Maia Sharp’s critically acclaimed debut album, Hardly Glamour, came out in 1997; and over the next 23 years she has made eight solo albums including a 2002 collaboration with Art Garfunkel. She has worked with a string of top artists including Lisa Loeb and Carole King, and her songs have been recorded by Bonnie Raitt, The Chicks, and Cher. We chat with Sharp about her songwriting process as she shares some stories from the road, and reveals why she now calls Nashville home.
“I got to Nashville at the beginning of 2019, and it probably took a year to settle in - then in 2020, my part of Nashville got hit by a tornado, so while recovering from that, I got the [corona] virus,” opens Sharp with a laugh.
“I’m laughing because it was a real ‘laugh or cry’ moment, and I think it was due to the tornado that I got it, as I was around more people raising funds [for the tornado]. Everyone was out that weekend, and it started to show up, and by March 10th I had it – and that then turned into pneumonia!”
Thankfully, Sharp had kicked it into touch within two weeks – but she admits it distracted her from the weirdness of the isolation because, well... she was already isolated.
“I was late to the party with the anxiety, but I am definitely feeling it now,” she admits. Conversation turns to the quarantine – and how creativity is still somehow finding a way through.
“I started doing some Zoom writing sessions and live shows; I was sceptical at first, but I still feel the connection with people, especially as you can see the thumbnails of the people watching – you’re kind of one click closer to everybody being in the room together.”
It’s weird singing into the back of your phone though, right? “Oh it is so weird! I feel like it’s still in that searching mode, and a lot of that is because we don’t really know when we’re going back to the real world.”
Sharp is pretty reflective in terms of what she has learnt from this isolation period so far.
“It’s really interesting to learn about your friends and yourself: how do you respond when you’re upset; do you go further inside yourself, or do you reach out? And this has made me realise that I am a little less of an extrovert than I thought I was! [laughs] I find myself reaching out to friends more – and when I was sick, I would hear from my friends every day. Now it’s a kind of ongoing foxhole buddy thing, and we’re helping each other through this.
“I have a ‘things that I am thankful for’ list happening every morning, and that really helps. And I always find something... The new rain, the train in the distance... It sounds hippy dippy, but it’s actually helpful. Then I started a ‘silver lining list’ with a friend: what is going to come out of this hardship that’s maybe going to make things a little better than before? And even if you learn a little more about yourself and your friends, that’s something.”
Sharp has been coming to Nashville to write for over 20 years, but only 18 months ago did she choose to take the plunge and get a place there.
“I’d had friends here for some time, but I was always aware that it might be different as a resident. But in that year and a half, it’s proven that the people who I thought were going to be my close circle really are. It’s really helpful. Part of my move is that I’m single for first time in 21 years, so I have a lot of stuff to work through – so there would have been an extra layer of sadness if I found out my friends weren’t really my friends! But they really are, and I’ve found Nashville to be a very supportive place, and definitely more community-oriented than Los Angeles. It’s not LA’s fault, but all my best friends live an hour away there, and here they’re like three minutes down the road.”
Sharp’s father, Randy Sharp, was a very well respected songwriter who also spent a lot of time in Nashville when he was writing: “He started making regular trips starting during the 80s. My dad was my songwriting mentor: he is such a craftsman, and it’s safe to say I learned more from him than anyone he introduced me to within his songwriting fraternity.”
Originally, Sharp thought she would be a player rather than a writer – so her road into songwriting was a little later than many of her friends. “I started out on saxophone and started working around LA,” she says.
“I played in jazz bands and horn sections and did a lot of session work; and when I got to college for it, I was probably 20 years old, so halfway through school - I realised ‘this is cool, but it’s not everything’. I wasn’t playing and writing the kind of music that I loved, or that I was raised on. I grew up on Joni [Mitchell] and Bonnie Raitt and Ricky Lee Jones, Paul Simon... so that’s when I started to write in the way I am writing now.”
And what a decision that was. Years down the line, Sharp not only wrote for her hero – Bonnie Raitt – but the two became close friends. That must have been quite something?
“Oh, there is no higher level of validation! To feel such a connection to her as a kid and then to always want to meet her and hear my songs... [pauses] My first dream was to play sax for her, and through the writing - as she cut three of my songs - I got to open [a show] for her, and then she asked me to sit in, and there I was playing sax for Bonnie Raitt! But only because of the songwriting trail. And we’re still really good friends. She checked on me a lot while I was sick, and she’s as cool as you’d think she is.”
And what about working with the legend that is Carole King?
“Amazing again! [laughs] She is in it for the work, you know? We met at a songwriting retreat in France. The head of my label and my first publisher, he ran it – he had a castle in France and had a wild idea that turned out to be really cool: to invite 24 songwriters from all around the world, every day, then record the song that evening, then go again in a different group of three the following day. I was 26, totally jet lagged, freaked out, and worried if I could handle it... And on my second day, I am writing with Carole King! She was literally jeans and t shirt and ‘hey, what are we gonna do today?’ So cool.”