felt right to move here. My marriage of 21 years ended, so that was also an opportunity for a fresh start. It was a little bit of a push and a little bit of a pull. Once I got here, I was doing a lot of one-off shows. At the end of 2019, I went into the studio and made the record, thinking it would come out in spring of 2020, but that was the worst possible time. I have as yet to see what my life will be like here.

Though written before the pandemic, the songs really speak to the pandemic.
I had my own version of feeling stuck even before the pandemic began. I don’t know if it qualifies as irony. Writing and recording the album helped me get unstuck. And then, it was 2020. I found newfound freedom and figured it out, and I was now locked in the house. 

The album begins with the title track. Talk about the story behind that particular track?
That one was written here in Nashville. It’s one of the handful that wasn’t just chosen because it reflected how I was feeling and what I was going through and the challenges of those two years. It was written specifically to get this emotion out and to help push me through it. At that point, I knew I was going to make a solo album and needed a song to say that on the album. That’s not always the case. Sometimes, you look through older songs or finish a song you started. I had two versions of it and vibes on the chorus. I called my buddy Mindy Smith, who’s a wonderful singer-songwriter, and played her what I had. I needed her help. I thought if I did it alone, I would spin out and take it to these really dark places. I needed her to help get me across the finish line, and she did. She sings harmony on it too.  

Are those live strings on it? 
Hell, yes! I got my very talented friend Chris Carmichael and called him. He did it all remotely from his place even though it wasn’t the pandemic yet. He arranges and records all of the strings. I mean all — cello, viola and violin. Anywhere from four to six tracks of each of those things. And so fast. I just asked him to add a little more there and take a little off there from one arrangement. An hour later, it came back perfect. It’s all real. It’s not sampled. It’s just him.  

The arrangement is so eerie. It reminds me of those R.E.M. records that have strings — Out of Time and Automatic for the People.
Oh, cool. 

The album shifts in a different direction with the next song, “You’ll Know Who Knows You,” which has a real chunky bass riff propelling it. 
It’s one of those that was written before I moved here. I traveled and was on a writer trip. I had the seed of it and the concept of it. I wanted to do something sexy about nuance and subtlety. It’s about letting somebody know that you caught all the little things that other people maybe didn’t see about them and you want to prove that you have really been playing attention. I brought that idea to my friend Emily Kopp and that was our first writing session. Her musical influence is really different from where I would’ve taken it. It might be more of a pop treatment. It’s just really different. 

I like how “Nice Girl” takes aim at an ex-lover without being really bitter and mean-spirited. 
Good. That one is the most real word-for-word truth. It sounds like I’m singing it to someone else. I was having a heavy day with my soon-to-be ex-wife and we were having a heavy day and redefining our friendship. We knew we would be in each other’s lives because there was so much love there. We were at the end of a very heavy conversation, and she said, “It’s okay. You’re going to make some nice girl very miserable one day.” My reaction was so positive that she said, “Oh my God, you’re going to make that into a song. You’re always thinking about your fucking songs.” It’s a great line, and it totally landed. We laughed our asses off.

It got really dark and then we laughed our asses off. That was the moment when we knew we would be alright because we could laugh at the dark stuff. 

What was it like to work with PJ Pacifico on “When the World Doesn’t End”?
Great. He’s been a friend for years. He was on a writing trip to Nashville, and I happened to be here at that point. We had a writing day. We wanted to play a scenario out and play it out to the very worst and then be surprised when the worst isn’t the worst that could really happen. He started sharing a story about an ex- of his that he really didn’t want to run into. He was living in a small enough town that he had to look around the corners first. It felt like a cool way to present that nightmare scenario and show how it wouldn’t be that bad. Early in the verse, it says “I put a little make-up on” and him singing that line is so cool. It’s such a cool opportunity to have a man and woman sing that line together. Once he’s in that early, he has to stay in because it’s a duet. It’s a super fun song.

I love the production on the record. It even sounds good on my computer. Can’t wait to hear what it’s like on vinyl. 
It’s in process now. All of [the vinyl orders] are way behind. I don’t know what the arrival time is. I think it’s going to be three to five weeks after the album release. The CD will be out and then the vinyl will probably be out in June. 

To what extent did contemporary singer-songwriters such as Phoebe Bridgers and Jason Isbell inspire your songwriting?
I just listen to them so often. I try to take those elements that I tune into when I listen to them and apply them to my own writing and production. Phoebe’s vocals sound effortless. Who knows if it actually is? I really keyed into not letting the strain of the material affect what you’re actually saying. I had that in the back of my mind. Where she chooses to be irreverent is cool. She’ll be in a lane lyrically, and it’s all unfolding in a very acceptable way and then she’ll take a hard right and slap you in the face with some image or emotion and then get back in the lane. You’re never bored. Jason is just classic. He takes care of the yarn and the rhythms and the story is so layered and you learn so much without him ever saying it. “Speed Trap Town.” How much does he say about a small town in that story. It revolves on this one line. It’s brilliant.  

What drew you to songwriting in the first place?
My dad is a songwriter. He’s been doing this from since before I was born. It was always in the house. Mom and dad sang together in a band in high school. My first musical endeavor was to be a saxophone player. I went to college for it and did jazz bands and the wind ensembles. I started playing around in L.A. in horn sections. I started writing saxophone, and it wasn’t quite right. I grew up listening to Bonnie Raitt and Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon. I wanted to reflect that a little more, so I started writing songs that were trying to be like them. I’m sure the first 100 of them sucked, but it definitely got me. I was very passionate about the saxophone but this was a whole other level, and I knew it was what I wanted to do. From the very beginning when things started to happen in L.A., I tried to split my efforts between writing for other people and writing for my own albums. 


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].