Interview with Sarah McQuaid
We're talking to one of our 'Album of the Month' winners, Sarah McQuaid about her latest album ‘Walking into White’ - we discuss some of the influences and inspirations that brought the album's songs to life and explore some of Sarah's views on music.
FW: Where do your influences originate – family, locations, experiences?
SM: The answer is probably a little of everything although that’s changed over the years. Looking back across the first three albums a pattern of influence begins to emerge. I was living in Ireland during the first album ‘When Two Lovers Meet’, which given my surroundings, was primarily traditional Irish material. At that time I hadn’t really thought of myself as a songwriter. Then, there was a distinct change with the second album ‘I Won’t Go Home ’Til Morning’, when a more American influence appeared, with the inspiration of Appalachian music, old-time folk and people like Peggy Seeger. And then I moved to England and made ‘The Plum Tree and The Rose’.
That’s probably the time when I began thinking of myself as a songwriter and sitting down to write a song rather than waiting for inspiration to strike. ‘The Plum Tree and The Rose’ has more original songs and a distinct ‘English feel’ to it because I picked up the influences of the country’s history from buildings and places. They’re songs that mix personal feelings with imagination and the influence of my surroundings. And now with ‘Walking into White’ there’s another set of influences coming into play.
FW: So would you say that ‘Walking into White’ has a ‘different’ feel?
SM: Yes it does, I wanted to achieve a very different soundscape. There’s a flow to the album alternating between contrasting tracks, some are very spare whereas some are deliberately chunky and full.
FW: Do you believe that innovation and heritage can work hand in hand?
SM: Of course, it’s ridiculous to suggest otherwise. Every song had to be written by somebody at some time and every song that exists came out of somebody’s imagination. Each time a song arrives it has some form of innovation added to it. With ‘Hardwick’s Lofty Towers’ from ‘The Plum Tree and The Rose’, I was trying to write ‘in the tradition’ because the images I tried to create needed a song that evoked the time that I was writing about. That’s not really not the case with ‘Walking into White, however I suppose you could say that the acapella triptych ‘Sweetness and Pain’ is kind of a deliberate attempt to write songs with an older feel.
FW: There's almost a kind of medieval feel to those songs.
SM: I suppose that in some way that was my intention.
FW: Can you explain the influences of Swallows and Amazons on ‘Walking into White’?
SM: It began with reading Arthur Ransome’s books ‘Swallows and Amazons’ to my children. We read aloud a chapter each night at bedtime, which took us a good year to get through all of them. As we read the books, the situations kept striking chords with me, especially the wonderful images and metaphors. Obviously, the songs ended up coming with my own perspectives, with ‘The Tide’ for example, I was thinking of getting metaphorically stuck in the mud. That seems especially true with relationships when you founder and flail around yet you’re watching others sailing serenely by as you’re making no progress.
FW: That’s an image that must strike a chord with lots of people.
SM: If you’re writing about your own experience in some way and putting the essence of those experiences into a song, I think a song somehow fails unless people find a resonance within it. Sometimes people tell me a song really speaks to them, echoing their own experiences or helping them with a tough time. When that happens I feel the song has succeeded. The theme of uncertainty running through ‘Where The Wind Decides To Blow’ continues the influence from ‘Swallows and Amazons’, looking at life and what’s around the corner. Life is all going fine and suddenly you realise you’re not actually in control.
FW: ‘Swallows and Amazons’ is similar to ‘The Wind in the Willows’ - working on more than one level.
SM: Absolutely. Naturally, there’s the children’s story but there’s also the deeper meanings that adults can relate to. The opening paragraph of the chapter, ‘The Piper at The Gates of Dawn’ from ‘The Wind in the Willows’ is so beautiful and evocative. It works as a children’s story, yet it also encapsulates images of fear and wonder that all adults can recognise. As with ‘Swallows and Amazons’ it’s a book written for children but if you’re an adult you hear the sub-text.
FW: What about the story behind ‘Yellowstone’?
SM: Actually the inspiration came from my son. He had experienced some trouble sleeping and I encouraged him to write down any worries or problems that were in his head. I told him that once he wrote them down, they were out in the open and easier to deal with. Children have a view on the world that is unique. He had obviously heard about the Yellowstone ‘supervolcano’ and it had set some thoughts running through his mind. If you look at the album booklet, behind the printed lyrics is a scan of the actual piece of paper where he had written down his concerns over the possible eruption of the Yellowstone setting off a chain reaction around the world. So when I saw what he had written I wrote the song as a metaphor about the bubbling torment of trouble that sometimes exists below ground for all of us and the feelings of fear experienced when you’re trying not to set things off.
