Cornwall-based singer-songwriter Sarah McQuaid is delighted to announce the release of the first singles and videos from her forthcoming album, concert film and video series, The St Buryan Sessions, parts of which date back to the 11th century.
The St Buryan Sessions had its genesis last spring, when Sarah’s gigs and tours were cancelled due to COVID-19. “I was in Germany, two weeks into a four-week European tour, when the whole Covid thing hit,” Sarah recalls, “and we had to quickly reschedule our ferry tickets, cut the tour short and hightail it home before all the borders closed. Then my April-May UK and Ireland tour had to be cancelled as well, and suddenly I was at a loose end, with no gigs and no income. A lot of my musician friends were live-streaming concerts from home, but I wasn’t keen on the idea, mainly because of dodgy Internet and the potential for technical disasters.
Wary of the technical pitfalls of live-streaming, she decided instead to pursue a long-held dream of making a live album. “I’ve always believed that there’s an element of magic in a live concert that’s really difficult to replicate in a studio,” she explains, “plus a lot of my songs have evolved and changed since I originally recorded them. I also felt like the standard of my own performances had really turned a corner in the last year or so, and I wanted to capture that on video — but with multiple cameras and high production values, not just somebody’s random film on a phone from the back of the room.”
Sarah set up a crowdfunding campaign on the FundRazr platform, and by the end of June it had reached over 100 percent of its £5,000 target, enabling her to hire an impressive team consisting of her longtime manager and sound engineer, Martin Stansbury, who produced, recorded and mixed the project; mastering engineer Stuart Bruce; Cornish filmmaker and director Mawgan Lewis of Purple Knif (who worked previously with Sarah on videos for her 2018 album If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous); and Eden Sessions veteran camera operator John Crooks.
“We wanted to try and somehow re-create what anyone would hear and see at a typical show,” Martin recalls. “Of course, what we wouldn’t have was an audience, so we looked for key factors that would influence Sarah’s performance. We decided to use her local church, a space she’d been singing in as part of the choir ever since she moved to Cornwall. We set her up as if it were a regular gig, no flash studio mics, just the same touring PA and monitors she’d walked onstage to a thousand times, so it would be truly home territory. There was a set list and she was to play her set and we would record it.”
There were a few concessions, such as toilet breaks and pauses between songs to move and reset cameras or wait for a lorry or airplane to go by (some passing vehicles made it onto the recording nonetheless, as did the squabbling swallows in the church porch – and at one point somebody’s mobile phone, making it an even more authentic replication of a live concert). Martin also placed ambient microphones around the soaring space to capture its natural acoustic and intensify the listener experience of “being there”, while Mawgan Lewis and John Crooks were able to take full advantage of camera angles that would not have been possible if audience sight-lines had been a consideration.
“I’m totally thrilled with the result,” says Sarah, “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. I’m really grateful to Canon Vanda Perrett and the St Buryan Parish Council, and to the St Buryan Male Voice Choir for letting me use their lovely grand piano, and most of all to the 184 individuals who contributed to the FundRazr campaign. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
“The Silence Above Us” is the first single from The St Buryan Sessions For the second and third singles, Sarah McQuaid delves deep into her back catalog to resurrect “Charlie’s Gone Home”, the first original song she ever recorded as a solo artist, then jumps forward again with “The Day Of Wrath, That Day”, a powerful instrumental composition for electric guitar.
Originally recorded on her 1997 debut album When Two Lovers Meet, “Charlie’s Gone Home” wasn’t a brand new song even then, Sarah recalls. “I’d actually written it back when I was still living in Philadelphia, so it would have been the late 1980s or early 90s. I can remember very clearly the day I wrote it – back in those days I was still thinking of myself not as a songwriter but as a folksinger who happened to write an occasional song when inspiration struck, so to speak. I remember reading an interview with some poet whose name I can’t remember, where she said that when she felt a new poem starting to arrive it was like an oncoming train, and she had to rush to her desk to be there ready with pen and paper when the train pulled in to the station.”
“Well, this song hit me exactly like an oncoming train, only one that was barrelling along at full steam with whistles blaring. It really knocked me for six, and I remember just sitting on the sofa crying and trying to wipe the tears off my guitar so they didn’t mark the finish – not because it was a sad song but just from the overwhelming emotional impact of writing it. It’s been kind of a special song for me ever since, and a lot of people have told me it’s a special song for them, too – at least two different people said ‘Well, I hope “Charlie’s Gone Home” is going to be on it’ as soon as I told them about the project.”
Due for release on Friday February 19, “Charlie’s Gone Home” will be followed on Friday March 12 with a new live interpretation of “The Day Of Wrath, That Day”, a track that only achieved its finished form on the day she recorded it for her landmark Michael Chapman-produced 2018 album If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous. 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.’”
“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. 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.”
“The Silence Above Us”, “Charlie’s Gone Home” and “The Day Of Wrath, That Day” will be available for streaming and download via Spotify, iTunes/Apple Music and other services and also as a pay-what-you-want download via sarahmcquaid.bandcamp.com . The roll-out of singles and videos will continue throughout the year, and Sarah hopes to release the full 15-track, 72-minute album on CD and double LP in late summer.
“What I’m hoping is that I can eventually do a big album launch concert in the church, whenever that becomes possible given the Covid situation, as a benefit for the church restoration fund. But in the meantime we’ve got the video series, and I hope people do tune in for the YouTube and Facebook premiere events – I’ll be on hand in the chat to answer questions and comments, so it’ll be nice to have some company!”
Award-winning Cornish poet Lawrence Illsley will be releasing his debut album Trees on 26th February 2021, featuring backing vocals from renowned folk musician Sarah McQuaid. The release coincides with his acclaimed collection of poems A Brief History of Trees (Live Canon, 2020), winner of the Live Canon Collection Competition 2020.
Trees was inspired by the sudden death of Lawrence’s mother from pancreatic cancer. After a year of living with grief, Lawrence felt compelled to return to his childhood home on the cliffs in Trewellard, Cornwall, to document and preserve the songs he used to share with his mum in front of a roaring fire. The vocals and guitar were recorded in that same living room in a series of sessions across two weeks.
These intimate, deeply personal recordings would have remained private were it not for encouragement from folk goddess Sarah McQuaid and her long-time manager and producer Martin Stansbury. Sarah offered to sing on the album, and Martín brought the recordings to life at his Cacophony Cottage studio, then pushed Lawrence to share the album with the world.
The year leading up to the recording of Trees is documented in the poems of Lawrence’s collection A Brief History of Trees. He tells of a performance in Pendeen church of “Sing Me A Love Song”, a gig by the Thames featuring “Ogres” and “Long Lost Rover”. To complete the cycle, the booklet of Trees contains a new, original poem, written especially for the release. The album also features Lawrence’s original artwork inspired by his popular Instagram page @abriefhistoryoftrees.
Trees will be released by Tiny Tree Records on 26th February 2021 and will be available for streaming via Spotify, Apple Music and other platforms; it can pre-ordered from Bandcamp, with “Ogres” as an immediate “instant gratification” download. A Brief History of Trees is available from Live Canon.
Photo Credits: (1)-(3) Sarah McQuaid (by Mawgan Lewis); (4)-(5) Lawrence Illsley (unknown/website).