Del Osei-Owusu interviews Sarah McQuaid…
Hello Sarah, how are you?
Very well, thank you Del! I’m just in the train on my way back from giving a week-long residential guitar workshop at Halsway Manor, which was fantastic — it was so, so nice, if a little bit scary, to be out interacting with other human beings again. Everyone had tested prior to arrival and I was doing lateral flow tests every morning, which I guess is just going to be part of musical life for the foreseeable future. So far so good!
Congratulations on the release of The St. Buryan Sessions, how does it feel?
Ah thank you! I’m just so happy that it’s actually seeing the light of day at long last — it’s over a year since I did the recording, so it’s amazing to me that the album is actually going to be out there. And on vinyl, too!
Describe it in three words.
Live, beautifully recorded.
This will be your seventh album, what have you learned since the release of your last one?
Yeah, it’s my sixth solo album and seventh if you also count the album that I made with Zoë of “Sunshine On A Rainy Day” fame under the band name Mama. Not long after I released the last solo album in 2018, I went through a bout of really paralysing stage nerves — I’d be shaking so badly that it was hard to play the guitar, and my teeth would clench and chatter to the point that I could barely open my mouth to sing. I’d been getting up onstage and performing solo for decades, so I don’t know where that sudden loss of confidence came from. But once I managed to find a way through and beyond it — mainly by learning to just focus on the song or piece of music itself, rather than on my performance of it — it seemed like the quality of my performances suddenly jumped up to a whole new level. Which is why my manager and I decided that the time had come to make a live album, to try and capture that quality and get it on record.
It’s a pretty special project, including my track of the week, Rabbit Hills, what was the inspiration behind it?
Well, as I’ve just said in answer to the previous question, we really wanted to make an album that would capture the quality and atmosphere of a live performance, and that would replicate what I do when I’m out there on tour playing solo as I always do, rather than in a studio with a bunch of amazing guest musicians. I also wanted to find a way to stay connected with people who like my music and would have come to my gigs if they hadn’t been cancelled due to Covid, but I wasn’t at all keen on the idea of live-streaming via Zoom or whatever — I just didn’t think I could reach the same level of intensity performing to a screen in my living room that I can reach when I’m out there with a live audience. But obviously we couldn’t have a live audience, so the idea was to conjure up that same magic by performing “as live” in a beautiful venue with gorgeous acoustics, and to film the whole thing so that I could still put out YouTube videos and stay connected with people that way.
You recorded it in St. Buryan, what was your favourite part of the sessions?
Well, at that point I’d already been off the road for three and a half months — I’d been on tour in Germany when Covid hit — so it was so lovely just to meet up again with my wonderful manager and sound engineer, Martin Stansbury, and to work with him on the recording. He did such a beautiful job of it — in order to capture the natural acoustic of the building, he put pairs of microphones here and there all around the space, and blended those with the mics that I was singing and playing into. It’s such a gorgeously recorded album. I’m very lucky to be able to work with Martin and I can’t wait to get out on tour with him again!
What’s your favourite track from the project?
Oh, that’s a tough one — they’re all my favourite tracks which is why I chose them for this album! The original songs on it are drawn from all five of the previous solo albums I’ve made. But there are also two covers on it that I haven’t recorded previously: the classic jazz standard “Autumn Leaves” and Michael Chapman’s beautiful song “Rabbit Hills”. I guess if I had to pick one song on the album that’s really special to me, it would be “Rabbit Hills”. Michael produced my last album If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous, and he’s been a real musical mentor to me — if it hadn’t been for him I’d never have played electric guitar. I was really looking forward to seeing him in November and handing him a copy of the album with his song on it — and then I got the news that he’d left this world on the 10th of September and I’m still reeling from that. It’s so, so sad, such a loss to so many people, not least his wife Andru who’s also been a wonderful friend to me — my heart goes out to her.
What was the easiest and hardest part of putting it together?
