October 15th saw the release of Sarah McQuaid’s eagerly awaited sixth solo album, The St Buryan Sessions, recorded live without an audience at this medieval parish church in Cornwall, UK.
A recording artist for 24 years, Sarah has reached the pinnacle of her career so far with what will be hailed as a Magnum Opus, perhaps even an Opus Dei by the church worshippers of St Buryan who witnessed the album launch benefit concert. With or without a faith commitment, many listeners will find a spiritual experience in Sarah’s emotive solo performance full of hope and optimism despite an empty church due to COVID-19. Her incredible power is exemplified in the breathtaking a cappella final verse of “In Derby Cathedral” with Sarah singing the whole of the three-part round simultaneously thanks to sound technology.
In Derby Cathedral
I found my last home
My soul free to roam
My name carved in stone
Listen to the bells
Ringing out for me
The session opens with her a capella song, “Sweetness And Pain,” McQuaid’s voice having the depth and richness necessary for her lyrics to resonate inside the entire building and echo back from the rafters. In the absence of musical instruments, Sarah has to be pitch perfect, sing each note with precision and retain complete control of her vocal chords. She also maintains a rhythm which she achieves through subtle cadences, careful phraseology and varied intonation. Sarah stretches out and holds the notes of the chorus brilliantly which contributes to the natural flow of the song and makes it compulsive listening.
On ‘The Sun Goes On Rising,” McQuaid reveals the full extent of her outstanding vocal versatility and power from soul drenched solemnity to the beatific. The hypnotic, atmospheric rhythm of the song is enhanced by the stunning, intricate acoustic guitar accompaniment which complements perfectly the cycle of nature evoked by the lyrics co-written with Gerry Beirne.
Folk and blues legend, the late Michael Chapman, produced her previous solo album, If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous. The title track features next and is the first opportunity to hear Sarah’s electric guitar skills which are evident again on the instrumental, “The Day Of Wrath, That Day,” and “The Tug Of The Moon.” The iconic Ibanez Artist guitar is on loan from Michael who had handed it to her and suggested that she play it, thus opening a whole new musical spectrum for Sarah.
Also from that album is “The Silence Above Us,” which surpasses the brilliance of the original as McQuaid transforms it into a song for our time with the help of her virtuosic grand piano accompaniment. The natural acoustics of this iconic venue create a haunting mood, the stark introductory piano chords setting the scene for the metaphors generated by the poetic lyrics: “The silence above us/ The comfort in darkness/ Pale clouds in a blanket of sky/ The light from my window/ The trees lost in shadow.” The quirky “One Sparrow Down,” an upbeat homily on the folly of attacking an imagined enemy, features floor tom percussion accompaniment.
“Charlie’s Gone Home” is one of Sarah’s first songs written in 1997 for her debut solo album, When Two Lovers Meet evoking memories of her life in Philadelphia in the 80s The catchy “What Are We Going To Do” has a jaunty and upbeat vibe whilst “Time To Love,” also co-written with Gerry O’ Beirne, is a gorgeous love song, Sarah’s vocals gliding effortlessly to the highest part of the building. “Yellowstone” explores dramatically the worries of a son who feared exploding volcanoes when he was young and the pointlessness of dwelling on things we cannot control.
Americana-folk singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, McQuaid is unique in respect of her vocal and guitar style which makes her difficult to categorize or to compare with other performers. It is only on hearing her version of the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves” that the realization dawns that Sarah is up there with Eva Cassidy and Edith Piaf in her ability to completely captivate an audience. “Rabbit Hills” acquires a poignancy following the recent passing of its composer Michael Chapman, who was a close friend of, and mentor to, Sarah. Her individual interpretation of such a beautiful song with piano accompaniment is a fitting tribute to their musical collaborations. The finale “Last Song” is an intensely moving tribute to Sarah’s late mother inspired by love and nostalgia and sung with a profound sense of loss.
