Sarah McQuaid told David Hennessy about her live album filmed at St Buryan Church in Cornwall, how Ireland started her entire solo career and paying tribute to Bert Jansch with a song from a debut album.
With her latest album being acclaimed, singer- songwriter Sarah McQuaid is once again on the road for a six-week tour of Ireland and the UK.
Born in Madrid, Sarah was raised in Chicago and holds dual Irish and American citizenship but has lived in Cornwall since 2007.
Sarah’s latest and sixth solo album The St Buryan Sessions was recorded and filmed live in the beautiful medieval church of St Buryan, not far from Sarah’s home in rural West Cornwall.
Although it had been in her plans to record such a live offering, Sarah says it was the pandemic that finally gave her the chance.
Sarah told The Irish World: “The album was a direct result of the pandemic.
“We had been talking for a while about making a live album. I went off on tour for what was supposed to be the start of a big three month tour, starting with continental Europe and got two weeks into the tour and I had to cut it short because of COVID and dash home to England.
“I played the gig in Berlin and then hightailed it back home to England the very next day because borders were closing.
“But meanwhile one thing I’d wanted to do for a long time was get some really good high quality video content that really showcased my live performing, and I also wanted to find a way to connect with people without live streaming.
“I really didn’t want to do live streaming because I just thought the technical pitfalls were too great.
“I just didn’t feel confident in my ability to perform to a screen, I felt like I really needed the atmosphere of a live performance to feel like I was performing live.
“So Martin, my wonderful manager and sound engineer, came up with the idea.
“That’s what we did. The entire album was filmed as it was being recorded live, so you can see videos of the whole thing, every track on YouTube.
“And I really feel like we got the best of both worlds because you get the live performance but you also get really good sound quality.”
Sarah says played her last gig before the pandemic in Berlin. Was it scary to be over in Germany when borders started closing? “Yeah. We had already booked our return journey and I had to ring up Stena Line and say, ‘Look, I’m not supposed to be coming back for another three weeks, but I think we better come home right now. Can we?’
“And Stena were wonderful. They were just great.
“But it was still kind of scary because they were starting to announce border closures as we were driving back.
“So I really feel like we got back to England kind of at the last minute and there was just so much uncertainty at that point.
“Back then everybody thought it was all going to be over in a few months.
“It was kind of like, ‘Well, let’s reschedule. We’ll reschedule for the fall. It’ll be all fine by then’.
“And then you started getting these cascading reschedules.
“I’ve got shows at this point that have been cancelled and rescheduled three times so it’ll be amazing when I actually get to do those shows again.”
“I mean, it’s still quite scary.
“Especially going out on tour now. You’re thinking, ‘Okay, am I going to wake up tomorrow with a sore throat and have to cancel the tour?’
“It’s really added a huge level of uncertainty to it all.
“But it is also just wonderful to be able to go out and tour again.
“So it’s a real emotional roller coaster for me and loads of musicians, feeling really happy because something good happens and then at the same time being terrified.”
And like all musicians, Sarah has missed performing more than anything.
“The thing that makes me want to keep doing music as a job is performing live, because that’s what it’s all about.
“For me, it’s really all about the live performance.
“If you told me I was going to have to just stay in a studio and not perform live ever again, that would be the one thing that would make me want to give up on the whole thing.
“It’s all about actually getting out there and getting in front of audiences and interacting with other human beings.
“And it was just so amazing when I first went back out on the road last autumn just to be in a room with other human beings.
“I actually got really emotional, I was sort of bursting into tears at nearly every gig just from the sheer kind of emotional overload of suddenly having other people listening to me again for the first time in over a year.”
While Sarah has done some gigging since releasing the album, this will be her most extensive tour since the start of the pandemic.
“It’ll be my first time leaving the country since COVID.
“It will be really weird because this will be the first time I’ve gone over to Ireland post-Brexit which is going to be expensive because we go over there with a full PA system and everything like that.
“And we’ve got to make a customs declaration for the merch that we bring over.
“I used to just bring a load of merch in the van, way more than I thought I might sell.
“But now since I’m gonna have to pay customs import duty on all that, I’ve got to really minimize it and try and bring only as many CDs as I really think I’m going to sell.
“So going to Ireland on tour is suddenly way more complicated than it ever was before. And that’s a real pain.”
Ireland has played a massive role in Sarah’s life and career. Not only are her husband and children Irish, it was also where she launched her music career.
Sarah moved to Ireland in 1994 and lived there for 13 years, working as a music journalist and magazine editor.
In 2007, she re-released her 1997 debut solo album, When Two Lovers Meet, and launched her solo career with a performance on John Kelly’s RTE show The View.
