For the second and third singles of her new album and video series The St Buryan Sessions, Cornwall-based singer-songwriter Sarah McQuaid delves deep into her back catalog to resurrect “Charlie’s Gone Home”, the first original song she ever recorded as a solo artist, then jumps forward again with “The Day Of Wrath, That Day”, a powerful instrumental composition for electric guitar.
Originally recorded on her 1997 debut album When Two Lovers Meet, “Charlie’s Gone Home” wasn’t a brand new song even then, Sarah recalls. “I’d actually written it back when I was still living in Philadelphia, so it would have been the late 1980s or early 90s. I can remember very clearly the day I wrote it – back in those days I was still thinking of myself not as a songwriter but as a folksinger who happened to write an occasional song when inspiration struck, so to speak.
“I remember reading an interview with some poet whose name I can’t remember, where she said that when she felt a new poem starting to arrive it was like an oncoming train, and she had to rush to her desk to be there ready with pen and paper when the train pulled in to the station.
“Well, this song hit me exactly like an oncoming train, only one that was barrelling along at full steam with whistles blaring. It really knocked me for six, and I remember just sitting on the sofa crying and trying to wipe the tears off my guitar so they didn’t mark the finish – not because it was a sad song but just from the overwhelming emotional impact of writing it.
“It’s been kind of a special song for me ever since, and a lot of people have told me it’s a special song for them, too – at least two different people said ‘Well, I hope “Charlie’s Gone Home” is going to be on it’ as soon as I told them about the project.”
Due for release on Friday February 19, “Charlie’s Gone Home (The St Buryan Sessions)” will be followed on Friday March 12 with a new live interpretation of “The Day Of Wrath, That Day”, a track that only achieved its finished form on the day she recorded it for her landmark Michael Chapman-produced 2018 album If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous.
“Before that album, I’d never played electric guitar – it wasn’t something that would even have occurred to me,” Sarah admits. “It was totally down to Michael. We were staying at his house during one of my tours, and he produced this lovely red Ibanez Artist, plugged it into an amp and said ‘Try playing this.’
“And you know, if anybody else but Michael Chapman had handed me an electric and told me to play it, I’d have said ‘Nah, I’m really more of an acoustic guitar type.’ But when it’s one of your heroes handing you one of his own instruments and you’re a guest in his house, you say yes, so I took the guitar and started playing it, and almost immediately I was blown away by all the different sounds I could get out of it – sounds that wouldn’t have been achievable with an acoustic. I was totally and utterly entranced, and I just sat there cross-legged on the rug beside the amp, playing and playing for ages while Michael sat back on the sofa drinking wine and smiling to himself.
“But then we went off the next day and continued on the tour, and I guess if I thought anything it was something like ‘Well, maybe someday if I can ever afford it I should think about buying an electric guitar.’ So it was a total bolt from the blue when Michael phoned me up months later, after we’d started talking about him producing my next album, and said ‘I need you to give me your address so I can UPS you that red guitar you played the last time you visited. I want you to write some songs for the new album on it.’
“I always like to include at least one instrumental track on any album I make, so of course I wanted to write one on the electric, to take advantage of that whole sonic spectrum that I’d never worked with before. But every time I played the piece it started taking me somewhere different, and by the time we got into the studio and started recording the album I still hadn’t settled on a final version of it. I was really worried that the track wasn’t ready to record, but Michael said ‘Just sit down and play it a few times through, and we’ll record it and see what happens.’
“I think it was only the second or third take I did that Michael said ‘That’s the one’ while the final note was still tailing off – on the album version you can actually hear him say it. So then I had to sit down with that recording and memorise what I’d done so I could play the track live! And thankfully I still have the guitar on long-term loan from Michael, so I was able to use it for the St Buryan Sessions recording.”
Filmed and recorded in the lovely church of St Buryan, parts of which date back to the 11th century, The St Buryan Sessions had its genesis last spring, when Sarah’s gigs and tours were cancelled due to COVID-19. Rather than risk the technical pitfalls of live-streaming, she used crowdfunding to finance a beautifully recorded and filmed album and video series that would capture the essence of a live performance even without an audience.
“We set her up as if it were a regular gig,” explains Sarah’s longtime manager and sound engineer, Martin Stansbury, who produced, recorded and mixed the project. “No flash studio mics, just the same touring PA and monitors she’d walked onstage to a thousand times, so it would be truly home territory.”
Martin also placed ambient microphones around the soaring space to capture its natural acoustic and intensify the listener experience of “being there”, while Cornish filmmaker and director Mawgan Lewis of Purple Knif (who worked previously with Sarah on videos for If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous) and Eden Sessions veteran camera operator John Crooks were able to take full advantage of camera angles that would not have been possible if audience sight-lines had been a consideration.
“I’m totally thrilled with the result,” says Sarah, “and I’m so glad that we were able to do it in a place that’s been so special to me on a personal level – plus, the church itself had a huge impact on the overall sound, as well as on the visuals. I’m really grateful to Canon Vanda Perrett and the St Buryan Parish Council, and to the St Buryan Male Voice Choir for letting me use their lovely grand piano, and most of all to the 184 individuals who contributed to the FundRazr campaign. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
“Charlie’s Gone Home (The St Buryan Sessions)” and “The Day Of Wrath, That Day (The St Buryan Sessions)” will be available for streaming and download via Spotify, iTunes/Apple Music, Bandcamp and other services from February 19 and March 12, respectively.
Videos of each song will be premiered the day after release in live “watch party” events on Sarah’s YouTube channel, with Sarah on hand in the chat to answer questions and respond to feedback. The roll-out of singles and videos will continue throughout the year, and Sarah hopes to release the full 15-track, 72-minute album on CD and double LP in late summer.