Sarah McQuaid’s life has been all over the map. She was born in Spain, grew up in Chicago and studied in France during her final year of college.
After marrying an Irishman, she moved to his hometown of Nenagh and opened a music shop.
When the marriage dissolved, she moved to Dublin, worked as secretary and wrote music reviews before meeting and marrying her second husband, Feargal Shiels, an artist.
The couple now lives in Corwall, England, with their two children, Eli, 9 and Lily Jane, 8.
When she was growing up, music was an important part of McQuaid’s life. Her mother played guitar. McQuaid learned guitar and piano and was a member of the Chicago Children’s Choir. Soon, she was writing songs and playing with bands.
McQuaid, now in her 40s, is about to embark on a 7-week tour of the U.S., stopping in 39 cities, including a date on the Bowery Stage Sept. 10. Although on a camping trip with her family, she took a few minutes to answer questions about musical influences, her career and why she likes being an entertainer.
The Winnsboro News: How did you get started playing/singing/writing songs?
Sarah McQuaid: My mother taught me to play piano and guitar when I was little, and I think I was about eight years old when I wrote my first song. I wrote it out in musical notation and everything. It was a terrible song. I wrote some equally terrible songs when I was a teenager, and played them at school assemblies and chapel services. I was in my mid-twenties by the time I wrote my first halfway decent song – “Charlie’s Gone Home” – which I recorded on my first solo album and which I still play in concerts from time to time!
TWN: Explain DADGAD and how it informs your music.
SM: I’d tried a bunch of alternative tunings for guitar by the time I discovered DADGAD – it was a French guitarist who showed it to me when I was 18 years old and spending a year studying in France. It was kind of a Eureka moment – suddenly I could make all the sounds I’d been trying to make for years.
Because you have three strings tuned to D and two tuned to A, you get lot of what’s called sympathetic resonance: the strings you’re not playing resonate in sympathy with the strings you are playing, so you get this really full, rich sound.
You’ve also got a lot of flexibility for playing melody, countermelody and harmony as well as chords, and that’s a big influence on the way I write songs – I think of a lot of my songs as duets for voice and guitar, rather than just the guitar accompanying the voice.
TWN: You had an interesting childhood. Do you remember living in Spain?
SM: I’m afraid not! I was only two years old when we left.
TWN: You grew up in Chicago. How did that influence your music? Or did it?
SM: I was only 13 when we left Chicago, so it’s not as if I had much of a chance to hang out in famous blues clubs, but one really strong influence on my musical development was that from age 7 to 13 I was a member of the Chicago Children’s Choir.
That was an early introduction to the professional side of music – hours of rehearsal every week, plus extra time for voice training when I got a little older and became a soloist, and from age nine onwards I was going on tour with the choir for ten days at a time.
It was a hectic schedule – in a typical day on tour we could have two or three school performances during the day, maybe a local television taping, a big concert in the evening, and then we’d all be parcelled out to host families who’d put us up and make packed lunches for us to take with us the next morning – we’d all be comparing our packed lunches on the tour bus, seeing who got what!
TWN: You cover some pretty great songwriters – Bobbie Gentry, Jerry Jeff Walker – and you cover Roberta Flack’s cover of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” How do you pick cover songs?
SM: I don’t cover a song unless I feel like I can bring something new to it, make it my own in some way – there’s no point in slavishly copying the original.
But I also try and pick songs that are very well known, because part of the reason for doing a cover is to grab the listener’s attention – say they’re listening to the radio while washing the dishes or whatever, if they hear a song they recognise but it’s a different version to the one they know, they’ll stop what they’re doing and go “Hang on, I know that song, but who’s that singing it?” And then that might lead them to my own music. It’s a way of drawing people in.
TWN: You have an ambitious concert schedule coming up – 39 shows in 7 weeks – from California to Cape Cod, with a few stops in Texas. How on earth do you prepare for a trip like this?
SM: Well, right at the moment I’m away camping with my family for ten days!
When I get home again I’ll start putting together a set list for the tour and rehearsing it, as well as doing all the logistical stuff like getting travel insurance, booking hotels and so on.
TWN: Do you miss your “other lives” … as a secretary, editor, music shop owner?
SM: Nope! I’m happier than I’ve ever been. It’s tough financially, and I hope that’ll improve – I used to never be in debt, and now I have to be in debt just to survive and keep the family fed – but it’s a good quality of life and to me, that’s what counts.
TWN: What do you hope your audience learns/feels/leaves with?
SM: I’ve had people come up and tell me after gigs that they nearly didn’t go because they were feeling so tired and frazzled when they got home from work that day, but they were so glad they did because they’re going away feeling happy and relaxed.
It’s fantastic to hear things like that, because it makes me feel that I’ve done my job. I like that old-fashioned word “entertainer” – as far as I’m concerned, that’s what I’m paid for: to entertain people, to get them to stop feeling hassled and worried and fed up, even if it’s only for a couple of hours!
And of course if they leave with handfuls of my CDs, that’s even better (laughs).
TWN: What is your favorite part of your career? Least favorite?
SM: My favourite bit is actually performing, doing the gigs and getting the audience reaction, but of course that’s also the part of my job that I spend the least amount of time on, whereas the part that I spend the biggest amount of time on is also my least favourite: all the admin that goes with it, booking the gigs, updating the website, posting on social media.
I think if you asked any musician that question they’d give you the same answer!
TWN: Talk about your life in Cornwall and why you settled there. How do your children deal with your travel schedule?
SM: We moved to Cornwall purely because of our house, which used to be my mother’s house before she died, but it’s actually turned out to be a wonderful place to live and bring up kids, and I’ve made some really close friends there.
I’m very lucky in that while I do spend a lot of time on the road, when I’m at home I can be there for the kids 24/7 – so on balance I think I spend more time with them than if I had a 9 to 5 job, especially since I can fit my touring around their school year, so anytime they’re off school I’m home.
I’m also very lucky in that my husband is there to look after the kids when I’m away.
I do phone or Skype home every few days and the kids always seem fine when I do – I guess they’re pretty well used to it by now. I do feel like I’m missing out on a lot, though, which is why I’m taking next year off from touring – I’ll still do local gigs and festivals that don’t take me away from home for more than a few days at a time, but no more seven-week tours for a while!
General admission tickets to McQuaid’s Sept. 10 show are $12 in advance and $15 at the door. Reserved seating is $20. Tickets are available at Winnsboro Emporium, by calling Winnsboro Center for the Arts at 903-342-0686 or at their website.
To watch a video of Sarah McQuaid singing “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” click here.