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Maia Sharp rises from the ashes of a ‘slump’ on ‘Phoenix’

By Mary Houlihan | For the Sun-Times

Maia Sharp is a gifted songwriter whose songs have been recorded by a long list of performers ranging from Bonnie Raitt to Cher, the Dixie Chicks, Trisha Yearwood, Kathy Mattea, Kim Richey and Keb Mo’. Her reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter is solid. Fans on both sides of the microphone know she has an uncanny knack for cutting straight to the heart of complex emotional issues in her lyrics.

Sharp also has recorded her own string of albums, and it was during the process of writing the memorable new songs for her latest effort, “The Dash Between the Dates,” that she faced her first bout of writer’s block or as she calls it “a slump.”

CATIE CURTIS; MAIA SHARP

When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 9

Where: Space, 1245 Chicago, Evanston

Info: evanstonspace.com

“I was still writing but the ideas just weren’t exciting me anymore,” Sharp recalls in a phone conversation from her Los Angeles home. “At least I was wise enough not to share these songs,” she adds laughing.

The aptly named “Phoenix” was the first song that broke “the slump.” The song, a remarkable blend of lyrical poetry and soulful melody about hard-won resurrection, reignited the passion that allowed her to reclaim the confidence she had temporarily lost.

“I’d been writing for 20 years and knew I had to dig my way out of it,” Sharp says. “This song got me back on track. I changed my perspective to one with a wider-angle lens. Instead of songs about you and me and our insular vignette these songs have a more general life view. I wanted to bring a broader view to the album without sacrificing the intimacy.”

Growing up in Los Angeles, Sharp picked up the saxophone in junior high and continued with the instrument through college. She was taking jazz band and theory classes and meeting other players who were already playing in area clubs. Stopping in to see them play, she began mingling with songwriters and merged into that circle. Actually it was a case of the apple not falling far from the tree — her father is songwriter Randy Sharp.

“I pretty quickly fell for the writing part and it became my first love,” says Sharp adding about her dad, “We started writing together early on and I definitely learned a lot from him just in the way he shapes and crafts a song.”

Sharp has been co-writing since she her first steps into the music business. The new release features, “Maybe Tonight,” a song written with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame. Three other songs came out of writing sessions in Nashville.

She says it’s a “total thrill and compliment” when another artist fills a slot on an album with one of her songs as Raitt (one of Sharp’s idols) did with “I Don’t Want Anything to Change.” A decade after that recording, Sharp pulled the song out and recorded it for “The Dash Between the Dates.”

“If you set yourself up to be compared with Bonnie Raitt, you’re a fool,” Sharp says with a laugh. “I let her work her magic on the song and waited a good, long time and now tried to give it a different slant.”

Sharp’s favorite thing about her take on the song is pairing with jazz/R&B singer Lizz Wright on vocals.

“She has one of the most beautiful, sexy voices I’ve ever heard,” Sharp says. “There’s a point in the song where Lizz is singing an octave lower than me and I have a pretty low voice. It’s so cool.”

Over her two-decade career, Sharp has tried to stay versatile and flexible which she feels is an advantage in today’s changing music industry.

“It’s next to impossible to make a living solely as a songwriter without also being a performer, producer or session musician. To make a living now in my situation is to play live as often as I can. Fortunately, that’s something I love to do.”

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.