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Sharon Irving hopes to tell Chicago stories on ‘America’s Got Talent’

By Jordyn Holman | Sun-Times

Chicago is on Sharon Irving’s mind every time she takes the stage. The “America’s Got Talent” contestant who floated to the Radio City Music Hall round after bringing the judges to their feet grew up in the city surrounded by musical greats.

Her father, Robert Irving III, was Miles Davis’ musical director. As a baby, Irving spent time in the studio listening to the famed jazz musician and her father create hits. Looking back, she said watching that genius showed her how to let the music drive you.

“You may practice and rehearse, but it doesn’t always have to stick to script,” said Irving, 29. “They took risks when they performed and it was free-flowing, and they had the ability to go different routes and thrive in the moment.”

At her family’s house on 69th and Bennett on the South Side, Irving was shaping her own musical path. She listened to all genres, which helped spark her eclectic taste.

“My parents exposed us to a lot of different music growing up,” Irving said. “I was listening to the Beatles, Michael Jackson, Miles Davis. This was definitely because of Chicago. The culture really inspires me. I’ll go out in Chicago and spend a day just out in the city and just be inspired to write.”

She’s working on an album lovingly called “Bennett Avenue,” to capture these lived experiences in a range of gospel and pop songs she penned.

“There are so many stories in the city of Chicago and stories that need to be told,” Irving said. “I want to do that in the music more than just singing about the violence. I saw some of my friends lose their lives to gun violence. But I want to fight with the music and bridge those gaps. Chicago is such a musical city. I’m just trying to create my own lane and use my roots.”

Irving has already received approval from “America’s Got Talent” judges. She used a pop song, Hozier’s “Take Me to Church,” to show her gospel background — a genre that she has been singing since growing up in church.

“I always go back to [gospel] because it touches your soul,” Irving said. “You can take someone to a church service and when they hear the music, it tears barriers down. Gospel touches your music and soul and it’s a higher power, even for people who aren’t Christian.”

Judge Melanie Brown, known from her time as Mel B in the Spice Girls, said she felt something powerful after listening to Irving. It even moved her to push the Golden Buzzer — fast-tracking Irving to the current live competition.

“You sent chills down my spine,” Brown said to Irving on an episode in June. “The whole audience, you could hear a pin drop. Literally. And for that reason alone, I feel compelled to do something that I have never done before.”

That compliment coming from Brown was even more special because Irving constantly had the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” stuck in her head as a child. She sings next on the “America’s Got Talent” episode airing at 7 p.m. Tuesday on WMAQ-Channel 5.

After a career as a worship leader, including five years at the Willow Creek Community megachurch in South Barrington, Irving decided in early 2015 to pursue her musical career full-time, saying “it’s bigger than just music and a hobby.”

“As I’ve gotten older, one of the biggest takeaways is just staying true to your artistry and all that God’s given you,” Irving said. “I always said I wanted to be a voice with the voiceless and sing and write on behalf of those who can’t.”

One person she says she always sings for is her grandmother, who passed away last July. Her grandmother helped raise her at that house on Bennett Avenue.

“In church it’s about connecting with God, but honestly recently with this process I think about my grandmother who raised me with my mom,” she said. “She could never come to every performance but now it’s like she’s at every one. I know that sounds corny.”

Irving said her family might lose that house on Bennett Avenue where she got inspired to pen songs. The house has been in her family for generations, but she hopes the upcoming album and appearance on the show will be a launching pad for her next musical step.

“Whatever happens this is such a cool opportunity,” she said. “Things are moving forward.”