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The American Interview: Sarah McQuaid
On the road in California, the globetrotting Cornwall-based expat singer tells us about her evolving music
Oftentimes we start interviews in The American by asking where in America you come from, but you weren’t from America to start with?
No, I was born in Spain, but when I was two years old we moved to the South side of Chicago, Hyde Park. My great grandfather was Professor of English at the University of Chicago, and my mother’s family had been there for generations.
Which is quite unusual in itself - people move around a lot in the States...
There’s nobody left in Hyde Park in my family now. My uncles decamped to Evanston on the North Side, and everybody else has moved to other parts of the USA. My mom and step-dad and I moved from Chicago to Washington DC when I was 13, then I went to Haverford College just outside Philadelphia and did a degree in philosophy there - I spent a year studying in France. I moved to Ireland in my late 20s, and lived there for 13 years, then to England 11 years ago. So I’ve lived in a fair few different countries.
What took you to Ireland?
My first husband was an Irish musician who I met during that year in France. That marriage broke up, and then I met my second husband - still a husband, and the father of my kids! - who’s also Irish. For family reasons we moved from Ireland to Cornwall in England where my mother and English step-father had moved.
I wondered if it was the landscape! Your husband, Feargal Shiels is an artist, I love his cloud and fieldscapes.
How nice of you to look him up. That’s really cool, thank you.
And you have two kids, who feature on the new album.
They both feature briefly. Eli features more, because he’s heavily featured in the title song, ‘If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous’. But my daughter, Lily Jane, is alluded to in ‘Cot Valley’, I say “I go there with my daughter, the world is open to her, she can gaze out at the sea” etc.
You come from a ‘visual arts’ family - your mother was an art critic. Was there music around too?
My mother was a folk singer, she played the piano and the guitar. She didn’t do it professionally, but she was constantly playing music and my earliest memories are of her sitting and playing her guitar outside my room, then of the two of us singing together on long car journeys. My uncle, who’s a journalist by profession, has written a number of musicals, some of which have been produced and won awards. And then I have two cousins who are involved professionally in music: Jamie is Musical Education Director for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, but he’s also into renaissance wind instruments like recorders, and he plays piano and guitar too. Jamie’s brother Adam produced my fourth album - he’s like an indie-rock god, he’s in one band called Mice Parade (an anagram of his name, Adam Pierce) and another called Swirlies - he’s on the road touring Europe with them as we speak. He’s a multi-instrumentalist, he plays drums, piano and guitar, teaches all of them, and also he runs a record label called Fat Cats. My family is slightly, mildly intimidating!
You multitask too - before you went professional as a musician, you were a music journalist and editor. Was that in Ireland?
Yeah, I kind of fell backwards into that. My intention was always just to do music, but I’d edited my college newspaper and done various internships at newspapers when I was in college. When I moved to Ireland, I got placed by a temp agency in University College Dublin’s alumni development office. The woman there who was in charge of the magazine enlisted me to help out with the alumni magazine, then they contracted it out to a publishing house. I’d quit my job at UCD and recorded my first album when I got a phone call out of the blue asking me to work for the magazine for three months, full time. I was like “Great, I could make some of the money back I spent recording the album. I’ll do my three months and then I’ll do a proper album release and go out and start touring ... 11 years later I was still working for that same company and had become Managing Editor across a bunch of publications. I was also writing for Hot Press and the Evening Herald, and written a book (The Irish DADGAD Guitar Book). I kept trying to quit and they kept offering me more money, and I’d go “OK, I’ll just stay on for another couple of months...” I finally got my courage up to quit and now I’m completely broke!
Unlike many people who ‘used to be in a band’ and end up in a ‘proper job’ you’ve done it the better way round, ending up doing the thing you love!
Yeah, although it would be nice to be finally solvent! I’ve put so much money into making the albums because I want to do them properly, I want to do them right.
The sound quality is always great.
I’ve always worked with really good producers and sound engineers, and got good musicians to guest with me on the albums. There’s not a single album I’ve made that I can’t listen to, even the very first album. I can listen back to it and go “gosh, that was an awfully long time ago but it was pretty darned good”.
You have your original material and traditional tunes; Appalachian folk music, Irish...
The first album was mostly Trad Irish stuff, that was the world I was immersed in at the time, with one of my own songs. The second one was more focused on Appalachian music because my mother had just died at that point. I dedicated the album to her, and it’s music that she really loved. There were a couple of original songs on that. In between making the second album and the third album, I moved to Cornwall and I met up with Zoë, of ‘Sunshine on a Rainy Day’ fame. We quite accidentally started writing songs together, and wound up making an album together under the band name Mama. Zoë got me really excited about song writing by opening my mind up to all the possibilities - how as long as there’s a structure, it doesn’t have to be any particular structure, you can play with the rhyme scheme or have no rhyme scheme. I’d work with her again in a heartbeat.
