North West Folk - Les Pilling

4 November 2012 

Interview and profile. “Her latest album The Plum Tree and the Rose has been met with enthusiastic reviews on both sides of the Atlantic and deservedly so. It is a subtle, exquisitely constructed collection of songs.”

Sarah McQuaid Talks to North West Folk
Sarah McQuaid is busy. In the days prior to this interview she had returned from a two month tour of the United States, only to embark on a 23 date concert programme in the UK less than a week later.

But then getting around is nothing new for her. Born in Madrid, to a Spanish father and an American mother, she was raised in Chicago before moving to Ireland. She now resides in South West England with husband and their two children.

Her latest album, The Plum Tree and the Rose has been met with enthusiastic reviews on both sides of the Atlantic and deservedly so. It is a subtle, exquisitely constructed collection of songs, drawing inspiration from a wide variety of influences.

Yet it marks a departure for her. McQuaid’s first release, When Two Lovers Meet, consisted mainly of Irish traditional material, the second, I Won’t Go Home ’Til Morning was a tribute to old-time Appalachian folk. Of the thirteen tracks on The Plum Tree and the Rose, nine are self penned, some of them with producer Gerry O’Beirne.

She puts the increased confidence in her song writing abilities down to a collaboration with pop singer Zoe, the result of which was the album Crow Coyote Buffalo, released in 2008 under the group name of Mama.

“In between my 2nd and 3rd albums I made the Mama album with Zoe and it was writing songs with Zoe that made me really think of myself as a song writer. Up to that point I was thinking of myself as a folk singer who happened to write an occasional song. I’d one of my own songs on the first album, I had two of my own songs on the second album. If I found myself compelled to write a song I did. I didn’t go looking for songs.

“But once I started writing with Zoe, I really enjoyed the process of writing with her and I had huge respect for her abilities as a song writer, so if somebody like her was happy to work with somebody like me, I must be better than I thought I was. And so it was after that, that I started taking a bit more note of when I had ideas for a song.

“Writing is kind of a piecemeal process. I’d get an idea sitting in the green room for a gig, jot it down and then not actually sit down and work at it until months later and that’s still very much the way I write.”

That approach can lead to the final version of a composition being somewhat different than its original incarnation. The title track of The Plum Tree and the Rose is a case in point.

“I originally wrote it with similar words but a totally different melody and totally different rhythm and actually went out and toured with it and was never quite happy with it and put it away for a couple of years and then came back to it and did it as an acapella song with a different melody entirely and then wrote a guitar part for it and then wrote a guitar intro and outro for it, so that song was a long time coming together."

The Plum Tree and the Rose was originally conceived as a project on medieval and Elizabethan music. McQuaid’s first American tour changed all that. Her first two albums, unreleased in the States at that point, were combined into a double CD in order to be classed as a new release and gain air time on the radio.

The strategy was hugely successful. The double CD was number one for the month of February 2010 in the chart compiled for based on the playlists submitted by folk DJs. A switch of focus was called for.

“When I had that number one, did the tour and got lots of attention for it suddenly the next album I was going to make seemed a lot more important and I had a lot of people advising me that an album of early medieval and Elizabethan music wasn’t going to cut it.

“Meantime, I kept writing I suppose under Zoe’s influence, I was writing more and more songs and so I wound up going back into the studio and finishing some of the stuff I’d recorded earlier and also recording a bunch of new songs I’d written.”

One subject of conversation has been the cover of Solid Air that appears on the album, a potentially risky venture given John Martyn’s iconic status.

“People often quite like to hear something that is familiar. As long as it’s recognisable as the same song but not a slavish copy of the original. As long as you do something with it to make it your own.” The interaction between McQuaid’s guitar and Bill Blackmore’s trumpet provides that attribute.

“There was another track on the album In Derby Cathedral that I was really keen to have trumpet on so we got a guy, fantastic trumpet player to play on In Derby Cathedral and then he said, ‘well is there anything else you’d like me to do while I’m here?’ and I said ‘what about doing some trumpet on Solid Air?’ We liked what he did so much that the song wound up being a duet between trumpet and guitar.”

Unusually, perhaps, for a female vocalist, McQuaid’s guitar work gets equal billing with her voice, her style developing from the mid-teens onward.

“I was only nine when I started playing the guitar, but later on when I got a little bit older, when I got to be 14 and 15, actually developing a guitar style, I guess Joni Mitchell was the big influence, that’s how I originally started playing in a lot of different tunings.

“Later I discovered Nick Drake. I’d say Nick Drake was a huge influence in the sense that with Nick Drake you start to get that sense of the guitar almost dueting with the voice rather than accompanying it and that’s what I try to do with what I do on the guitar.”

These days, and for some time now, she plays only in DADGAD tuning, writing a book on the subject, The Irish DADGAD Guitar Book, published in 1995, which is still in print.

“I was eighteen when I discovered the tuning. I was living in France for a year. I was at a festival in Brittany. Some fella I met at the festival, a French guy, don’t know his name, nobody well known or anything like that. I was playing in an Irish band at the time and he said ‘oh, if you’re playing Irish music you should really be using this DADGAD tuning, it’s what all these other Irish players are using.’

“I put the guitar into that tuning and tried out a couple of chords and just thought ‘ah, this is great. This is what I’ve been looking for, for ages. This is finally how I can make the sounds that I want to make.'"

The future looks bright for Sarah McQuaid, if somewhat hectic. “I’m starting to think about the new album. I’m not under huge pressure to put out another one for a year or two. It seems clear that song writing has to be the direction I take for the next album. I’ve got a lot of ideas for songs.

“There are some other projects that I’d like to do that don’t involve my own songs. I’d love to do an album of Rogers and Hart songs. I’d love to do another guitar book too, a book about DADGAD guitar accompaniment and have a really eclectic collection of songs in there written out with chords and tablature. I’d love to do a gospel album. I love those old bluegrass gospel numbers like Down in the River to Pray and Wondrous Love.

“There’s all kind of projects I have in mind, but it’s finding time to do them, especially with all the touring I do, I’m round about six months on the road. It’s best to fit more project oriented , creative stuff in there. I’d love to write a musical!”