Maia Sharp’s Mercy Rising pulses with warm vulnerability, cool sensuality, and renders the ordeal of starting over into art. While not necessarily to be construed as a break-up album, Mercy Rising, like Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, shares personal affectations that leave the listener feeling understood and alien all at once, cognizant of the feelings we know, fear, and usually attempt to exorcise. The end of a relationship, the promise of a new horizon, the vacillating emotions that accompany change, Sharp embraces it all while also recognizing her desires, expectations, and faults. Mercy Rising is a confession but also a declaration from an artist who’s more than adept at the balancing act of songwriting and real life. That ability has served Sharp through a slew of solo albums and multiple collaborations while also leading the second-generation performer’s (her father is songwriter Randy Sharp) songs to be recorded by a variety of artists including Cher, Edwin McCain, Trisha Yearwood, Keb’ Mo, The Chicks, Lizz Wright, and Art Garfunkel. Mercy Rising is available everywhere on Friday, May 7th.
AI- What made you decide to go ahead and get to Nashville full-time? You’d been back and forth there workin’, recordin’, writing. What made the decision for you that like, “Okay, now’s the time for me to make Music City my home?”
MS- It was kind of a combination of pulling me here and a little push outside of Los Angeles too (laughs)! Yes, you’re right, I’ve been comin’ here for probably 20 years. I’ve been taking writing trips here probably three to five times a year because obviously, the writing pool here is just amazing! I have some really, really wonderful friends here– very, very talented people! There were times where I was comin’ so often, people thought that I already lived here! But I was such a California girl! And I still am! I think that the idea of leavin’ my home state, it wasn’t quite right yet. End of ’18, my relationship of many years ended. So the beginning of ’19 felt like, “Okay, it’s time for a fresh start somewhere else.”
Also, musically and writing-style-wise, Nashville was becoming more and more of a fit for me and LA was becoming less and less of one. I’ve never really thought the way I need to, to be successful in film and TV sync, and LA just felt like more and more, it was becoming a town that was centered on that. And Nashville [just has every genre]. All kinds of music is here now. And just the way people write and how songwriter-centric it is here too. If you say that you’re a songwriter here in Nashville, people go, “Oh cool,” and they understand that and they acknowledge that that is your job. It’s not like, “Oh, but how do you pay your bills?” (Laughs) So it just more and more fell into place. That last little, like, lookin’ for a reboot, the personal life just needed some new scenery. That was the last little piece of the puzzle.
I would say that the overwhelming majority of the songs on Mercy Rising have a deeply personal feel to them. I don’t know how much of that is legitimately chronicling that push and pull as you called it, but when did you start putting the songs for this album together? Was it before you got to Nashville? Or did you start that afterwards? Did you have to get some distance to make it happen?
A couple of those songs were written prior to the move and they were just songs that I had in the back of my mind that I was always like, “Well, on my next project, I really want to do these songs.” But most of them were written or selected after I was here because they were offering, I thought, one of the many stories that had happened in that last year. Because so many things about my life has changed and there was this weird kind of combination of like stuck and adrift at the same time– especially during the pandemic! So I chose the songs that reflected that. And yes, lot of it was written after I was already here and it was entirely recorded here.
When did you start? Was that before the lockdown?
Yes! Thankfully! It was right at the end of 2019! That’s one of my favorite parts about the whole process is getting talented humans together in a room! Especially ’cause these songs have been in my head and in my room and I’ve been workin’ on them and I chart them and I figure out the arc of the energy and the form of it… And like, “No, I need to breathe now! I need other humans to get their hands on it!” So yes, I got to do that in person [at the] very end of 2019.
Tell me about goin’ to Resistor Studios, working with Joshua Grange, getting those first, I guess, base tracks down for what would become the completed album?
Oh man! When it was time to like, “I need to figure out where to track it,” he was my first call, Joshua Grange, great steel player, electric player, I mean anything with strings on it– and keyboard as well! And his room is just so vibey! Because I’ve been coming here often enough, I had some drummers and bass players in mind, but I asked Josh for his ideas, and he said that he had just played with a pair of guys who played together all the time and the three of them had locked in instantly. So that allure. And I’ve seen this happen before– just because there’s a room full of great players doesn’t mean that they’re all gonna sync up right away. So having Josh tell me– and I trust him implicitly ’cause I had already worked with him a lot– that the three of them sound like one, I was like “Sold!”
