Photo Credit: Phil Nicholls
Last month Sarah McQuaid dropped ‘The St Buryan Sessions,’ and was nice enough to sit down and talk to us all about the album, the beauty of live music, and more in this back and forth exchange. Make sure to check out not only what she had to say, but the new album, available now on all major music and streaming platforms.
Kendra: You’ve been making music for well over two decades now. What initially drove you towards music?
Sarah McQuaid: One of my earliest memories is of lying in bed and listening to my mother singing and playing guitar in the next room — as I wrote in “Last Song”, I’d call out requests and she’d say “Are you still awake?” in a mildly exasperated voice.
I also used to sing with her on long car journeys — she’d sing a melody and I’d make up harmonies — and she started teaching me how to play piano when I was about three or four years old and guitar when I was maybe seven or eight. She didn’t push me into it or anything, I just loved music and was drawn to it, and I started writing songs when I was around seven or eight as well — I’d already learned to read and write music, partly from my mother and partly from my kindergarten teacher who gave me informal piano lessons at recess times — I remember begging and begging to be allowed to stay inside and play the piano when the other kids were sent out to the playground — so I wrote out all my songs in musical notation.
I still have them in a drawer at home. And I was also about seven years old when I joined the Chicago Children’s Choir, which gave me a really good grounding in music and also introduced me to performing on a professional level — by the time I was nine I was touring with the choir all over the USA and even into Canada. My uncle and a few of my cousins played music as well, so I guess it was in my blood!
Kendra: When you dropped ‘When Two Lovers Meet,’ just about everything about our reality was so different. From a musician’s perspective, what has been a blessing and what has been a well, not so great blessing in all these changes?
Sarah McQuaid: Wow, well, back in 1997 when I first released When Two Lovers Meet, the Internet was still pretty much in its infancy, and I was only just starting to learn about graphic design software and how to use it. So things like designing and maintaining a website, writing and sending out press releases, booking gigs, editing photographs, creating artwork — all those things were handled by professionals. Now I’m doing all those things myself, and I have to make a real effort to carve out time to work on music, as opposed to all the admin and marketing that goes along with it! It’s a mixed blessing. On the one hand, that DIY approach is now feasible for everybody, so it’s possible to do music on a professional level without having the support of a record company. On the other hand, a professional musician’s job description has suddenly got a whole lot longer than it used to be.
Kendra: Now you’re onto your sixth solo release, ‘The St Buryan Sessions!’ You recorded this one live last year. Was this a sort of homage to the live shows that you’d been missing because of the pandemic?
Sarah McQuaid: Well, I’d been thinking for a long time about making a live album, because I feel like there’s a certain magic and energy that comes out in a live performance that’s very difficult to replicate in a studio. And then when the pandemic hit and I had to cut my tour short and was suddenly looking at months of not being able to perform live, that was devastating for me. A lot of musicians took enthusiastically to livestreaming, but I wasn’t keen on the idea of trying to perform to a screen. And then my wonderful manager Martin Stansbury had the brilliant idea of recording and filming a live performance and putting it out as a live album. The whole thing was his brainchild, really, and I’m so, so glad that he came up with it — it was the right thing to do.
Kendra: What made you pick this particular venue to record at?
Sarah McQuaid: Because we couldn’t have an audience, it was important to me to record in a place that would supply some of the energy and magic that an audience would normally generate. And because we were going to be filming it as well, we wanted it to be a beautiful space that would add visual interest to the video content. St Buryan Church is just up the road from my house, and I’ve been singing in the church choir there for over ten years – plus I also sing with a local community choir that rehearses in the church, and I’ve sung at weddings and funerals there, so I knew it was a gorgeous space acoustically to sing in. And it holds a lot of happy memories for me — it’s a place I feel comfortable in, and I knew I’d be able to perform well there.
Kendra: Let’s talk a bit about “Last Song.” Do you think this will be the song your setlist has on it until the end of time?
Sarah McQuaid: Oh no, not at all — that one has come off the setlist and gone back onto it a few times over the years, and I’m sure it’ll happen again! It’s definitely a special song for me, and it’s a lovely one to do as an encore, which is what I’ve been doing on my current tour — so technically even now it’s not part of the setlist itself, it’s just listed at the end as the one that I’ll do if I get asked back for an encore – which so far has been happening at every gig, but there’s always a chance that it won’t! But it’s a special song for me and I often get very emotional when I’m singing it – which is another good reason for leaving it to the very end, in case I cry and my mascara starts running!
Kendra: You had some dates planned for last year, as many did, but of course, had to put a halt to them. Thankfully, things are sort of crawling back to normal and you have some dates coming up this November as well as some next year. What can fans expect when they come out to the show?
Sarah McQuaid: Well, I’m doing everything that’s on the new album, plus a few songs and instrumentals that aren’t on the album, and it’s been such a joy to be performing them in front of other live human beings — I’ve been completely over the moon to be back touring again, and I just hope that I’ll be able to get through the whole tour without any shows having to be canceled due to Covid. I’m doing lateral flow tests every morning, and every time it gives me the all-clear I feel like jumping up and down — “Yay! I can do a show tonight”. Every gig feels like a gift.
Kendra: After live music took a big hit, do you feel that artists are going to give more during their first couple of tours moving forward?
Sarah McQuaid: I think we’re all tremendously excited to be back out performing live again, and that’s bound to be reflected in our performances. I suspect it’s going to be a long, long time before anybody starts feeling weary or jaded about touring — I don’t think anybody takes anything for granted anymore.
Kendra: New album out, tour on the books, but what else can we look out for from you as we head towards the end of this year and into the next?
Sarah McQuaid: What I want to do is start writing and recording new material, and I’m hopeful that I can get cracking on that once this album launch tour finishes. I also want to get back to work on my songbook project and on the “How to play” DADGAD guitar tutorial videos that I started making for my Patreon supporters during lockdown — they’ve been really popular but between tour preparations and the new album release I fell horribly behind on making them! But I’m going to get back to it soon, and also to spend more time on writing songs – Martin had the idea that I could release a series of EPs, rather than going straight into another full album, and I think that’s a great idea, so I can’t wait to get going on it.