(Photo by Phil Nicholls)
In part one of this interview, peripatetic folk/rock singer and songwriter, Sarah McQuaid (“Everywhere I go I sound like come from somewhere else”), traced her path to a new career-spanning live album and film recorded in an empty church.
In part two we explore why this space in particular, devoid of an audience, pushed her to new heights and showed her older songs in a powerful new light.
“I HAD BEEN THINKING for a while about doing a live album, and I’d always thought about it in terms of having a live audience,” says Sarah McQuaid. “But when we suddenly couldn’t have a live audience that’s when I thought about having it filmed, and I thought maybe could be kind of an advantage to have a camera crew get right up into my face and use camera angles they just couldn’t do if they had to make allowances for an audience to see me.”
The live album, The St. Buryan Sessions, visually makes the most of its setting in the medieval stone church not far from where McQuaid lives on the English south coast. But its origins in the depths of covid lockdowns, not to mention the specific demands of generating a “show” without responses of any kind – something many artists doing online shows from their living rooms came to understand, and dread – meant that mentally and emotionally, the church became crucial too for what McQuaid calls “some of the magic”.
“Partly because we were filming it and partly because I felt like if we were to do something like that, just in my house or something, or in the studio, I wasn’t confident that I’d be able to summon up the same energy that I get when I have an audience,” she says. “The place itself, and maybe this is going to sound a little bit airy fairy, but one of the reasons I love old churches and cathedrals and other buildings that are really old and lots of people have been in over time, I feel like in some sense they absorb some of the spirit or whatever of the people who have passed through it.
“So you’re getting all of that, and in a way it’s not dissimilar to when you are on stage and you have stage lights shining in your face, so that that even though there is an audience out there, you can’t see them. There is a kind of velvety blackness in front of you in which you sense presences: you can feel that there are people around, but you can’t see them.”
Sounds almost spectral.
“I’m not saying I sense ghosts or anything like that, but in a space like that old church there is something of that feeling of presence that just helps you to summon up that whole performance.”
You don’t even have to believe in ghosts or some or other god to know that buildings can retain the humanity, the lingering spirit of those who have been there, and as hard as it can be to convey, McQuaid’s film gives you exactly that. Who knows, with McQuaid alone playing acoustic and electric guitar, piano, percussion and loops, an audience, even a hushed, intense one, might have actually offered less.
“I think in a way it was a bit of a blessing in disguise,” concedes McQuaid. “The absence of audience, this big empty space, adds poignancy to the whole thing. It has a peaceful feeling, as well as just beautiful.”
As singular and captivating as McQuaid’s voice is, her songwriting a solid foundation for two decades, the venue and performance brought something - or maybe brought up something - in several of these songs, most of which were initially recorded with full bands or at least greater instrumentation.
For example, taking out the electric instruments in If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous, while using the live loops, turns it from folk rock into something almost hymn-like except it’s also sterner. There is a real emotional austerity to it. Maybe it’s the seriously lapsed Catholic in me, but there’s a sense of a priest looking down his nose at his flawed congregation. Even a fan favourite song like, Charlie’s Gone Home, which she has been performing for decades has so much kick, so much power in its relative simplicity.
Did she too feel the songs had different aspects of themselves revealed when she played these recordings back?
“Yeah. Part of the reason for wanting to make the recording was that I did feel that a lot of the songs I’d written have changed and evolved as I’ve been performing them live and solo. Most them, as you say, were originally performed or recorded on earlier albums where I had lots of musical guests and working with various producers who had their own ideas about the songs,” McQuaid says.
“For as long as I’ve been making solo albums, I’ve been performing solo: I’ve never travelled with the band. And I think in the course of performing the song solo, they’ve evolved and become something a little bit different … I like that term, emotional austerity. I’ll remember that.”
It wasn’t all austere, or solo, during the plague years. Something else happened for McQuaid during lockdown: she went back to school. And loved it.
Thanks to a “developing your creative practice” Arts Council grant, a quarter of a century into her performing career the songwriter undertook composition classes. Each week she had assigned listening and set tasks writing pieces for ensembles made up of instruments well out of her standard repertoire.
Beyond the technical aspects, what did she learn about herself, how she approaches music as a composer and thinker about music, in these classes?
“I learned that I have an awful lot to learn,” she laughs. “It was surprising to me how often I seem to do what my wonderful tutor was actually looking for, to get things right in the sense, despite not really having a clue of what I was doing. My approach to music has always been pretty instinctive, for lack of formal tuition, and I thought that maybe getting the formal tuition would help me find new ways to do things and approach music in a more knowledgeable, sophisticated way.
“I didn’t get as far as I’d hoped with that but in a way it was encouraging [as she found her intuitive moves musically more sophisticated than she realised]. It was both confidence inspiring, in terms of the extent to which I could get things right without having a clue to what I was doing; but also, not confidence lowering exactly, but realising how much I still had to learn.”
McQuaid has signed up for more classes, even as the possibility of gigs and a return to normal life in the new year opened up. It seemed too good a chance to waste.
“I still want to do more of this and I do feel that working with different instruments opened up my mind to different harmonic possibilities that maybe I wouldn’t have thought of if I continued working on my own with guitar and piano,” she says. “It was really useful to fire up Sibelius, make sounds involving things like woodwinds and brass.
“All that’s going to inform my songwriting. It’s all good.”
Sarah McQuaid’s The St. Buryan Sessions is out on A Shovel And A Spade Records.