Does Ireland hold a special place in her heart? “Very much so.
“Both of my kids were born in Ireland and my husband is Irish.
“It still feels like home in a lot of respects.
“It’s still where so many really close friends and family are.
“I went to Ireland with a view to getting back to doing music.
“I’d been a performer with a band in the States, with my with my first husband, who was also Irish.
“So the two of us went to live in Ireland and we continued performing as a band.
“And then Noel and I split up, and I went to Dublin but I don’t think I anticipated really being a solo performer.
“At that point, I think I saw me being in a band or something.
“And I signed up with a temp agency to make some money.
“That first album was recorded in 1996 and released in 1997.
“Did I do any gigs? No, I just started working and never got around to actually touring the album or doing any gigging of the album.
“I wound up working for a magazine publishing house and becoming a full-time magazine editor.
“Then I published my guitar book at that point, and through that, I started writing for The Evening Herald and then Hot Press.
“And it wasn’t until after my kids were born when they were really little that I started feeling like I was really miserable in my job and wanted to get back to playing music, I think.
“I started doing gigs as a solo performer and I found that I really liked performing solo because it gave me a connection with the audience that I’d never really had so much when I was playing as part of a band.
“When you’re a band, you’re kind of relating to the other people onstage with you and the audience is kind of out there but they’re spectators, they’re not really part of the whole thing.
“One of the first things that I did when I started playing music again was I did a tour as support act to Luka Bloom.
“Watching him onstage really brought it home to me to what extent the audience was part of the performance.
“I realized that that was what I wanted to do.
“And then I got on The View with John Kelly on RTE TV and that was just a real break for me.
“And then I moved to Cornwall around the same time, and I’ve been a full time musician ever since.
“So Ireland kind of started all that going.”
The same year Sarah moved to England she released her second album, I Won’t Go Home ’Til Morning. In contrast to the first album’s focus on Irish traditional songs and instrumentals, the follow-up was a celebration of old-time Appalachian folk.
“When I made that first album, I thought of myself as mainly a performer of traditional music who happens to write an occasional song so that first album was mostly traditional Irish songs and tunes and one song that I’d written.
“And then I made the second album looking more at American folk music, because I made that album after my mother had died and I was thinking about the music that she had played, and that she had loved which was more American folk music.”
This was followed by Crow Coyote Buffalo, an album of songs co-written by Sarah with fellow Penzance resident Zoë under the band name Mama and garnered rave reviews: Spiral Earth described the pair as “Two pagan goddesses channelling the ghost of Jim Morrison.”
“And then I moved to Cornwall and met Zoe and it was through co-writing with Zoe that I started really thinking of myself as being a songwriter primarily and a singer songwriter rather than as a folk musician who happened to write occasional songs.
“So moving to Cornwall kind of materially changed my direction.”
Sarah would follow this with the albums The Plum Tree And The Rose, Walking Into White and If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous.
“And then as I’ve made successive albums, they’ve come to focus even more and more on my own songwriting and less and less on folk music.
“So it’s been a whole progression that I probably couldn’t have anticipated when I started.”
In 2017, Sarah was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Ards International Guitar Festival in Northern Ireland in recognition of her innovative use of the DADGAD tuning and her authorship of The Irish DADGAD Guitar Book.
Sarah’s upcoming tour coincides with the release of a new video filmed earlier this month at the behest of The Bert Jansch Foundation, as part of their “Around The World In 80 Plays” project.
In what would have been the legendary guitarist and singer-songwriter’s 75th year, the Foundation sent three Yamaha LL TransAcoustic guitars travelling around the globe from guitarist to guitarist, each playing a song or tune inspired by Bert.
The project includes contributions by such iconic guitarists as Richard Thompson, Johnny Marr, Bernard Butler, Tony McManus, Tommy Emmanuel, Alex de Grassi as well as Sarah.
“It’s funny,” Sarah says.
“The project was actually started back in 2019 but I only got wind of it this year when they invited me to be part of it.
“And it was like, ‘Oh, wow, yeah’.
“And it was kind of nice because it gave me the impetus to go back to that very first album.
“So I went with Martin back to St. Buryan’s Church a song that I’d record on my very first album When a Man’s in Love and I hadn’t performed that song in years and years and years.
“But of all my songs I felt like it was the one that really showed Bert Jansch’s influence and particularly how inspired I was by his playing on song Black Waterside, so it’s nice to get the opportunity to revisit.
“I’m thinking maybe I should add it to my live set for the next tour. You never know.
“Because I’m going to be touring in Ireland again, it would be nice to have at least one trad song for that reason as well.”
The St Buryan Sessions is out now.
Sarah tours Ireland and the UK until 29 May.
For more information, click here.