Renowned for her warm, engaging stage presence, Sarah McQuaid is a versatile and beguiling performer. In addition to her own elegantly crafted originals, she interprets traditional Irish and Appalachian folk songs, Elizabethan ballads, 1930s jazz numbers, surprise covers and lively guitar instrumentals with panache and poignance.
Her deliciously earthy voice delivers a powerful emotional punch that's matched by her distinctive, eloquent guitar style. Add this to a real rapport with her audience, and you have all the ingredients of a great night out.
Born in Spain, raised in Chicago and holding dual Irish and American citizenship, Sarah 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.
Sarah moved to Ireland in 1994, and three years later released her debut solo album, When Two Lovers Meet. "Sarah's voice is both as warm as a turf fire and as rich as matured cognac. An astonishing debut by a unique talent," wrote the Rough Guide To Irish Music. Despite the critical acclaim, a long break from the music scene followed, during which Sarah married Feargal Shiels and had two children, Eli and Lily Jane.
When Two Lovers Meet was re-released in Ireland and the UK in 2007, a year that also saw Sarah touring as a solo artist for the first time and moving with her family to Cornwall, in the southwest corner of England. The following autumn she released her second album, I Won't Go Home 'Til Morning, which like its predecessor was recorded in Trevor Hutchinson's Dublin studio and produced by Gerry O'Beirne.
Sarah is also the author of The Irish DADGAD Guitar Book, described by The Irish Times as "a godsend to aspiring traditional guitarists," and has presented workshops on the DADGAD tuning at festivals and venues around the globe.
Crow Coyote Buffalo, an album of songs co-written by Sarah with fellow Penzance resident Zoë (author and performer
Photo by Ronald Rietman
of 1991 hit single 'Sunshine On A Rainy Day') under the band name Mama, has also been garnering rave reviews since its January 2009 release; one critic described the pair as "Two pagan goddesses channelling the ghost of Jim Morrison."
In 2010, Sarah re-released her first two albums in a double-disc package for the North American market, to coincide with her first US tour. The double CD became the No. 1 album, and Sarah the No. 1 artist, on the folkradio.org chart (based on playlists from 195 DJs) for February 2010 (http://folkradio.org/airplay/feb10.html); the final tally at year's end saw the double CD in the No. 6 slot for the year, beating powerful competition from far more established artists.
Now spending approximately six months of each year on the road in Ireland, the UK, Europe and the USA, Sarah was an official showcase artist at the International Folk Alliance conference in February 2011. She returned to the studio in June 2011 to record her third solo album, provisionally titled The Plum Tree and the Rose, once again with Gerry O'Beirne producing and Trevor Hutchinson engineering.
The focus this time round is on Sarah's own songwriting: nine of the thirteen tracks on the album are self-penned, three of these as co-writes with Gerry O'Beirne. O'Beirne also guests on the album, alongside Hutchinson on double bass, Bill Blackmore on trumpet and flugelhorn, Rod McVey on keyboards, violinists Máire Breatnach and Rosie Shipley, and percussionists Liam Bradley and Noel Eccles.
Title track 'The Plum Tree and the Rose', one of two tracks performed solo by Sarah on vocal and guitar, sets the twin themes of spiritual questioning and the relationship between soul and place themes that are developed in a trio of songs inspired by buildings: 'In Derby Cathedral', 'Hardwick's Lofty Towers' and 'Kenilworth'.
Other originals include 'Lift You Up and Let You Fly', a poignant ballad about the pain of letting go, 'The Sun Goes On Rising', a bluesy rumination on hard economic times, 'What Are We Going To Do', a song whose old-school structure hearkens back to Golden Age songwriters like Rodgers & Hart and Cole Porter, the wistful 'So Much Rain' and the six-part canon 'In Gratitude I Sing,' on which Sarah is joined by a chorus of guest vocalists among them well-known Irish singer Niamh Parsons.
Canons are another running theme of the album: 'In Derby Cathedral' has a canon by way of a postscript, and one of the album's four non-original tracks is 'New Oysters New', a three-part canon published in 1609 by Thomas Ravenscroft in his Pammelia: Mvsicks Miscellanie and sung here by McQuaid, Parsons and baritone Tom Barry.
Also on the menu are 16th century Elizabethan composer John Dowland's 'Can She Excuse My Wrongs', which like the title track is a spare voice-and-guitar-only arrangement, 'S'Anc Fuy Belha Ni Prezada', a 13th century "alba" or dawn song in Old Occitan, and a cover of John Martyn's 'Solid Air'. The album is expected to be released in the first quarter of 2012.
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