(Photo by Phil Nicholls)
SARAH MCQUAID TODAY IS SITTING IN FRONT of a large and impressive wall of CDs, its styles varied, its nationalities widely spread, its depth vast. As it should be given she was born in Spain, raised in Chicago, toured the USA as a chorister from the age of 12, was based for several years in Philadelphia, spent 13 years in Ireland (leaving it with an Irish husband in tow) and is now a long-term resident of Penzance on the English south coast.
All of these places have a significant musical history and all of them have left an imprint in some form on the singer and songwriter whose core may be folk, but whose influences are never far away. Much in the way her accent seems to be of many places, or no place at all, emblematic of her approach to making music.
“Everywhere I go I sound like come from somewhere else,” McQuaid says. “No matter where I go people say, ‘well, you’re not from around here are you?’, And that includes the neighbourhood where I grew up in Chicago. And I think definitely I pick up the musical influences as well, which I think is a really good, healthy thing. You can’t help but absorb something from what’s around you.”
Much as she absorbed the atmosphere of the venerable (and in some parts medieval) church which was the location for her sixth – but first live, albeit without an audience mid-Covid – album, The St. Buryan Sessions. While the songs draw from throughout her career, the resonance of the flesh, blood and faith that has passed through the stone and wood over centuries imbues the church with its own rich tenor that shifts the songs into compelling new territory, just as much as the fact that McQuaid performs them alone.
Not that being such an absorber and reflector of her interests and locations has always been helpful for McQuaid.
“The side effect of that is I’m kind of an outsider everywhere as well. I can kind of get in trouble with that, musically, as a don’t fit very well into a lot of boxes that particular radio shows or particular folk clubs and venues want to focus on,” she says. “I used to have this perpetual difficulty where I would approach one venue and they’d say ‘I’m sorry, you’re too folk for us; we are really looking for more rock ‘n’ roll acts’, then approach another venue and they’d say, ‘well, you’re really too rock ‘n’ roll for us, we’re looking for more folk acts’.
Her folk credentials might be established by the knowledge that McQuaid has chainmail gloves, though not for cosplay (or an ‘80s metal video) but for chopping vegetables as she had a nasty habit of chopping at her fingers. Which isn’t recommended for a guitarist.
Though maybe it’s better understood by the way place and time figure in McQuaid’s songs – specific but universal; imagery-based but relatable – whether she’s playing solo and acoustically, with loops, or a full band. And whether she’s working with complex images or something as straightforward as the sharp glare on the morning school run in her song, Low Winter Sun, from the 2015 album, Walking Into White.
“A lot of my songs start with metaphors and that thing about driving up the hill and being blinded by the sun struck me as a metaphor for life: that’s how we are, aren’t we? Going blindly forward and we just have to trust that it’s not dangerous, and maybe it is.”
McQuaid’s decision to cover Rabbit Hills, a song by another musical border-crosser, Michael Chapman, on this new album came from how powerful she found the imagery within it. “It’s almost the imagery, more than the lyrics themselves, that generates the emotional reactions,” she says. “That’s what I look for in somebody else’s song, and what I am always striving for in my own songs.”
Beyond all that though, there needs to be believability in the imagery and the message. What McQuaid brings in her voice is a tone of experience and truthfulness that engenders trust in a listener: she may or may not have had experiences she describes, but you believe in her recounting or understanding of them. Furthermore, she binds you to the singer and the song.
It’s why releasing a solo live album now isn’t just a practical outcome of two years of Covid-restricted performances, but a fulfilment.
“My voice has always been pretty distinctive. I used to feel quite awkward about that, I used to think I ought to sound more like other singers I heard,” she says. “I guess it was when I got a little older and had been out working as a musician for a while, I started thinking maybe it’s not about a bad thing: generally, if [people] like it, they really like it.”
Getting to this position of comfort and satisfaction wasn’t quick or easy with McQuaid revealing that for many years, and still occasionally today, she suffered from pre-performance nerves. The kind that might have crushed a performance like the one in St Buryan’s before it even started.
“I can get to the point where my teeth are chattering and my hands are shaking, and it’s quite difficult even to open my mouth and get the words out, to hit the notes on my guitar” she says. “I discovered that the only real way to get beyond that was to become absolutely focused on the song or the piece of music: just focus on the music and nothing else, shut out everything else.
“It also helped because I used to get distracted on stage: if I saw somebody come into the room or leave the room I’d lose focus and could get completely lost. I found that what I had to do to stay focused, as well as not be scared, was to just be completely absorbed in whatever I was singing or playing in that moment.”
And it worked even better than she might have hoped.
“I realised over time that what I was seeing as a strategy for not having it be a disaster, was actually something that people were really responding to.”
Sarah McQuaid’s The St. Buryan Sessions is out on Friday through A Shovel And A Spade Records.