Taplas - Keith Hudson

October 2007 

Interview and profile. “The re-release of an album originally published a decade ago has made singer/guitarist Sarah McQuaid an instant hit.”


The re-release of an album originally published a decade ago has made singer/guitarist Sarah McQuaid an instant hit. Keith Hudson explores her background.

A NOMADIC lifestyle and earning a living as a professional musician tend to be inextricably linked and that certainly applies to Sarah McQuaid. The morning after we spoke she was due to leave her home near Penzance to go to London for an appearance at the Return to Camden Town Festival, returning the next day. But while the itinerant life is usually a consequence of career choice, in Sarah’s case, it was the other way round.

“My mother was a world traveller,” she says. “Before I was born she lived in France for three years, she lived in Greece for a year, she lived in Italy for a year and in Spain for five years.”

Sarah was, in fact, born in Madrid, where she lived for the first two years of her life before her mother returned to the United States, setting up home in Chicago. By the time she was twelve she got her first taste of travelling in a musical context – as a member of the Chicago Children’s Choir, which regularly undertook tours of up to ten days, both in the USA and Canada. Within a couple of years, she had also become a prolific songwriter and loved to entertain and amuse her classmates.

At the age of eighteen Sarah was on the move again – this time to study philosophy at the University of Strasbourg. She was also partly educated at Haverford College in Philadelphia, from which she obtained a High Honours BA in Philosophy. Haverford is a Quaker institution, run strictly to the Society of Friends’ ethos. 

She recalls that all decisions that needed making had to be based on consensus – voting was completely out of the question. This often meant that issues were sometimes discussed for several days before reaching resolution. The process of taking examinations followed a pattern that most of us would find unusual.

“If a student felt ready to take an exam,” she explained, “he or she could simply ask for the paper and return her work within two hours. This meant you could do the exam sitting under a tree or wherever else one chose.”

But it was during her spell in France that Sarah was bitten by the Irish music bug. Surprising, perhaps, as, despite the Irish diaspora, Strasbourg doesn’t seem the kind of city to be a hotbed of Irish music – a view Sarah would share. Her solo performances in a folk club, though, attracted significant praise in the local press and she soon tracked down a band who were looking for a singer.

“I had to learn their repertoire very quickly,” she says, “and learn to sing their songs in the same key as the male singer I replaced. It wasn’t a particularly good band, but they had a lot of gigs lined up. Again the local press was full of praise, describing us as the best Irish band in eastern France. If the truth were known, we were, probably, the only Irish music band in eastern France.”

The writer described them as a band made up of five people from five different countries – Ireland, France, Brittany, America and Texas, the latter being elevated in status because the writer was a Texan.

It was also during this period of her life that Sarah discovered the DADGAD open tuning style of guitar playing. She was later to write the seminal guitar tutor The Irish DADGAD Guitar Book, which The Irish Times described as “a godsend to aspiring traditional guitarists”.

Sarah’s own guitar style is, she says, influenced mainly by players she’s heard on record. She lists Dick Gaughan, Arty McGlynn, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn as examples.

“Before going to France I had been doing some bluegrass playing and pretending to be Joni Mitchell in my bedroom,” she quips. “I tried experimenting with open tuning and various other things. But, at that time, the sum total of my knowledge of Irish music was hearing a song by Mary Black on the radio and hearing some Kevin Burke, but I didn’t know he was Irish.

“Up to that point, most of what I knew about music I had got from my mother. She was a folk singer and guitarist, though never professionally. She had a huge store of songs, some English, some Scottish and some American, but I didn’t know which were which. She used to sing to me when I was going to bed at night and we’d sing together in the car. She was my introduction to folk music.”

Although Sarah does write songs, it’s a very occasional activity and she doesn’t really think of herself as a songwriter. She recalls writing two in April this year, but reckons those were the first in about five years. She mentioned that she has an uncle who wrote the songs for a musical that was produced in Chicago and a cousin, who is four years older than her, who studied composition and now writes film music.

During her year in France, Sarah married one of the members of the band she had joined. She now confesses that this was a rather foolish decision. He did accompany her when she returned to the USA and again, in 1994, when she moved to Dublin, but the relationship was not to last.

The move to Ireland also brought about a gradual change in emphasis to Sarah’s working life. She continued performing and release a first solo album, When Two Lovers Meet, but also began writing a weekly folk music column for the Evening Herald and contributing to Hot Press magazine. But, eventually, a full-tme job took her away from music – temporarily, at least.

