Singer, Songwriter and Guitarist Sarah McQuaid: Sometimes it’s better not to “dig too deep”

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Sarah McQuaid, singer, songwriter, and guitarist currently living in Cornwall, England, is a unique musical genius who has just released her fifth solo album If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous followed by a documentary of the same name. Her music cannot be compared to many artists today; once you listen, you will see why. Sarah is different, her music and performance are phenomenal. Huffington Post reported McQuaid’s show was one of their favorite shows ever!

She is an upcoming artist that is killing it in the media and finding herself working with big names like guitar legend Michael Chapman. It is a pleasure to be able to interview her today and learn more about her musical journey.

You have a style unlike any other. You are a complex artist with lyrics that expand one’s thoughts. Who are idols of yours that you can truly say motivated you to become the artist you are today?

The first artists I remember listening to when I was a small child were the Beatles and Ella Fitzgerald, and I have to say that they both still represent pinnacles of attainment that I’m always striving for: the Beatles in terms of songwriting, the complexity and variety of their song structures — they were constantly trying out different styles, particularly on The White Album — and Ella Fitzgerald in terms of singing, the quality of her voice, and how beautifully effortless she makes it seem, particularly on Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Rodgers & Hart Songbook which is one of my all-time favorite box sets. A bit later on, I discovered Carole King, who’s an idol of mine on both the vocal and songwriting fronts, and Joni Mitchell who first got me into trying out different guitar tunings. And then Nick Drake for the way he turns a song into a duet for voice and guitar, rather than having the guitar merely serving as accompaniment. I also have to mention Scottish guitarist and singer Dick Gaughan — it was his encouragement that made me decide to give up my day job and become a full-time musician, so I can truly say that I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today if it weren’t for him.

Philosophers are known to have such a way with words, which is unparalleled to the non-philosopher. Was going to school for philosophy at the University of Strasbourg helpful at all for your career in music?

Actually, my main philosophy studies were at Haverford College just outside Philadelphia, where I did my BA in philosophy; I only spent a year at the University of Strasbourg, under a “junior year abroad” program during my time at Haverford, and took three philosophy courses while I was there — one on Hegel, one on Sartre and one called “Language, Thought and Reality.” That last one definitely did have an impact on my songwriting, though, in that we were looking about how we shape the world through the way we speak about it — I think that’s something I do address in my songs. In my songwriting, I’m always looking at layers of meaning and metaphor — for example, in the title track of the new album I take a phrase I heard myself saying to my son apropos of a hole he was digging in our garden, and apply that first to fracking and the environment, and then on an even more metaphorical level to human relations and even our relationship with our own thoughts — sometimes it’s better not to “dig too deep”! I think studying philosophy helped to get me looking at words, concepts and the world in different ways. One of the reviewers of the new album wrote: “Seeing a shared world in a new way, from a different angle, is the role of the songwriter. Sarah gets a gold star on that front.” That made me really happy.

From your documentary If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous, we learned that the name of the album was inspired by your son. Does your son have a big impact on your music? If so, in what way?

Both of my children have inspired songs — I wrote the song “Lift You Up And Let You Fly” on my third album The Plum Tree And The Rose about my daughter, and she also gets a mention on the new album in the song “Cot Valley.” And my son provided the inspiration not only for “If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous” (which again was just something I heard myself saying to him about the size of a hole he was digging, so very prosaic altogether!) but also for the song “Yellowstone” on my fourth album Walking Into White — he’d been having trouble sleeping because he was lying awake and worrying about various things, one of which turned out to be the underground volcano beneath Yellowstone National Park — he was worried that it was going to erupt and trigger a chain reaction of volcanoes around the globe. Once again, it struck me as a wonderful metaphor, this time for the way we all have simmering under-the-surface situations that we’re tiptoeing over, fearful that they’ll erupt at any moment. There are also three songs on that album that were all inspired by the Swallows and Amazons series of books, which I’d been reading aloud to the kids at bedtime. So, I’m deeply indebted to them both for keeping me supplied with song ideas!

You are beginning to feature new instruments in your new album. Is the guitar your favorite instrument to use? Or is there another instrument you prefer to use at times?

