An Interview with Sarah McQuaid

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with veteran Indie musician, Sarah McQuaid. Among other things, we touch on what she’s been up to during the lockdown, her newest music, her opinion of the music scene today, and what she’s looking forward to the most once COVID-19 breaks.

Andrew:
Sarah, I appreciate you taking the time today. How have you been holding up over the last year or so? What have you been up to?

Sarah:
Thank you so much! It’s been a seriously tough year and a half. Weirdly, despite not being able to tour, I’ve been busier than I’ve ever been before, mostly because of two major projects I took on. First, recording my new live-in-lockdown album The St Buryan Sessions, which we also filmed, so as well as everything involved with the album release I was also putting out new videos on YouTube every few weeks, and hosting online premieres for each one as a way of keeping in touch with followers of my music. I’d start the online chat an hour or so before each video went live, and we’d just talk about random stuff until the video started. It was really nice, but no substitute for playing live to other human beings! And then I was also lucky enough to get a Developing Your Creative Practice grant from Arts Council England to enable me to take weekly online lessons in music composition, which I’d never studied formally before, as well as buying Sibelius music composition software, and learning how to use it. That took up huge amounts of time but was really worthwhile doing — so much so that I’ve just applied (successfully) for a further grant from Cultivator, another arts funding organization, to keep the lessons going. And now I’m actually back on tour, which is amazing.

Andrew:
Before we dive into your professional career, let’s go back a bit. What first got you hooked on music?

Sarah:
All my earliest memories involve music. My mother played guitar and piano, and so do a bunch of other people in my family — my uncle and two cousins are all involved in music on a professional level. And when I was six or seven years old, I joined the Chicago Children’s Choir, and between the ages of 9 and 14, I toured with the choir around the USA and even into Canada. I always loved listening to music as well as playing it — when I was little I had a Mickey Mouse record player, and I remember going through my mother’s vinyl record collection, which was wildly eclectic — everything from The Beatles to really obscure Folk musicians on the Smithsonian Folkways label to Mahler and Brahms to spoken word stuff like The Speeches of Winston Churchill. And I listened to all of it. Over and over again.

Andrew:
Who were some of your early influences?

Sarah:
Like so many teenage girls, I listened to a LOT of Joni Mitchell — when I was in high school I used to sing my way through Joni Mitchell’s Blue, from memory, while walking to and from school every day. And then as I got older, I discovered artists like The Pentangle and Nick Drake. I was also really into Windham Hill artists like Alex de Grassi, Michael Hedges, Willy Ackerman — I still have LPs of theirs that I bought when I saw them in concert back in the 1980s and 90s!

Andrew:
Let’s talk about recent events. Tell us about your new record, The St Buryan Sessions. Tell us about the album, and how it came together.

Sarah:
I was on tour in Germany when COVID hit, and we had to hightail it home before the borders closed, two weeks into what was supposed to be a six-week tour followed almost immediately by an even longer UK and Ireland tour. I’d been thinking for a long time about making a live album because I feel like there’s something that comes out in a live performance that’s impossible to replicate in the studio. And then my wonderful manager and sound engineer, Martin Stansbury, had the brilliant idea of going ahead and recording a live album, but without the audience — which meant that we could film it as well and have cameras rolling around on track getting right up into my face, without having to worry about audience sightlines. We decided to do it in a lovely medieval church just up the road from where I live, in the village of St Buryan in the far west of Cornwall, just a few miles from Land’s End — partly because it’s a stunning visual setting that we knew would work beautifully on film, and partly because it’s a gorgeous space acoustically, which I knew from singing there at weddings and funerals, and with two different local choirs. Martin put little pairs of microphones all around the space to capture the natural acoustics of the building, as well as close-miking me, so you get this wonderful blend of vastness and intimacy which a lot of the reviews so far have remarked on.

Andrew:
Let’s dig into your lyrical themes. With your music, generally, what message, and emotions are you trying to convey? What do you want your listeners to take away from this record?

Sarah:
A lot of my songs tend to be about the big stuff — life, death, loss, the vastness of the universe, what are we doing here and how do we keep going. “Sweetness and Pain,” “The Sun Goes On Rising,” “The Silence Above Us,” “The Tug Of The Moon,” and even “Break Me Down” all talk about the cyclical nature of everything, and how small our own individual lives, and concerns seem in light of the world as a whole, and the stars and planets beyond it. During the lockdown, when I was really struggling, those were also the songs that kept me going and gave me hope — so it would be wonderful if they also gave hope, and comfort to other people who hear the album.

Andrew:
How about the production side of things? How big of an influence was Martin Stansbury on the overall sound, and ambiance of this album?

Sarah:
It’s impossible to overstate how important Martin was to this album — I couldn’t have done it without him. And wouldn’t have, because the whole project was his brainchild — he was the one who came up with the original idea and figured out how to put it into practice. I’ve already talked about those ambient mics he put around the space to capture that lovely natural sound, and his mixing and production make the album what it is. He also helped me to write the setlist and the live loops and delay effects that enable me to be my own backing singer on “If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous,” and “In Derby Cathedral” are all run by him from the desk end, using a laptop tied into the mixing desk.

Andrew:
Easy ones now. What are a few of your favorite albums, and why?

Sarah:
I’ve already mentioned Joni Mitchell’s Blue, and I also love Ella Fitzgerald’s Songbooks series — Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Rodgers & Hart Songbook was one of the LPs I used to listen to on that Mickey Mouse record player I mentioned earlier, and it’s still one of my favorite albums. Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series of albums is another one, and so is Tales Of Mystery and Imagination by The Alan Parsons Project — that’s another one that I can pretty much sing my way through from memory!

Andrew;
What other passions do you have? How do those passions inform your music, if at all?

