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Interview: Sarah McQuaid – a born troubadour comes of age

18 Mar

The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face: Sarah McQuaid gives a classic the acoustic treatment

Walking into White: the unforced richness of Sarah McQuaid's voice underpins songs of metaphor and experience

Walking into White: the unforced richness of Sarah McQuaid’s voice underpins songs of metaphor and experience

Sarah McQuaid might live in Cornwall these days, but it’s hardly surprising that her inner troubadour regularly urges her to get out on the road. A quick skim through her formative years reveals the origins of a nomadic streak that will only be satisfied by taking her distinctive, guitar-driven stories directly to a rapidly growing audience – wherever it happens to be.

She was born in Madrid, the child of a Spanish father and an American mother, raised in Chicago (the touring bug struck early – McQuaid was a member of the city’s Children’s Choir, which travelled widely across the North American continent), and made regular visits to her grandmother’s home in Indiana. When Europe called, she spent a year studying philosophy at the University of Strasbourg and eventually arrived in Dublin in 1994, where she lived for 13 years, carving a career as a music journalist and dabbling in songwriting, before moving to England in 2007.

McQuaid says the reasons that she now calls Cornwall ‘home’ were initially purely utilitarian: when her mother died, she took over her house – which then became the natural place for Sarah and her husband Feargal Shiels to settle down and raise their own family . But she also appreciates the county’s significance in her evolution as a musician.

Crucial Cornwall

“Cornwall is wonderful and I don’t know if I’d be doing what I am today if it hadn’t happened that way,” she says. “It was here that I met Zoё [Pollock, the singer/songwriter best known for her 1991 hit ‘Sunshine on a Rainy Day’]. Our kids were at the same school. We got to know each other and she came round and played a few songs for me – with nonsense lyrics. I wrote some words and it was great, just exhilarating, working with her.”

The two women formed a folk duo, Mama, and released an album in 2008. “I’d made records before that [she released her first album in 1997] and if a song came to me I’d write it,  but it was never something I specifically sat down to focus on. But the whole process of working with Zoё filled me with energy and I thought this was something I could actually do, write my own songs for a career. It was the first time I started to think about myself as a songwriter,” she says.

Walking into White

It was also, clearly, the foundation for McQuaid’s status as a rising star in the UK’s eclectic galaxy of notable singer/songwriters. She has just released her fourth solo album, Walking into White, self-penned apart from a fresh, unadorned cover of ‘”The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. It showcases a quiet confidence in her skill as a lyricist, a commitment to her craft that is maturing at an opportune time, and a diversity of influences.ranging from lullabies and Latin beats to traditional folk and ballads of quality.

McQuaid’s voice has an unforced richness which is the perfect foil for the echoing, spacious arrangements of her songs – and for her guitar, which here assumes a dazzling array of guises; one minute it’s as  plangent as a piano, the next, it’s buzzing on a rock-an- roll riff. A unique, multi-textured sound emerges as each song pours out a new narrative. A melancholy trumpet gives an imaginative edge to many of the songs.

When we speak, she has just returned from an extensive visit to the States and is already planning her next set of UK gigs. This will lead into a European leg and eventually to a full-scale spring tour of Britain, and you can sense her eagerness to get out there and recreate the acoustic idiosyncrasies of the album in an endless variety of live settings.

That considerable task weighs on the shoulders of her manager and touring sound engineer Martin Stansbury who helped with creative direction on the album, co-produced by McQuaid’s cousin Adam Pierce and Jeremy Backofen. Her professional hook-up with Stansbury was another key influence on her progress as a fully-fledged singer/songwriter.

“If I hadn’t started working with Martin, I would find it very hard to tour,” she says. “He handles everything. The album has quite a cinematic feel. Recreating that quality, with its musical interludes and shifting sounds is tricky and requires some technical wizardry.  Some of these songs became completely transformed during the recording, and now I have to try and recreate Adam’s feedback loops live…”

The US tour was an exhausting success, which taught McQuaid a few logistical lessons.

Touring tips

“I’ve been touring since 2010 so this is my fourth year and I feel like I’m finally getting it,” she says. “My tip for every travelling musician is to buy nuts and put them in zip-sealed bags! I love it. The way you settle into the rhythm and life actually becomes very easy. You get up, drive, stop for an interview, check in to your hotel, do your sound-check. It’s almost military in its precision.

“However, I planned the US tour very badly. On paper it looked so reasonable – gigs interspersed with rest days. Only I hadn’t factored in the 600-mile drives on those rest days! I mean, Colorado is breath-taking but Kansas doesn’t change at all, mile after mile. But the gigs were great and it gave me the chance to return to places that I know and love. You get novelty on a tour. Every place, audience and venue is different. Even so, by the tail-end of the US tour, I was getting weary and thinking it would be nice to get home.”

