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INTERVIEW: Sarah McQuaid

By: Morgan Y. Evans
June 23, 2015

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Walking Into White by UK songstress Sarah McQuaid is the kind of god or godess-send folk infused album of musical honesty that is almost otherworldly, yet to deny the humanity of the composer and singer would be to take away her immense talent as a musician. Fans of SubRosa's spellbinding take on "House Carpenter", the ethereal warmth of Melissa Nadler or Pamela Sue Mann's spacious and lush Kevin Killen mixed stuff or Gillian Welch will love this rich album of ballads and hearth songs poured through a quirky and natural sensibility.



Spacelab: Thank you for taking the time to do this. How is life finding you today?


Sarah McQuaid: Aw, thank you so much for the kind comment about the album! You've just improved my day immensely. Right now I'm in Dublin, Ireland, on a Friday afternoon midway through a six-week UK and Ireland tour, and it's been hammering rain all day and I'm sitting here in a friend's house making use of her wifi and trying to catch up with my massive admin backlog. In an hour or so we'll be heading out to tonight's gig.


Spacelab: I was wondering if you could elaborate on the title "Walking Into White." Also, I LOVE the horn on the title track. An inspired surprising element and really busy yet tasteful performance atop the soft vocal and very spare but dreamy guitar line. I was impressed at how it all meshed.


Sarah McQuaid: Thank you! The trumpet is played by a very talented guy called Gareth Flowers, whom I'd never met before the day he came in to play on a few of the album tracks. That particular song is one of three that I wrote after reading aloud the "Swallows and Amazons" series of children's books to my kids. Situations in the books kept striking me as wonderful metaphors, and the idea for "Walking Into White" came out of an incident in the second book in the series when two kids get lost in the fog. They're walking through this thick white mist and they can't see anything in front of or behind them, and they don't even know if they're still headed in the right direction -- and I thought "That's how I feel a lot of the time!"


Spacelab: So what brought you across the pond and to my neck of the woods in upstate New York? I heard you worked with the Felice Bros engineer ... I know that band, great dudes. Were you also drawn to the folk tradition of the 60's in the Hudson Valley region? Cornwall is nice and obviously by the Hudson River. My best friend was married there.


Sarah McQuaid: The album was co-produced by my cousin, Adam Pierce, together with his longtime musical associate Jeremy Backofen. Jeremy engineered the album, and he's the one who's worked with the Felice Brothers -- he produced a couple of their albums and also played drums with them for a while. The location was purely a function of the fact that Adam's based there, and I'd been wanting to work with him for a long time. That said, right while we were in the middle of recording the album back in January of 2014, we heard that Pete Seeger had died, so Adam invited some friends around and we all gathered around a Pete Seeger songbook and sang songs in his honour -- Adam had met Pete a few times through living so nearby, and even though he's not involved in folk music at all himself, he had a lot of respect for Pete as a person, as a musician and as an environmentalist.


Spacelab: Your voice is very human sounding, not a lot of trickery. The warmth on "The Tide" or at times colder, emotional passages all have depth. No trickery needed to make these songs function. "Jackdaws Rising" the foot and hand stomps, guitar and vocals...it's gorgeous layering. Shows that the old row row row your boat round formula still works best sometimes! I feel like you could sing really good lullabyes to kids, haha.


Sarah McQuaid: Well, thank you! When my kids were little I used to sing to them, but these days when I'm singing at home they mostly ask me to keep it down so they can hear their computer games ...

Spacelab: How did you know you were satisfied with these songs as a collection?

Sarah McQuaid: The songs were all written within a very short space of time -- I'd been touring like crazy for the previous couple of years and hadn't had much time to sit down and finish songs, but I had a whole bunch of song ideas that I'd been jotting down, bits of lyrics and little audio memos on my phone, bits of vocal melodies and guitar twiddles. So then once I'd booked the studio time and flights from England (which is where I live) to the USA to do the recording, I got out all those notes and audio memos, went through those and wrote a load of songs in a very short space of time. Not all of them made it onto the album, but I do feel that the ones that did are probably the most coherent, cohesive group of songs that I've recorded as an album -- I feel that they all hang together really well and work almost as a song cycle, whereas my three previous solo albums were written and recorded over much longer time frames.


Spacelab: I feel like "Sweetness and Pain I" will be a fan favorite. It sounds like an old traditional ballad. Check out my friend's SubRosa's haunting "House Carpenter" if you haven't. Is it a challenge to carry so much feeling through your voice yet still have a controlled, unwavering vocal?


Sarah McQuaid: Again, thank you for the kind words -- and I will make sure to check that out. When I'm singing, I try to keep my focus on the song itself, rather than on how I'm singing it -- I'm thinking about the words and the melody, not about what I'm doing with my voice. That's true of my concert performances as well as of my studio work -- my aim is always that my voice should be a vehicle for the song, rather than the other way around.


Spacelab: Are you often compelled to travel or are you more of a stay at home and be a recluse type?


Sarah McQuaid: Well, I spend five or six months of every year on the road -- eight weeks in the USA, four Continental Europe, eight in the UK and two in Ireland, plus various festivals over the summer -- and I do love touring (which I guess is just as well, given that I do so much of it!). But then when I do get home, I'm really happy to be home, and I do love where I live -- I'm way down in the southwest tip of England, in the middle of nowhere -- my nearest neighbour is a mile down the road -- and that suits me down to the ground.


Spacelab: It was just Earth Day and your "Canticle Of The Sun" is so lovely and inspirational. Is it daunting to sing "Hallelujiah" without being self concious, or is that erased when you think of the beauty of the world?


Sarah McQuaid: Again, I'm focused on the content of the song itself -- the words were written by St Francis of Assisi back in the 13th century, and even though it's a hymn, I love it that it talks about the beauty of the world we live in, rather than going on and on about how terrific the next one's going to be! I'm not in any hurry to get to the next world -- I'd like to stick around in this one as long as I possibly can.

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