As her collaborators Mark Addison and Edwin McCain will tell you, songwriter Maia Sharp can turn a phrase until it's upside down. Her lyrics reflect a sharp eye for the complexities of human situations and relationships - every line is carefully handcrafted.
Maia's pen has been the secret weapon of such artists as Bonnie Raitt, Edwin McCain, Art Garfunkel, Dixie Chicks, Lisa Loeb, Terri Clark, Kathy Mattea, and many more.
In addition to writing for legendary performers, Maia's a performing artist in her own right, with five solo albums on the shelf. As of March 2012, she's just wrapped up recording her sixth album--a collection of songs so new that it still needs a name.
We caught up with Maia after she returned home from the Cayamo Songwriter Cruise, a 7-day event where she played alongside the likes of John Prine, Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams, and Maia's bro-mantic pal Edwin McCain.
Maia Sharp: Yes, Cayamo was fabulously surreal. There were countless cool things about it but my top two were...
1. The concentrated reminder that there are true song loving people who are listening closely, getting every lyric that you worked so hard to refine (or rough up, whichever) and who love music so much that a songwriter cruise is how they chose to spend their one vacation. Awesome.
2. I got to hang out with my great friend Edwin McCain. We have a total bromance (don't worry, our wives both know) but geography keeps us from seeing each other more than a couple times a year. We were a duo for Cayamo combining our shows into a sort of songwriters-in-the-volley and it went over very well.
Songfacts: I'd love to hear your comments on your song "Standing Out in a Crowd." The lyric explores how standing out in any group can be a curse or a blessing. Does this reflect some of what you feel as a songwriter and a performer, or does it stem more from your observation of others?
Maia: I wrote "Standing Out in A Crowd" with my friend, Sarah Majors. Sarah is 6' 1'' and I'm 5' 11'' when I stand up straight. We met and immediately started sharing stories of what we perceived to be our freakish height in junior high school. It led to a fast friendship and, of course, a song about feeling different and left out.
Sarah is a happy ending kind of person and on this one I couldn't deny that what once felt like a curse was now a blessing. I dig being tall and I enjoy being on stage even though at first I was the painfully shy songwriter making myself go up there to get my songs heard. It took a while but now being the tallest woman in the photograph or the person on the stage is a comfortable place. Everyone has something about them, real or perceived, that made them feel a little left out at some point along the way. I'm especially proud of the universal appeal of that one.
Songfacts: "Death by Perfection" deals with the theme of trying to live up to ideals, whether those ideals are your own or somebody else's. The irony is that I'm looking at the lyric itself and I can see attention to detail and craftsmanship written all over it. As an artist do you ever struggle with being overly self-critical about your work?
Songfacts: Songs like "I Need This to be Love" and "Whole Flat World" are unusually nuanced and honest looks at relationships. Do you consciously pursue ideas that are a bit off the well-trod paths?
Maia: I try really hard to find a new thing to say or at least a new way to say an old thing. It doesn't always work out but that's what I'm shooting for. I also love when a punch line is double edged. You were my whole world...until I knew what the world could really be. I love you enough to give up everything... but you're probably too crazy to do anything about it. Songs and stories with some layers and twists are just more compelling to me so I try to write like that.
Songfacts: Whose songs do you admire? Any songwriters in particular whose songbooks you've drawn inspiration from over the years?
I was very lucky to have young, music loving (and music making) parents. Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Phoebe Snow and Paul Simon were all in heavy rotation around the house growing up and I got hooked. Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and my father Randy Sharp were particularly inspiring when it came time to sit down and try this thing myself. You know, would Joni listen to this all the way through? Would Paul think it was clever enough? Would dad keep looking or would he think I got it?
Songfacts: You mentioned that you've been recording a new album. What's the story?
Maia: I just finished the new album. The last mix is this week. This will be my second release on Blix Street Records (Echo was my first with Blix). I produced it and I'm so far inside of it now it's hard to say anything intelligent about it...I think it's warm and organic but still big and lush (I have a crazy love for strings). Bonnie Raitt makes another killer background vocal appearance. It has a new, beautiful version of "Standing Out in A Crowd" on it that I can't wait to get out there. The first single is a song called 'Me After You" that I wrote with Adrianne Gonzalez from the Rescues. Still no title for the album though. Maybe you can help me with that.
Songfacts: If you could have a song of yours cut by any artist--any artist dead or alive--whose voice would you want to hear singing your songs?
Maia: I hate to be a big cheese ball but Bonnie Raitt was kind of my holy grail of artists and I did get to hear her record my songs. Unbelievable. Other artists that would have been or would be surreally fantastic would be Dusty Springfield and Annie Lennox. Is there a writer out there who's had a song recorded by all 3 of those women? If so, I might have to hurt them a little.
February 27, 2012. Check out Maia Sharp's website at maiasharp.com.
Related Songfacts interviews:
Randy Sharp (Maia's dad)
The Creative Side with Mark Addison
The Songfacts interview with Edwin McCain
More Song Writing