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RISING TO THE CHALLENGE

Songwriting project resets Maia Sharp’s rollout of her new album

Like just about everyone else on the planet, Maia Sharp had meaningful dates marked in her 2020 calendar that had to be postponed.

The singer-songwriter’s stretch of tour dates opening for longtime favorite Bonnie Raitt (who has recorded some of Sharp’s material) was supposed to begin March 22, 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed the start to October, then again to this past March, and now — fingers crossed — she says it is set to get rolling in November.

But throughout the peak of the pandemic, Sharp had a recurring question in mind: “Do people need music more than ever right now?” And with a new album she finished right before everything was locked down, the Nashville, Tennessee-based musician was looking for a signal to tell her what to do next, realizing “it’s not going to be the old way — release [the album] and then a few weeks of touring.”

The sign Sharp says she needed arrived when her friend Ben Arthur called about doing an episode of his SongWriter podcast, where he pairs an author with a songwriter. The former reads an original piece, then the latter composes a song in response.

“He got one of my top picks, Cheryl Strayed,” Sharp recalls. “She has a book called Tiny Beautiful Things, which is a collection of her columns, and she picked one of those columns [“The Ordinary Miraculous”], which I was already familiar with. I’ve read the whole book. It kind of helped me through the ending of my relationship, my move to Nashville [from Los Angeles] — it was really helpful.”

Admitting she felt “a little bit of pressure,” Sharp spent a solid month working on her song, “Always Good to See You.”

“Here’s this [author] with whom I’m very familiar, and now I gotta bring it: I gotta Jason Isbell this [thing],” says Sharp with a laugh, tipping her hat to the Alabama-raised singer-guitarist’s “care of the craft.” (She adds about Isbell’s songwriting, “You can tell that he was alone with a notebook for a really long time to find all of those twists and turns and to give us either a whole new story or an old story in a whole new way.”)

Sharp performed “Always Good to See You” in October as part of a Facebook Live event with Arthur and Strayed (the “slick, packaged-up” SongWriter podcast episode, as Sharp describes it, can be found here). Shortly before that opportunity, Sharp thought to herself, “Maybe this is the time I have new music out” — while also realizing she would be on the radar of Strayed’s social media following. So two days before the Facebook Live performance, Sharp put out the single “Whatever We Are.” Three more singles followed leading up to the release of her latest album, Mercy Rising, which arrived May 7 (“Always Good to See You” appears as a bonus track).

Several months after relocating to Nashville, Sharp convened in late 2019 with friend, engineer and guitarist Joshua Grange at his Resistor Studio to begin work on the album, her first solo effort since 2015’s The Dash Between the Dates. Having made many trips over the years to Nashville for songwriting sessions, Sharp already knew plenty of bassists and drummers in town, but she went with Grange’s recommendations to record with bassist Will Honaker and drummer Ross McReynolds, described to her by Grange as “these guys who play together all the time.”

“We locked in immediately,” she recalls. “So the question of, ‘OK, I have a room full of great players. Do they play great together?’ — I didn’t have to worry about that. I trusted Josh, and I’ve worked with Josh enough to know that he’s generally right.

“My style of production is to surround myself with really talented people, and also people who respect each other,” she adds. “I was very pleased with the chance that I took working with these guys for the first time on an album.”

— By Chris M. Junior

Photo by Emily Kopp

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