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Shire Folk Album of 2017
Trails & Tribulations
If We Dig Any Deeper it Could Get Dangerous
‘The precision and sophistication of the writing and playing just blows me away,’ writes producer and folk icon, Michael Chapman, about Sarah McQuaid’s fifth solo album, If We Dig Any Deeper it Could Get Dangerous. Born in Madrid, raised in Chicago and now living in Cornwall, singer-songwriter Sarah McQuaid talks to Nicholas John ahead of her gig at Hemel Hempstead’s Old Town Hall.
SF: You said you came up with the song title, and subsequently the album title, ‘If We Dig Any Deeper it Could Get Dangerous’, watching your son digging in the garden?
SMcQ: He was digging a hole which was becoming a massive excavation and I went out to see how he was getting on and he was way down, way over his head. I mean, a major excavation ! And I said to him, ‘you know if you dig any deeper, it could get dangerous!’ I heard the words leave my mouth and I thought ‘ooh, there’s a song!’ Once I’d written the song, I had the album title.
SF: So you left him in the hole and rushed inside to write it down!
SMcQ: Absolutely! This was three years ago and he’s still digging the hole! He still goes out into the garden and says ‘I’m going to dig the hole some more.’
SF: You live in Cornwall, so I guess he’s somewhere across the Atlantic by now –
Probably … I need to check! I’ve been on tour for a while!
SF: To my ears, you’ve moved on a bit with the new album. There’s different kinds of instrumentation and in a way it seems less folk-music orientated. More contemporary?
SMcQ: I like to think that all my albums are a progression and moving on. I’d be miserable if I thought I was going to stagnate and keep on doing the same thing album after album. The first album (1997’s When Two Lovers Meet) was very traditional. I was living in Ireland at the time, so it was mostly traditional Irish music. With the second one (I Won’t Go Home ‘Til Morning, 2008), I got more back into the traditional American folk that I grew up with. By the time I recorded my third album (2012’s The Plum Tree and the Rose), I’d moved to England, so I guess there was more of an English influence on there. For the next album, I went over to America with my cousin, Adam Pierce, producing. Adam comes from a more rock and roll, indie background, so the Walking into White album was already kind of moving away from the folk world. And of course, I’ve got Michael Chapman producing the new album. Michael’s such an interesting character, because he has his roots in the folk world and he’s still seen as a folk artist by a lot of people, but he doesn’t think of himself as being a folk musician. If you strip away the preconceptions and just listen to his music, it’s just incredible: gorgeous guitar-playing and fantastic songwriting, which is why I think his music has appealed to people like Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Steve Gunn, who’ve been queueing up to collaborate with him. So I was very lucky to have him produce the new album and play on it. He’s definitely been a really strong influence on the music.
SF: And he loaned, or gave you one of his guitars I believe?
SMcQ: Yes, but it’s just a loan. It’s still his guitar, not mine, but fortunately he doesn’t seem to be in any real hurry to get it back. I think he’s kind of hoping I become successful enough that I can buy it off him!
SF: I know you mentioned Adam Pierce in America, but is this the first time you’ve worked with an outside producer?
SMcQ: Oh, no! I’ve always worked with producers. I’ve never wanted to produce my own material because I feel you need that outside viewpoint. When you’re listening to your own songs and your own performance, you’re not hearing what’s coming out, you’re hearing everything that went in to it!
You can’t be objective. You can’t judge it, you’re too close to it. I had the wonderful Gerry O’Beirne produce my first three albums and he was such a strong influence that, although we both agreed after the third album that it was time for me to work with a different producer, I asked him to co-write a song with me for both Walking into White and the new album. And I’m really happy that he did, they are really strong songs.
SF: On the new album, you’ve covered ‘Forever Autumn’ which was a Top 5 hit for Justin Hayward in 1978 and featured on Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds album, which was seemingly in every household in the country at the time! Why did you decide to cover this song?
SMcQ: Well, I’ve always liked to record at least one cover song on each of my albums. I went to see the arena show of ‘War of the Worlds’ in Manchester a couple of years ago and ‘Forever Autumn’ really struck me. Martin Stansbury, who is the sound engineer for my concerts and also engineered the new album and the Crow Coyote Buffalo album I did with Zoe Pollack, said I could do a lovely version of that song on guitar and the opening motif really worked.
In the past, I’ve recorded songs by Ewan MacColl, Bobbie Gentry and John Martyn. I think it’s a good thing to do when you’re writing songs, to get yourself into another writer’s head. I always like to record powerful songs that I feel strongly about and also that I feel I can bring something to as well. It’s a tricky balancing act, because you’ve got to be true to the song; you don’t want to substantially change it but you want to bring something new to it as well, while still being respectful to the original. I hope I’ve done that with all my covers.
SF: Tell me about the song ‘One Sparrow Down’ – shades of Suzanne Vega’s ‘Tom’s Diner’ but very Joni Mitchell too – sparse instrumentation. A very different kind of song for you?
SMcQ: Yeah, I wrote the song and I wanted to do it a cappella, with maybe a bit of percussion, but I thought if I do, everyone’s gonna say it’s Suzanne Vega, ‘Tom’s Diner’. But actually, if you stuck music behind both songs, they wouldn’t be similar at all.
SF: Does songwriting and lyric writing come easily to you? Or do you have to work hard at it?
SMcQ: It’s a bit of both, really. I’d been so busy touring before I recorded Walking Into White that, although I had bits of lyrics, song ideas and I’d recorded chord progressions and vocal melodies onto my phone, by the time I ‘d booked the flights to go over to the States to record it, I hadn’t actually finished a single song! But I had tons of song ideas, way more than I could possibly use! So I sat down with all my ideas and tried things out and, if it wasn’t coming, I’d move on to something else and I kind of fell into a rhythm with the songwriting and it started coming together. Themes started developing and I started to get a feel for how the album was going to be structured. Y’know, maybe I’ve got a few too many slow songs, I need something faster – or I’ve already got something in a 3/4 rhythm, so I need a different rhythm – how the album as a whole was going to sound. Every song was being written with reference to every other song. And that method worked so well for me that I set out deliberately to do that with the new album.
If We Dig Any Deeper it Could Get Dangerous is out now on Shovel And Spade Records. Sarah McQuaid tours the UK in November 2018. website
Excerpts from this interview, alongside audio interviews with Martin Carthy, Maddy Prior, Show of Hands, Fay Hield, Emily Barker and more can be found at: website