The Vinyl District - Joseph Neff
Graded on a Curve: Sarah McQuaid, Walking into White
Born in Madrid, the multifaceted folk musician Sarah McQuaid was brought up in Chicago, studied in France, and after a lengthy stay in Ireland currently lives in Cornwall, England. Early in 2014 she traveled to Cornwall, New York to record a follow-up to 2012’s The Plum Tree and the Rose; the result is the trimmest release of her career as McQuaid continues to push the boundaries of an engaging and increasingly personal sound. Issued in the UK/Europe this past February, Walking into White is out now on CD in North America through Waterbug Records to coincide with a September-October US tour.
Borrowing a term from the realm of organized sports, or for those who simply can’t abide the playing of games, the performing arts, Sarah McQuaid is what’s known as a triple-threat; that is, she does three things extremely well, specifically sing, play guitar, and write songs, though she initially excelled more at the interpretation of traditional and even centuries old material.
To elaborate, 1997’s debut When Two Lovers Meet examined trad Irish sources and offered a fine balance of focus between the strength of McQuaid’s playing and the power of her voice, hitting peaks in the unaccompanied six-minute “Táim Cortha Ó Bheith Im’ Aonar Im’ Luí” and “The Parting Glass,” a closing duet with the esteemed Irish vocalist Niamh Parsons.
Backed by additional guitar and ukulele, cello and fiddle, keyboard and double bass, and those Irish standbys whistle and pipes, the sound is far from monochromatic, a circumstance abetted by the sole original composition. “Charlie’s Gone Home” is a decidedly more contempo folk proposition reminiscent of a ditty heard on the countertop radio while visiting the apartment of one’s favorite fifty-something hippie librarian aunt for Sunday brunch.
Many modern folkies consistently hang out on the sonic fringes, but McQuaid isn’t a bit timid over exploring mainstream possibilities, a quality that’s frankly refreshing. After moving to England in 2007 and rereleasing When Two Lovers Meet that year, she issued I Won’t Go Home ’til Morning in ’08. Dedicated to her late mother, instead of an Irish foundation the disc was devoted to its stylistic relative across the pond, old-time Appalachian folksong.
She added a few nicely done tunes of her own, a vibrant, reverent cover of Bobby Gentry’s AM radio staple “Ode to Billie Joe” and a swell “In the Pines” that could temporarily inspire a mind to forget it’s been recorded 38,000 times. Then a curveball of sorts spiraled out in ’09; Crow Coyote Buffalo was released as Mama in duo with Zoë, a Brit singer best known for the ’91 UK hit “Sunshine on a Rainy Day.”
It proved an intriguing psych-folk detour, but in ’12 McQuaid’s The Plum Tree and the Rose really brought the goodness, raising the number of originals to nine, deepening the rapport with her collaborators (Parsons is back, and Bill Blackmore’s flugelhorn and trumpet are recurring highlights), and including a terrific version of John Martyn’s tribute to Nick Drake, “Solid Air.” But perhaps its most impressive facet was in sounding both contemporarily informed and derived from well-aged stuff.
Make that ancient, as The Plum Tree and the Rose updated songs from the 13th, 16th, and 17th centuries. At a glance Walking into White seems to merely adjust the template of its predecessor; it features ten originals, two songwriting collaborations and two covers, one from last century and the other reaching all the way back to early nice guy St. Francis of Assisi.
Upon inspection the collection offers distinctive rewards, beginning with the spare but musically rich “Low Winter Sun,” McQuaid’s voice and picking intermingling with electric guitar and '80s model Sequential Circuits Pro-One synth from Adam Pierce, Walking into White’s co-producer with Jeremy Backofen.
Though Pierce is McQuaid’s cousin, this was their first time working together, a scenario extending to Backofen. Coming from a predominantly indie rather than folk background, the pair’s expertise nudges McQuaid into new territory; as “Low Winter Sun” progresses it exudes a touch of melancholy recalling the solo work of Kendra Smith.
And yet familiar, as the guitar remains striking; noted for extensively using and presenting workshops on the DADGAD tuning, she’s authored The Irish DADGAD Guitar Book, and has a second volume on the way. While the opener spotlights her instrumental acumen, the concise folk-rock of “Where the Wind Decides to Blow” emphasizes maturation as a writer.
It’s one of three tracks on Walking into White that were inspired by Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons children’s books; as read to her son and a daughter, there’s thankfully no preciousness to be found. Brisk even before Pierce’s drums kick in, “Where the Wind Decides to Blow” benefits from the attractively hearty nature of the singing, and likewise for “The Tide,” the second Ransome entry bursting with lyrical imagery and luminous fingerpicking.
“I Am Grateful for What I Have,” a solid instrumental matching McQuaid with the classical guitar of Dan Lippel and the cello of Kivie Cahn-Lipman, retains the brevity of Walking into White’s individual selections, an aspect intensified throughout the record by three sections of the a cappella piece “Sweetness and Pain,” all shorter than a minute as they intermittently reinforce the artist’s folk roots.
The title-cut wraps up the Swallows and Amazons songs and introduces the trumpet of Gareth Flowers in tandem with McQuaid’s voice and her particularly sharp guitar tones. “Jackdaws Rising” finds her adding lyrics and a vocal melody to a tune written by friends Pete Coleman and Clare Hines (of the band Brocc), and the finished product utilizes stomps and handclaps, combines 5/4 and 4/4 time and weaves the singing of McQuaid, Adele Schulz and Martin Stansbury.
It’s the most complexly layered track on the disc, and it gives way to an unexpected Spanish-hued treat of “Yellowstone.” Dedicated to her son, McQuaid’s words emit warmth and a hint of ache alongside Lippel and Pierce’s percussion via cajón. From there, the brass accented indie folk-rock of “The Silver Lining” reinvestigates the regions of “Where the Wind Decides to Blow,” while “Leave it for Another Day,” a writing collab with her former producer Gerry O’Beirne, provides an emotional climax employing just vocals and guitar.
The record closes on a pair of covers. The first, “Canticle of the Sun (All Creatures of Our God and King),” is based on of St. Francis’ words of 1225 and William Henry Draper’s adaptation as first published in the Public School Hymn Book of 1919. Wielding two air organs and a vibraphone plus McQuaid’s vox and axe, it’s a specimen of considerable gorgeousness that’s only fault its succinctness.
Second is a solo reading of Ewan MacColl’s ode to Peggy Seeger “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” the treatment’s gradually blossoming beauty vivid and tender in equal measure. Walking into White is another superb outing from Sarah McQuaid, an under-the-radar artist deserving of an audience reflective of her worldly scope.
GRADED ON A CURVE: A-