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Scottish folk hero triggered Sarah McQuaid ditching job for full-time music

By Margaret Chrystall

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When you hear Sarah McQuaid's unusual voice – described using words like "chocolatey" and "lush" – it's hard to believe she wasn't even a full-time musician till her 40s.

Sarah McQuaid will appear at the Craigmonie Centre, Drumnadrochit, and Cromarty Stables.
Sarah McQuaid will appear at the Craigmonie Centre, Drumnadrochit, and Cromarty Stables.

But music has always played a big part in her life since she was a youngster.

Born in Spain, Sarah was raised in Chicago and now lives in Penzance.

"I started singing with a children’s choir when I was little, then I started singing with bands in secondary but I never started thinking it could be a full-time job for me," said Sarah who holds dual Irish and American citizenship, has lived in Ireland, but settled in England, now Cornwall.

"Up until I was in my 40s, I'd always been a part-time musician."

'Shades of Joni Mitchell in a jam with Karen Carpenter and Lana Del Rey!' says a recent review about Sarah's voice on track Rabbit Hills from her sixth solo album, The St Buryan Sessions.

But both confidence and a desire to go for music full-time had been battling away for Sarah who had a busy full-time job, until an opportunity from out of the blue tested her courage – and set her on the road to life as a musician.

That and the legendary Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan.

"I had always played with bands but always part-time," Sarah explained. "I was always having a job at the same time. Then I stopped playing music altogether for a long while when my children were very small I just hadn’t even taken the guitar our of its case.

"I had been living in Dublin and had then moved down to Wexford, when I got a phone call one day from a guitar festival in Sligo. I had written a guitar tutor book, The Irish Dadgad Guitar Book: Playing and Backing Traditional Irish Music on Open-Tuned Guitar – which is the alternative tuning I play in.

"They said ‘We would like you to come and give a workshop on the tuning at our festival'.

"I was all set to say no because I hadn’t played my guitar in years.

"But then they said 'You would be co-presenting the workshop with Dick Gaughan. He knows about your book and he is really keen to meet you and would be very happy about co-presenting the workshop with you’.

“Dick Gaughan is one of my heroes!" Sarah said. "And I knew if I turned down this chance I would be kicking myself for the rest of my life!

"So I said ‘Yes!’ and got my guitar out of its case and I started practising like crazy.

"I had to use my own book to teach myself how to play it again!

Sarah McQuaid will play two Highland gigs, on Sunday and Monday. Picture: Phil Nicholls
Sarah McQuaid will play two Highland gigs, on Sunday and Monday. Picture: Phil Nicholls

"I'd forgotten what all the chord shapes were, so I had to look them up in the book which I had written by hand because back in those days – the guitar book came out in 1995 – there probably was music software, but I didn’t have any access, that wouldcreate the chords for you. So all the music and the chords had had to be written by me by hand. I taught myself how to play guitar again!

"Then when I got to the festival, there was Dick Gaughan.

"I was quaking in my boots and I could barely get my mouth open to speak when we were giving the workshop because my teeth were chattering so much! I was sitting in a chair, next to Dick Gaughan with him playing and saying ‘Well, Sarah, why don’t you play something now!’ And I did.

The folk legend Dick Gaughan.
The folk legend Dick Gaughan.

"Afterwards we were packing up and he said ‘Why don’t I see you out there playing? I haven’t seen you listed on any festival bills or concert line-ups or anything?'

"And I said, 'I haven’t done any playing out in years. I don’t have a band and I don’t know if there would be any market out there for just me playing as a solo musician?'

“He said ‘There would! I can tell you – I’d come and see you!’ And I said ‘Wow!’.

"But if that hadn’t happened, I might still be working as a journalist which is what I was doing when I got that phone call.

"And the thing was, I was really quite miserable in my job. It’s a really full-on job, there was no such thing as time off and you ended up working late and it had really felt as if I was missing out on so much with my kids, their milestones because I was going off to work early and coming back late. I was barely seeing them. So I told my husband about this conversation and he said ‘You should do it! Be a musician! You should quit your job.’ And I said ‘Yes, but I would have to go away on tour!’ And he said ‘Well if you went off on tour, at least we would see you when you were at home!’.

So I thought ‘Right. I‘m just going to book myself a short little tour then if I get the tour organised, I will hand in my notice.’ That was in March 2007. And I did."

Since then, Sarah has had a busy career.

Having released an album, that earned an invitation to appear on The View which is a big Irish Friday night TV show featuring the arts.

Sarah said: "Afterwards, they very kindly gave me the video and you can still see it on my website. Then when I started looking for other gigs, I had this video of me talking live on national TV! So that made life a lot easier for me – and I’ve never looked back!

"But I suspect none of this would have happened if I had said no to that festival workshop. Thank goodness I felt ‘If I say no to this, if I don’t have the courage, how angry am I going to be with myself if I don’t do it, how will I live with myself?'!”

Sarah is also lucky when it comes to touring – she is currently working through 22 dates, two bringing her back to the North of Scotland this weekend.

"My manager Martin Sansbury – is also my sound engineer – does all my live sound and the driving on tour and looks after all the logistics!"

Billed as Tea And Tunes, Sarah McQuaid's gig at the Craigmonie Centre, Glenurquhart, Drumnadrochit, is on Sunday, May 14 at 3pm. TICKETS

Sarah also plays Cromarty Stables (BYOB) on Monday, May 15 from 8pm. TICKETS: For more info on the Cromarty gig: info@cromartyartstrust.org.uk or call 01381 600 354 or on door.


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