We spoke with Sarah McQuaid about death, pancakes, the existence of an afterlife, trees falling in storms, the approaches passed down from older generations of musicians and the oppressive properties of ordinary electronic devices.
All night you’re hearing screeches and screams, creatures being hunted and killed by other creatures, and during the day the birds can be incredibly loud.
To start things off, can you tell me about your experiences working with Michael Chapman, one of the all-time guitar greats? I’m really interested in how older generations of artists pass on their knowledge and understanding — specifically, how it must have been a completely different world in which people put out music 50 years ago.
It was definitely a different world back then. Michael’s albums were first on Harvest, which was part of EMI, and then on Decca, so he existed in that major-label world where the artist’s only job is to make music and everything else is handled by the label. Very few artists exist in that world any more — I certainly never have!
I did have some dealings with a label way back in the mid-1990s before I’d released my first album — I’d recorded it and was shopping it around to record companies — but they wanted to buy that album from me so that they could put it away and not release it, and pay me a retainer to work on writing songs for a new album which they would release. But having put all the effort into recording that album, I wasn’t at all keen on the idea of being paid to have it disappear forever!
In hindsight, I can see why they wanted to do that, because I only had one original song on that first album, whereas my albums now consist almost entirely of original material. So while I’m still proud of that first album, it wasn’t really representative of the direction I was headed in, and that’s why they didn’t want it to be released. That’s not to say that I made the wrong decision, though. If I’d taken their offer, I could have been stuck in development hell for years, which I’ve seen happen to other artists.
Anyway, that’s all nothing to do with Michael, except that he’s never had to deal with all the dull admin side of music, booking gigs and dealing with PR and updating websites and social media. Even now, he has other people look after his social media for him. He doesn’t touch it himself, and I’m so envious! But because he doesn’t go near any of that stuff, he’s still completely focused on music, and 50 years into his career he still gets excited about music. That’s an amazing thing. He’s an absolutely brilliant musician and songwriter, and he was fantastic as a producer. It was such a privilege to be able to work with him, and I’m so grateful.
I guess one of the biggest things is that he got me playing electric guitar. I’d first met Michael and his wife Andru some years back, and they said “If you’re ever passing through, come and stay,” so like most traveling musicians, I promptly took them up on the offer and stayed with them on nights off during tours. One of those times, Michael handed me an electric guitar and said, “Play this.” I’d never played electric guitar before, unless you count when I was 12 or 13 years old and used to play our lodger’s Strat, but from the age of 14 onward, I was a real acoustic guitar snob and never wanted to have anything to do with electric guitars.
But when Michael Chapman hands you a guitar and tells you to play it, you don’t say no, so I took the guitar and started playing it, and he was twiddling the knobs on the amp, getting different sounds out of it, and I suddenly got very excited about all these new possibilities that were suddenly available with this different instrument. It was a real revelation, and I sat there noodling on the guitar for ages. So then about a year after that, after Michael had said he’d produce the new album, he phoned up one day and said without any preamble, “I need your address. I’m going to UPS you that red guitar. I want you to write some songs on it for the new album.” So I had my instructions!
I still play acoustic guitar on most of the album, and one song on piano, but I did write three songs and an instrumental number on the electric, and I don’t think I’d have written them if I hadn’t had that instrument to play with — the music very much came out of that particular instrument. And now Michael’s given me that guitar on long-term loan, so I’ll be touring with it this year, as well as a stage piano and a drum, so my stage set-up is suddenly a lot bigger than it used to be! On the album Michael also got me to overdub a high-strung Squire Fender Strat on a few of the songs, but I won’t be touring that. Again, though, it was something that never would have ever occurred to me if he hadn’t suggested it.
Speaking of 1960s artists — of which I listen to many — I feel like rock and folk players almost played like jazz combos, without fancy technology to substitute for feeling and cooperation. Thoughts on all this? Do you give a lot of credence to the idea of performing and recording in the “old-school” way?
Yeah, both this album and the last one before it, Walking Into White, were recorded very quickly in very few takes to try and keep it as close as possible to a live performance. One thing Michael had in common with my cousin Adam Pierce, who produced White, is that they both believe strongly that what you’re trying to do when recording is capture a moment, capture a strong performance, rather than trying to achieve perfection. Neither producer allowed me to do any tuning of my vocals, so there a few bits where I can hear myself wavering a tiny bit out of tune, but that’s ok. If we’d tuned those little wobbles, I think they’d have lost something.
