Friday, January 27, 2023

Singer-songwriter Sarah McQuaid tells Helen Falconer about her life and work

The inimitable folk singer-songwriter Sarah McQuaid is on tour in Ireland and will be in Ballina Arts Centre on Friday, February 3, to mesmerise us with her throaty, pitch-perfect vocals and sultry guitar playing.

Acclaimed singer-songwriter Sarah McQuaid grew up listening to her mother playing the music of American folk music legends including Woody Guthrie, Peggy Seeger, and Jean Ritchie.

McQuaid and her songs have been compared to the voice and works of Joni Mitchell, Karen Carpenter, and Lana Del Ray; she has often been spoken of in the same breath as Nick Drake. In truth, she is just herself: A supremely talented, confident, joyful musician at ease with life.

McQuaid springs from a line of strong, original American women. Her Chicago-born mother, Jane Addams Allen, was named after her father’s aunt, Jane Addams, the famous campaigner for women’s rights and a generous sponsor of free-thinking artistic education.

Socially aware and fiercely anti-war, it is unsurprising that this extraordinary woman’s confidence and courage filtered down through her nephew, a politician and professor, to McQuaid’s mother, a well-known innovative art critic, who, according to Washington Times theatre critic Hap Erstein, “wrote with such clarity and grace, avoiding all of the jargon of the art world”.

“She was a very interesting woman,” says McQuaid of her mother. “When she was still very young, she left Chicago to live in Greece, and then France and then Spain.”

In Spain, Jane had a relationship with the artist José Paredes Jardiel and gave birth to their daughter Sarah, before finally moving back to Chicago with her Spanish-speaking three-year-old.

“I spoke Spanish before I spoke English,” says McQuaid, “but I lost it quite quickly after returning to America as a small child. The strange thing is, if I happen to have Spanish people in the audience, they come up afterwards and speak to me in Spanish as if they expect me to know the language.”

Sarah McQuaid performs at Ballina Arts Centre on Friday, February 3.

Back in Chicago, little Sarah got used to being taken in her pushchair on various civil rights marches. Her favourite memory is lying in bed of an evening listening to her mother singing folk songs, accompanying herself on guitar, while Sarah called requests through the open bedroom door.

Unsurprisingly, given the family background, the songs Sarah’s mother favoured came from the great social justice tradition of folk music which had been revived in the 60s — the likes of Peggy Seeger, Jean Ritchie, Woody Guthrie. She also sang Appalachian folk music to her daughter, a tradition that melds Scottish and Irish fiddle music with African music and blues.

“Music was a hobby for my mother, but she was very good at it,” explains Sarah. “She taught me piano when I was three, and guitar as soon as my hands were big enough to hold one.”

There was no formal training, only an encouragement for Sarah to find her own way into playing and singing. By the age of 12 she was touring the US and Canada with the Chicago Children’s Choir, and at home, she loved to play the songs her mother taught her.

At 18, she went to France for a year to study philosophy at the University of Strasbourg and straight away started looking for a band that might want a guitar player and singer.

She got pointed in the direction of an Irish trad band and when they took her on, everything fell into place. Having been so long influenced by Appalachian folk and bluegrass, as soon as she heard Irish trad she recognised it.

“I said to myself in amazement, ‘So this is where it all comes from!’, so I was able to pick it up very quickly.”

She also picked up — and married — the banjo player of the band, Noel McQuaid, and ended up in Nenagh, Co Tipperary, where they opened a traditional music shop together. After they separated (they remain good friends), she moved to Dublin and picked up some journalism work.

She would join the Sunday morning (“really it was afternoon”) trad sessions in the Oliver St John Gogarty in Temple Bar and the hat would be passed around, then when the pub closed for ‘holy hour’ and all the punters were shooed off the premises, the leftover food would be given out to the musicians and the spoils from the hat divided up. This was the mid-1990s and “twenty pounds and a big meal — it really set you up for the week ahead”.

Then there were Dave Murphy’s nights in the International Bar, playing alongside the likes of Gemma Hayes, Mundy, Paddy Casey, and Declan O’Rourke.

“I was so lucky to be in on all that,” she says. At that time, McQuaid still did not think of herself as a singer-songwriter, only a singer. “I never sat down to write a song, I only ever wrote one when it drove at me like a train,” she said.

She recorded an independent album, When Two Lovers Meet, but included only one of her own tracks.

There wasn’t much money to be made on the trad scene, hence the writing and editing for various tourism magazines — “ferries, hotels, airports” — although interestingly, her journalism skills led her to make real money from trad music in an unexpected way. It happened when she offered to help a friend with a book on how to play the bodhrán. They went to visit the friend’s editor together “and as I was leaving, I said over my shoulder, ‘if you ever want a book about how to play DADGAD guitar…’”

DADGAD, or Celtic tuning, is a way of tuning a guitar so that it creates sympathetic resonance like a sitar.

The editor said: “Come back! Sit down!” That was in 1995, and she is still getting royalties.

The publication of the book led to music columns in the Evening Herald and Hot Press, and later Sarah was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Ards International Guitar Festival in the North in recognition of her innovative use of the DADGAD tuning.

Her next piece of good luck was to run into the artist Feargal Shiels in a Dublin pub; they hit it off straight away and she went on to marry him.

After having two children with Feargal, McQuaid knew she had to get back into proper music-making. Yet still, she did not consider making a career of writing her own songs, instead releasing an album celebrating old-time Appalachian folk, I Won’t Go Home ’Til Morning. It contained only two McQuaid songs.

In the same year, she and Feargal upped sticks and moved with their children to a Cornish village, leading directly to McQuaid’s next life-changing adventure.

At the gates of the tiny village school she metanother young mother, Zoë. Over the next few days, they chatted about their children but then wandered off onto the subject of music. Excited to find out that Sarah was a musician, Zoë asked if she could come around and play her a song she was working on.

“Zoë came to my house and played me her new song, and I said ‘I like the tune but I don’t understand the words.’

“‘Oh, I haven’t got any words yet,’ said Zoë. ‘I’m just singing any oldgobbledegook.’

“‘Would you like some words?’

“‘Oh, yes please!’”

It turned out that “Zoë the school-gate mum” was Zoë Pollock, who at the age of 19 had been in the top five of the UK charts for 16 weeks with her single ‘Sunshine on a Rainy Day’. Since then, she had got out of the commercial music scene and was doing her own thing, in her own way.

The school-gate meeting turned out to be a meeting of free-thinking musical minds, and generated a co-written album, Crow Coyote Buffalo, under the band name Mama. It got wonderful reviews. Spiral Earth described them as “two pagan goddesses channelling the ghost of Jim Morrison”.

“Zoë was a massive influence on me,” says Sarah. “Up to then, I’d always thought ‘who am I to write songs?’ but she changed all that for me.

“And she made it fun, saying things like, ‘If there’s a structure, it doesn’t matter what that structure is’.”

On Crow Coyote Buffalo there were six original songs by McQuaid. She was getting there.

And now she is here.

She is no longer a singer who occasionally, accidentally, writes her own songs. Her albums, The Plum Tree And The Rose,Walking Into White and If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous — and now her latest album, The St Buryan Sessions, recorded in the ancient church by that tiny village school — are all beautiful showcases of her original, free-thinking ideas.

The writer is born.

Sarah McQuaid performs at Ballina Arts Centre on Friday, February 3, 8pm. Tickets: €18/€16. Early booking advised. Contact Ballina Arts Centre on 096-73593.

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By Western People
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