Interview: Sarah McQuaid on refreshing her folk vision with “The St Buryan Sessions”

Credit: Phil Nicholls

How lockdown and Cornwall influenced a career retrospective concert recording that looks to the future

Sarah McQuaid, who was born in Spain to an American mother and Spanish father, grew up in America and lived in Ireland before settling in Cornwall, is six solo albums, seven overall if you include her work with Zoe Pollock under the Mama banner, into a 25-year career. She has been able to achieve this longevity while maintaining her status as an independent artist, and while Sarah McQuaid is often classified as a folk artist her music is more contemporary and varied than that classification suggests, and the fact that she has been compared to Sandy Denny and Nick Drake while being inspired by Joni Mitchell helps explain why she is not considered to be a traditional folk artist. Like many artists, Sarah McQuaid was faced with the challenge of what to do during the lockdown and decided to take the opportunity to record the first live album of her career, with feature videos, that would update songs from various phases of her career and include a couple of special covers. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Sarah McQuaid in her adopted Cornwall home over Zoom to discuss the genesis and recording of her career overview live album ‘The St Buryan Sessions’, the lifelong influence Ella Fitzgerald has had on her singing and her reminiscences of working with the late great Michael Chapman. She also let slip that having the Alan Parson Project track ‘The Raven’ from ‘Tales Of Mystery And Imagination’ played as she leaves the stage makes her feel like a rock star. She also makes a heartfelt plea for music lovers to provide as much support for artists and live music as they can safely do.

How are you?

I’ve just finished touring which is an amazing thing to be able to say after all this time, it was just great to be able to do it.

Was it any different from pre-COVID touring, what were the audiences like?

The audiences were smaller than what I would have expected pre-COVID, but I wasn’t surprised, to be honest, and I was prepared for that. It was just lovely to be out and to be able to do it, and be in rooms with real live human beings, just singing and playing, haha.

You have been compared to Sandy Denny and Nick Drake, iconic folk artists of the 60’s/70’s but your background is a lot more cosmopolitan than those comparisons even hint at. How do you see your music?

It is really hard. I see myself as somebody who sings songs, plays music, and writes music, and it is really hard to categorise it. Acoustic and folk get stuck on the thing, but lots of people who are strong folk traditional artists wouldn’t see me as remotely folk. OK, it’s not rock’n’roll, but my own tastes in music are wildly eclectic and I really love all those Americana Songbook writers like Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, and Rogers and Hart, and back then nobody worried about genres they just wrote songs.

I think you have released 7 albums in a career spanning 25 years, which represents a very steady work rate. How do you judge when it is time to release a new album, or is it simply when you have enough material?

When I have enough money to go into a recording studio, haha. I would like to do albums a bit more often, and I’m kind of hoping I can speed up the pace a little bit. I basically need to start applying for grants when I have songs written, haha, and see how I get on. It is hard when you are doing everything independently, and for ‘The St Buryan Sessions’ I actually did a Crowdfunding thing, and that was fantastic to have people be so generous and everything, but I don’t know that I would want to do that for every single album. When you are already asking people to pre-order things anyway, I don’t know if I would leap to Crowdfund again though it was very successful. I just feel there should be better ways of getting the money to do things. Because ‘The St Buryan Sessions’ is a live album I didn’t write any new material for it, it was all either songs I have been doing live for a long time and were written a long time ago or two new cover songs, ‘Rabbit Hills’ and ‘Autumn Leaves’. I have all these half-written songs and I would really like to try and find a way of doing maybe a series of EPs, or something, to make it a little more affordable to get some new material out there more quickly.

Has streaming helped you or not?

I haven’t done any streaming and I really didn’t want to do any. Part of the reason I did ‘The St Buryan Sessions’ the way I did and filmed the whole thing as well as recording the album live, was so that I could have some video content to put out. I did these online premiers of each video, and I would be kind of hanging about in the Chat and I would talk to people and what have you, and that was a way of staying in touch with people without being able to do live gigs. Doing the live streaming from home, for a whole bunch of different reasons, I really didn’t want to do, the primary one being I didn’t think I could get the same level of performance sitting on my own looking at a screen and worrying about the technology and whether everything was coming across OK. Part of what was so lovely about being back out performing over the last few weeks was I was back in rooms with other people and getting an instant response from the audience, and knowing my sound was beautiful because I had my wonderful sound engineer Martin Stansbury with me, and he always does my live sound and he engineered and produced ‘The St Buryan Sessions’.