Michael also wasn’t keen on the concept of comping, which is standard practice for most studio engineers — it’s where you record a bunch of takes, then pick out the best take of each individual phrase and stitch them together to create one perfect take. Michael and Adam were both great believers getting one take that was a strong performance overall, even if it wasn’t technically perfect — and I think they’re right.
What kinds of sounds are you drawn to in the wider world? I don’t necessarily mean instruments — I mean ambient sounds, the things one typically drowns out, the silent drone in any room or outdoor setting. Any specifics?
The first things that spring to mind in answer to that question are the sounds I’m not drawn to — namely, the high-pitched whines that a lot of electronic devices emit even when they’re not switched on. When I check into a hotel room when I’m on the road, the first thing I always have to do is run around unplugging everything — especially TVs and fridges, they’re the worst culprits. I don’t know how people people stand it! As soon as I’ve unplugged everything and the noise has stopped, my shoulders drop about three inches and I can feel myself starting to breathe again.
But I’m fine with other kinds of noises. I quite like clocks ticking, for example. And where I live in West Cornwall is way out in the country, so it’s incredibly noisy. People who live in cities always think of the country as being quiet, but I can assure you that’s not the case. All night you’re hearing screeches and screams, creatures being hunted and killed by other creatures, and during the day the birds can be incredibly loud, plus there’s almost always farm machinery rumbling away in the distance. But that’s all good!
Speaking of the aural properties of the countryside, can you describe the last time you were in a forest or woodland setting in as detailed a way as you can? Why were you there, and what were you setting out to do?
Well, I live surrounded by trees, which I love dearly but which are problematic at times. We had a big storm last week, and when I looked out the window in the morning, a tree had fallen right across our driveway, blocking the way out. Meanwhile, half of that tree was still standing but was now leaning towards the road, and obviously if a tree on your property falls on the public road and causes damage, you’re financially responsible, so we had to get a tree surgeon out straightaway to deal with it. And then he pointed out that the tree that fell had been functioning as a windbreak for two trees growing nearer the house, which now had lost their shelter and were in danger of falling on the house if we had another big storm like the one that blew down the first tree.
So they had to be taken down, too, and the whole thing was incredibly expensive and I still have more than half of it to pay for. The tree surgeon very kindly agreed to wait to get his full payment until after the first couple of gigs of my album launch tour, so I just have to hope that I get good audiences and make some money so that I can pay him! It’s all very scary. Anyway, that probably wasn’t the kind of thing you had in mind when you asked that question. I do like woods, and as I live in the country and have a dog who needs walking every day, I spend a lot of time in woods when I’m at home. It’s great for creative thinking.
I find that if you’re out walking, when you actually stop actively thinking about a problem, the solution has a tendency to magically present itself. There’s a line in the title track: “Sometimes the way to fix a problem is to turn the pressure off / ‘Cause if you dig any deeper, it could get dangerous.” I think that’s true on so many levels.
I wound up marrying those words up with a bunch of imagery about standing out on the verandah at night, shivering and looking up at the stars and thinking about the world.
Can you describe the last media you consumed that genuinely moved you? Did it take you by surprise? How so?
Two very different things struck a chord with me recently. I always read in bed before I go to sleep, and I’ve just finished reading The Diary of a Country Parson, which is selected from diary entries written by Revd. James Woodforde back in the 1700s. What I found amazing is how familiar his thoughts and concerns and frustrations sounded. Take away the 17th century spelling and phraseology, and it could have been written yesterday. People haven’t really changed that much over the centuries.
And then two nights ago I watched all four episodes of a recent BBC series called Man Like Mobeen, written by the comedian Guz Khan (who stars in the series) and Andy Milligan. It’s about a British Muslim living in inner-city Birmingham, which is a very different world to the one I exist in, but again, as with Parson Woodforde, it’s the similarities that strike you, rather than the differences. And it’s absolutely brilliant and hilariously funny. Highly recommended!
I’ve written songs for about 10 years, but I’ve only recently realized that I do things in kind of a backwards way — always title first. Then I use the title as kind of a Pandora’s box or guide, like it’s holding the whole tune inside it. What about you? What’s typically the germ of a creative idea for you, and how do you lead it toward completion… or does it lead you?
Yep, the title mostly comes first for me, too, and a lot of the time the original context of the title has nothing to do with what the song is “about,” if songs can be said to be “about” anything.
For example, there’s a song on the new album called “The Silence Above Us.” That actual phrase is something I heard myself saying apropos of the fact that since we got our cat, we’re not hearing the rats scuttling around in the attic any more, which is wonderful. But as soon as I’d said the words “the silence above us”, that struck me as a great title for a song, and I wound up marrying those words up with a bunch of imagery about standing out on the verandah at night, shivering and looking up at the stars and thinking about the world.
