Sarah McQuaid Takes Us to Church — Interview
Recorded without an audience in the medieval Church of St. Buryan, Sarah McQuaid’s latest album, The St. Buryan Sessions (due October 15), has a spirit to it that is as emotionally exquisite as the 15th-century space it was born in. With the COVID-19 pandemic raging around the world in 2020, the singer-songwriter was forced to call an audible on her musical plans, and in that reconfiguration, the seed for the Sessions was sowed.
I recently sat down with Sarah McQuaid to discuss centuries of inspiration, how her path was paved with people and places, and why this is her most authentic album to date.
Americana Highways: The songs that make up your latest album The St Buryan Sessions were written over the course of your career but the concept for the album itself came about during the height of the pandemic in 2020. Would the songs in this form exist if not for that forced isolation? Is the emotion felt in the recordings exclusive to how you were feeling during that period?
Sarah McQuaid: Thank you, Jason, that’s an interesting question! I hadn’t thought about it in that way before, but yes, I do think that there was probably a heightened level of emotion and intensity brought on by the circumstances. Of course, a big part of my reason for wanting to make a live album in the first place was precisely in order to be able to capture the heightened emotion and intensity that can happen in any live performance – and then a big part of my reason for choosing the church as a place to record in was because I felt that the place itself would supply some of the magic that a live audience provides… but I think you’re right, that whole sense of desperation brought on by having to cut my tour short and facing a year of no gigs, and just the overwhelming sadness about so many lives lost unnecessarily all over the world – I’d say that definitely contributed to the way I was feeling and therefore the way I was singing and playing.
AH: The St Buryan Sessions is your sixth solo album. Could the Sarah who first picked up a guitar imagine a day when she would have an entire catalog of music?
SM: Well, I was only eight years old when I first picked up a guitar! But you know, I had that role model of my grandmother’s cousin Gamble Rogers, and other professional musicians and composers as well in my family, including my uncle and three of my cousins, so it wasn’t as far outside the bounds of possibility for me as it might have been for other kids my age. Plus, at that point I was already performing at a fairly professional level with the Chicago Children’s Choir. But then as I got older and started thinking about things like bills and rent and adult responsibilities, the possibilities started closing in and I became a lot less ambitious than I had been as a child. If you’d asked me at age 25 whether I’d ever be a full-time musician with a catalog of albums behind me, I’d have said, “Not likely!” It took me a long time to get up the courage to ditch the day job and start taking myself as seriously as a musician as I did when I was eight years old.
AH: As you mentioned, the album was recorded live in the medieval church of St. Buryan. What did that space do for you creatively that a club or studio could not achieve? Did it breathe life into the songs in a way that you didn’t expect?
SM: Well, as I said earlier, I chose the church as a space to record in because I was hoping that it would breathe life into the songs. I love the feeling of human presence that you get in churches and cathedrals, even when they’re empty – all the people who’ve passed through over the centuries – and I always find it a comforting feeling. It’s a similar feeling to the one I get when I’m onstage, and the lights are shining in my eyes so I can’t see the audience, but I know they’re out there in that velvety blackness in front of me, and their presence brings a level of energy to the songs that I just can’t get at home or in a sterile studio environment. Plus, the building itself is such a beautiful space to sing in, which I knew already, thanks to having sung in there with both the church choir and the community choir I also sing with, as well as singing solo at weddings and funerals, which is also something I’ve done a few times. It’s just lovely the way the sound bounces around the stone pillars and the vaulted ceiling, and my wonderful manager and sound engineer Martin Stansbury did a beautiful job of capturing that by putting pairs of microphones around the space to record the ambient acoustic.
AH: The album was also recorded without an audience. How did that impact you from a performance perspective? Would the end results have been different if the pews of the church were filled with people?
SM: Yes, it certainly wasn’t the way I’d ever envisioned doing a live album. A big part of what I love about performing live is the reaction I get from the audience, and I always try and get them involved as much as I can, so I think if we’d had an audience there the whole thing would have been a far more raucous affair, complete with heckling and backchat and people singing along and creating their own percussion. But in a way it was the best of both worlds doing it the way we did, in that I was able to channel the level of intensity and emotion that I’d normally only get from a live performance, but we were also able to film the whole thing with multiple cameras coming up close to me and coming from angles that wouldn’t have been possible if we had to take audience sight lines into account, plus being able to pause between songs to move stuff around and change batteries and so forth – although apart from the pauses we kept it as much like a live concert format as possible.
