Country Queer

Lifting up LGBTQ+ voices in country and Americana.

Maia Sharp Smolders on New LP, “Mercy Rising”

By Mya Byrne, Staff Writer

Photo credit: Emily Kopp

Maia Sharp is one of the most esteemed writers to emerge from the LA scene. In addition to her own songs in AAA rotation, she’s collaborated with the likes of Bonnie Raitt, The Chicks, and Trisha Yearwood, among others. Recently relocated to Nashville, her latest LP is Mercy Rising, a smoldering take on the state of the world, desire, and personal evolution, with killer one-liners. A slow burn of emotional intensity.

We were thrilled to have the opportunity to premiere “Nice Girl”, a wry take on a hard situation, and to talk with Maia about this fantastic, vibey album. Mercy Rising was tracked in Nashville at Resistor Studios with engineer/musician Joshua Grange (Sheryl Crow, Lucinda Williams), with finishing touches at Maia’s home studio. It’s a unique record, one tailor-made for late-night highway drives or dates that turn into weekends. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did!


Let’s begin at the beginning. “Mercy Rising” is the title track and it sets the tone with the opening line, “I’ve lived a revolution.” It certainly feels like we’re all living that right now. Where’s that intention coming from?

I started writing that in the middle of 2019, before we all started our most recent revolution. “I lived a revolution” was about the last year of my life at that point. I had changed pretty much anything that I could. The geography changed, my personal life changed; I realized the way I needed to think about life in general changed. Professionally, I knew I was going to keep on writing, but I wasn’t sure what it was going to look like here in Nashville. So it was all about the changes—and that so many of them had happened in one short amount of time.

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But the rest of that song is also important to the overall theme of the album. I changed a bunch of things in my life, but there’s still this one thing, which was a person that I wasn’t able to get past, that I wasn’t able to shake. I changed my skyline, my main highway, the way I thought. I tried sleeping more, I tried sleeping less, I tried more wine, I tried less wine. I’ve tried all these little things to make it shift, and it’s just not shifting. So that song is about needing some external sign now, some force to just change a little bit to show me that things are moving because I’m moving, but my state hasn’t moved yet.

Right. Like in “Missions”, where you sing, “How can a person never stop moving and still never move on?” That theme pops up throughout the record.

Yeah. And I don’t know if it’s irony or if it’s “art helps life” or what, but the record itself turned out to be the thing that pushed me through. Writing it, recording it, and shepherding it out into the world is what finally caused a shift. I feel so much better now that it’s out of me.

You seem to be talking about that change in “When the World Doesn’t End” quite a bit, too—“We didn’t see the corner we were coming around…it’s nothing like the nightmare…what do you do then, when the world doesn’t end?”

That one is more about being surprised by a situation turning out better than you thought it would, sort of being ambushed by optimism.

Photo credit: John Partipilo

The whole record is so goosebumpy. You’re quite restrained in the way that you’re singing, but there’s this incredible energy underneath it that I absolutely love, because it’s so very obvious that you’re going through something. I know that you recorded the basics in the studio and then did the rest at home. What was that process like for you? Did that “slow burn” vibe build over time, or do you feel like it was already there and then you were just kind of spicing it up?

One of the advantages to only making an album every couple of years—I thought about it a lot. I went in with a lot of plans; I’d already formed the arc and the energy—“This one’s more folky and it kind of sounds like this artist; this one’s off the rails and it doesn’t have any rules; this one is going to be cinematic and I’m going to hire as many strings as I can; this one’s going to be only guitar.”

Originally the plan was driven by my love of playing with real humans in a room. I feel really lucky that I went in and did this at the end of 2019. We did the basics in three days. And then I went back to get some overdubs out of Josh Grange, because he plays anything with strings on it inhumanly well. I then brought it back to my room and that’s where the slow burn starts, which is one of my favorite parts of the process. I get to try everything; all the vocals, piano, acoustic guitar, and Wurlitzer was done at home.

Then we were in the throes of the pandemic, and it came time to figure out when to put this out—“Do people need music now more than ever? Or do I need to wait until there’s more space in their lives for it?” I don’t know. So hopefully this is the time.

I hope so too. I think it’s a really great and timely record.

Thank you.

What prompted your move to Nashville?

So it was a push out of LA a little bit because I wanted to start a fresh life here. I lived in Los Angeles for most of my life. This is my first time living outside of California. I traveled around a lot, but LA was always home. That was a big shift. My marriage of 21 years ended—and thankfully we are very close friends now; if that wasn’t true, I would be having a very hard time with life. And yes, I needed to start over, but also, it’s the pull of this place. It’s such a songwriter-centric town and I’ve been coming here for about 20 years, probably taking three to six trips here a year for that long. So I already had a community and I wasn’t going to be starting from zero.

Right. How does LA contrast with Nashville in terms of your queer community?

It’s actually pretty comfortable! I guess my explanation for that is that LA is a place where you kind of have to make your own center of it. You know, there’s not a “heartbeat of the city” that you either fall into or you don’t; you make your version of LA. Your people are your city. And I’ve always loved that about it. And maybe it’s the infiltration of people coming from LA and New York, but there’s been a culture shift here. It feels more similar; my Nashville is the one that I make. It’s the community that I build around me. For instance, I just had a birthday a couple of days ago…

Happy birthday!

