Music interview: Sarah McQuaid

Sarah McQuaid. Picture: Colm Henry
Sarah McQuaid. Picture: Colm Henry
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SARAH McQuaid’s shifts of musical style – from choral singing to Irish traditional music to Appalachian folk songs – tend to reflect her peripatetic life.

Born in Spain to a Spanish father and American mother, she grew up in Chicago, moved to Ireland where she released a couple of albums and worked for a time as a music journalist for the likes of the Irish Times and Hot Press before coming to England.

“The move to Cornwall really changed my musical direction,” she says. “I met up with Zoe [Pollock, the former pop singer famed for the 1991 hit Sunshine on a Rainy Day]. Our kids were going to the same tiny school.”

Together they formed a duo, called Mama, and put out the album Crow Coyote Buffalo, which one reviewer described as “two pagan goddesses channelling the spirit of Jim Morrison”.

The record proved a creative turning point for McQuaid. “I used to write a song about once a year when I had an idea. It was the first time I started thinking of myself as a songwriter,” she says.

Through Mama she met Martin Stone, who became her road manager. He spurred her on to get out performing across the UK, Europe and USA. “I don’t think I’d be touring the way I am now had I not met Martin,” McQuaid says. “I do it six months of the year. It was pretty transformative.”

When not on the road, she runs music sessions at her local pub. “Anybody can come and join in.”

Her songwriting progressed so much too that by her 2012 release, The Plum Tree and The Rose, nine originals nestled alongside cover versions of songs by John Martyn, Jon Dowland and Thomas Ravenscroft.

Now a fourth album beckons. “It’s the first time that I’ve written and recorded in quite a short period,” she says. “I spent three years making the third album. There was a ten-year gap between the first and second albums. For this fourth album I had such a hectic schedule. I had lots of ideas but I didn’t start writing songs until I booked some studio time.”

She feels happy with what she came up with in two months. “It’s the most coherent thing I’ve done to date,” she says. Working with her cousin Adam Pierce and Jeremy Backofen (Frightened Rabbit, Felice Brothers) as producers, the album features “more upbeat stuff”.

“It’s an album of two minute pop songs, but it’s still me,” she says.

Sarah McQuaid plays at the Ukrainian Centre, Beckett Road, Doncaster on November 7 and The Golden Fleece Hotel, Thirsk on November 20.