The title track of the album came about in a similar way: I was talking to my son about a hole he was digging in our back garden, and I said “You know, Eli, if you dig any deeper it could get dangerous!” and immediately thought “Whoa, there’s a song!” So, yes, the title usually comes first, and then I just have to follow where it leads me.
I’m very keen on the idea of rejoining the cycle of life, having my decomposing body provide nourishment for new growth. That’s important to me.
Can you describe any meditative habits or rituals you perform day-to-day when not necessarily on a professional timetable with anything? Apart from the daily tasks of your career, what brings you back into your mind or makes you feel in touch with yourself?
I must confess that as a working musician with a husband, two children, a dog and a cat, I’m not in touch with myself nearly as much as I’d like to be! The first thing I do every day, whether I’m at home or on the road, is get up, make coffee, bring the mug of coffee back to bed and spend about half an hour — sometimes more — in bed, drinking coffee and reading the newspapers online and catching up with Facebook and Instagram. But that’s about me reconnecting with the world, rather than connecting with myself.
I guess the flip side of that is that I always finish my day in bed with a book. Even if I’m late getting to bed, I always read at least a few pages before I turn out the light. Maybe that’s the bringing me back into myself part? I’m not sure. I’m usually always struggling to get everything done that I need to do, between music itself and music-related admin and house/family related stuff. In a way, being on the road is more relaxing, because then I only have one job to do.
If you were to define your music as a dish or cuisine, what would it be? How’d you arrive at that conclusion, and what properties of food are you naturally drawn to?
Good heavens, there’s a question. I like eating and cooking food — I’m a pretty good cook, if I do say so myself — and the meals I’m happiest making are the ones I’ve been making for so long that I don’t need to look at the recipes any more. Every Saturday night I make pancakes and bacon for dinner, and thinking about that, I guess my approach to pancakes bears a certain similarity to my approach to songwriting, in that you make the pancakes one at a time, and for every beautiful golden-brown pancake you manage to produce, there are always several that aren’t so good, but making those pancakes as well is all part of the process, so you have to do it to get to the good ones… but the metaphor falls down there, because with music a huge part of it is the interaction with other people, and I don’t know how to describe that with reference to food.
I love getting the reaction from the audience when I’m gigging live, and the best bit of all is when people come up to me at the break or after the gig and tell me that one of my songs really touched them in some way, that they were able to relate it to their own lives and feel that it was “about” them. And sometimes they have a totally different idea of what one of my songs is “about” than I did when I wrote it — but that’s fine, that’s a good thing. Songs are a little bit like children – you bring them into the world, and then they cease to be yours — they have their own lives, and you don’t have any control over what they become.
If I had to really stretch the analogy, I guess I could say that we all relate to songs differently in the same way that we don’t all taste the same thing when we eat the same meal. You can serve the same stew to several people and one person tastes nothing but carrot while somebody else tastes nothing but salt, but that may be pushing the metaphor a little too hard!
What’s heaven to you, if anything? How have you come to define that big concept in your life?
There are several songs on the new album — notably “Slow Decay” and “Break Me Down” — that deal with the theme of death and what we leave behind when we leave this world, both in a literal sense and in a more non-corporeal sense. Those questions interest me, and as I wrote in “Break Me Down,” I’m very keen on the idea of rejoining the cycle of life, having my decomposing body provide nourishment for new growth. That’s important to me.
I’ve never given much thought to any concept of an afterlife because it’s unknowable. I’ve never seen the point in speculating about it. I’m much more interested in what happens to the world after I die than in what happens to me after I die. I feel like my job in life is to try to make the world better with everything I do, whether that’s by providing enjoyment and entertainment to an audience at a concert or by trying to set a good example for my kids and teach them to be good citizens of the world.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Email
Published: January 29, 2018
Total questions: 9
Word count: 3003
Reading time: Ten minutes
afterlife, analogy, Andy Milligan, BBC, clock, coffee, control, creature, cycle, death, driveway, drum, garden, growth, guitar, Guz Khan, Heaven, imagery, James Woodforde, Man Like Mobeen, marriage, meditation, Michael Chapman, newspaper, piano, possibility, preamble, production, reconnection, refrigerator, revelation, Sarah McQuaid, screaming, screeching, silence, songwriting, Squire, Stratocaster, television, trees, verandah, volume, West Cornwall
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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