Having the lights and the atmosphere and other people there, even when there were only small crowds, I mean, I did one gig for three people, haha. Even with three people in the audience it still felt better than it would have felt just sitting at home looking at a screen. I hate looking at screens anyway, I have to do so much of it working all the admin and the web site, updating and booking and everything like that. I belong to a couple of choirs as well and they were doing choir practice via Zoom and I joined in a few times but ultimately, I found it just so depressing that I stopped doing it, haha. I’ve got a choir practise tomorrow night and I will be doing it with live human beings in a room and I can’t wait.

Credit: Mawgan Lewis
Should we view ‘The St Buryan Sessions’ as Sarah McQuaid’s greatest hits package, or is it your first live album?

It is a little bit of a greatest hits album, and when I was picking out which songs to record, I was obviously picking out stuff from my whole back catalogue. There are some on there I recorded on my very first album back in 1997. In that sense, it was a little bit my greatest hits, but also, I recorded a lot of those songs in a studio with other musicians and so on, and I’ve been playing them live and I really wanted to capture them as they are live, as I do them with an audience on my own. A lot of the songs have evolved since I originally recorded them, the songs themselves have changed and little bits have been added on, and the pace has been changed, and I wanted to capture that as well.

Why record in a church?

We had been talking about a live album for some time, and when we originally started talking about it, we were talking about recording a concert because we didn’t know about COVID then, haha. We were talking about maybe one of the concerts I was going to do over the summer but of course, everything got cancelled, and then it became a different thing, but I still wanted to record live, and I wanted it to feel like a performance even though we wouldn’t have an audience. The nice thing about not having an audience was that I was able to have a film crew in, I was able to have Mawgan Lewis and John Crooks on cameras, and they were able to go right up into my face and have cameras going round on track which you couldn’t have done with an audience there. Since I couldn’t have an audience to provide the atmosphere, I wanted to find a place that would bring the same kind of magic to make me feel like I had an audience there.

Churches have always felt to me like places that absorb the presence of all the people who have passed through them for hundreds and hundreds of years, I know that makes me sound hairy fairy, haha. I knew that St Bunyan’s church was definitely one of those places because it is my local church and I’ve been singing in two choirs there, the church choir and also a community choir. I’ve also sung there for weddings and funerals, so I knew it was a gorgeous space acoustically to sing, I knew it would sound beautiful. What Martin Stansbury, manager and sound engineer, did was put these little pairs of microphones all around the space to capture the acoustics of the building, as well as close miking, and he then mixed the two together, the room mics and the close-up mics and got this lovely sense of space and intimacy at the same time. It was a place I felt very comfortable singing in, and it was a beautiful place visually and it is mostly 13th and 14th Century, with parts dating back to the 11th Century. There is all this beautiful woodwork and stained glass, and I thought it would be nice for the video cameras to be able to focus on stuff besides me, haha. So, there were lots of different reasons for doing it in there, haha.

So what did Martin Stansbury think of the sound?

Martin was thrilled, and it was partly his idea to record in the church, I can’t remember who first said it but we have to come up with a really lovely space, and it could have been Martin who said what about doing it in St Buryan’s Church and then we can call it ‘The St Buryan Sessions’, and that is a really great name for an album, haha. He was totally up for it, and I’ve worked with him for over twelve years now, and when we go into a space before I get on stage to start sound-checking, he is tuning his system to the room for a while before I start. He likes the challenge of adjusting to every space and to making the sounds sound natural. You don’t want to be in a church and sound like you are in someone’s living room, and you don’t want to be in someone’s living room sounding like you are in a church.

One of the wonderful things about him is that he does work with the natural acoustics of whatever space we happen to be in. I do host concerts sometimes in really small little folk clubs where people aren’t normally amplified, and if I’m in one of those spaces you aren’t really aware of the PA at all, but it is there, and it is balancing everything and every room has weird frequencies that jump out just because of the way the space is constructed, and he will find those frequencies and get rid of them. It sounds the same volume as if I was performing acoustically, but nicer, haha, no nasty weird kind of notes that jump out and get ahead of the other ones. It is a real art, and it is just as important creatively as what I do because I can’t sing to the best of my ability if what I’m hearing sounds all weird and wrong. I need to be able to hear it sounding lovely in the room in order to perform well, which is another reason I didn’t want to do a live stream because I’m used to the way I sound with Martin, and I knew I would never be happy unless I had that level of quality.

