Born out of the pandemic, The St Buryan Sessions is the sixth solo album by award-winning multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter Sarah McQuaid, and is her most powerful and emotive offering yet.
The album had its genesis in the spring of 2020, when Sarah’s gigs and tours were cancelled due to COVID-19. Thanks to a successful crowdfunding campaign, she was able to finance a live solo recording (sans audience) in the lovely medieval church of St Buryan, not far from her home in rural West Cornwall.
Sensitively captured by her long-time sound engineer and manager, Martin Stansbury, with the aid of ambient microphones placed throughout the church, the sound of Sarah’s voice and music soars through the stunning acoustic space as she moves between acoustic guitar, piano, electric guitar and floor tom drum, performing songs that span her 24-year career – from “Charlie’s Gone Home”, originally recorded on her 1997 debut album When Two Lovers Meet, to electric guitar based pieces from her most recent studio album If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous — plus a pair of previously unrecorded covers.
The album opens, as do many of her live shows, with the a cappella “Sweetness and Pain”, an ode to the weakness of personal will when confronted by tempting albeit hurtful circumstance, which sets the tone for the album as Sarah’s voice reverberates around the empty sanctuary. In a rare concession to the solo format, the rocky “If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous” features the live looping by Martin that many fans are familiar with from her concerts over the years. On “The Silence Above Us”, a hauntingly appropriate metaphor for these times of doubt and fear, Sarah makes use of the beautiful grand piano that resides in the church, while her vintage floor tom drum comes into play on “One Sparrow Down”, a percussive, upbeat homily on the folly of attacking an imagined enemy.
She also tackles some new (for her) material: the classic jazz standard “Autumn Leaves”, on which she demonstrates the full dynamic range of her lush, distinctive voice, and a cover of “Rabbit Hills”, written by her dear friend (and past producer), the late Michael Chapman. This second piece was commissioned by Michael’s wife as a gift for his 80th birthday and sees Sarah once again at the piano, her compelling, heartfelt delivery revealing her immersion in the rich imagery of Chapman’s evocative lyrics.
Conceived as a concert set and including such fan favourites as “In Derby Cathedral”, “The Sun Goes On Rising” and “Yellowstone”, the album is a journey not only through a wide range of instrumentation and styles, but also through the spectrum of emotions that Sarah evokes in her performance and invokes in the listener. This is never more evident than on the album closer “Last Song”, a poignant tribute to her late mother that expresses deep sadness mingled with joy in the way the spirits of our loved ones travel with us – and proves the depths of feeling to which a songwriter can move an audience.
The recording was filmed by Cornish filmmaker and director Mawgan Lewis of Purple Knif with the aid of Eden Sessions veteran camera operator John Crooks, and the album release will be accompanied by a full concert video. In the meantime, Sarah has been releasing a series of videos of individual songs to her YouTube channel, where Lewis’ short documentary “The Making Of The St Buryan Sessions”, featuring interviews and song snippets, can also be viewed.
The St Buryan Sessions will be released Friday, October 15 on CD and limited-edition double LP.