A chance meeting at a pub session in Cornwall led to singer-songwriter Sarah McQuaid’s being featured in the Legends Of Rock photography exhibition alongside the likes of Amy Winehouse, Björk, The Prodigy and Courtney Love. As she prepares to set off on tour through the Netherlands, Germany and the UK (with a USA tour to follow in the autumn), Sarah reflects on the mysterious workings of happenstance.
“I was hosting a singaround at the Blue Anchor in Helston,” the Madrid-born, Chicago-raised, Penzance-based artist explains, “and this very soft-voiced, self-effacing fellow came over and asked very politely if I minded if he took a few photographs. I said ‘Sure, no bother, go right ahead, as long as you don’t use a flash, cos if you use a flash it’s distracting for the musicians.’ He said ‘Oh, don’t worry, I wouldn’t be using a flash anyway.’ I have to admit I feel pretty embarrassed about that conversation now! I had no idea who he was.”
Originally from Cornwall, Phil Nicholls (http://www.philnicholls.co.uk) was a staff photographer for Melody Maker magazine for many years and secured early in his career a reputation as an iconic, gritty rock photographer with a focus on live documentary; he accompanied the Pixies on their first UK tour and has shot album covers for Tindersticks amongst others. His work has appeared in Vogue, Uncut, Q, The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME and many other titles, and has been exhibited in London, Brussels and Tokyo.
Happily, Sarah’s encounter with Nicholls coincided with the recording of her fourth solo album Walking Into White. “I wouldn’t have dared ask him to take the photographs for it,” she says, “so it’s a good thing he offered!” Nicholls’ photographs appear not only in the CD booklet but also on Sarah’s recently revamped website: his arresting image of paper flowers floating on water in Helston’s Penrose Woods (the same bunch of flowers that Sarah holds in the large-format print featured in Legends Of Rock) is the background for every page on the site.
Curated by Bristol-based print and photography business Paper Gods (http://www.papergods.co.uk), Legends of Rock brings to light Nicholls’ breathtaking – and in some cases never-before-seen – archival images of Joe Strummer, Leonard Cohen, Massive Attack, Run-D.M.C., Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream and Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead amongst others. The exhibition remains on view at Bristol’s Steam Cafe Bar until the end of March 2016.
Nicholls isn’t the first high-profile photographer whose interest Sarah has inspired. She was photographed by the late David Gahr (best known for his 1968 book The Face of Folk Music, with its images of everyone from Bob Dylan to Joan Baez to Johnny Cash) while performing at the Philadelphia Folk Festival back in the early 1990s; and much more recently, former Magnum photographer David Hurn (whose iconic photograph of Sean Connery brandishing Hurn’s own Walther LP-53 air pistol became the publicity poster for From Russia With Love) inquired (after buying one of Sarah’s albums online) whether he might take a few photographs before a concert she was doing in Wales.
“I said to Martin [Stansbury, Sarah’s manager], ‘Some photographer wants to take pics at the gig, can you have a look at his website and see if he’s any good?’,” Sarah recalls. “Next thing, Martin was saying ‘I think you'd better have a look at this,’ and I was looking at David’s portfolio on the Magnum site and seeing pics he’d taken of, oh, The Beatles, Sophia Loren, Jane Fonda .... He came along while we were setting up and soundchecking and took a really gorgeous series of images, and turned out to be a lovely fellow with all kinds of hilarious stories to tell.”
Released in 2015, Walking Into White was selected as Album of the Month by FolkWords, which went on to nominate it for both Best Album from a Female Artist and Album of the Year. Germany’s Folker hailed it as “Ein mutiges Album mit einem potenziellen Pophit” (“A courageous album that includes a potential pop hit”), while The Musician called it “A work that grows with each listen.”
“The songs are acutely observed and literate, almost like journal notes set to music. They’re measured and tranquil but they’re never dull because there is always a sense of restlessness and unease behind the poetry.... And it’s all lovely,” wrote Ian Pickles in R2/Rock ’n’ Reel.
2015 saw Sarah touring extensively and earning rave reviews by performing Walking Into White live in its entirety as the first half of every show. Following one such performance in the USA, The Huffington Post wrote: “Finding treasure feels great, and such is the case with musician Sarah McQuaid. ... I’ve attended hundreds of concerts of all kinds, and her subtle mastery onstage launches her straight into my fave shows ever. One voice, one guitar, and the wondrous reminder of the magic of music. Sarah has the gift.”
Despite the enthusiastic reaction from critics and punters alike, Sarah says she’s looking forward to getting back to a mixed set after a year of playing the album live. “It’ll be nice to have a bit of flexibility again,” she confides. “It’s fun to be able to chop and change whenever I like, and to be able to play a request straightaway if somebody shouts one out. I’ve also got some new material that I’m looking forward to road-testing!”
Having been on the road virtually nonstop for the past seven years, Sarah will be taking a twelve-month break from touring in 2017 to focus her energies on writing and recording a fifth solo album, as well as penning a sequel to The Irish DADGAD Guitar Book, the popular tutor she authored on the alternative guitar tuning she uses exclusively.
“I’d like to do a follow-up book that focuses on song accompaniment and that demonstrates the versatility of DADGAD,” Sarah explains. “A lot of people think of it as a specifically ‘Celtic’ tuning, but I write all my songs in DADGAD, and it’s also great for all sorts of different genres, from blues to classical music to rock ’n’ roll.
“And I’ve already started writing songs for the next album,” she continues. “I was really happy with the production on the last one – my cousin Adam Pierce co-produced it with Jeremy Backofen, and it was recorded in their studio in upstate New York – so I’m hoping to travel over there in 2017 to do the next one with the same team. It’s exciting!”