Sarah McQuaid Contemplates Life, Death And More With New LP

Jun 27, 2018

Credit Phil Nicholls.

Sarah McQuaid’s latest release is If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous. The record marks a few milestones in the veteran guitarist/vocalist’s career. It marks the first time she’s played electric guitar on a recording and the first time she’s used piano on an LP as well. Produced by acclaimed guitarist Michael Chapman, the record highlights the brilliance of McQuaid’s compositions as well as her singular playing.

An author and expert on the Irish DADGAD tuning, McQuaid has live performances book through the end of this year. Learn more about her here: https://www.sarahmcquaid.com/bio/

How did you first connect with Michael Chapman?

We met in 2014 at the Village Pump Festival, where he was playing as well. I got up my courage and went over to say hello. To my astonishment, he knew who I was and knew my music and said, “Come sit down and have a drink with us.” We had a bit of a chat then and then the next morning it turned out that he and his wife were staying in the same hotel where myself and my manager were staying. We came down in the morning for breakfast and they said, “Come sit and have breakfast with us.” We had a big long chat over breakfast and it turned out that I was going to be doing a gig in Memphis at the same time his wife was there on business.

She came to hear me and then she and Michael arranged a concert for me at their local cricket club back in England. Michael opened for me! I said, “Yeah, OK!” The emcee at the club got up and said, “We always like to get up and give a chance to up-and-coming artists to do a support set.” Michael walked onstage and everybody started laughing.

That was the start of the friendship and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. Their house became kind of a nice stopping off point on tours. They’re midway between England and Scotland in a kind of no-man’s land called Cumbria. During one of my visits Michael asked if I was going to make a new album. I said that I was thinking about it and he said, “Why don’t you let me produce it?” It was an easy decision.

At what point did you become aware of his work?

He had his initial heyday in the 1960s when I was only a baby. He’s had a more recent heyday since then. I guess I was always aware of his work. He did a tour with Thurston Moore and I started looking more into Michael’s work and got really excited about it. I just loved his playing. I loved his songwriting. He’s such a good songwriter, an amazing songwriter.

I rediscovered this whole history of his music, his back catalog which stretches pretty far back. He made the album 50, which came out last year. It’s such a beautiful album. I really, really loved it. So, it was an honor to be able to work with him.

The guitar community you’re part of it seems close-knit.

You get your usual suspects. In fact, it kind of drives me crazy with festivals. I don’t know if it’s true in the U.S. but in the U.K. you see the same names cropping up over and over again. If you’re not in that little clique it can start to feel like a closed club. But I’m getting there. The albums have always been really well-received critically, it’s just my profile. I still struggle for name recognition. Hopefully with this new album we’ll start seeing a bit of that.

It’s interesting that in the U.S. at least people like William Tyler and Glenn Jones are finding wider audiences.

We’ve definitely seen that with Michael Chapman and all these young musicians, and not folk musicians, sort of indie musicians championing his music. He’s got a whole new audience that he wouldn’t have had before that are discovering his music and getting really excited about it. That’s fantastic to see. I think genres generally seem to be breaking down a little bit.

There seems to be less of a division between what’s folk, what’s pop, what’s indie. All of those categories are more meaningless than they’ve ever been. Music is music, that’s what I’ve always thought.

It’s interesting because I can see people who are into early Fairport Convention or Wishbone Ash liking your records.

I have weirdly eclectic audiences. My audience tends to be a somewhat older audience. But when I do get young people coming to shows they’re the ones who will go on to iTunes and buy my entire back catalog while they’re sitting there and then come show me on their phones that they’ve done that.

It’s really nice when that happens.

In England there’s a whole network of village halls and community centers that are mostly in small, rural communities. People will come out to those gigs even if they’ve never heard of you because there’s something happening in their local village hall or community center. A lot of them wind up being long-term fans.

What, if anything, was different about the material you wrote this time out?

I kept the approach I used on the last album, Walking Into White. Unlike previous albums I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for that one. I suddenly found myself with studio time booked and a bunch of studio ideas scribbled down or recorded as voice memos on my phone. But I didn’t have finished songs. So I sat down and went through all my song ideas that I’d been accumulating and wrote all of the songs at once.

I was so happy with that that I decided, deliberately, to do it again with the new album. I had more preparation time with this one. I forced myself not to finish songs until I felt like I was ready to sit down and put the material together. I actually sat down and did a bunch of songwriting in one big burst. It resulted in a coherent bunch of songs that all bore some relation to each other but were all different from each other.

I was really careful not to write something that was the same tempo or style of one of the other pieces. Sometimes I’d ask a question in one song and answer it in another. The biggest difference this time was that I was playing electric guitar for the first time. I’d never done that before. That was down to Michael. He’d sent me his own guitar by UPS and said, “I want you to write some stuff on this.”

