Songs arise in many different ways. A songwriter might be inspired by a walk by the water, a chance conversation with an acquaintance, a turn of the weather. But architecture? For Sarah McQuaid, a visit to Hardwick Hall, which was built in 1590 near Chesterfield in Derbyshire in the midlands of England by Elizabeth Countess of Shrewsbury, proved a spring board for her imagination.
“I found myself wanting to know more about the woman who built it, and whose initials dominate the roof line,” McQuaid says. Research at first offered her ideas of a woman who attained great wealth by manipulating her fortunes to outlive several husbands. Reading her letters, though, McQuaid found that the countess, informally known as Bess of Hardwick, shared a genuine affection and understanding with her spouses, and that her wealth came from her own good choices in managing finances. In a few well worded verses in her song Hardwick’s Lofty Towers, McQuaid draws a memorable portrait of the character of the woman who chose to create Hardwick Hall as her legacy and emblazon her initials upon it.
A sacred space offers the frame for a different song on McQuaid’s album The Plum Tree And The Rose, a piece which is both gentle and haunting. McQuaid evokes the passage of lifetimes and the nature of change as she considers the names and monuments and stained glass of a great church in her song In Derby Cathedral.
McQuaid knows landscapes, and how to put them into song: she was born in Spain, raised in Chicago, lived for some years in Ireland, and now lives with her family in England’s southwest. From that base she spends six months each year on the road with her music, both giving concerts and teaching workshops on guitar. She has a number of dates set in North America and in the UK in the coming months.
Songs from The Plum Tree And The Rose will be part of these performances. Differing perspectives on change weave through all the songs on the album, from a troubadour song sung in an ancient language to various voices of people standing on the edge of changes in love in songs both original and from history, to a contemplation of the passage of time shown through landscape, conversation, and children in the title track. Lift You Up and Let You Fly finds McQuaid contemplating the joys and bittersweet aspects of helping a child grow, and an original canon of thanksgiving in which McQuaid’s graceful alto is joined by the voices of five fellow musicians brings things to a thoughtful close.
–> Update: Sarah McQuaid has released two new albums:
Walking Into White, which sees her turning to producers outside the folk realm to give a different edge to her sound ( still rooted in folk sensibility, though). She draws on sources ranging from Arthur Ransome’s classic Swallows and Amazons series of children’s books to thoughts sparked by conversation with her children to create what she called her most personal album yet. Read a bit more about Walking Into White in this story about a soundtrack for autumn travels.
Thatdrawing on personal ideas is a trend she has followed with her album If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous. Returning to her adopted home of Cornwall in the southwest of England to record it (Walking Into White saw McQuaid traveling to New York state to record) she gathered a selection of songs at once Introspective and universal. The music and McQuaid’s singing are beautiful, and you could listen to the album just for those qualities — but don’t. There’s much thought provoking stuff here, in the individual pieces and in how they resonate with each other. The name of the album and the first song on it came from “a warning that I heard myself giving my son a while back, when he was excavating a giant hole in our back garden,” McQuaid said. “It struck me as a good metaphor for all sorts of things.”
photograph of Hardwick Hall by Giano
photograph of Sarah McQuaid by Colm Henry
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