By day she’s documentary film maker Sarah Townsend, but by night she’s sultry 1960s-style chanteuse Sarah McGuinness from Donegal, writes Michael McDonagh
Trying to catch up with the creative whirlwind that is Emmy n omi n a t e d Sarah McGuinness (aka Sarah Townsend) is like trying to pick up mercury with a fork. One minute she is in London (where I missed her) then she is in Los Angeles or Dublin but I finally caught up with her in the wilds of her beloved Donegal. She was back in Ireland setting up some filming for a screening of her new promo film for her Christmas single, No More Sad Songs, released on 22 December.
The video was shot featuring the angelic voices of the Inishowen Children’s Choir, who appear alongside Sarah as her infant nativity choir.
The storyline of the song, which was written by Sarah, 50, inspired by her fond memories of Christmas at home in Donegal. She grew up in Derry, moved to London aged 19, studied English and Drama at Royal Holloway, acted and directed Shakespeare, worked backstage in the West End and set up a comedy club at which she promoted the young Ardal O’Hanlon and Jenny Eclair, made DVDs for comedian Eddie Izzard – with whom she used to go out – and released singles. the first of these singles was Mandy Says, produced by the Undertones’ John O’Neill and had a cult hit with Mama Can You See Me Now in the US.
Somewhere along the way she set up a production company with Eddie Izzard called Ella Productions. These days she is an acclaimed documentary film maker with a home in Donegal but music has always been the closest thing to her heart hence her album, Christmas single and video.
“I made this Christmas single and video because this is where my home is. I love it here, and have had a house here for 15 years and came here as a kid and I was always trying to come up with different ideas and had tried various things before that had never happened.
Then we were putting out the Christmas single and I thought I could do something new and pull together all the strands of things that never came off and film this lovely story of this place I knew so well.
My memories of this place are more from the summer time, when I was a child but it is gorgeous in the winter too as you get this incredible sunlight on the sea on this peninsular at the top of Ireland, surrounded by gulf streams with palms everywhere.
It is rather like Cornwall. My mother’s family are all from up here and that’s how I got to know it but never thought I’d come back here. Then my dad was ill and I came back to a wonderful winter sunshine and I thought this is like nowhere else and so far north it is almost Norwegian and I thought ‘Oh my God, this is incredible’ and fell in love with it, so I bought a house and have been here ever since. This where I call my home and come back for Christmas”
Out of season
I told her I had sympathy with filming Christmas videos out of season as I once sprayed Kincasslagh with snow in June for a Daniel O’Donnell video and our children’s choir nearly set fire to the church, when one little angel let his candle drop in a Midnight Mass procession, whilst the dove of peace crashed into the rafters.
They say never work with animals or children.
She roared with laughter saying “Wow, snow that trumps anything I have done but working with these children was lovely and my aunt, who is well known here, had taught them the song and they were very good. Of course you always need a good wrangler and she did that all right. This is still a fishing village so the emotion of the song is very real for them”
I suggested to her that she was something of an Irish creative polymath as she had done so many different things on so many artistic fronts: “I’m a perfectionist really, that’s what it is and you go where you have the budget and sometimes you have a go at one thing but can’t find the budget to do what you want but then something different comes up that pulls you in a different direction. Then gradually you find you are doing that thing quite a lot as other people want you to do it but none of it has been deliberate I assure you it is just the way my career went.
“The main thing for me has always been music and then it ended up as music for soundtracks as a sideline and then it got bigger but my music has never been far from anything. I have always continued with my music and then there was a time when I felt I should perhaps remain behind the scenes. You know the belief that if you are past 25 that’s it but then in this last couple of years friends of mine have been encouraging and I thought ‘yea why should I not do whatever I want. What absolute rot that it is to think you can’t do stuff after 25.’
“I had these beautiful songs and I was in the process of trying to sell them to someone else then thought well actually nobody is going to do them as well as I can, as they are my songs. Then I was lucky enough to find this fantastic teacher, who helped me change the sound of my voice quite a lot, so I can bring out the emotion in the songs and that’s changed my approach quite a lot. I was classically trained so now I bring both styles to the same song.
“Music and film soundtracks have always been my major love with big torch songs so put them all together and it is very exciting and there is no reason I can’t make my own pop videos and that’s where we are. It is really odd as it is not where it started, you go down a path and you don’t know where it will lead.
“I don’t know really from one minute to the next or even what is going to happen tomorrow, when I’m showing this Christmas video to the parents of these children in our village.”
Sarah has spent so much time working in America directing film projects or working on soundtracks and before that, from her early days working in Edinburgh at the Festival. At that time she met and encouraged comedian Eddie Izzard, with whom she still works, and also discovered Ardal O’Hanlon. She has even played concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, the Sydney Opera House and the Pigalle Club in London. I asked her if there were plans for shows in England.
“I have not really worked here before until just this summer when I came to do the video because for all the times I had tried before it never came to anything as I spend most of my time in America but now with the benefits of the internet anything is possible and I hope the Christmas video and single will be well received.
“Fingers crossed we will then have a series of gigs lined up in the New Year in England. I love it when you can see the people and be close to them – in a bigger venue you can’t see that at all, so I am hoping to do some shows in London but I can’t wait.
“Right now I just have to get these videos finished and do a small performance for the people here locally and some interviews at the weekend then I can get Christmas out of the way and look forward to the New Year. I’m only about 25 minutes from Derry Airport so it is great if I need to get to London or America from being here in this lovely remote peaceful place, then I look forward to shows in London soon. I have a great team around me so definitely it will happen within a few months”.
‘No More Sad Songs’ is released on 22 December on Right Track Records The debut album from Sarah McGuinness, Unbroken is available now For more information visit: www.sarahmcguinness.com