FolkWorld #76 11/2021
© Martin Stansbury ( / Pat Tynan Media

Sarah McQuaid

The St. Buryan
Sessions (Pt. 1)

The St. Buryan
Sessions (Pt. 2)

Sarah McQuaid

The St Buryan Sessions (Part 3)

Born out of the pandemic, The St Buryan Sessions is the sixth solo album by award-winning multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter Sarah McQuaid, and is her most powerful and emotive offering yet. The album had its genesis in the spring of 2020, when Sarah’s gigs and tours were cancelled due to COVID-19. Thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign, she was able to finance a live solo recording (sans audience) in the lovely medieval church of St Buryan, not far from her home in rural West Cornwall.

Sarah McQuaid

Artist Video Sarah McQuaid @ FROG

Sensitively captured by her longtime sound engineer and manager, Martin Stansbury, with the aid of ambient microphones placed throughout the church, the sound of Sarah’s voice and music soars through the stunning acoustic space as she moves between acoustic guitar, piano, electric guitar and floor tom drum, performing songs that span her 24-year career – from “Charlie’s Gone Home”, originally recorded on her 1997 debut album When Two Lovers Meet, to electric guitar based pieces from her most recent studio album If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous — plus a pair of previously unrecorded covers.

The album opens, as do many of her live shows, with the a cappella “Sweetness and Pain”, an ode to the weakness of personal will when confronted by tempting albeit hurtful circumstance, which sets the tone for the album as Sarah’s voice reverberates around the empty sanctuary. In a rare concession to the solo format, the rocky “If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous” features the live looping by Martin that many fans are familiar with from her concerts over the years. On “The Silence Above Us”, a hauntingly appropriate metaphor for these times of doubt and fear, Sarah makes use of the beautiful grand piano that resides in the church, while her vintage floor tom drum comes into play on “One Sparrow Down”, a percussive, upbeat homily on the folly of attacking an imagined enemy.

She also tackles some new (for her) material: the classic jazz standard “Autumn Leaves”, on which she demonstrates the full dynamic range of her lush, distinctive voice, and a cover of “Rabbit Hills”, written by her dear friend (and past producer), the late Michael Chapman. This second piece was commissioned by Michael’s wife as a gift for his 80th birthday and sees Sarah once again at the piano, her compelling, heartfelt delivery revealing her immersion in the rich imagery of Chapman’s evocative lyrics.

Conceived as a concert set and including such fan favourites as “In Derby Cathedral”, “The Sun Goes On Rising” and “Yellowstone”, the album is a journey not only through a wide range of instrumentation and styles, but also through the spectrum of emotions that Sarah evokes in her performance and invokes in the listener. This is never more evident than on the album closer “Last Song”, a poignant tribute to her late mother that expresses deep sadness mingled with joy in the way the spirits of our loved ones travel with us – and proves the depths of feeling to which a songwriter can move an audience.

The recording was filmed by Cornish filmmaker and director Mawgan Lewis of Purple Knif with the aid of Eden Sessions veteran camera operator John Crooks, and the album release will be accompanied by a full concert video. In the meantime, Sarah has been releasing a series of videos of individual songs to her YouTube channel, where Lewis’ short documentary “The Making Of The St Buryan Sessions”, featuring interviews and song snippets, can also be viewed.

A six-week, 21-date UK tour marks the album’s launch, and Sarah’s 2022 tour plans include the UK, Netherlands, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland and USA. “I can’t wait to get back out on the road again,” Sarah enthuses. “Obviously I’m nervous about COVID, but I desperately miss performing to live audiences. The few gigs that I’ve managed to do this summer have been so, so lovely – every time I do a gig, it just brings home how much I’ve missed it.”

Sarah McQuaid

The poignant, emotional “Last Song” is the latest track to be released from Sarah McQuaid’s much-anticipated new CD and double LP The St Buryan Sessions. A perennial favourite amongst Sarah’s devoted fan base, the song was first recorded on her 2008 album I Won’t Go Home ’Til Morning, not long after the Spain-born, USA-raised singer-songwriter moved to Cornwall (having been living for the previous 13 years in Ireland).

“It’s a really special song for me,” explains McQuaid. “It’s been in my live set forever and always gets a really strong reaction — I see people crying, and then a lot of the time I wind up crying, too! Which is why I tend to save it for the encore, so it doesn’t matter if my mascara starts running. I wrote it back when I was still living in Ireland and my kids were toddlers — I used to try and fit in some guitar practice and get them to sleep at the same time by sitting and playing outside their room after I put them to bed, and it took me right back to when I was little and my mother used to do the same thing.”

“I have such a clear memory of lying in bed, looking at the ribbon of light shining through the door and calling out requests for songs I wanted to hear. She’d answer ‘Are you still awake? Go to sleep!’ And one night I heard myself saying exactly the same thing to my kids, and it was like my mother’s voice coming out of my mouth. And I wanted so much to be able to call her up and tell her about it, but of course I couldn’t, because she died just six months after my first child was born. They’re teenagers now, and it breaks my heart that she never got to know them and they never got to know her.”

Photo Credits: (1ff) Sarah McQuaid (unknown/website).

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