An eclectic season at Nashua’s Simple Gifts Coffee House wraps up Saturday, May 14, with a folksinger who ranges across many musical traditions. Sarah McQuaid’s first album, When Two Lovers Meet, mined her Irish heritage; 10 years later she drew from Appalachian and American roots music for I Won’t Go Home ’til Morning. That record also included surprising covers of Bobbi Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe” and the gospel standard “Uncloudy Day.”
McQuaid’s personal background is equally varied. Born in Spain, she grew up in Chicago, singing in choirs and honing her skills as a guitarist. She studied in France, then lived in Ireland for 13 years before relocating to her mother’s family home in Cornwall, near the southwestern tip of England, where she’s been since 2004.
Before stepping into the spotlight as a performer, McQuaid wrote and published a book on DADGAD, a modal guitar tuning common in Celtic music. “It allows you to do a lot of things that you can’t do in standard tuning,” she explained in a recent phone interview. “You get what is called sympathetic string effect — notes that resonate even when they are not being played.”
British folk guitarist Davey Graham is often credited with inventing the style, which is heard in music from Richard Thompson, Bert Jansch, and even Led Zeppelin’s song “Kashmir.”
McQuaid made her first record more out of an abiding love for Irish music. Soon after its release she married, had two children and didn’t play for another 10 years. “Making an album was something I wanted to have done before I died,” she says with a laugh. “I didn’t think my style of music would be that marketable.”
With than in mind, she took temporary job as a magazine editor. “I said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll do this for three months, then go out and tour the album’ — but I wound up staying in that job for 11 years.” However, she grew progressively disenchanted with the work, coming home and playing music most nights. Yet she believed a career in it was unrealistic.
In 2006, McQuaid was asked to conduct a guitar workshop. “I was about to say no because I hadn’t actually played my guitar in about five years,” she recalls. “Then the people on the other end of the phone said, ‘You’d be co-presenting the workshop with Dick Gaughan.’” The Boys of the Lough guitarist is a personal hero of McQuaid’s; she quickly, albeit reluctantly, accepted the invitation.
“I thought, how am I going to feel if I turn down this chance? I’ll just be kicking myself for the rest of my life.”
Working with Gaughan was a turning point for McQuaid.
“He actually said to me when we did the workshop together, ‘Why haven’t I heard your name before — do you tour or do concerts?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t think there would be any market for what I do,’ and he said, ‘there WOULD.’”
A successful tour of Ireland ultimately provided McQuaid with the impetus to quit her job. Then an appearance on a weekly Irish network television show gave her valuable exposure.
“That helped to really propel me into much more professional level of performing than people usually get to start at,” she says. “I didn’t really have to do the whole grassroots thing first; I was right away doing national tours.”
Prior to visiting the U.S. for the first time in early 2010, she repackaged her two CDs as a double set, a move she credits to “a clever PR person.” The gambit worked. Its first week of release, the album reached number one on folkradio.org, a nationwide airplay list culled from 200 radio stations, and ended up at number six for the year.
Her performance mixes solo material with reworked jazz standards, a cover from John Martyn and what McQuaid describes as a “humorous Spanish song about a dead donkey.” Also included are selections from an album she did with Irish singer/songwriter Zoë (“Sunshine On A Rainy Day”) that one critic described as “two pagan goddesses channeling the ghost of Jim Morrison.”
“I could kiss the journalist that wrote that,” says McQuaid with a hearty chuckle. “I’ve been dining out on that quote ever since.”
Audience participation is encouraged at her shows — seriously. For this tour, McQuaid posted a melody and sheet music for a six-part canon on her website (www.sarahmcquaid.com); fellow vocalists are welcomed to join her onstage for the song. She’ll also conduct an afternoon DADGAD workshop.
McQuaid has come a long way from believing she couldn’t make a living singing and playing.
“It just worked better than I ever imagined it would. When I went back into music at the start of 2007, it didn’t occur to me at all that by 2010, I’d be doing tours around the U.S. and be listed on the chart — even if it is only the folk chart.”