Home is also the source of a lot of McQuaid’s inspiration: three of the songs on the new album were inspired by Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books, which she discovered through bedtime reading sessions with her husband and their two children, and she would always catch up if a gig meant she missed a chapter.

“Because I grew up in the States I hadn’t been aware of them – my contribution has been Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. I love children’s literature. E. Nesbitt is another favourite,” she says.

These tracks are among the most magical on the album, taking the listener into a world of metaphors and life experiences. The ‘white’ of the title isn’t necessarily innocence – it could be a blizzard full of danger; and there is plenty of shade in McQuaid’s evocative lyrics.

Singing today

“I now consider myself a singer/songwriter,” she says, after a pause to think. “There’s a hell of a lot of talent out there. And because of the technology, everyone can put their music out. Record companies don’t have all the control any more. But there’s tons of bad stuff as well, and it’s daunting that you have to plough through so much of it to get to the good stuff. The upside for an artist is that if you don’t want to perform and tour, you can just make albums and work to get them heard.”

McQuaid, however, intends to carry on doing both, and perhaps it’s a sign of her growing confidence that she included the Ewan MacColl classic on Walking into White.

“I like to do a cover on every album, and I just love this number. It’s one of the most perfect love songs ever written,” she says. “But I’m acutely aware that he wrote it for Peggy Seeger and hated all the other versions. I’ve tried to be true to it. I was aiming to sing it as though I was singing quietly to the person whose head was on the pillow next to me. “

And with that, prompted by her manager, she has to call time on our conversation. The road beckons, and there’s another destination to reach before McQuaid reels in another audience in thrall to her sonic way with a story.

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Radio interview: Piers Ford talking about torch singers and life as a jobbing journalist

4 Jun

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On 23rd May 2014, I was a sofa guest on BBC Radio Suffolk, chatting to Chrissie Jackson about this blog, among other things, and why there are plenty of female singers who deserve much greater media coverage – and why now is the right  time to get on with writing a book that’s been germinating for 20 years. This is a conversation-only version of the interview, with music and radio bits edited out (thanks to my brother, producer Julian Ford).

Interview: Caroline O’Connor Brings her Inner Showgirl to the West End

23 Aug

Broadway Baby: Caroline O’Connor signals her return to London at the Sondheim Prom

Carolin O'Connor's The Showgirl Within hits the Garrick Theatre on 27th September

I recently interviewed Caroline O’Connor for a major feature on how to perform the work of John Kander and Fred Ebb in The Singer magazine. At the time, she was touring in Chicago in Australia, clearly having a whale of a time as brittle Velma Kelly – “Like a cat falling down the wall, clawing at it just to hang on,” as she described the character – and eager to speak about the impact the work of these titans of musical theatre has had on her successful career.

Caroline was born in the UK – in Oldham, in fact, a town that has produced its fair share of theatrical talent over the years – but her family moved to Australia when she was still a small child, and ever since she has split her professional life between the two countries, with the occasional Broadway foray thrown in for good measure. Thanks to the big Chicago revival and other successful projects, Oz has had by far the better deal during the last couple of years. So with all due respect to her fans down under, the news that Caroline is bringing her new one-woman show, The Showgirl Within, to London (at the Garrick Theatre from 27th September) means that for a little while at least, we can reclaim this firecracker of a star for our own.

Her “Broadway Baby” at the Stephen Sondheim Prom gave a taste of the dynamism we can expect from the show. But it would be a huge surprise if Kander and Ebb didn’t loom equally large in the programme. In the Singer article, Caroline shared centre stage with a host of other musical theatre luminaries, including her heroine Chita Rivera, Karen Ziemba, Joel Grey and Brent Barrett. As a result, I could only use a fraction of the insight and enthusiasm she provided over the course of our interview. So the impending arrival of The Showgirl Within is a great excuse for sharing the conversation in full. Here it is.

Sally Bowles is so iconic among the great female musical roles that even understudying the star in the faint hope that you might get on for a matinee once in a blue moon is too good an opportunity for a young actress to miss. That was certainly Caroline O’Connor’s view in 1986 when, towards the end of her stint in the chorus of Me and My Girl, she was cast as a Kit Kat girl in Cabaret with understudy duties. It required all her pleading and acting skills to earn an early release from her contract to take the job.

