Rambles.net - Michael Scott Cain

Sarah McQuaid
The Plum Tree & The Rose
(Waterbug, 2012)

Sarah McQuaid is an Irish traditional singer who, on her new album The Plum Tree & The Rose, is singing primarily self-composed material. She wrote nine of the 12 songs on this CD and, oddly enough, her recently composed songs sound remarkably like traditional ones. You can easily imagine most of the tunes and lyrics being passed down from generation to generation, sung by hearths while the log fire blazes in the fireplace and the company passes around glasses of dark beer and sings along.

Yet at the same time, there is a schooled artistry to McQuaid’s alto voice. Don’t get me wrong, her approach to this material is not scholarly but it is far removed from the self-taught, down home and relaxed singing we associate with with traditional Irish music. Even if she keeps the training in a hand-woven basket, McQuaid has been trained – not enough to hurt her singing, but enough to make it noticeable. It is a voice for the concert hall, not the pub. Consider this: she sings a self-composed song about the crashing economy but follows it with a Provencal troubadour song from 1200, then kicks into a 1609 advertisement for oysters, sung a cappella with two harmony voices. Then she moves on to one her new songs, written in Rogers and Hammerstein’s or Cole Porter’s verse-refrain form.

What I’m saying here is that even if her material mostly reflects and has its roots in the early traditional Irish music, Sarah McQuaid does not make background music. She demands a careful listening. Giving her that listening will pay off.