Sarah:
I’ve been a voracious reader for as far back as I can remember — when I was little my mother had to impose a rule of “no reading before breakfast,” because she said that if I started reading too early in the morning I was basically out of commission for the entire day — my head would be so wrapped up in the book that it was impossible to communicate with me. She’d ask me questions, and I just wouldn’t hear them, because I was thinking about the story I’d been reading. On a few occasions I’ve written songs inspired by books I was reading — on my 2015 album, Walking Into White, there are three different tracks all inspired by incidents in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows And Amazons series of books, which I was reading aloud to my kids at the time — it took about a year to get through the whole series of nine books, reading a chapter aloud every night at bedtime. My kids themselves have also inspired a few songs, several of which are on The St Buryan Sessions. I’m also passionate about the environment, the natural world, and spending time enjoying it, going for walks and just being out in the open air, and that makes its way into a lot of my songs, too.

Andrew:
What sort of equipment do you use in the studio, and the live setting?

Sarah:
My acoustic guitar was custom-made for me in 2008 by a wonderful luthier called Andy Manson. I use Elixir Medium Gauge Acoustic 80/20 Bronze strings with Nanoweb coating, and because I’m always playing in the DADGAD tuning I substitute a .018 for the .017 that comes in the set. I use a G7th Newport capo. The guitar has a very basic under-saddle Fishman Matrix pickup, but I put it through a Trace Elliot TAP-1 Acoustic Preamp which makes all the difference. I still have the Ibanez Artist electric guitar that Michael Chapman loaned me when we were recording my 2018 album If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous. I was devastated when Michael died recently, and I’m hoping that his wonderful wife Andru — who’s also been a great friend to me — will let me keep the guitar until such time as I can afford to buy it from her. I use Elixir strings on that one too — they’re the Elixir Heavy Gauge Electric Nickel-Plated Steel strings with Nanoweb coating, and I put it through a custom preamp by Tom Oakes of Horrothia FX in Falmouth, Cornwall. I use a Vox AV15 analog valve amp, and I have a pedalboard set up that holds both of my preamps, Boss stage tuners, a Mooer Audio Trelicopter tremolo pedal, and a Donner Yellow Fall analog delay pedal. I also play a Korg SV-2 stage piano, unless there’s a real piano in the venue — I was so lucky to be able to use the beautiful Yamaha concert grand in St Buryan Church for The St Buryan Sessions. But the Korg sounds gorgeous and has proper weighted keys, so it’s definitely the next best thing! And I have a lovely 1970s Premier Olympic floor tom drum that Martin found for me on eBay. I used to have a fancy Neumann mic for my vocals, but for the past few years I’ve been using a Shure 57 Beta – another of Martin’s ideas that I’d never have thought of but that worked out beautifully. I’m so, so lucky to have him on my team.

Andrew:
Do you collect vinyl? CDs? Cassettes? Or are you all digital now? If you do collect physical media, why is that important to you? Why do you feel keeping physical media alive is important in this day, and age?

Sarah:
Vinyl is still my preferred medium for listening to music. There’s something about the whole process of putting on a record, sitting down to listen to it, getting up halfway through to turn the record over — it demands a much higher degree of attention than just streaming music from an iPod or whatever, and I like that. I also still feel that there’s a presence and warmth to the sound quality that you just don’t get from digital media, although I know there are loads of audio experts who will tell me I’m wrong about that. And as an artist who works hard on set lists and album tracklistings, I want to listen to an album as an album, start to finish, the way the artist intended for it to be heard — which is one of the many reasons I feel it’s important to keep physical media alive! I also like to have the liner notes and lyrics in front of me when I’m listening — for all of my albums I’ve produced booklets with extensive notes and lyrics, even though it adds enormously to the manufacturing cost. It was really expensive to put the new album on vinyl because it’s 72 minutes of music so it had to be a double LP, so we decided to go the whole hog and make it a limited-edition double LP on blue heavyweight vinyl in a gatefold sleeve. I’ll be very lucky if I sell enough copies to cover the manufacturing cost, but it was important to me to make a product I could feel proud of.

Andrew:
Last one. What’s next on your docket? What are you looking forward to most in the post-COVID world? Does Lit plan on hitting the road, or playing any festivals in 2022?

Sarah:
Yes, even now while I’m on the road I’m also constantly contacting venues, and festivals about possible gigs next year. At the moment I’m planning and booking tours for the UK in January-February 2022; Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, and Denmark in March-April; Ireland in April-May; the UK in May and November; and the USA in September and October. I do all my own booking, so I’ve still got a lot of work to do to fill in all the empty tour dates, and I’m hoping I’ll get some summer festival bookings as well. I also want to get back to writing new material and maybe record an EP or two!

Interested in sampling the work of Sarah McQuaid? Check out the link below:

Dig this interview? Check out the full catalog of VWMusic Interviews, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/interviews

About Post Author

Andrew Daly

With an immense passion for music, a disposition for writing, and an eagerness to teach and share both, Andrew decided to found VWMusic in 2019 as a freelance column under the column Idle Chatter. Over time, the column grew into a website that now features contributors who further the cause of sharing both a love of music and the art of journalism with the world through articles and interviews. While Andrew enjoys running the website, his real passion lies in teaching and facilitating others to do what they do best, and giving them the opportunity to explore their passions in the process. Some of Andrew’s favorite artists include KISS, Oasis, ACϟDC, Elvis Presley, Ace Frehley, The Rolling Stones, Rush, The Pretenders, Led Zeppelin, The Gaslight Anthem, Iron Maiden, John Lennon, The Melvins, Noel Gallagher, Regina Spektor, Rory Gallagher, The Stone Roses, The Strokes, Thin Lizzy, Elvis Costello, Van Halen, Neil Young, Blur, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, and many more.
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