Maia Sharp is a study in mastery. A songwriter, performer and producer of exceptional skill. Her jaw dropping musical resume drew me in and her music made me a fan. The opportunity to have a chat arose, and Maia’s knowledge, experience, generosity and grace made this a wonderful interview. Maia produced her new CD ‘Change the Ending’, with all songs written or co-written by her, is in my opinion her best. Meet the delightful Maia Sharp.
With your father singer/songwriter Randy Sharp and your mother Sharon Bays an anthropology professor I have to ask how has your songwriting and life been influenced?
Both mom and dad are very good at observing people and the little hidden stories and behaviors that may be happening there. Dad was my first co-writer and taught me more than I could say about writing, playing, recording…I’m very lucky to have grown up in such a musical and often counterculture environment.
You have been at this songwriting thing for years, placing songs with artists since your teens – can you cite the differences in you and your craft from them to now?
Well, hopefully I’m better at the craft of it every year. I think when I started I realized that I didn’t have the life experience to back up song after song about something interesting so I wrote a lot from observations or from hugely dramatized versions of what did happen to me. Now, no longer in those innocent 20s, I can write more from personal experience. It’s never at the expense of the song but it’s definitely more of a reflection of real life now than it was when I started.
There is a remarkable authenticity and lucidity in your work – what has to be in a Maia Sharp song?
I really want it to either say something new or say something old in a new way. And the songs that make my albums recently are the ones that have some kind of twist in the chorus. A sum up that maybe you didn’t expect. If you can see it coming a mile away I didn’t do my job.
You have placed songs with the fabulous Bonnie Raitt, Cher, The Dixie Chicks, Edwin McCain, and Tricia Yearwood. You have collaborated with Carole King, Art Garfunkel and more. Is writing and collaborating with other artists something you find easy or difficult?
Writing with and/or working with an artist is easier for me than trying to write for an artist who isn’t in the room. I always welcome the chance to have access to what they’re thinking. Art Garfunkel, Edwin McCain, Lisa Loeb, Kim Richey and a few others were like that. Bonnie and I haven’t written together yet (still hoping that happens someday) so it was a particularly big validation when she recorded 3 of my songs. I just wrote them (with co-writers David Batteau, Liz Rose and Stephanie Chapman respectively) with no one in mind. They meant something to me and, when it turned out they meant something to her as well, it’s like the connection I felt to her for so many years was reciprocated. That was huge for me.
Your cut “Sober,” one of my favorites, was also recorded by Edwin McCain, and you have had cuts covered by Bonnie Raitt – different interpretations of the way you sing them – how is that for you as a songwriter?
Thrilling. I love hearing another artist’s interpretation of my songs (especially the ones you’ve named here). If I record it first, I get to hear what they kept about my version and if they do it first I get to “borrow” production ideas or from their version. Either way it’s a win and I’ve never even considered keeping another artist from recording one of my tunes.
For the songwriters out there – would you offer some advice in writing songs for other artists?
For me the songs that land (when I’m not co-writing with the artist) are the ones to which I feel the greatest connection. I don’t know where they’ll go I just know they mean something to me. Every time I have sat down to write something for a specific artist who wasn’t in the room it didn’t work. But then that very artist might like something I wrote years ago with no one in mind just because they feel the same connection to it that I do. I wish I had a better formula for you. I guess the moral is to write what you love, not what you think they want.
If I count correctly you have released 6 CDs and you have worked with the great producer Don Was. You produced your newest CD “Change the Ending” and produce for other artists. Not many artists switch that hat well – you most certainly did the new CD is wonderful. Is there a different set of sensibilities at work when you are the songwriter, singer, musician as when you are the producer?
Yes, I had to step back a lot. When I’m singing I have to be totally focused on the vocal but then once I think I got the take I have to look at the whole picture again. I can’t do that on a dime. I have to walk away and come back with a different hat on.
I was wowed by your production choices – putting your voice up front and personal makes this whole CD zing for me – it is personal, insightful and a treat. What are you looking for when you produce?
Thank you. Well, most importantly I want you to believe it. Maybe that’s why the vocal is so up front. The lyric is why I feel a song or not and these songs were my choices based on that. Plus, I’m not a belter so I needed to push the quieter delivery to front the band. I also look for the whole album to play as one experience with ups, downs, common threads and the occasional “what was that?” All the things I love about my tried and true favorites through the years.
You mix up genres in the new CD. “Me After You” is a pop number with a great change up in the chorus. “In The Middle” is a pop piece with a story and a big hook. “Buy My Love’ is torchy with wonderful harmonies and a lovely instrumental version as the last cut. “Sober” is arty and dark (My personal favorite on the album) and the title cut ‘Change the Ending” Is a big pop/rock number with fantastic lyrics. Is there a reason you like to mix it up?
I’m not mixing them up on purpose. It’s probably just because I love and have been influenced by so many styles that they’re just in there. Also because the lyric is what makes me consider a song, not genre.
I was particularly taken by “Standing Out In A Crowd” what’s the back story to writing this song?
I wrote “Standing Out In A Crowd” in Nashville with my talented friend Sarah Majors. Sarah is 6’ 1” and I’m 5’ 11” and when we first met we started trading stories about being taller than most of our classmates from a very young age and feeling out of place because of it. This led us to the idea that most people feel awkward and out of place at some point about one thing or another so we broadened it. Plus we figured short people wouldn’t want to hear us whining about being tall. Might not win any friends there. The big win was that Trisha Yearwood recorded it and did an incredible job at the hands of producer, Garth Fundis.
“The Bed I Made” (covered by Bonnie Raitt) is sure enough a winner – tell us about this song.
Thank you. I think this one means the most to me. My long time friend and collaborator, David Batteau and I wrote it with no one but ourselves in mind just because we loved the idea. When Bonnie chose this and “Crooked Crown,” also a co-write with David, it confirmed that quirky and personal can get the gig. I’d been a Bonnie Raitt fan my whole life so the fact that she chose these songs and then performed them in her supremely soulful way was a huge validation. I needed that.
The internet is making we who work at this craft look at the songs we write and record and then pick a genre to label what we do. I suppose it’s an evil necessity so that listeners can find us in that big virtual cloud. Now I ask this not because I am some sinister interviewer, but because I want you to be heard by as many people as is possible. If you had to pick a first and second genre choice for the songs you write and perform what would they be?
This is always the most difficult question to answer. Even just when I’m holding a guitar in an elevator and someone asked what kind of music I play I never really nail it. I’ll go with Pop and Singer/Songwriter but I hope people who click on me have a broad version of those labels.
How do you see yourself as a performer?
I started as a songwriter and became an artist to get my songs out there so it all started from an introverted place. I had to grow into enjoying the performance side of things but now I really do love it. I feel comfortable up there, like we’re all just friends who haven’t met yet. I try to make it relaxed and real from the outset regardless of the size of the room so everybody can just have a good time.
How do you think your fans see you?
Hopefully as someone who’s a lot like them that, every now and then, puts what they’re feeling into a song. I have to think people are drawn to the songs because they can relate.
Did we miss anything?
I think you covered it.
Thank you Maia you have a new fan in me. Chatting with you has been a delight. I wish you all the success in the world you certainly deserve it.
Thanks, Ken! I enjoyed chatting with you too.
Interview by Ken Lehnig
‘Change the Ending”
Purchase on AmazonOfficial Site
Photographs and images were provided by the artist or the artist’s representative.
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