Have ‘The St Buryan Sessions’ changed your approach to your live concerts?

I think so because, in the course of doing the songs in there and listening back and so on, it probably has changed my performance of some of the songs. I mean, my performance of every song evolves with every gig I do, nearly all of the stuff I was doing on this tour was recorded on ‘The St Buryan Sessions’, basically on the tour, I was doing everything on the album plus a couple of more things because I was doing two thirty-five-minute sets. Every single song that I do, I do a little bit differently the next night because I’ve learnt something from the previous performance. That is part of why I’ve missed performing so badly, because you can’t really learn even though rehearsing is really important and I do rehearse at home intensively, and I spend a lot of time working on songs, but it is not until you get out in front of an audience that you really understand what effect what you are doing is having. You learn more from doing the song once in a live concert than you do from rehearsing it umpteen times at home. That’s how I feel anyway.

Would you call that a form of improvisation, how would you categorise your approach?

It is not improvised in that the words and the music are the same, but the performance is always improvised to an extent. I will find myself spontaneously stretching out a note a little bit longer, or going quiet in a particular bit where I had gone loud the previous night, and then I would go quiet the next night and think actually, that is quite nice quiet, I think I will keep going quiet from now on. It is really incremental, you know, and some stuff stays and is the same for ages and ages, and then when I hear myself dig something I will think that is nice. Everything is constantly evolving which is another reason why I really wanted to do live recordings of some of these songs I have recorded in the studio years ago. I stand by all my studio recordings, I’m very happy with all of them and I don’t cringe when I listen back to them, haha, but they have changed over the years. There are some songs that I do at half the pace that I recorded them, and some that I do about twice the pace, and the performance is all different in terms of volume and how you treat a given note. I mean there are so many infinite possibilities, haha, I mean it is virtually impossible to do a song the same way twice.

You mentioned ‘Autumn Leaves’, what made you pick that song to cover, why was it important to you?

The way I came about it was that I had done a cover of ‘Forever Autumn’ on the previous album, ‘If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous’ because I had been to a performance of Jeff Wayne’s ‘The War Of The Worlds’ with Martin and I was humming ‘Forever Autumn’. Martin was like you should do a version of that and I got out my guitar and started fiddling, and I was noodling about with that and I did the recording of ‘Forever Autumn, and then I was sound checking and hit the final chord and I thought, you know, I could just go straight into ‘Autumn Leaves’ from there. I had never sung ‘Autumn Leaves’ before but I knew the song and I thought it would be a little Autumn thing. I did a little tour in Autumn 2019 for three months, two months in the USA and then a month in the UK, where I was doing that little segue from ‘Forever Autumn’ into ‘Autumn Leaves’ and it was just going down a storm.

People kept coming up to me and saying, which album is ‘Autumn Leaves’ on because I love your version of that song, it is my favourite, haha. I was like well actually I haven’t recorded ‘Autumn Leaves’ and I’d already decided back in 2019 that the next time I recorded an album I had better record a cover of ‘Autumn Leaves’. It was the one track I knew for sure I was going to do on that live album. I also thought it would be a really good song to record live, because it is such a powerful song, and when I am singing it I get so wrapped up in the song I think doing that song brought out a whole new element in my singing. I felt I was able to go to a place that I have never been able to get to before with any of the songs I have done before. I found myself belting a bit more than I have ever done before, I had never been one for belting, but the song just called for it and there were these whole new reserves of power that I had never been able to get to before, haha. It has been a great one to learn from, and again it has evolved even since the recording of ‘The St Buryan Sessions’ just on this recent tour playing it every night.

Do you have any plans for more covers from The Great American Songbook?

‘Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Rogers And Hart Songbook’ has been one of my all-time favourite albums for as long as I can remember because my mum had a copy, and I remember hearing that album from when I was 7 or 8 years old and being blown away by Ella Fitzgerald’s singing on it. Ella Fitzgerald as a singer was always who I kind of aspired to learn from as a singer, I’m not saying I sound anything remotely like her, but it is the quality of her singing, and again the way she sounds effortless but you can tell there is so much art going into it. To achieve that level of effortlessness in my singing is always what I’ve wanted to be able to do but I don’t know if I will ever be able to get there. It is like guitar playing, one thing I hate is when you see a guitarist and it looks like they are doing something very difficult with their face all screwed up, and they are playing loads and loads of notes really fast, and you think when I listen to music I want to be transported, I want to be taken to a different place, and I want to feel something. I don’t necessarily want to feel happy, but I don’t want to be looking at a guitarist and go oh, that looks really hard, that is not what enjoyment of music is all about. Some of the stuff I do on guitar is really hard, there is one chord on ‘Autumn Leaves’ that is really hard as regards the finger positions, and if I don’t do it really right I will really mess it up. I have to make a real effort to smile, don’t let the audience see that it is hard because they are not going to relax and be transported if you are doing something that looks really hard.

