Sarah McQuaid is a veteran singer-songwriter and guitarist, a subtle and stunning instrumentalist who’s one of the leading exponents of the alternative DADGAD tuning on the instrument. She’s toured relentlessly for years, and released several albums along the way. When lockdown came, it hit her hard; everything came to a halt. Her answer was to record this album in a church near her home in Cornwall, with only her soundman/engineer in attendance. No new material from her pen, but more like a concert, each track performed live and without overdubs, a journey through her career.
Starting a capella is a bold move, but “Sweetness And Pain” makes for a powerful opening statement, drawing in the ears. Her performance echoes the strength of the song itself, a wonderful piece of work. From there, the quality never dips.
McQuaid moves from acoustic to electric guitar, and from piano to floor tom drum, which provides the accompaniment on “One Sparrow Down” – stripped down from the range of percussion she used on the original record. But that pared-back ethos is part of what makes this album stand out. It’s stark, one woman, one voice and the instruments she plays.
The focus, understandably, is on guitar. She’s a remarkable player, but she’s never flashy in what she does. Even the sole instrumental, “The Wrath Of The Day, That Day,” has no flash, just a kind of hymnal insistence to match its title, a piece of shifting textures that can take far more control than ripping out a single-string solo.
Only two songs here aren’t her own compositions. “Autumn Leaves” is a standard, probably sung by every jazz vocalist for decades. She takes it away from the genre, so you hear the song and the longing, not the jazz, which brings an entirely different quality to a piece she’s often performed, but never previously recorded.
The other is a version of “Rabbit Hills,” by the late Michael Chapman, who’d been a friend and sometime adviser to McQuaid. Her take on it had originally been commission by Chapman’s partner for his 80th birthday. Now it stands as a memorial. Interesting, she performs the song on piano, not guitar, Chapman’s instrument. It’s deliciously vulnerable.
About the only time technology intrudes is on the lyrically blossoming “In Derby Cathedral,” one of her most beautiful compositions. To replace the original round from the album, looping allows her to sing a canon with herself for a stunning coda.
Vocally, and in the style of her compositions., McQuaid is heir to those great 70s American singer-songwriters, perhaps no real surprise given she grew up in the US. The influence is strong. But hearing her now, with everything bared this way, it’s apparent how much she’s grown into her own voice and created her own strengths. A lockdown project that does so much more than simply fill time.
Visit the artist online.
Photo ©2021 Phil Nicholls