Then I came to make the third album, The Plum Tree and The Rose, that album was about half and half - original songs alongside Elizabethan and Medieval material. There’s songs by John Dowland and Thomas Ravenscroft and one in the old Occitan language from the 12th century. By the time I made the fourth album, with Adam producing, I’d completely transitioned to being primarily a song writer, so that’s almost all my own songs, plus a hymn, which seems to fit, and a cover of ‘The first time ever I saw your face’ by Ewan MacColl.
The new album, If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous, is almost all original except for a cover of ‘Forever Autumn’ and the ‘Dies Irae’ which is kind of related to ‘Forever Autumn’.
You choose some interesting songs to cover. ‘Forever Autumn’, to me, seems like it was written for your voice.
Thank you! I love singing it, it’s such a big song.
A big song, but the original (sung by Justin Hayward on Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds) had a full orchestra, synths, electric guitars and everything going on. You’ve got an acoustic guitar and a cello and your voice.
I’d been to the arena stage show of The War of the Worlds in Manchester on a night off during a tour. We got back to the hotel and my manager said “You know, you should cover ‘Forever Autumn’, it would sound amazing with just your guitar and voice.” I said “Really, do you think so?”. I picked up the guitar and started picking up that melodic theme from the ‘Dies Irae’ and thought, “oh, this sounds nice.” I don’t want to cover a song unless I can bring something new to it. I don’t want to change the song materially, but I want to make it my own in some way while staying true to the spirit of the original. I’ve been performing that song at gigs for a long time. People kept coming up and asking if I had a CD with ‘Forever Autumn’ on it so it was actually a very easy decision to record that song.
Instrumentally, you’re bringing in more instruments into your live performances. Traditionally you’ve just used acoustic guitar... although it’s a special acoustic by the look of it?
It was made for me by the great Andy Manson. I just played acoustic guitar in my gigs until this year, and then Michael Chapman got me playing electric guitar. He said “I’m giving you my guitar, and I want you to write some songs on it, I think you’d sound really good playing electric.” Once I started experimenting, it was fantastic. It made the songs the way they are, like ‘The Day of Wrath, That Day’, for example, it wouldn’t work on acoustic guitar. ‘The Tug of the Moon’ came out of the tremolo effect and the way you can do really slow, long notes because you’ve got all that sustain on the electric. It opened up so many possibilities. Then I wrote ‘The Silence Above Us’ on piano. I’ve just been telling venues in the States, if you have a piano, I’d love to play it and it’s been great, I’ve played several venues that had grand pianos on stage for me to play, which has been a revelation. One venue in Ridgeway, Colorado, didn’t have a piano on the stage but there was a grand piano out in the lobby area, where I was selling merch during the break and where the bar was for drinks, so I did the first song after the interval just acoustically on the piano out in the bar. The audience gathered round then we all trooped back into the main theater. That was really fun.
The drum came in because I had this really good percussionist, Roger Luxton on the album. One track in particular, ‘One Sparrow Down’, I’d written as an a capella song, but it became totally percussion based. I’ve always tried to do a really varied set, and vary the tempo and vary the styles and genres and try and keep it interesting even though it’s just me on stage, but now that I’ve got all these other instruments, I can really create a lot of different sounds with just me.
Michael Chapman is an eminence grise of British music, influential to other musicians and an extraordinary character. How did you meet him, and what attracted you to each other musically?
We were both playing at the Trowbridge village pub festival back in 2014, and we were staying in the same hotel, so I had breakfast with him and his wife, Andru, who’s a knitwear designer, the morning after we both did our sets. I was just about to head over to the USA for a two month tour, and Andru was going over to a big fashion convention, so she came to my gig in Memphis. The next thing, she emailed and said “would you like to come up and do a gig, up where we live, our local cricket club is putting on the odd gig – and Michael would like to be your opening act!” That was really intimidating! So I did this hilarious gig with Michael Chapman being my opening act, then me coming on and playing with all this scary local audience that all knew Michael and Andru personally. It was brilliant! We’ve got to be really good friends, I stayed with them a bunch of times on tours because they are are in the middle of nowhere in Northumberland, a handy stop off between Scotland and England. On one of the visits, we were just sitting around chatting and Michael said “Why don’t you let me produce your next album?” I was just like …“OK!” It would never in a million years have occurred to me to ask him. It gave me a direction, and I was very lucky to get a grant from the Arts Council and another from Cultivator, a local Cornwall grant funding agency so I was able to pay Michael and the other musicians a proper fee.
Finally, what’s the best thing about being Sarah McQuaid?
I love the touring, I love meeting new people, I love doing gigs. There’s just this wonderful electricity that you get playing live that you just don’t get when you’re just in the studio. I love the life.
For details of Sarah’s UK tour and to buy her music, go to www.sarahmcquaid.com