Maia Sharp just released her brand new album, "Reckless Thoughts", and to celebrate we asked her to tell us about one of the tracks. She selected "The Road To Hell And Back". Here is the story:
If Singled Out can mean "not like the others" then the last song on my new album Reckless Thoughts definitely deserves the heading. I write regularly for an organization called Songwriting With: Soldiers where professional songwriters sit down with veterans, active duty servicemembers, first responders and/or law enforcement to turn whichever piece of their personal story they want to tell into a song. A retreat in September, 2022 expanded that list to include combat photojournalists. "The Road to Hell and Back" came out of that weekend.
I was paired with Amanda Voisard, now the Climate Change Photo Assignment Editor at the Washington Post. She's an award-winning photographer and multimedia producer whose work has taken her all over the world including to places wrought with civil war, humanitarian and refugee crises. When we sat down, I expected to hear about how that affected her own life and what she did to stay centered (or not) when she came home after seeing and literally focusing on so many disturbing images. Instead, Amanda wanted to tell her story as the observer of women in South Sudan. She was there with the United Nations Mission just outside of an Internal Displacement Camp where every morning before sunrise the women would start walking on what Amanda called "the road to hell and back" to find firewood and whatever else they could use from a landscape that was quickly running out of anything to offer. As if that situation wasn't challenging enough, this road was the site of countless assaults on these women of all ages who then might be persecuted if they told their husbands about it.
We started the first verse in a very foundational storytelling way "before the sun rises, you're on the miles of red dirt to find the limits of a scorched earth. Don't come back late, don't come back light and don't show your scars when you get home tonight." Once we were flowing, she just kept peeling back the layers with breathtaking photos to go with them and then (I wasn't expecting this) she told me how sometimes they sing in groups on this bleak and dangerous walk. They sing. This became the focus of the chorus and informed the rest of the song, now a fragile blend of resilience, despair, transcendence and injustice.
I knew my production of this one had to be different than the rest as well. I called Eric Darken and his deep pocket groove to play a few different kinds of African percussion and, because we are talking about women singing, I called three powerhouse vocalists Emily West, Wendy Moten and Shelly Fairchild to tease us in the verses and then stack the hell out of the choruses. The opening acoustic part is unapologetically influenced by my love of Meshell Ndegeocello. It took me about 20 tries to realize I need to break up the line, play it on two tracks and hard pan them apart like a call and response. I can't thank Amanda enough for sharing her first-hand observations with me so articulately and Songwriting With: Soldiers for putting me in the room with extraordinary people.
Hearing is believing. Now that you know the story behind the song, listen and watch for yourself below and learn more about the album here