AH: What are you most proud of with the album and why?
SM: I really do feel that this is the first album I’ve made that’s absolutely authentically me – no filters, so to speak! Not that my previous albums were inauthentic, I hasten to add – I’m proud of all the albums I’ve made, and it’s been lovely having so many brilliant guest musicians on them. But I’ve always been a solo performer, and I’m really happy that I finally managed to make an album that was also a solo performance, so that I didn’t have anything or anybody to hide behind and just had to bare my soul and be completely honest. And I do feel that I’ve managed to bring something new to the songs by recording them in that way.
AH: Going back to the pandemic for a moment, particularly when it came to the closures and isolation, how important was music and being creative for you during that period? Did you find yourself becoming a listener just as much as you are a songwriter?
SM: I’ve listened to tons of music for as long as I can remember – I have a huge CD and LP collection, and Internet radio has been wonderful for introducing me to loads of new music that I’d never have discovered otherwise – but I was also tremendously lucky in that a few months into lockdown I got a Developing Your Creative Practice grant from Arts Council England to beef up my music theory and composition skills by taking weekly music composition lessons, which involved both a lot of listening and a lot of creating – every week my teacher would assign me particular pieces of music to listen to, as well as writing assignments like “write a 3-minute piece for violin, flute and saxophone that has at least one change of time signature” – so that gave me a chance to explore aspects of music that I hadn’t really engaged with before. The Arts Council paid me for my time as well as paying the cost of the lessons, so it was a lifesaver financially, and it was great to be able to feel that the enforced stoppage of my touring was actually benefiting me by giving me time to broaden my musical knowledge and skills.
AH: You have lived all over the world, absorbing different cultures and musical tastes. How has that shaped your songwriting?
SM: I do feel very fortunate to have lived in so many different places and to have been involved in so many different musical scenes, from the Chicago Children’s Choir when I was in primary and middle school to going to high school in Washington, DC and starting to go out to hear local indie bands playing in clubs, to spending my junior year of college in France and performing with a traditional Irish band there, to working in a vintage guitar shop in Philadelphia where I was also heavily involved in the local folk scene, performing at the Philadelphia Folk Festival when I was only just out of college, then moving to Ireland, becoming part of the singer/songwriter scene in Dublin and working with Gerry O’Beirne, then moving to England and meeting Zoë who was a massive influence on me musically, as was Michael Chapman. All of those places and people have contributed hugely to my musical direction and development as a songwriter. It’s impossible to overstate how much I owe to all of them.
AH: You were taught piano and guitar by your mother. How important is it to you to pay that forward in your life and teach/inspire others to pick up an instrument and create?
SM: I do try my best to pay it forward, although it definitely didn’t work with my kids – they had zero interest in learning any music from me! But they’re both hugely creative in other ways – both of them are brilliant artists and writers. And I do give guitar and songwriting workshops – in fact, a few days on from this interview I’m going to be doing a five-day residential workshop on the DADGAD guitar tuning, which is the tuning I play in all the time and wrote a book about, which I’m proud to say is still in print and sold worldwide by the Hal Leonard publishing company. When people tell me that they’ve learned from or been inspired by me, it makes me incredibly happy. It makes me feel like I’ve actually done something worth doing.
AH: Music can touch people in profound ways, often in ways that the artist never intended. What do you hope people take from your music and where would you like to see it impact listeners most?
SM: I feel that live performances in particular can be a real catharsis for people. I’ve lost count of the number of times an audience member has come up to me at the merch table during the break and said something along the lines of, “You know, I nearly didn’t come out to the show tonight because I had a rotten day and got home feeling super stressed and just wanted to flop on the sofa and watch TV, but I forced myself to get up and go out and I’m so glad I did, because all that stress has completely vanished.” Or sometimes they tell me that a particular song made them cry, and when I apologize they say, “No, no, it’s good, the crying was a release for me and I feel so much better now.” If I can have that kind of positive impact on people’s emotions, I must be doing something right. Again, it makes me feel that I’m doing something that has real value.
AH: Time machine question. If you could jump ahead 10 years and get a glimpse of what your career looks like a decade from now, would you take that journey? If not, why?
SM: No – I’d rather not know. The lack of certainty keeps me motivated… and also gives me hope.
Get an early early listen (and pre-order!) The St. Buryan Sessions by visiting http://www.sarahmcquaid.com.