FW: That prompts the question, do words drive the music or music drive the words?
SM: The words do tend to be primary but some songs start with me just noodling away on the guitar, sometimes a riff comes up and then I look for words that go with it. With the song ‘Walking into White’ it started with the guitar riff and the phrase: ‘The fog came down a white cloud on the ground’. When I had the whole ‘Swallows and Amazons’ thing wandering around in my head, I thought that’s where I could use the phrase. So although that track started with the guitar, I guess the concept had been there for some time.
FW: Do melodies or words that have been ‘hanging around’ eventually form songs?
SM: Certainly, when I sat down to write ‘Walking into White’ I had lyric fragments written down and audio memos recorded on my phone. I literally had tons of ideas – lyrics without melodies and melodic ideas with no lyrics - it was only when I found myself faced with a studio-time deadline that I sat down and sorted through everything and worked up the ideas that most appealed to me. Naturally, there were some ideas that didn’t make it to the album, one particular song was recorded but ditched because we didn’t think it was as strong as the others. And then the other day I just came across the scratch recording and found that I’d almost forgotten the song existed. Who knows, it will probably get filed away perhaps to return some time in the future in a different format.
The title track on ‘The Plum Tree and the Rose’ is a perfect example of a song that took a while to come together. I originally wrote a different version of it with almost the same lyrics but a totally different melody and rhythm. It was a more upbeat, driving song that I’d performed live a few times but it didn’t seem to be working. Then it came back to me as I was driving to a gig a year or so after I’d set it aside, so I sung it as an acapella song and it went down really well. Then I thought maybe needs a guitar part, so it took another year before it finally came
FW: Many artists look to ancient or traditional songbooks for inspiration, do you?
SM: For the most part my songs would be related to experience, however I found a little Elizabethan songbook and worked with that. I guess you can hear influences like that in songs like ‘Hardwick’s Lofty Towers’ and ‘In Derby Cathedral’. Folk music doesn’t have to be exclusively traditional it’s more what you’re trying to convey.
FW: The track ‘Leave It For Another Day’ has both a contemporary and traditional feel.
SM: That’s true. There’s certainly a contemporary feel to it although it may not be precisely what some traditionalists might expect. The song was written together with Gerry O’Beirne, so there’s also a lot of his influences in there too. Any song has to eventually ‘stand alone’ in the same way that all music has to, all I can hope for is that my music reaches people, even though on occasion it may not be what they expect.
FW: Surely that’s the same with anything creative?
SM: Of course. One of the drivers for a songwriter is to reach people. If a song catches the soul of someone it’s immensely fulfilling. I try to capture specific and also some universal images. It’s great if someone can find a link when they think of that image and relate it to their own lives. I’m not sure what it is but if someone can get something like an emotional catharsis then maybe I’ve done my job. It might not happen all the time but I know it does sometimes. Songs tell stories and stories touch people.
FW: Do you see a powerful narrative a driving force in folk?
SM: Folk songs tell stories but there are pop songs that also tell stories - it’s something you tend to find in the folk genre. The narrative in a song is what gives it its longevity. The simplistic or superficial pop song is what many people think of when you mention pop music. However, that's not all it has to offer, many pop songs offer more than that, from tongue in cheek tales to emotive narratives. All you have to do is take a look at songs like ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ or ‘American Pie’, they’re all narrative songs. To a large extent some pop songs have become folk songs, for example ‘Yellow Submarine’ is regularly being sung in play groups and around campfires, it’s a song that’s become part of the folk heritage of a generation, and there are many more.
FW: What’s your view on the ‘folk, not folk’ argument?
SM: It’s crazy. When I’m trying to book gigs I constantly encounter: ‘We’re a folk club and you’re not really folky enough for us’. Then just as regularly I come across: ‘You’re too folky for our audience’. It’s incredibly annoying. I play quite a number of village hall gigs and I like them because nobody is too concerned about what category to put you in, everybody in the village simply turns out because it’s a good night out.
FW: So, following on from ‘Walking into White’ what’s next?
SM: I definitely want to work with Jeremy Backofen and Adam Pierce again. I feel that we can do even more next time, we know each other better and the experience of making ‘Walking into White’ makes the thought of moving on to another project even more exciting. So the plan is to take a year out from touring in 2017 to give myself enough time to focus on the process and bring out album number five at the start of 2018.
FW: Sarah, thank you it’s been a pleasure talking to you.