Words and music by Sarah McQuaid except “The Sun Goes On Rising,” “What Are We Going To Do,” and “Time To Love” (with Gerry O’Beirne)
“Autumn Leaves” (Kosma, Prevert and Mercer) and “Rabbit Hills” (Chapman)
Sarah – vocals, acoustic and electric guitars, percussion.
Shovel And A Spade Records
Production and recording by Martin Stansbury
Mixed by Martin Stansbury at Cacophony Cottage Studio
Mastered by Stuart Bruce
Album cover and title screen artwork by Sarah
Graphic design by Mary Guinan
Photography by Mawgan Lewis
The video was filmed and directed by Mawgan Lewis of Purple Knif, with cameras by John Crooks and color grading by Kelly Green.
Available on CD, limited edition blue vinyl double LP and streaming platforms, Spotify, Bandcamp etc.
The Sarah McQuaid Interview
ABS: Can you talk us through your musical memories and influences growing up in Chicago with American-Spanish parents?
The Spanish element didn’t really come into it as my mother and father split up before I was born and I never met him. My mother did teach me a few Spanish folk songs, though! She’d been living in Spain for five years before I was born, and I was 18 months old when she took me back to Chicago, where her family was from. My earliest memories are of lying in bed and listening to her singing and playing the guitar in the next room. I’d call out requests and she’d say “Are you still awake? Oh, ok then.” I think I was about three years old when she started teaching me to play the piano, and I also got informal lessons from my kindergarten teacher as well as from my uncle, who also played both guitar and piano.
When I was seven years old I joined the Chicago Children’s Choir (my cousin Jamie, the aforementioned uncle’s son, was also a member, and went on to become a professional composer and orchestra conductor). That was a massive influence on my life: all the formal musical training I’ve had came from the choir, and we had a very intensive rehearsal schedule and I toured with the choir all around the USA and even to Canada, so it was really my introduction to performing at a professional level. And the material we performed was wonderfully eclectic.
What was the first record you bought?
It was the 12-inch single of “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang. I was 13 years old when that record came out, and my friends and I all learned all the words off by heart and I can still remember a lot of them!
Was it your own decision or were you influenced into taking your musical journey?
Oh, very much my own decision! I pretty much lived for music from as far back as I can remember. At kindergarten I begged to be allowed to stay indoors and play the piano at recess time when the other kids went out to the playground. Playing the piano was all I wanted to do, and I remember being so happy when the teachers finally relented and said it was ok. That was when one of the teachers very kindly started giving me piano lessons.
What’s the best musical advice you have had?
In the children’s choir we had it drilled into us that we must ALWAYS warm up our voices before singing. I’m really, really grateful that I had that early training — it’s stood me in good stead through years of intensive touring. I see so many singers ruin their voices by not warming up properly, belting too hard and just generally not looking after themselves. It’s important to take as good care of your voice as you do of your guitar, and very few musicians do, especially in the folk circuit.
Did living in Ireland at the time of your first album release have an impact on your future musical direction?
Well, it certainly had an impact on the direction of that album, which consisted almost entirely of traditional Irish songs and tunes! But it also pointed me towards my future direction, in that I was also deeply involved with the really exciting singer-songwriter scene in Dublin at the time. There was a kind of guru figure called Dave Murphy who used to run singer-songwriter open mics and sessions, and practically everyone who took part in them went on to become a big name, at least in Ireland — people like Declan O’Rourke, Paddy Casey, Mundy, Gemma Hayes, Andy White, Damien Dempsey — I’d be seeing them and swapping songs with them at least twice a week, thanks to Dave, and that taught me so much. I also met Gerry O’Beirne when I moved to Ireland, and he produced my first three albums and has continued to co-write songs with me ever since, most recently for my 2018 album If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous.
You had a relentless touring schedule pre-pandemic, can you give us some insights into life on the road across America and Europe?
