AFTER a life’s journey so far that’s taken her from her birthplace, Madrid, over to the States and on to Ireland, folk singer-songwriter Sarah McQuaid has put down roots in the vibey, windswept, granite-hard Penwith peninsula at the end of Cornwall.
With all the constraints of the lockdown purdah, she’s been busy recording a series of caught-in-the-round, intimate single videos, all filmed in the hallowed granite surroundings and resonant acoustic of St Buryan Parish Church.
She’s releasing a full album in the summer; last month we took a look at her intimate and pretty knockout version of “Charlie’s Gone Home”, a track taken from her first LP – in fact, the first original song she ever recorded as a solo artist.
This weekend she’s dropping a powerful instrumental composition, singing out on electric guitar, “The Day Of Wrath, That Day”. It’s a track that only finally came to fruition on her 2018 album If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous.
That album was produced by British folk guitar legend Michael Chapman, himself no stranger to far West Cornwall, being a former regular at the folk club at Botallack back in the day.
“Before that album, I’d never played electric guitar – it wasn’t something that would even have occurred to me,” Sarah admits. “It was totally down to Michael.
“We were staying at his house during one of my tours, and he produced this lovely red Ibanez Artist, plugged it into an amp and said ‘Try playing this.’
“And you know, if anybody else but Michael Chapman had handed me an electric and told me to play it, I’d have said ‘Nah, I’m really more of an acoustic guitar type.’ But when it’s one of your heroes handing you one of his own instruments and you’re a guest in his house, you say yes, so I took the guitar and started playing it, and almost immediately I was blown away by all the different sounds I could get out of it – sounds that wouldn’t have been achievable with an acoustic.
“I was totally and utterly entranced, and I just sat there cross-legged on the rug beside the amp, playing and playing for ages while Michael sat back on the sofa drinking wine and smiling to himself.
“But then we went off the next day and continued on the tour, and I guess if I thought anything it was something like ‘Well, maybe someday if I can ever afford it I should think about buying an electric guitar.’
“So it was a total bolt from the blue when Michael phoned me up months later, after we’d started talking about him producing my next album, and said ‘I need you to give me your address so I can UPS you that red guitar you played the last time you visited. I want you to write some songs for the new album on it.’
And so “The Day Of Wrath, That Day” came to pass; and it rings out beautifully in the style of the guitar’s owner, maybe bringing a little of Michael’s soul with him; those medieval arches letting her solo guitar resonate out, languid, rising, and also bringing to mind the essays of William Tyler.
“I always like to include at least one instrumental track on any album I make, so of course I wanted to write one on the electric, to take advantage of that whole sonic spectrum that I’d never worked with before, ” Sarah says.
“But every time I played the piece it started taking me somewhere different, and by the time we got into the studio and started recording the album I still hadn’t settled on a final version of it.
“I was really worried that the track wasn’t ready to record, but Michael said ‘Just sit down and play it a few times through, and we’ll record it and see what happens’.
“I think it was only the second or third take I did that Michael said ‘That’s the one’ while the final note was still tailing off – on the album version you can actually hear him say it. So then I had to sit down with that recording and memorise what I’d done so I could play the track live! And thankfully I still have the guitar on long-term loan from Michael, so I was able to use it for the St Buryan Sessions recording.”
Filmed and recorded in the village parish church out on the Penwith peninsula, these sessions had their roots in the cancellation of Sarah’s tour with the pandemic on the rise. She used crowdfunding to finance a beautifully recorded and filmed album and video series that would capture the essence of a live performance in the far west.
“I’m totally thrilled with the result,” she says, “and I’m so glad that we were able to do it in a place that’s been so special to me on a personal level – plus, the church itself had a huge impact on the overall sound, as well as on the visuals.”