On this week’s Art of the Song, singer-songwriter Sarah McQuaid is featured.
About the musician:
Rising star Sarah McQuaid’s voice has been likened to malt whiskey, melted chocolate and “honey poured into wine” (Minor 7th). A captivating performer, she seduces her audience with cheeky banter and stories from the road, as well as with stunning musicianship; in her hands, the guitar becomes much more than merely an accompanying instrument.
Her musical output reflects her own eclectic background: Sarah was born in Spain, raised in Chicago, holds dual US and Irish citizenship, and now lives in rural England. Refusing to be pigeonholed, she spans the genres with both her beautifully crafted originals and her interpretations of material from around the globe and down the centuries. Sarah’s third solo album The Plum Tree and the Rose has drawn critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic: “Impeccable,” wrote fRoots (UK), while Midwest Record (USA) called it “low key but glorious and incendiary” and Hot Press (Ireland) said it “should feature on many end-of-year best-ofs.”
Born in Madrid (to a Spanish father and an American mother), raised in Chicago and holding dual Irish and American citizenship, Sarah McQuaid was taught piano and guitar by her folksinging mother, and remembers being inspired by meeting her distant cousin, well-known singer/songwriter/storyteller Gamble Rogers, at her grandmother’s house in Indiana. From the age of twelve she was embarking on tours of the US and Canada with the Chicago Children’s Choir, and at eighteen she went to France for a year to study philosophy at the University of Strasbourg.
She moved to Ireland in 1994 and lived there for 13 years, working as a music journalist and active member of Dublin’s arts community. In 2007, she re-released her critically acclaimed 1997 debut solo album, When Two Lovers Meet, and launched her solo career with a performance on Irish national television as the musical guest on John Kelly’s popular Friday evening arts show The View.
The same year saw her moving to England and playing major festivals like Sidmouth and Trowbridge, and in 2008 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, with Sarah’s arrangements punctuated by her own fine compositions and a cover of Bobbie Gentry’s classic “Ode To Billie Joe.”
Crow Coyote Buffalo, an album of songs co-written by Sarah with fellow Penzance resident Zoë (author and performer of 1991 hit single “Sunshine On A Rainy Day”), was released under the band name Mama in 2009 and garnered rave reviews: Spiral Earth described the pair as “Two pagan goddesses channelling the ghost of Jim Morrison,” while The Irish Times said they had “Janis Joplin’s freewheeling spirit crossed with Joni Mitchell’s lyrical density.”
Sarah is also the author of The Irish DADGAD Guitar Book, described by The Irish Times as “a godsend to aspiring traditional guitarists,” and has presented workshops on the DADGAD tuning at festivals and venues around the globe.
Sarah’s first two albums were re-released as a double-CD set in North America in February 2010 and immediately went to No. 1 on both the album and artist Folk-DJ chart. At year’s end, she had the No. 6 album on the Folk-DJ chart for 2010 overall, and was offered an official showcase at 2011’s International Folk Alliance Conference.
Her new album, The Plum Tree and the Rose, was released in March 2012 on the Chicago-based Waterbug Records label. It was No. 3 on the Folk-DJ Chart for March 2012, and by April was No. 5 on the Euro Americana Chart; in June, it was No. 6 on the Roots Music Report Folk Top 50.
Like its predecessors, it was produced by Gerry O’Beirne (Midnight Well, Patrick Street, Sharon Shannon Band) and engineered by Trevor Hutchinson (Waterboys, Lúnasa).
The Plum Tree and the Rose represents a departure from Sarah’s previous albums, which focused on her arrangements of traditional material, in that nine of its thirteen tracks are originals. Although a thread of personal experience is woven into the material, Sarah truly shines as a teller of parables. Whether she’s recounting the life of 16th century businesswoman Bess of Hardwick or standing in a cathedral and pondering the immortality of the soul, the specific detail subtly manifests a universal truth. These are songs that linger in the listener’s imagination.
On opening track “Lift You Up and Let You Fly,” warm strains from Bill Blackmore’s flugelhorn envelop a tender love letter from mother to daughter. Up next is “Hardwick’s Lofty Towers,” Sarah’s ode to the remarkable woman who built the magnificent Hardwick Hall near Chesterfield, Derbyshire. “Hardwick’s Lofty Towers” introduces a set of sister themes – spiritual questioning and the relationship between soul and place – that inspired a trio of originals dedicated to this topic: title track “The Plum Tree and the Rose” (track 12), “In Derby Cathedral” (track 5) and “Kenilworth” (track 4).
A folk album is not complete without comment on our current socio-political climate, and Sarah does excellent justice to the global economic downturn on “The Sun Goes on Rising,” co-written with producer Gerry O’Beirne. Also co-authored with O’Beirne are “So Much Rain,” a rumination on lost love and the changing of seasons, with Sarah’s plangent guitar and string-like vocal harmonies embellished by gossamer piano backing from Rod McVey, and “What Are We Going To Do,” an old-fashioned ‘first kiss’ song in the Golden Age style of Rodgers & Hart, George Gershwin and Cole Porter.
Sarah’s cover of “Solid Air,” the late John Martyn’s tribute to Nick Drake, becomes a soulful duet, this time with Bill Blackmore on trumpet; other surprises include “S’Anc Fuy Belha Ni Prezada,” a 13th century “alba” or dawn song sung in Old Occitan, a sparse arrangement for voice and DADGAD-tuned guitar of Elizabethan composer John Dowland’s “Can She Excuse My Wrongs,” and “New Oysters New,” a three-part canon published in 1609 by Thomas Ravenscroft, featuring guest vocalists Niamh Parsons and Tom Barry. The album closes with Sarah’s original six-part canon of Thanksgiving, “In Gratitude I Sing.”
Now living in Cornwall with her husband and their two children, Sarah currently spends six months of each year on the road in the UK, Ireland, Continental Europe and the USA, with ambitions to extend her range to Canada, Australia and New Zealand.