Maia Sharp lit up the Ryman Auditorium as the “special guest” of Bonnie Raitt last month in Nashville. During a phone interview a couple of days after the show, Sharp wryly noted she wasn’t allowed to call herself merely an “opening act” because Raitt always insisted otherwise.
Although Sharp sounds sort of sheepish to admit it, Raitt does have a point. To wit, the legendary singer recorded three of Sharp’s songs for her Souls Alike album from 2005, then invited her to harmonize on Slipstream, which Raitt released in April. And to underscore her admiration, Raitt did that thing headliners almost never do: She walked out onstage early and sang with her special guest.
“It was such a thrill every night. It never felt like the same ol’, same ol’,” Sharp tells CMT Edge. “It’s so right and it feels so great that I gotta say when I get home, I go through a little withdrawal. It’s such a high to be out there with her.”
Back at home in Los Angeles, Sharp spent a few minutes talking about her own new album, Change the Ending, as well as reminiscing about creating a drum-free band, listening to her mom’s music collection and writing one of her best-known songs with her dad.
CMT Edge: When I caught your show at the Ryman, I found that to be a neat way to present yourself — no drums and no men! What sort of sound were you going for when you were putting that tour together?
Sharp: The “no men” thing just happened to work out that way. It wasn’t on purpose, I promise! (laughs) Vanessa [Freebairn-Smith] and Linda [Taylor] are two of my favorite players in Los Angeles, and they both played all over the album. About five years ago, I was out with a band with a drum, bass, electric guitar and me. At some point, my drummer had to jump off for one show, which I knew when I hired him for the run. So he jumped off for the one show and we did our thing — and I loved it! All the space, you could hear every word. I didn’t have to sing as hard. I could employ more subtlety. I could do five shows in a row because I didn’t have to sing over the drums. So I fell for it.
Ever since then, I’ve usually had some configuration without a drummer. I feel like it’s more song-oriented like that. It’s more vocal-oriented. I don’t have a big, powerful Wynonna Judd voice. I’m not singing to the back row. So I’m at my best when I don’t have to sing so hard.
What sort of influence has country music had on your songwriting?
I’ve always been drawn to the fringe of it, the acts that were a little left of center or that were more rebellious. And I know that sometimes the rebellious acts turned out to be the new center. (laughs) I was probably introduced to country music through my folks because they listened to everything. I clearly remember as a kid that one of my mom’s favorite albums of all time was Emmylou Harris’ Cimarron. Ah, she just wore that out and I loved it. … This is mixed in with Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones. Oh, and that Trio record with Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton and Emmylou. And you can’t help but love Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. My mom was a huge Merle fan.
You were lucky to have parents who were music lovers. It sounds like you were introduced to a lot of quality artists, rather than just whatever happened to be on the radio.
Oh, exactly. In fact, usually they made a conscious effort to go somewhere else. I don’t remember listening to the radio very often at all. We always had a cassette in, you know?
Riding around in the station wagon?
Yeah! (laughs) Oh, my God, you were there, too! The station wagon with a cassette! And the cassette would get wound up and eaten by the player, so you’d have to go buy it again. (laughs)
I remember seeing your name on the Dixie Chicks album Home for writing the title track. What did getting that cut mean to you at that point in your career?
It meant a lot to me. First of all, I was a fan of theirs. So it was an honor on top of an honor when somebody that you truly like has chosen to use one of the precious spots on their album for one of your songs. It was my first cut on a platinum album. I’d had a few cuts up to that point, like 10 or 12 or something, but they were indie albums or imports. I’d had some cool things happen, cool enough to get a publishing deal that I had at the time. It was my publisher that pitched that song, old-school, and got it all the way up the chain to the Chicks themselves. They listened to it and liked it and decided to put it on the album. And it was extra sweet that my father [Randy Sharp] and I wrote it. He’d had a bunch of cuts, and I’d had a handful up to then, but we had never shared one before, so that was great.
I was pulled into this new album with the song “Me After You.” What were you hoping to capture when that was written?
I really tried to choose songs for this album where there was a real twist in the lyrics — a turn-of-phrase that I was really proud of but wasn’t too hokey. You can get a twisty thing happening that goes too far, where it becomes about how clever I can be instead of whether it’s an interesting song or not. So I was really drawn to the play on words and the path that the language had to take to get that idea across and to get that phrase out: “I’d rather be you after me than me after you.” I thought that was a cool way to say something that is a pretty fundamental feeling after a breakup. One of you probably feels that, right?
And it’s so hard to see the other person taking it better than you.
Right. Which often happens, also. So I was particularly proud of figuring out a way to say a really old thing in a new way. When I can still find a phrase like that, after all these years, it’s really exciting. And that excitement about the craft of it can fuel me for a really long time.