Finding the money! Easiest and hardest, both. I’d always hated the idea of crowdfunding and had vowed that I wasn’t ever going to do it, but then Covid hit and I was suddenly looking at an unspecified amount of time in front of me with no income and certainly no funds to invest in a new recording project. And all the arts funding agencies that I’d normally have looked for grants from were diverting their project grant budgets to getting emergency income support out to artists like myself. So crowdfunding was really the only option. But then once I forced myself to actually do it, the response was amazing — people were so lovely and generous and said such kind things, I was in tears on a daily basis reading the messages that accompanied the donations. And before I knew it I’d reached the goal and had all the money I needed to go ahead with the project and pay the other people involved properly, which is important to me.
You are a singer songwriter, how did it all begin for you?
I think I was about eight years old when I wrote my first song. I actually wrote it all out as sheet music, which I still have in a drawer somewhere! And then I kept writing songs all through my teenage years, and I’d get up and sing them at school assemblies. But for a long time I thought of myself not as a songwriter but as a singer who happened to write an occasional song. It was only when I moved to Cornwall and met Zoë and started co-writing the songs for the Mama album with her that I realised that songwriting was what I wanted to focus on — she taught me pretty much everything I know about songwriting, and the fact that somebody of her calibre and experience — she’d had a Top Five hit single that stayed in the Top Five for 16 weeks — knowing that somebody on that level actually wanted to work with me was what gave me the confidence to start focusing on my own songwriting.
What did you listen to growing up?
I’ve always had wildly eclectic tastes in music. My mother had a big collection of folk music records that I used to listen to on my little Mickey Mouse record player, and then through being in the Chicago Children’s Choir I was exposed to an enormously wide spectrum of music — not just the choir repertoire, which was already incredibly wide-ranging, but also the music other kids in the choir — who came from schools all over the city — were listening to on the tour bus. The very first record I ever bought was “Rapper’s Delight”, by the Sugarhill Gang, and the second one was “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. I still have both of those 12-inch singles!
You are a guitar player and pianist, who are your top three guitarists and pianists?
Oh gosh, that’s really hard to answer, because no matter what names I give you I have to leave somebody just as amazing out. Can I just give you a top guitarist and a top pianist? Because in a way it’s easier to choose just one person in each category than to select between all the other incredible musicians I’ve listened to over the years to put in the top three. But if I had to choose just one guitarist it would be Nick Drake — I love the way with his playing it’s like the guitar is playing a duet with the voice, rather than just accompanying it — and if I had to choose just one pianist, it would be Bill Evans — I bought the LP of “You Must Believe In Spring” when I was still in secondary school and used to listen to it over and over and over again. I can still pretty much play through the album in my head.
COVID impacted the creative industry in a big way, what kept you motivated?
I was lucky enough to get a Developing Your Creative Practice grant which funded me for four months of weekly music composition lessons, which was something I’d never have been able to do otherwise and which enabled me to really delve into an aspect of music I hadn’t had the opportunity to explore before. That was fantastic, but it was also a lot of hard work! And of course I was also getting everything in place for the album release and hosting online premieres of new videos in the series. So even though I wasn’t touring, I was busier with music than I’d ever been!
2020 was a time to reflect, what did you learn about yourself?
That I’m far more dependent than I realised on the adrenaline lift I get from performing live. I really missed it desperately — in some ways it felt like a part of me was absent that I could only access when I’m onstage. When I was finally able to get back out and do a few gigs this summer, it was kind of a feeling of “Oh, there I am!”
What are you listening to at the moment?
The news on Radio 4, and it’s bloody depressing! Music-wise, though, I’ve been really loving the new music that Helen Meissner has been putting out under the name Helefonix, combining spoken word with ambient sound samples and various musical instruments. The most recent single, which incorporates the speaking voices of her parents, really gets me emotionally — I choke up every time I listen to it. And then I want to listen to it again.
What are you looking forward to doing next?
Heading out on tour! I have a six-week, 21-date tour booked for October and November and I’m so excited about it. I’m very worried about Covid, obviously, but I’ll be doing lateral flow tests every day and wearing a mask as much as possible. I’m also worried that with smaller audiences and having to book more hotel accommodation because of not being able to stay with friends as I’d normally have done on nights off, I might wind up losing money on the tour — but just to get out performing again will be so wonderful. I can’t wait.
Photo by Mawgan Lewis.