“It was an irresistible offer,” she says. “Initially, it was just a three month contract but, at the end of that, I was asked to stay on. The company I worked for published a wide range of magazines from the on-board magazine for Irish Ferries, various others for the Irish Tourist Board and even the Irish edition of Old Moore’s Almanac. Some of the tourist stuff was interesting and gave me the chance to visit some nice places.”

During this time, Sarah married Feargal Shiels, a horticulturist who used his skills as a therapeutic tool for people with learning difficulties. They had two children, in 2003 and 2005. But finding an affordable home that was suitable for two young children meant moving some sixty miles outside Dublin – giving Sarah an unenviable 120 mile daily commute to her office. Inevitably, the stress began to tell.

“I was often spending three hours on the road, as well as long days in the office. The kids were in a nursery eleven hours a day ad it became a pretty miserable existence,” she says. “I found myself crying while driving to and from work and thinking there must be something better than this. I thought to myself what about that CD, what about the music? I started looking around for gigs and, to my amazement, I had no problem getting them.”

When Two Lovers Meet originally came out in 1997, when releasing one’s own album was still a comparative rarity, though Sarah did manage to get an Irish distribution deal with Gael Linn and, this year, with Proper Records for distribution in Britain.

“It’s wonderfully democratic, in a way, that it’s now so easy to release a CD. It’s fantastic that a CD can be put out to the world. Anybody can do it. When I originally recorded my album, I didn’t think there would be a market for it. You used not to be able to make a recording unless there was a market. It’s great that it’s no longer in the total control of record companies, but it’s bad in the sense that reviewers, like myself, have to listen to so many albums that, previously, would never have seen the light of day. But, there’s good stuff, too, that might have seemed too risky, in the past.”

The album was recorded in Trevor Hutchinson’s Dublin studio and produced by Gerry O’Beirne. Putting in guest appearances are, among others, John McSherry and her old friend Niamh Parsons.

“They are all people I had known and admired for a long time,” she says. “Gerry is a particularly good producer and I get on with him so well. You know how it is, you sometimes meet people and you don’t have to explain yourself. In no time, they nod and know what you are talking about. Especially, when you are talking about musical things. I could tell Gerry when I knew something was wrong and, even if I didn’t know what was wrong, he could fix it, just like that. It’s so good when someone is on the same wavelength.”

Work has already begun on Sarah’s second album. Provisionally titled I Won’t Go Home ‘Til Morning, it’s scheduled for release early in 2008. Again it was recorded in Hutchinson’s studio and again production is by O’Beirne. Guests for this album include, in addition to Hutchinson and O’Beirne, are percussionist Liam Bradley and Maire Breatnach on fiddle and viola. There’s a change of focus, too. This new album features old timey American songs and tunes and is, in part, at least, a tribute to Sarah’s mother, who died not so long ago.

“She was first taken ill when my son, the elder of the two, was just four months old [I must not have made myself clear at this point in the interview; my mother had actually been ill for some years, and she died when Eli was five months old – Sarah]. It was a difficult time and I thought about her a lot. That’s why I wanted to record some of the songs she used to sing.”

But Sarah hasn’t abandoned Irish music. Much of her live repertoire is made of songs from the first album. Given her new place of residence, she’s also interested in learning some Cornish songs and, maybe, even the language. At the moment, though, she’s trying to learn a little Dutch, as she has a tour of Holland lined up and she’s embarrassed about how well the Dutch speak English.

“I’m looking forward to hearing the new album as a finished piece of work,” she says. “I had to leave it when I moved to England. It hasn’t been mastered yet. Trevor’s taking it to Holland to do that.”

The death of Sarah’s mother was the reason for the family’s move to Cornwall. Sarah had wanted her stepfather to live with them in Ireland, but he was having none of that.

“Now that I know where he’s living, I understand his reasons,” she says. “We live in what was my parents’ home and he lives in the cottage next door. It was a shed, but now provides both living accommodation and a studio for him to work in. He’s an artist and sculptor.”

Apart from the Dutch tour, Sarah also has a nine day trip to Scotland in February. The whole family is going on that trip, because, she tells me, she’s never left the kids for that long. She also made it known that she’d like some dates in south Wales, as she still travels to Ireland, from time to time, via Pembroke. (Give her a ring – you won’t be disappointed with her performance).