What was it like recording Michael Chapman’s ‘Rabbit Hills’?

Oh man, of course, Michael was still alive when I recorded ‘Rabbit Hills’ so it is a whole different thing playing it now than it was when I recorded it for ‘The St Buryan Sessions’. When I was asked to record a cover of a Michael Chapman song by Andru Chapman, Michael’s wife, for this special 80th birthday CD she was making for him. It was not for publication, just for her to give to him as an 80th birthday present, and it was recordings of his songs by loads of different musicians he had worked with over the years. When I was recording ‘Rabbit Hills’ for ‘The St Buryan Sessions’ I was thinking this is my gift to Michael, and in a way that is still what I am thinking, haha, even though he is not here anymore. It is really emotional, and oh man, when I was first trying to do the song after he had just died in rehearsals, I found it really difficult. I would get a few bars into the song, and then just completely choke up and break down. I was afraid that was going to happen when I was out performing it live, but I’ve been OK which is good, I have to really tone down my intro, so I don’t say too much because if I talk too much then I’m just going to get emotional. Again, that would ruin it, there should be emotion when you are performing, you have to feel the song, but you don’t want so much emotion you choke up because that will ruin it for the audience. I want it to be all about the audience and about how it makes them feel.

How do you approach your own songwriting?

I’ve changed a lot as a songwriter over the years in that when I first was writing songs, and there is one of my own songs on my first album, ‘Charlie’s Gone Home’, which I re-recorded for ‘The St Buryan Sessions’, and there are two of my own songs on my second album. At that time, I considered myself primarily a folksinger who happened to write an occasional song, and then I moved to Cornwall, and I met Zoe Pollock of ‘Sunshine On A Rainy Day’ fame, and the two of us made ‘Mama: Crow Coyote Buffalo’ with songs we were co-writing. It was through working with Zoe that I first started actually really thinking of myself as a songwriter, rather than someone who happens to write songs occasionally. She taught me a lot about how you can work on songs, how you can approach songs, and I kind of took from her as well. When we started working on the album, she gave me a CD full of fragments, some of them would be like just ten seconds of her humming a phrase, and some maybe a few words. She gave me the CD because I was going away on tour and I took her fragments away on tour with me, and I was driving myself at the time, so I would play that CD in the car over and over again. I was absorbing all these fragmentary ideas and letting them gradually coalesce and develop into more structured ideas. We then sat down together and started talking about words. I then started applying that process to my own writing in terms of noting down ideas as soon as I had them, but not being really bothered about fleshing them out to a finished song. So right now, I’ve got a whole collection of audio recordings of bits of ideas for songs, some of which are just a guitar riff, and some are maybe a hummed melody. On some, I’ve even sung a phrase or two, but none of them are very big, and then I also have a whole file full of notes for lyric ideas. Some of them again are whole and some are just a phrase and so go a bit further. When I made my third album, ‘The Plum Tree And The Rose’, I had just finished working with Zoe and I went back and wrote a whole bunch of songs, and changed other songs, and that was a long-drawn-out process and the album was recorded over a period of two years in separate sessions, pre and post working with Zoe.

When I did the ‘Walking Into White’ album my touring had got quite hectic, and so I had all these song fragments, but I didn’t have time to sit down work on them until I had booked the studio time and booked flights over to the USA to record the album in my cousin’s house. What I found when I sat down with all my song fragments and started looking at them and working on them and letting all my admin and that slide for a month, was that it was really good to spend an intensive time working on these fragments I had been assembling over a period of about three years. As I was developing them into songs, I was thinking of each song in light of the songs I had already started working on, and I ended up working on a whole collection of songs simultaneously, and that album was the most coherent I had ever made up to that point because all of the songs were written with reference to each other. When I first started touring that album for the first half of every gig I just performed that album live as a whole, song by song in order because I was so happy with the way it worked as an album. I applied that to the ‘If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous’ album with Michael Chapman, and I almost deliberately didn’t let myself finish songs until I was ready to start working on the album, and I would like to do that again for the next lot of songs if I can.

