2 October 2015
Album review – Walking Into White. “Music well worth repeated listening.”
Folk with edge: Sarah McQuaid: Walking into White
Time of changing seasons, a turn of light, a lift in the air, time of telling stories...
Sarah McQuaid tells her stories through word and melody rhythm and tone and timbre. For her fourth recording, which she has called Walking Into White, she found inspiration from sources as different as the landscape of Yellowstone, the flight of jackdaws, a pattern used for ringing church bells, and stories she has been reading to her children.
The title song, a story which spins out in McQuaid’s imagination into an elegant and spare meditation on the nature of trust, began with an image of two children walking across moorland and being caught in a fog. She drew this from a story by Arthur Ransome which she came across in one of his tales, part of a series she’d been reading to her children each night at bedtime. It seemed to her, she says in her liner notes, “like a parable for life... so much so that I decided to make it the title track of this album.”
All this is framed in McQuaid’s distinctive alto and her DADGAD guitar playing. That’s a tuning which often contributes to Celtic music’s haunting aspect and one of which McQuaid is a master. Throughout the album, these elements anchor adventures both in story and in the way the music is presented.
Traveling from her base in Cornwall, England to Cornwall, New York to work for the first time with producers Adam Pierce (who is McQuaid’s cousin) and Jeremy Backofen, who had not worked in the folk genre before, McQuaid and her road manger and sound engineer Martin Stansbury created a collection which weaves in rhythms and sonic placements you might not expect from and artist known as a folk musician. All the while, though, they stayed true to the spirit and ideas of the songs while creating an album that fits in as a natural next step in McQuaid’s musical progress
On her tours supporting the album (at this writing at the beginning of October, she’s in the midst of a US run; she regularly tours internationally). McQuaid has been devoting the first half of her concerts to playing music from the album as it is sequenced, moving from Low Winter Sun, in which her guitar rings in a pattern drawn from the peal church bells to frame atmospheric and enigmatic lyrics that suggest the beginning of a journey, to a sparse and distinctive take of Ewan MacColl’s classic love song The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.
Between those two Where the Wind Decides to Blow and The Tide find McQuaid taking further inspiration from images in Ransome’s stories to explore ideas of uncertainty, persistence, trust, and reading signs. There’s a lot going on both lyrically and musically, though the songs themselves are rather short, at three verses with a twice repeated chorus for Where the Wind Decides to Blow and six verses for The Tide. The singer raises as many questions as she answers. The idea of walking through and with uncertainty to find trust and connection comes up again in the song Yellowstone, which was in part inspired by conversations McQuaid had with her ten year old son. All of this leaves plenty of room for listeners to explore, and material upon which to reflect.
That is true of each of the songs on Walking Into White, actually, including Sweetness and Pain, an a capella song whose three verses are spaced through the rest of the music at intervals, making a sort of recurring theme and comment which works both in word and melody. There’s also a very fine instrumental called I Am Grateful For What I Have.
Jackdaws Rising came about when McQuaid was playing music one evening with her friends Pete Coleman and Claire Hines. They got to playing an instrumental the pair had written and they suggested that if she wanted to write words to go along...
She was up to that challenge, and it went a step -- okay, several steps -- further when it came to recording the piece, which in lyric is dark and light, falling and rising. So are the production choices, with stamps and handclaps and rhythms which might seem out of time but actually work perfectly to express the energy of the lyric.
McQuaid’s voice is in varying ways the center of things through the recording, and that comes full circle as she draws things to a close with the hymn Canticle of the Sun and that take on The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. It’s a thoughtful journey Sarah McQuaid leads on Walking Into White, one filled with interest, surprise, and challenge, as she creates music well worth repeated listening.