“I was dance captain on Me and My Girl, so I had to go and beg my boss to let me go,” she says. “I think I shed tears, even! I said I’d train my replacement without any pay, I wanted the Cabaret job so badly. I’ve never been so excited in my life, being cast in something, because of its reputation. Gillian Lynn was directing, and of course she was so well known at the time because of Cats. Anyway, I was able to take it, and we took the show on the road then took it into the Strand Theatre.

“It was an amazing experience, maybe not the most renowned production ever, but just to get to do that music every night… Also, there is the depth of the story, it’s so incredibly moving. And that’s where I met my husband, too, so it’s had a big impact on my life. We opened on the Tuesday night in London and I went on to play Sally Bowles the following Saturday matinee, so it was a pretty fast intro to play that role that everybody was so familiar with. I remember them saying, “You don’t have to go on because we’ve only been in town for five days and you haven’t even had an understudy call yet.” But I insisted: ‘No, let me at it! I can’t wait to get on.’

Nobody who plays Sally is immune to the shadow cast by Liza Minnelli’s Oscar-winning performance in the film, an experience that gave Caroline her first hint of how fixed some audience’s preconceptions can be.

“When I went on to play Sally, my agent was in the audience and behind him were a couple of American tourists,” she says. “And of course I played the role with an English accent, as that’s what Sally had. And they hated the show, whining all the way through. At the end, as they were putting on their coats, one turned to the other and said, ‘As for that Sally Bowles, well she didn’t even try to do an American accent.’ I thought it was hilarious. You can appreciate it because of the popularity of the film but at the same time, I was a little bit offended because I’d put so much effort into my beautiful pseudo English accent.”

That little baptism aside, Caroline is quick to nail the old cliché that Americans don’t get irony – particularly when it comes to Kander and Ebb.

“You read their shows and listen to them, and think that these are two people who really understand irony and are able to include it in their work. That tongue-in-cheek referring to the general public – as the Emcee does in Cabaret, and Billy Flynn and all the other characters do in Chicago. They look at the audience and they’re saying, ‘You know what I’m talking about.’ It’s quite incredible.

Chicago is such a beautifully written piece of work. Here in Sydney it’s been wonderfully well received. It’s only been 11 years since the show was last here in Australia, and yet it is garnering great reviews and is doing fantastic business. So again it’s found its niche.”

Casual theatre-goers are often surprised to discover that the creators of Cabaret were also responsible for Chicago, and a host of other great work besides. For Caroline, there is always great satisfaction in spreading the word, particularly when it comes to their lesser-known pieces. She first met them in person during the short-lived 1988 production of The Rink at the Cambridge Theatre, where she was understudying Diane Langton in the role of Angel.

“Because Angel is such a demanding part to sing, and Diane preferred not do all the performances, I was playing the matinees,” she recalls. “That meant I was actually contracted to do some performances and I could revel in the extraordinary experience: the storyline, the concept, the humour in their work. It makes it so easy to play as a performer. It’s so beautifully written – they write so well for men, but I just think the way they write for women is mesmerising, a bit like Sondheim. They seem to understand us so well, especially older or troubled women! And when the show came off, there was an outcry because it was such a wonderful piece of work. No-one could believe it.”

Caroline was fascinated by Kander and Ebb’s approach to the London production. They weren’t interested in resting on the laurels of The Rink’s Broadway success.

“What was extraordinary was that they wanted to cut a number at the end called ‘All the Children in a Row’, which I think is a brilliantly written song,” she says. “And Diane Langton had to pretty much audition to have it kept in the show. They wanted to write something new, and [director] Paul Kerrison was so determined to keep it in that he asked Diane to sing it for them, give it everything she’d got. Which made it really interesting – to think that these writers, who were so brilliant, questioned their work and thought maybe it wasn’t quite right. For me all the other stuff was great fun, there were great moments to sing but as a performer, to go out and do that song is so exciting, because it’s like telling the most wonderful story. I remember sitting in the stalls watching this happen and thinking, Oh my God, they’re really not sure. And they’re willing to say no, let’s do something else.

“I also got to do a concert version of Zorba, which is very rarely performed. We were doing Chicago back in 1998-9 here in Australia, and John Dietrich, who was playing Billy Flynn, is a huge Kander and Ebb fan. And because he’d always loved Zorba he decided to produce a concert version of the show, which we did as a late nighter for two nights. It was incredible how many people were interested in coming to see that, because it was such a rarity. I’d no idea, I was a little bit in the dark as far as Zorba was concerned, but I thought it was a fantastic piece of work, too. Probably not as commercial as some of the other pieces, but really interesting.”

Caroline says Kander and Ebb’s work places unique demands on the performer. The choreography, so much of it devised and influenced by the great Bob Fosse, means that you are rarely simply singing a number. Your whole body and imagination is engaged. And it takes a certain calibre of artist to bring that to the stage.