I wrote four pieces, three songs and an instrumental on the electric guitar. At the end of the recording I thought I had to hand Michael back his guitar. I was feeling really sad and he said, “I’m not using that guitar, why don’t you keep it for a while?” I’ve been using it in the live shows.

I’d also never played piano on an album before. So, I’ve started touring with one as well. It makes the stage kind of crowded in some of the venues I play. Some people look at that setup and say, “I didn’t know you were bringing a band.” I say, “No, there is no band, it’s just me. I’m playing all those instruments.” I’ve got a drum as well on stage.

I’m assuming that you had played electric guitar before but that this was the first time you were using it on a recording.

No. [Laughs.]

Really?

I had never even tried playing electric guitar until one of the times I was visiting Michael. I was at his house, he handed me this guitar and said, “Try playing that.” If anybody else had handed me an electric guitar I probably would have said, “Ah, no thanks.”

But when Michael Chapman hands you an electric guitar you take it. He was twiddling the knobs on the amp getting all kinds of different sounds out of it. It was kind of a eureka moment. Suddenly I had access to all these new sounds and effects that I’d never had before. The songs that I wrote on it, I wouldn’t have written those songs and that instrumental on the acoustic because the songs are very much inspired by the sounds that I was getting out of the electric guitar.

That was a massive discovery for me. I’m so grateful to Michael to letting me make that discovery.

Do you now have moments where you don’t want to put it down?

Oh yeah. I’m looking forward to writing more on electric. I’m looking forward to writing more on piano. It’s still early days with this album but I can hardly wait to get going on the next one because I’ve suddenly got all these new tools at my disposal.

Was there a song that showed you the shape the rest of the record would take?

The first album I started writing for this album was “Slow Decay.” It certainly set the theme. I was thinking about sound waves. I was thinking about decay in the sense of note decay. And then both waves in the sound sense as well as waves in water. That got me thinking on a more metaphorical level about life and death and what do you leave behind. That kind of set the theme.

I can’t remember after that what order they came in but these themes of death and new life started developing. I’d wanted to do a cover of “Forever Autumn” by Jeff Wayne. That indicated the way for a couple of tracks as well. There’s a little musical theme at the beginning of “Forever Autumn” which comes from the Dies irae, which is a Gregorian chant which is all about the apocalypse.

By the time I realized that I’d already written the title track which has all this apocalyptic imagery about the fire and the flood and the earthquakes. All of those things are in the Dies irae so that was another kind of serendipity. You don’t even realize that two things are even related to each other and then there they are. It suddenly seems almost as if you planned it that way.

“The Tug of the Moon” was another key track. I think it’s the best song I’ve ever written. It’s one of those songs that you write and say, “How did I write that? Where did that come from? Am I ever going to be able to write anything this good again? I don’t know.”

I sometimes finish a project without any knowledge of what’s next and I get worried. I think, “When’s it’ going to come?” Do you have those moments?

Oh yeah. I’m excited about writing more but I haven’t a clue what the songs are going to be about. But I think it’s OK that I haven’t had any ideas for new songs yet. I think they’ll come. There’s a line in the title track about the best way of fixing a problem being to turn the pressure off.

I try to tell myself that all the time. Sometimes it’s best to sit back and wait for the solution to present itself.

You were talking about this idea of decay and the idea that in the end of one thing there’s the start of another. Do you have any idea what put you in that frame of mind?

In some sense they’re the things that have always been in my mind. I’m getting older. My kids are 12 and 14. They’re about to be teenagers, so I’m looking at their lives and starting to see them grow up. You’re thinking all the time about where are you going, what are you leaving behind. What’s ahead? At what point in your life are you?

I’ve realized that unless I manage to live an extremely long time I’m closer to the end of my life than I am the beginning. That’s a heavy duty thing to realize.

I shared that recently with a friend. “This is how old I am, this is how old my dad was when he died. I’ve probably only got X amount of time left.” They said, “Ah, you’re so morbid,” but I said, “No, actually, I’m really thinking about how I want to live that period.”

Exactly. My mother was 67 when she died. That’s really young. Her dad, my grandfather, was only in his fifties when he died. So we’re not a really healthy family! [Laughs.] I hope I’ll last longer but even still you’ve got to think about this stuff and you can’t not think about this stuff. I don’t think it has to be morbid. You’re just conscious. It’s good in the way that it makes you really focus on what’s important in life and where are the good places to put your energy. What’s a good thing to devote your time to and focus on?

Nobody knows how short is really going to be. You’ve got to focus on the stuff and set your priorities.