Credit: Martin Stansbury
Cornwall is a very nice place to live, but has it influenced your music?

It has influenced my music like crazy because I would never have met Zoe if I hadn’t moved to Cornwall. I also met Martin through Zoe because she had been working with him for years before that, and she got him to engineer and produce the album we made together. It has been massive, and I don’t know if my music would have taken the same direction at all if it hadn’t been for Cornwall. It has had an effect on me just through the people I met here.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

I have been listening a lot to a wonderful album by Helen Meissner under the name Helefonix and she made the lovely, lovely album ‘Nature’s Grace’. The track ‘How To Fly’ has Ian McMillan reading his poetry to her backing track. There is another wonderful musician called Lawrence Illsley who brought out an album earlier this year called ‘Trees’, and it is just lovely, and I did the backing vocals for that album. I really love doing that, and it is really funny because you would think as a solo performer I wouldn’t. I love singing in choirs and with other people and performing solo is the way I like to do it mainly because of the connection you get with the audience that you don’t get as part of a whole band or other people on stage with you. Lawrence came along and I had him as my support act at one of the gigs on the November tour, and he was doing songs from ‘Trees’ and I got to go on stage and sing backing vocals with him. That was so wonderful to be able to do that and quite nice because when you are performing solo it is wonderful, and I love the feeling of it and the connection you get with the audience, but you are also very much in the spotlight. Part of what I like about singing in choirs is that you are just part of this lovely whole, and it was lovely being on stage with Lawrence and getting to sing my harmonies, and just blend into the music and be part of it without sticking out was a real treat. It is a beautiful album, and again, it is kind of a song cycle as well that goes very well with a book he wrote after the death of his mother called ‘A Brief History Of Trees’.

The other thing I have in my head, which isn’t at all new or different, is ‘Tales Of Mystery And Imagination’ by The Alan Parsons Project, and it is one of my favourite albums of all time, along with ‘Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Rogers And Hart Songbook’, which tells you something about my eclectic taste. Those albums have great songs, and they are both a cycle of songs, I love albums and I hope the recent resurgence of vinyl, and I’m very excited about having mine on vinyl. I’ve just finished my album launch tour and I’m getting delivery of the vinyl albums tomorrow. That’s me, just great timing, haha, and it is a pain but there were supply chain issues. One of the nice things about the resurgence of vinyl is that I hope it makes people actually listen to albums as albums again, and not just tracks. I love that Spotify recently did a thing where you can set your default settings to play albums as albums, where before it just shuffled everything, which was an insult to music and an insult to musicians who put time and effort into sequencing an album. It is really nice, so good on Spotify and I think it could have become the new default, so if you want shuffle you have to choose it. ‘Tales Of Mystery And Imagination’ is such an album, when you hear the whole thing it has a whole trajectory, and I love it. Funnily enough, it has been on my mind also because when on tour we normally have a playlist that we play on an iPad through the sound system at the interval. It used to be we defaulted to that playlist whenever I finished the gig, but there was one day early on the tour the music came on and it was ‘The Raven’ from ‘Tales Of Mystery And Imagination’, and it was just so great having that playing as I was walking off stage, haha, I felt like a rock star, haha. So, it is now set for every gig I play. It is wonderful, and I have this Pavlovian reaction that it is time for merch, which is another of my jobs. Because I have heard ‘The Raven’ when I come off stage, I have had the whole album going in my head, and it has always been one of the first things I want to do when I get home. I want to put the whole album on and sit down in my sitting room and listen to it through decent speakers.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?

Please check out some of the videos of ‘The St Buryan Sessions’ on YouTube because they are beautiful videos, I had this really lovely camera crew in there. I also hope they can come out and support live music when it is safe, and everyone in the industry is doing everything thing they can to ensure any concerts will be safe. There is a danger that music won’t survive unless people come to gigs when they can, and it is safe. It is clearly not just me, I see lots of other artists posting on Facebook saying if I don’t sell more tickets the venue will cancel. I know it can feel dangerous to go out but if there is a safe way of doing it we should. Everybody is struggling and the whole industry is on its knees at every level. It is hitting venue staff and the crews who haven’t recovered by a long shot.

Sarah McQuaid’s ‘The St Bunyan Sessions’ is out now on Shovel and a Spade Records
Sarah McQuaid’s current tour dates can be found here.

About Martin Johnson 294 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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