“When you look at the sort of people that were cast in their shows for so many years, the quality of their work, what they can do, their versatility, and not just that they can dance a little or belt or whatever, you can tell what’s required,” she continues. “If you can execute a Kander and Ebb show eight times a week for a long period of time, then you should give yourself a little pat on the back. It’s quite demanding and compared to some other shows – especially the elements that Bob Fosse brought with Cabaret and Chicago – It’s a big ask.

“You have to get the right type of person that’s going to give it all it deserves – and they’re the sort of people you want on the stage: the Gwen Verdons, the Chita Riveras, the Liza Minnellis, the Karen Ziembas. They’re my idols. I got to do the anniversary concert of Chicago in New York and in London, and for me to able to share the stage with Chita Rivera – whether it was just the bows or even being on the same bill – was extraordinary. The fact that she still gets on stage and performs live after all those years of doing eight shows a week, you can see why they held her in such high esteem. She is just so good at what she does. I recently watched a clip of her in Nine on Youtube, and she is so mesmerising. This is a woman that’s been doing it for 200 years, and she’s still as enthusiastic and magnetic as she was.”

Caroline tells a couple of poignant stories about sharing the bill with Rivera that encapsulate the ripples of respect and love generated by association with the creators of great work.

Caroline O’Connor performs “All That Jazz”

“We were rehearsing Chicago at the Ambassadors Theatre and I did “Velma Takes the Stand”, so I’d just watched Chita do “All That Jazz”. Just hearing that voice that I’d listened to on cassette since about 1978 for real was incredible. And after I’d finished I was walking around the back of the auditorium and she called me over with her finger – ‘Come here!’ and I walked towards her, and she said, ‘I would love to teach you the original choreography.’ I couldn’t believe it, it was such an incredible compliment because she thought I could do it. It was so exciting. And you can see why Kander and Ebb wanted to work with people like her, because they could bring out the best in their work.

“It’s terribly sad that Fred Ebb’s gone. When we did the anniversary concert in New York, we were standing in the wings waiting to go on for the bows, and Chita didn’t notice me watching, but there was a photo of Fred Ebb on a card in one of the offices, and she picked it up off the shelf and kissed it before she went on. I felt so moved and honoured to have actually seen that, the appreciation that she had. It was beautiful.”

Caroline has played both Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly during her career, but it’s brittle, complex Velma who has occupied her most recently, as she returned to a role she last performed in 1998.

“I took it as a compliment that they didn’t change the choreography!” she laughs. “But we’ve been doing a long run, more than 30 weeks. Physically it’s demanding – because of Fosse’s influence. It’s a totally different style of dance, an incredibly particular way of performing. It’s not just the physicalisation of doing the moves, it’s the intensity and style, and it’s quite tiring.

“When you’ve had a ballet background [Caroline’s early ambitions were classical], all of a sudden your muscles hurt in a different way. You get pains in an area that if you were doing a de Mille or Jerome Robins choreography, wouldn’t be the same. Sometimes they can be very large movements, sometimes tiny gestures that say a 1000 words. And just the intensity of that, moving one finger, can be exhausting. And there are all these people who keep the bible going: ‘No, you don’t move the whole wrist, just circle the finger.’ The concentration that goes into that is really ridiculous but it just goes to show how much impact it has, for the performer to execute it and the audience to appreciate it.

“And it’s not like singing “If You Knew Suzy”. It’s pretty full-on, big belting numbers and intensity. Having to be the character up front, not just singing a lovely soprano song and sounding sweet and pretty. You have to give it everything you’ve got, every ounce of intention – if you’re fighting for your life as in “I am my Own Best Friend”, you’re fighting for supremacy. The audience has to leave at the end of Act One thinking, I wonder who’s going to win.

Caroline says a long run in a show like Chicago brings its own rewards, and she has never tired of it.

“The piece is so powerful, I’ve never been bored with it, because the audience isn’t. And you feed off the audience. I do make sure that I remind myself every night how lucky I am to be able to do it, and that I’ve got everything to lose. Because the character of Velma is interesting. Her journey goes downhill. She’s like a cat falling down the wall, clawing to hang on, before she comes back up at the end. I just remind myself that my job is to tell that story and it’s easy because of the quality of the work.

“Kander and Ebb are probably my biggest influence as a performer, and I hope they continue to be so because I’ve still got my eyes on Kiss of the Spider Woman! Isn’t it tremendous that you can look at a composer and writer, and think, I could have a lifetime career just looking at your work, because it suits my voice and my personality. I feel really blessed that there is this work out there I can relate to and appreciate. “