Five Questions … Sarah McQuaid

It’s a busy time for Cornwall-based, American singer-songwriter Sarah McQuaid. With a new album due early next year and about to embark on a long tour of the USA and UK, Shire Folk caught up with her as she was packing her bags.


SF: It’s been a few years since your last album, The Plum Tree and the Rose, was released. You’re known for your meticulous songwriting, so does that slow you down or were you sidetracked by other things?


Sarah McQuaid

SM: I was incredibly busy touring, so I was having lots of ideas for songs, but never sitting down to flesh them out into finished tracks. Instead, the notepad on my phone was full of fragments of lyrics (and a few complete songs as well – I think I did actually have lyrics for ‘The Silver Lining’ written out in full), while the voice memo app on my phone was full of fragments of melodies and guitar riffs. Thank goodness for iPhones, eh? What eventually happened was that I went ahead and booked the studio time, then sat down and finished a whole bunch of songs – more than I actually used on the album – over quite a short period of time; two of the songs were only finished after I’d already started the recording process.

SF: In what way does your new album, Walking into White, differ from previous ones? What have been your influences on this album?

SM: As explained above, the songs were all written and recorded within a few months, and as a result of that I think it’s probably the most coherent piece of work I’ve ever done; the songs all flow together really well, to the extent that for next year’s touring I’m planning to play the album straight through from start to finish as the first half of each gig, then devote the second half to tracks from previous albums as well as a few surprises. The other big change was that I was working with a whole new team. All three of my previous solo albums were produced by Gerry O’Beirne and engineered by Trevor Hutchinson, with a lot of the same guest musicians appearing on them. For the new album, Gerry and I both agreed that it was time for me to work with a different producer, so I asked my cousin, Adam Pierce, if he’d consider producing, and I’m delighted with what he’s brought to it. I think it’s a big step forward from anything I’ve done previously. That said, I’m very happy that Gerry kindly agreed to co-write a song with me for the new album, so there’s some continuity there as well.

SF: You’ve got some well-chosen guests/collaborators on this new album. What do you think they brought to it?

SM: The album was co-produced by Adam with Jeremy Backofen, who also engineered and mixed it. The two of them are from the indie-pop/alternative world rather than the folk world, and the guest musicians they brought in were from contemporary classical and jazz backgrounds. Adam’s a great songwriter as well, and gave me some really good advice on the songs – basically cut, cut, cut! Nearly all the tracks on the new album are shorter than three minutes. Martin Stansbury, my manager and touring sound engineer, was also very much involved in the recording process (I even managed to persuade him to contribute some guest vocals!) and had a lot of input into the songs and the arrangements – I couldn’t have done it without him.

SF: You also run DADGAD training workshops. How did you start using this tuning and do you see yourself as a sort of ‘evangelist’ for it?

SM: When I was in my teens I was experimenting a lot with various different open tunings, but never managed to find one that really satisfied me until I went to study in France for a year when I was 18 years old. I started playing and singing with a traditional Irish band there, and we were playing at a festival where I got chatting to a French guitarist who showed me the DADGAD tuning. I just took to it straightaway, really loved it, have been playing exclusively in DADGAD ever since and am getting ready to write my second book on the subject of DADGAD – so yes, I suppose I am a bit evangelical about it!

SF: You’re about to head out on an extensive 3-month tour of the USA and UK. Feelings of anticipation or trepidation?

SM: I’m really looking forward to this tour. I’ve had a lovely few months off over the summer, have been working hard on getting the new material ready to play live, and now I’m stoked to get out on the road and get playing again. Touring is hard work – there’s a lot of driving (although to be fair, Martin does all of the actual driving while I sit in the passenger seat tapping away on my laptop), a lot of early starts and late nights, bad meals in cheap chain restaurants – but I love it. Playing to different audiences night after night, meeting loads of new people – some of whom become great friends – seeing so many different places even if it’s only through the window of the van – I feel really lucky to be able to do it.