Biography

Sarah McQuaid’s voice has been likened to malt whiskey, melted chocolate and “honey poured into wine” (Minor 7th). Her new album Walking Into White (2015) is her most honest and adventurous work to date, with a depth and texture of soundscape that are reflected in her beautifully crafted live shows. A captivating performer, she seduces her audience with cheeky banter and stories from the road, as well as with stunning musicianship; in her hands, the guitar becomes much more than merely an accompanying instrument. 

Born in Spain, raised in Chicago and now living in rural England, Sarah refuses to be pigeonholed, segueing easily from one of her emotive originals into a 1930s Cuban jazz number, a 16th century lute piece or an unexpected contemporary cover. Her third solo album The Plum Tree and the Rose (2012) drew critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic: “Impeccable,” wrote fRoots (UK), while Midwest Record (USA) called it “low key but glorious and incendiary” and Hot Press (Ireland) said it “should feature on many end-of-year best-ofs.”

Born in Madrid (to a Spanish father and an American mother), raised in Chicago and now living in rural England, Sarah McQuaid was taught piano and guitar by her folksinging mother, and remembers being inspired by meeting her distant cousin, well-known singer/songwriter/storyteller Gamble Rogers, at her grandmother’s house in Indiana. From the age of twelve she was embarking on tours of the US and Canada with the Chicago Children’s Choir, and at eighteen she went to France for a year to study philosophy at the University of Strasbourg.

She moved to Ireland in 1994 and lived there for 13 years, working as a music journalist and magazine editor. In 2007, she re-released her 1997 debut solo album, When Two Lovers Meet, and launched her solo career with a performance on Irish national television as the musical guest on John Kelly’s popular Friday evening arts show The View.

The same year saw her moving to England and playing major festivals like Sidmouth and Trowbridge, and in 2008 she released her second album, I Won’t Go Home ’Til Morning. In contrast to the first album’s focus on Irish traditional songs and instrumentals, the follow-up was a celebration of old-time Appalachian folk, with Sarah’s arrangements punctuated by her own fine compositions and a cover of Bobbie Gentry’s classic “Ode to Billie Joe.”

Crow Coyote Buffalo, an album of songs co-written by Sarah with fellow Penzance resident Zoë (author and performer of 1991 hit single “Sunshine On A Rainy Day”), was released in 2009 under the band name Mama and garnered rave reviews: Spiral Earth described the pair as “Two pagan goddesses channelling the ghost of Jim Morrison.”

Sarah’s first two solo albums were re-released as a double-CD set in North America in February 2010 and immediately went to No. 1 on both the album and artist Folk-DJ chart.

Like its predecessors, Sarah’s third album The Plum Tree And The Rose (2012) was recorded in Trevor Hutchinson’s Dublin studio and produced by Gerry O’Beirne, but it represented a departure from her previous work in that nine of its thirteen tracks were originals. Also featured were a 13th century “alba” or dawn song sung in Old Occitan, two Elizabethan numbers and a cover of John Martyn’s “Solid Air”.

To record her fourth album Walking Into White, Sarah travelled from her adopted home in Cornwall, England, to the small town of Cornwall, New York, USA, in order to work with co-producers Jeremy Backofen (Frightened Rabbit, Felice Brothers) and Sarah’s cousin Adam Pierce (Mice Parade, Tom Brosseau, Múm).

Coming from outside the folk world and having never worked with Sarah before, Adam and Jeremy found and nurtured the raw edge and intensity that have always been present in her live performances, while their occasionally unorthodox recording methods (a mini-cassette recorder mounted on a microphone stand, for example) bring out a striking intimacy and immediacy in both her vocals and her guitar sound. Recorded and mixed in just under three weeks, Walking Into White is by far the most personal and emotional album Sarah has made to date.

Three of the songs take their inspiration from Arthur Ransome’s classic Swallows and Amazons series of children’s books. The title track uses the arresting image of two children lost in a moorland fog as an allegory for the sensation of stumbling blindly through life; in “The Tide”, a mud-bound sailboat becomes a portrait of a marriage, while “Where The Wind Decides To Blow” performs a similar transfiguration on a homemade sailing sled sent hurtling across a frozen lake by an unexpected blizzard.

In “Yellowstone”, a young boy’s obsession with the spectre of volcanic apocalypse sparks a rumination on the buried terrors that haunt us all. “Jackdaws Rising” takes the form of a three-part round, with Sarah’s lyrics and vocal melodies overlapping in counterpoint to a guitar instrumental composed by her friends Pete Coleman and Clare Hines. On the album opener “Low Winter Sun”, Adam uses an electric guitar and an early 1980s synthesizer to create a wash of sound that acts as foil and underpinning for Sarah’s acoustic guitar rendition of a church bell peal. Other highlights include Sarah’s setting of the hymn “Canticle Of The Sun/All Creatures Of Our God And King”) and a cover of Ewan MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”.

Recently dubbed “guitar queen” by one festival organiser, Sarah is also known for her use of the DADGAD tuning. She is the author of The Irish DADGAD Guitar Book, described by The Irish Times as “a godsend to aspiring traditional guitarists,” with a follow-up book on the way that will focus on DADGAD song accompaniment. She regularly presents workshops on the DADGAD tuning (as well as on songwriting, tour booking and more) at festivals, music schools and venues around the globe.

Edited by SarahMcQuaid on 9 Nov 2014, 23:19

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