Thanks! So I had a little time hanging with some friends, and all of us are ladies who love ladies, and everybody’s managing to have a career that they love and a circle that they love, and they feel safe. So it feels like my queer experience in Nashville—which is still very limited because a year of it has been in the lockdown—versus LA is that they are more similar than they used to be. I think it’s still a slow shift, but it’s definitely heading the right way.

I think so too. So let’s talk about the featured song, “Nice Girl,” with its viciously clever chorus of “You’re gonna make some nice girl miserable someday” — on one hand it can be universal, but on the other hand, coming from you, it’s definitely a queer sort of love/anti-love song. I love how you can be so serious and stoic, then turn around to that great hook. Talk to me a little bit about that.

Well, that one is pulled the most literally from my life. My now-ex wife and I were in our last year; it was really painful. We love each other dearly, and we were working out this slow ripping apart, trying to redefine what our friendship was going to be moving forward—we both knew that we wanted each other in our lives at all times. We were sitting on the couch; I forget exactly where we were in our process, but it was just a heavy moment; she looked at me and said, “You know what, it’s okay. I know you’re gonna make some nice girl miserable someday.” And then she said, “You’re going to go write that down and write a fucking song, aren’t you?” I said, “Well…yeah…I promise it was a great thing for you to say in that moment. I totally get it. But that’s a great line for a song.” She said, “I knew it!” And we laughed our asses off. It broke the sadness in the moment—and it gave me this great line.

That’s how you do it! I recently saw a blank notebook with a cover that said, “Be careful if you date me or you’ll wind up in my novel”!

Ha!

I think that’s something that our readers will relate to because it’s so freaking real. And I’m both glad and sad to hear that it’s real, but it’s also a testament to how you write. So thanks for sharing that.

Thank you. It’s also a testament to my relationship with her, because it’s like this too. It was real; that moment had a lot of heaviness to it, but we found humor in it, then together we laughed. I know I’m proud. I’m proud of us.

That’s good. And that’s hard, especially after a relationship… not everybody gets that. So, “Not Your Friend.” It’s one of the best things I’ve heard from you—you sing “I know I want to do what friends don’t do,” talking about the desire to move past friendship while not sure if your feelings are mutual. In a way, it hearkens back to classic country; that “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes In the Morning” kind of stuff where you’re really pining for somebody, and you’re trying to tell them that. There are very few modern country, folk, or pop songs that really do what you’re trying to do here, which is to express to somebody that you don’t want to be in this situation with them—and you kind of know that they know it, too.

Right? It’s never a total shock when a friend finds out that their friend wanted a little more than this; it’s never out of the blue. It’s interesting that you find the country angle on that one at all! I never thought of it like that. Maybe because form-wise it’s so off the tracks. I wrote it with my Roscoe & Etta partner, Anna Schulze, for our 2018 album. It was a very different version, with a very different approach to it. And yeah, I started the ball rolling on that one, because I’ve had this particular experience where I become friends with a woman and I have feelings…and she might not know that she’s not entirely heterosexual yet.

So I just watch and wait and keep falling and harder and harder. And it’s worked out a few times, but there’s of course that window of “Oh, I don’t want to like frighten you off; I want to be your cool lesbian friend who doesn’t hit on you—but I also, I really want you!”

“And also, you might be gay!”

Also, “If I’m feeling this, there’s probably some kind of a resonance going on. I’m not making this up, you know!”

[Both laugh.]

So, you’ve written for some of the best. Are there any dream singers for any of these songs?

Well, Bonnie Raitt is always going to be a dream singer, and I’ve already been over-the-top fortunate to have her record three of my songs. Anytime she sings a song that I wrote, that is like the holy grail. If Bonnie sang “Whatever We Are”, I could have a party and it would never end.

“You’ll make me better and you’ll break my heart”—I could definitely hear her singing that.

I mean, I would freaking love to hear Sheryl Crow sing “You’ll Know Who Knows You.” That would rule. This is fun! I’m just assigning my songs, putting it out there…  

That’s what this is for! “Country Queer, where all of your dreams can come true…” Anyone else?

Hmmm. Tedeschi Trucks Band. I want them to do “Junkyard Dog.” Their B3 player, Gabe Dixon, is one of my co-writers on that song. So I’m like, “Gabe, dude!”

It’s got such a great groove. I could totally hear them ripping that song to shreds.

With fucking horns and a big background stack? Come on. Make that happen, Mya!

Oh yeah. It’d be fantastic. All right. So to wrap up, what’s next for you?

I moved here just under two years ago, but the last year and a month has been unlike any other. So I’m looking forward to seeing what life really is as a resident of this city that I’ve known so well over the years as a traveler, and to see how people receive the album. It’s been a lot of work in the making, a lot of time and a lot of planning. And I’m about to find out if it lands anywhere, and I have a couple cool things that are already running that have become very important to me in my health in all the ways. And if that continues, I feel like I’m going to be all right. I write with an organization called Songwriting with Soldiers, and I do that a couple of times a month. And it’s the thing that wrings you out and fills you up at the same time; it’s just so challenging and so rewarding. So that’s going to keep going. What the fuck is my life in Nashville? I’m about to find that out, and how the album looks in the world.


Mercy Rising comes out on May 7th on all platforms.