Born in Madrid, Spain, raised in Chicago and holding dual Irish and American citizenship, singer/guitarist and songwriter Sarah McQuaid lived in Ireland from 1994 to 2007. She has since moved with her husband and two children to the home formerly occupied by her parents near Penzance, Cornwall.
I Won't Go Home 'Til Morning, the long-awaited follow-up to her acclaimed debut album When Two Lovers Meet, marks a distinct change of focus for the musician whose rich voice has been likened to "matured cognac". Whereas her first album was a feast of Irish music, this is an enchanting celebration of old-time Appalachian folk, with Sarah's arrangements punctuated by her own fine compositions and a cover of Bobbie Gentry's classic 'Ode to Billie Joe'.
Sarah has also recently been co-writing songs with fellow Penzance resident ZoÃ« (author and performer of 1991 hit single 'Sunshine On A Rainy Day'). In December 2008, the pair released their debut album, Crow Coyote Buffalo, under the band name Mama.
As might be expected of one who has led such a peripatetic existence, Sarah developed a taste for the road early on: From the age of twelve she was embarking on ten-day tours of the US and Canada with the Chicago Children's Choir. At eighteen she went to France for a year to study philosophy at the University of Strasbourg, where her performance at a local folk club drew a rave review in the Dernieres Nouvelles d'Alsace, saluting the "superbe chanteuse d'outre-Atlantique qui fit passer comme une vibration emotionnelle dans une salle conquise" (superb singer from across the Atlantic who caused an emotional vibration to pass through a conquered hall)!
Having discovered Irish music and the DADGAD open tuning during her stint in France, Sarah went on to found the traditional band Carnloch after graduating from Haverford College (a Quaker institution better known as the co-educational counterpart of its sister college Bryn Mawr) with a Magna Cum Laude (High Honours) BA in philosophy.
In 1994, Sarah moved to Ireland, where she became a weekly folk music columnist for the Evening Herald and a contributor to Hot Press magazine. She is also the author of a guitar tutor, The Irish DADGAD Guitar Book, described by The Irish Times as "a godsend to aspiring traditional guitarists," and has presented workshops on the DADGAD tuning and its uses at festivals and venues across the UK and Ireland.
In the autumn of 1997, she recorded her debut solo album, When Two Lovers Meet, featuring traditional tunes and songs along with one original number. "Sarah's voice is both as warm as a turf fire and as rich as matured cognac.... An astonishing debut by a unique talent," wrote the Rough Guide To Irish Music. Despite the critical acclaim, a long break from the music scene followed, during which Sarah married Feargal Shiels and had two children, Eli and Lily Jane.
When Two Lovers Meet was re-released in Ireland on 23 February 2007. Sarah's ensuing nationwide tour was highly successful, thanks in large part to a very well-received appearance on The View, the acclaimed arts television show hosted by John Kelly on RTe1. On 30 July 2007, the album had its first UK release. The December 2007 edition of fRoots described it as "a masterclass in restraint and subtlety. Authoritative singing and quietly insistent arrangements make for a sumptuous whole â€“ recommended." Tracks from the album were included in FolkCast's December 2007 "artists of the year" podcast and in Crooked Road host Mike Ganley's Top Ten picks for 2007.
The move to the other side of the Irish Sea was triggered by the death in 2004 of her mother, in whose former home she now lives and to whom I Won't Go Home 'Til Morning (a title taken from the lyrics of album opener 'The Chickens They Are Crowing') is dedicated.
Says Sarah: "My first album was immersed in Irish traditional music, which I still love â€“ but this time round, I felt the need to revisit the Southern Appalachian songs and tunes that I learned during my childhood. My mother was my introduction to folk music. She never performed professionally, but she had a lovely natural style of singing and guitar playing.
"All the songs on this recording have powerful emotional resonances for me, and all are connected in one way or another to my mother. Looking back, I guess it was kind of a cathartic process."
Like its predecessor, I Won't Go Home 'Til Morning was recorded in Trevor Hutchinson's Dublin studio and produced by Gerry O'Beirne. Both also guest on the album, alongside percussionist Liam Bradley, MÃ¡ire Breatnach on fiddle and viola and Rosie Shipley on fiddle.
A cerebral and consummate performer, she is adept at researching the material she plays and this 11-track album is no exception. It is accompanied by a 24-page illustrated booklet explaining the fascinating histories of the songs and how she stumbled across them. Says Sarah: "For nearly every song, I've either photographed my own source material for the booklet â€“ tattered books, LP and 78 records â€“ or included library scans of archive transcriptions, broadsheet ballads and so on."
Sometimes elegiac, always elegant, the album includes upbeat, fun tracks steeped in the Appalachian tradition and others perfect for mellow, late-night listening. They range from opener 'The Chickens They Are Crowing', first heard by Sarah as a child, sung by the great Peggy Seeger on the 1958 recording Folksongs and Ballads, to 'West Virginia Boys', which started life as a blackface minstrel song in the music halls of New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
Performed as an instrumental on this album, 'Shady Grove' is a song Sarah recalls singing with her mum on long car journeys, while she first heard 'East Virginia' on her mother's scratched and battered copy of Joan Baez's debut album.
She discovered 'In The Pines' in the 1980 Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner's Daughter (as sung by actress Sissy Spacek) and couldn't get it out of her head. Sarah recalls: "Strangely, driving home at the end of the day on which I recorded 'In The Pines, I switched on the car radio just in time to hear Nirvana's 1993 acoustic version of the song being played on RTe Radio 2!"
Sarah's exceptional voice is heard to great effect in the unaccompanied ballad 'The Wagoner's Lad', whose origins can be traced back to the 1720s. Similarly, her stark and spellbinding rendition of the powerful Sacred Harp hymn 'Wondrous Love' is likely to give you goosebumps. It also resulted in her being contacted by renowned American folk singer-songwriter and Appalachian dulcimer player Jean Ritchie, who had recorded it back in 1956.
Jean saw a YouTube video of Sarah performing the song and contacted her asking where she had found the lyrics, initially thinking they differed from her own version. Says Sarah: "Having been listening to her album since my early childhood, I felt rather as I imagine a painter must feel who'd received an out of the blue message from Leonardo da Vinci!"
There are also two heartfelt compositions of her own. She describes 'Only an Emotion' as "a song in defence of sadness" and something of a gentle riposte to people who flippantly say "Cheer up, it might never happen!", while 'Last Song' is the perfect album closer â€“ a tender number written for both her mother and her daughter Lily Jane (who sadly never met each other), illustrating a perfect three-generation fusion of mothers singing their daughters to sleep.
Eleven years and a musical career break on from the original release of her debut album, Sarah is happy that the new album has achieved what she set out to do. "I really like that feeling of continuity and connection through music â€“ the way it links people across generations and even on different continents. It's been a very emotional project for me â€“ not just because I'm keeping my mother's spirit alive, in a sense, by singing the songs she loved but because in researching the origins and evolution of these songs and putting my own stamp on them, I've been taken right back to my roots."
Now busy with upcoming tours and concerts in Ireland, the UK and Holland, as well as with the Mama project, Sarah is also slowly but surely working on a novel for which she's received two Arts Council Bursaries in Literature. She hopes to finish it one of these days.