I love touring, and I miss it so much — I’m really looking forward to getting back on the road this autumn and next year, although obviously I’m terrified of Covid. But I do love the travelling, making new friends and being able to just focus on music and nothing else. I love being at home with my family, too, but when I’m home I have a lot of conflicting demands on my time and attention, and I’m always feeling like I’m failing in one direction or the other.
When I’m on tour I just have one job: the number one priority is always the gig you’re doing or about to do. The USA is probably my favorite country to tour in, just because of the dramatic landscapes and the big wide empty roads — a 350-mile drive in the USA can be way less tiring and taxing than a 150-mile drive in the UK! But then it’s lovely to get back to the UK again, because it feels like home to me now — and the Travelodges and Premier Inns in the UK are incredibly nice and clean and comfortable for the money.
You can pay two or three times as much in the USA and still find yourself in a dank, bug-infested dive. Hotels in continental Europe are better than in the US, but they still tend to be more expensive than Travelodges and Premier Inns, and the rooms are really spartan, with narrow little single beds and lino on the floor. But no matter where you go, McDonald’s has the best and cheapest coffee, and free wifi to boot!
Whilst you were musically active and creative during Covid restrictions, has it been easier to achieve a work-life balance over the last 18 months?
I know it seems odd, but I’ve actually been more overworked and overstretched in the last 18 months than I’ve ever been before. I took on a lot, between the new album and the music composition lessons (and related homework) that I was doing thanks to the Developing Your Creative Practice grant that I got from Arts Council England; plus I kept having to deal with cancellations and reschedules, making plans for tours that then didn’t happen. The old cycle of touring and then being at home was kind of relaxing, in a weird way: while I was away on tour I had plenty of time to get on with admin work, because my wonderful manager Martin Stansbury would be doing all the driving and I could just sit in the passenger seat tapping away on a laptop. Each night’s gig was the rehearsal for the following night’s gig, and on evenings off I could noodle about and work on ideas for new songs. Then I’d get home and just switch completely off music and focus on family life for a few weeks. That hasn’t happened this year — I’ve been constantly flat-out and behind with everything.
Living in Cornwall sound idyllic, so how does the rural community and environment impact upon your family life and your current music?
I love it. I’m so grateful that my kids were able to grow up in Cornwall, going to tiny little schools where they had wonderful teachers and where I got to be friends with the other parents — I first met Zoë (the former pop star with whom I made the Mama album in 2008) at the school gates at St Levan School, which is the primary school that both her kids and mine attended, only 20-odd kids in the whole school, ranging in age from 4 to 11, and a lovely hippie-dippy ethos.
And it was through working with Zoë that I really started thinking of myself as a songwriter — I learned so much from her about songwriting and about music generally — and it was also through Zoë that I met Martin and started working with him. So I owe all of that to the move to Cornwall! And it’s such a beautiful part of the world — every time I walk outside my house I’m blown away by the fact that I actually live there.
You write exceptional lyrics and tunes; can you give us some insights into your song writing process and what inspires you to write?
Well, thank you! My songwriting process has changed a lot over the years. I used to think I had to wait for inspiration to come along, then sit down and write a song. Now there’s a much longer gestation: when I get an idea for a song I either write it down or make a voice memo recording on my phone, depending on whether the idea involves words or music or both, and then I might not go near it again for two or three years until I get to a point where I feel like I need to sit down and do some writing. And then I get my list of ideas out and get to work. And once I’m in that frame of mind I can churn out a whole album’s worth of songs in a relatively short space of time, because all those ideas have been percolating around in my head and my unconscious mind has been working away on them without my being aware of it — to the point that a lot of the time it feels more like transcribing than writing.
The inspiration for the initial song idea almost invariably comes from a really strong visual image that suggests some kind of metaphorical meaning — you’ll see that in “The Sun Goes On Rising,” “Yellowstone,” “The Tug Of The Moon,” “Sweetness and Pain” — in fact, practically every song I’ve written. And it’s the imagery and the metaphorical content in other people’s songs that attracts me to record cover versions of them. I’m always writing songs in the hope that they’ll have meaning and relevance for other people besides myself and that they’ll have some kind of life beyond my existence, and with those four songs it feels like maybe I got there, although of course I’d like it if all my songs got there! But time will tell ….