The drummer Ross McReynolds, awesome, the bass player, Will Honaker, and Josh was like engineer and electric guitar player. I’m not sure what he can’t do, honestly (laughs)! We just tracked it. I had a plan for everything already, so we took things maybe five or six times and then I took all of those files back to my lair here and did all the vocals and acoustic guitar, piano, Wurlitzer, and I could take all the time that I wanted. That’s it! That was my process. So I got to be with humans for a while and I got to be alone for a while. And then I got to hand it over to my mixer, Ryan Hewitt, who’s awesome!
Taking that back to your lair, as you call it, working in your home studio, how much of that do you do from necessity and how much of that is for you to be able to have that control over the final product?
I’m gonna say it’s all the second one. I love to have the control over it. I love that I can take all the time that I need. I don’t have to worry about anybody waitin’ for me or how much is this gonna cost? And I like the engineering part of it too. I like the editing part. I have friends that are like, “How can you just sit there for hours?” Like, “I don’t know, but I love it!” (Laughs)
I want to get that aspect of your persona as well, the production aspect, but I also wanted to talk about the special guests that you enlisted to help you on this album. You’re back in your home studio, you’ve got these tracks. Do names start poppin’ into your head? Like, “Oh man, you know who would be awesome on this?” And then you call them?
Well, I think all of my special guests, if I’m remembering correctly, it was a year ago now, but I think all of them are my co-writers. So I would give them that first call. Mindy Smith was my co-writer on “Mercy Rising”, the title cut. Actually, Peter Groenwald did a background on that one as well, and he’s not a co-writer on it. He’s just a really good friend. He’s in a duo called the Hush Kids that I just love! He’s also in a great trio called My Sister, My Brother. I dunno if Garrison [Starr] talked about that?
She did! We spoke about it at length.
Also just let me say, her album… She in general is just such a talented beast, but this new album is ridiculously great! Just so raw and real! Anyway, I highly recommend it if people haven’t already found it. So yeah, I think all my other guests were where my co-writers on the songs. PJ Pacifico, my Roscoe & Etta partner Anna Schulze, Thomas Finchum, yeah, they’re all like the co-parents of the songs. They were happy to come by and be a part of it!
Jumping back to the mixing, the editing… The producer’s role is also something that you have done at great length. I noticed that it has been a little bit since you have been behind the board as a producer for another artist. I say it’s been a little bit, it’s just been a little bit since something was released. Is that something that you have been doing again? Or plan to? Or have, and we haven’t seen the results of that yet?
Yeah, I did a little bit probably 2017 and ’18, and it hasn’t been released yet– and I’m not sure how much they want to talk about it or when it will be released (laughs)! But it really has to be a very organic thing. I’m not just a producer for hire. Anybody who calls, I check it out and see if I want to do it. It usually happens because a co-writer liked what I did on our demo and wants to do more and that turns into an EP. Or somebody that I’ve known for years like Art [Garfunkel] or Edwin [McCain]. They’re usually long close relationships already. And then the rest of the time, I’m producing myself, which can be a blessing and a curse (laughs)!
I’ve had it said to me from different people on numerous occasions, different thoughts on the role of the producer as someone to help steer the ship or someone to help rein in certain creative impulses. I guess when you’re left to your own devices to rein yourself in that could indeed provide some issues. But I don’t know that I hear something like that on Mercy Rising. It feels like everything fit together the way that it was intended to.
Thank you so much for saying that. I think I treat self-producing like I treat writing alone. ‘Cause without a co-writer, without a sounding board… Although, the other players are sounding boards. I’m definitely listening to what they have to say and asking them what they think of this or that. But when I’m alone, like once I take the tracks back to the lair, as I said, then the way that I treat it is the same way that I treat a song that I’m trying to write alone. I let myself put a little space. I will walk away from it for a day and return with a fresh perspective, hopefully. Even a day can be enough to hear something that I just wasn’t hearing when I was sittin’ there for 11 hours straight and listening to the same stuff over and over again. I give myself the time. And without a label bearin’ down or anybody saying, “Well, it’s gotta be out by August 1st,” I might as well take as much time as I need to feel like it’s one animal that was all meant to be. It’s really cool to hear you say that ’cause obviously, my little tactic worked! At least it worked on you!
Well, I’m also a mark!
You’re such an easy mark (laughs)!
I really am! But I tell you, somethin’ that I personally feel about collaboration is being able to get that other perspective– something that I may miss, something that I don’t hear. I often ask songwriters when they write for a variety of artists like you do if they ever write with a particular artist in mind. I saw where you had talked about that, having certain songs that you thought would be perfect for someone, and then they’re like, “Oh no, no, no! I want this one here that you wrote! And so I think that kind of goes along with it too. There’s something that perhaps you missed that they picked up on. Is that how you feel about it when your songs get chosen that way?