The acoustic guitar is still probably always going to be my primary instrument of choice, but it’s been really exciting to get into playing electric guitar, piano and now drum as well — they’ve opened out all sorts of new musical worlds for me. I definitely want to write and perform more on the piano, and having learned to play some simple drum riffs in order to be able to accompany “One Sparrow Down” on drum when I’m playing it live on the album launch tour, I’m now thinking that I should also pursue that further and learn to do a bit more with it! I played piano even before guitar — I started playing piano when I was three, guitar when I was eight — but never took myself seriously as a pianist, even when I recorded the piano accompaniment for “The Silence Above Us.” But since I’ve been performing the song live with a stage piano, I’ve realised that I’m a better pianist than I thought I was — plus, it seems to bring a different dimension to my singing that wasn’t there before. But yes, I think the guitar will always come first. It’s just nice to have a few more tools at my disposal.

You have a strong presence in Europe and all around the UK. Do you notice a big following in the United States? Would you plan on touring in the States if you find a solid fan base?

I’ve been touring regularly in the USA since 2010 and feel I’m gradually building up a fan base there. As in the UK and Europe, though, it’s a frustratingly slow process — the fact that you needed to ask that question is in itself evidence of how little impact my touring has had on my profile! — and my audiences still vary wildly from gig to gig: I can do a show to a packed auditorium and then go a couple of hours down the road and have five people in the audience. In September and October of 2018, I’ll once again do a coast-to-coast 8-week US tour, which is something I’ve done quite a few times previously, and hope the new album has an impact on the turnouts this time round.

Congratulations with all of the positive reviews in the press! Huffington Post seemed to enjoy your show so much to call it one of their favorite shows EVER! How does it feel to hear such great feedback from fans and big media companies all over?

The feedback I’ve had for all my albums and tours has been fantastic — that’s been a constant from the beginning — and I’ve had some particularly lovely quotes about the new album. That positive reaction is what keeps me going — I keep telling myself that if so many people who are listening to music all the time in their professional lives listen to my music and find something special in it, then it must be good and surely eventually I’ll start to make a decent living from it! I don’t have any aspirations to be a huge star or to play stadium gigs or anything like that, but it would be nice to be able to finally make the repairs to my house that it desperately needs — my husband and kids have been putting up with an awful lot of discomfort for years now in the hope that I’ll eventually get somewhere with the music, and I’d really like to be able to prove that their faith in me wasn’t misplaced.

If you can choose one artist to go on tour with; who would it be and why?

I have to say that I really do prefer performing as a solo artist — I feel that because it’s just me and the audience, I have a more direct, personal relationship with the audience than I would if other artists were involved. So that’s something I wouldn’t want to lose. Having said that, it would be great to be able to watch and learn from some of my heroes up close. Carole King, for example — I think I could learn a lot from her about both songwriting and performing!

From your biography, we see that your mother was a huge part of learning music. Is she one of your main motivators to keep you going and creating great music every day?

I feel very sad that my mother died three years before I finally got up the courage to quit my journalism job and devote myself to music. I like to think that she’d have been proud of what I’ve achieved since then, and I hope I’m honouring her memory by doing what I do.

Sarah McQuaid Guitar Gear

My main guitar was custom-made for me by Andy Manson in 2008 and is fitted with a Fishman Matrix pickup; when playing live I use a Trace Elliot Acoustic TAP-1 preamp. On most of my albums (including the new one) I also play my 1965 Martin D-28 (bought from Vintage Instruments in Philadelphia many years ago when I was working there, paid for out of my wages over two years!). On both the new album and on my current tour, I’m playing Michael Chapman’s own Ibanez Artist model electric which he’s kindly given me on long-term loan. I rented an old Fender amp for the album recording, and on tour I’m using a Vox AV15 analog valve amp that I bought after we’d finished the album. I also put the electric through a Trace Elliot preamp that’s identical to the one I use on the acoustic, and on two of the songs I use a tremolo pedal and a Donner Yellow Fall delay pedal, respectively. I have both preamps, both pedals, and BOSS stage tuners for both guitars mounted in a Rockcase RC23010B pedal board. On the album, I also played Alex Warnes’ high-strung Squier Fender Stratocaster and Luke New’s Korg SP-250 stage piano; on tour I’m playing a Roland RD700 stage piano that’s been loaned to me by a musician friend called Ralph Houston, and a tom drum loaned to me by Roger Luxton who played drums and percussion on the new album. If the new album goes well, maybe I’ll be able to replace all those loaned instruments with owned ones ….

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