Who do you rate on the current music scene at home and abroad?
Oh, there’s so much good music out there! I’m loving the material Helen Meissner has been putting out under the name Helefonix: she’s doing beautiful things with spoken word interlaced with music. Soricah is another new young artist whose songwriting really excites me. Her family is from Ireland and Mauritius and she’s living in England now, and she’s a lovely person, too. It’s also really nice to see some people of real talent getting recognition in the mainstream music world.
I was so delighted a couple of weeks ago when Arlo Parks won the Mercury Music Prize for her brilliant debut album “Collapsed In Sunbeams,” and it was also great to see Hannah Peel, Laura Mvula and Wolf Alice on the Albums of the Year list — all fantastic artists whose music I’ve only discovered in the past year, although of course they’ve all been out there for a lot longer than that — like the saying goes, it takes years of work to become an overnight sensation!
What was it like collaborating with the legendary Michael Chapman?
I feel so honored and privileged to have been able to work with Michael, and the world feels diminished without him in it. He was a lovely man who cared deeply about music and musicians. He loved his red wine, too — when he was staying in my house while we were recording If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous, I tried at first to be a good host and sit up to chat with him in the evenings, but after the first night or two I couldn’t stay the pace and had to leave him sitting at my kitchen table and take myself off to bed! Totally mortifying but I owe so much to Michael — he opened up a whole new musical spectrum for me when he handed me that beautiful Ibanez Artist electric of his and said “Play this.” I’m deeply grateful to him and I miss him terribly.
Talk us through your guitar playing style?
I guess it’s just something that’s naturally developed over the 30-odd years that I’ve been playing guitar. I was in my early teens when I first started experimenting with alternative tunings, under the influence of Joni Mitchell and all the Windham Hill guitarists — Michael Hedges, Alex de Grassi, Willy Ackerman.
And then when I was 18 I discovered the DADGAD tuning and it was a real Eureka moment — I’ve played in nothing but DADGAD since. I’m a huge fan of Nick Drake and the way his music sounded like a duet for guitar and voice, rather than the voice singing the melody and the guitar supplying the accompaniment — I’ve always striven to keep that melodic element prominent in my own guitar playing.
You have a superb team of sound and recording engineers, PR people etc. so what qualities do they bring?
I feel so fortunate to have had such a wonderful team of individuals helping and supporting me over the years. I first started working with Martin way back in 2008, when he was producing and engineering the album I made with Zoë under the band name Mama; he subsequently became my touring sound engineer and then my manager, and I wouldn’t be able to do what I do if it weren’t for Martin.
I should also mention Pat Tynan and Howard Wuelfing who look after my PR in the UK and USA respectively. They’re both proper old-school pros and I’m very lucky to be able to have them getting the word out on my behalf. And of course I’ve worked with some brilliant producers, most recently Martin, who produced The St Buryan Sessions and whose brainchild the whole project was, and before that Michael Chapman, Gerry O’Beirne and my intimidatingly talented cousin Adam Pierce (younger brother of my aforementioned cousin Jamie).
What is your next project and your plans for the future?
I didn’t write any new songs for this album, it just didn’t feel like the right time for it, so I’m itching to get cracking on some new material. However, it’s too soon to start on another album, so I thought maybe I could make a series of EPs of new original material, just 3 or 4 songs on each one, maybe, and possibly eventually put them into some kind of set or collection. But my first priority is to get back into the swing of touring again as I’ve got an awful lot of catching up to do!
What would be your advice to up and coming musicians?
Don’t make the music you think your audience wants to hear. Make the music that comes from your heart, that you can love and believe in. If there’s an audience out there for it, it’ll find you.
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*Feature image credit: Mawgan Lewis