Yeah. But my solution is just to get as much of it out there as I can and let them pick. I can’t claim to know what they will be drawn to. I’m not sure how that applies to collaboration when I’m co-writing, but I am a serious fan of having another energy in the room and different ideas and the things that a collaborator will pull out of me that I didn’t know were there. I guess that’s similar to the things that an artist hears in my songs that I didn’t think they were listening for. It sounds a little cheesy, but when I really connect with a song, when I am really just proud of the idea of it and the craft of it, and I get it out there, that’s when another artist also connects with it.
When I try to write what I think Bonnie Raitt will love on her next album, I don’t know what she’s really goin’ for. But if I just write songs that make me feel something and I manage to get them to her (laughs), that’s what’s gonna land. So I finally just relaxed about tryin’ to write for the pitch sheet. Apparently, that’s not my thing. But they land, so that’s okay! It’s like when you finally get the TV to work! Just don’t move (laughs)!
You just got back out to do a show with her a couple of months ago out west, didn’t you?
It has been postponed many times! It’s original date, I think, was March 22nd of 2020. So it’s finally back on, lookin’ good. It seems to be holding [for] November 17th of this year.
Oh, okay! Have you gotten back out to do anything? Any performing yet?
I’ve done a couple shows. A couple. I did the Peace Center in Greenville, South Carolina. And I have another one comin’ up the day before the album release. The album comes out on May 7th. I’m playin’ the Peace Center on May 6th. But yeah, that’s really it. I’ve done a bunch of online stuff, but the in-person stuff, it feels like it’s gonna open up again, probably starting in November. I’m gonna try to route something to get me over to California so I can open up for Bonnie. My favorite thing!
Something else that you’ve been involved with that I think is amazing is the Summer Songwriter Workshop at NYU. I believe that’s gonna all be virtual this year when they do it. What have you learned teaching songwriting to other people? Is that something you were taught or did it develop? Or was it a combination of that? Because you’ve been writing songs since you were four or five years old, right?
(Laughs) Well, it’s so funny, you know, that song that I wrote when I was 5 [“Ghosts”] and we put it on one of the albums [Maia Sharp], I actually didn’t write after that! I wrote this crazy little song when I was like four or five and then focused on other stuff. I actually thought I was gonna be a saxophone player. I went to college for that and started really seriously writing songs about halfway through that. I was resistant to the teaching part of it. I know what my process is. I know how I behave and respond in a writing session, but I [had] no idea how I could possibly articulate that in front of a class. I didn’t do workshops for a while. I was asked to do them, but when Phil [Galdston] called about the NYU thing, I was like, “Okay. Maybe it’s time to see if I can figure out how to do this.” And once I got in there, I realized if I treat the workshop, if I treat hearing somebody else’s song to let them know what I would do, I literally just let them know what I would do. Like if I was your co-writer, I would suggest that we go here, and here’s why. And it actually started to come more naturally than I ever thought it would.
It made me articulate those processes that I’ve learned over the years, but have never had to say exactly what they are, which has been very, very helpful. Anytime you’re made to explain something that was just in your mind in this kind of ethereal, vague way, but now you have to put it into words that make sense to another person, that is very, very helpful. And then it makes me question my own process in certain situations! Like, “Okay, here’s the thing that you just told a student that you did. Why aren’t you doing it here?” (Laughs) Listen to thyself! I’ve definitely learned a lot. And I learn a lot from them too. It’s ages 15 and up. I think our oldest student was in her early sixties. Their influences and the way that they work with each other and their ideas… Some of these young kids, like 15, 16 years old, they’re hittin’ us with some heavy, heavy material. I’m like, “I wasn’t doin’ that at that age! You guys are on it!” It’s just about how do you get that great idea that you have, how do you craft it, and get it out into the world so other people will feel what you’re feeling.
Oh! She’s great!
Oh, I love her! She’s involved with Girls Write up there in Nashville and she expressed the exact same thing– that she couldn’t believe how good these girls were at 13, 14 years of age as songwriters and what they were bringing to the table. She said the exact same thing. “I wasn’t writin’ like that!”
No way! How thoughtful they are! How observant they are! The things that they’re seeing in the world and the ways that they’re finding to express those things, it’s incredible! I don’t even want to know what I was thinkin’ about when I was 13, but it wasn’t that!