Honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Ards International Guitar Festival in Northern Ireland, Sarah McQuaid is a Madrid-born, Chicago-raised, Cornwall-based singer/songwriter. She shares her top five songwriting tips.
1 Put yourself under pressure
I had been touring a lot ahead of Walking Into White (2015) and so I had all these ideas and I hadn’t had time to flesh them out into songs. I arranged to record the album without having a single finished song. I wrote all of them in one big burst of songwriting. I was so happy with the results that I deliberately put myself under that pressure for the next album. This works well for a particular kind of person; I have a background as a journalist and I got used to being creative under pressure. In some ways, I find it easier to write with a deadline approaching.
2 Give things a long gestation period.
Any time I’m having trouble with something it’s always best to step away. Don’t try to fight it: just let it go and trust it to come back. The title track of The Plum Tree And The Rose (2012) is a good case in point. I’d written a song but it didn’t feel like it was working. I set it aside – in fact, I thought I was putting it away – but it came back to me. I thought, if I slowed it right down and did it as an a cappella song, maybe it would work. I completely rejigged the song and did it a cappella that night and it went down really well. Then I worked out a guitar accompaniment for it. Months later again, I wrote a guitar intro for it and then decided to put in an outro as well. The song took me three years to finish but I’m happy with the result.
3 Jump into a collaboration without any preconceived ideas
On of my co-writers is Zoë, author and performer of 1991 UK Top 10 hit single Sunshine On A Rainy Day. But we didn’t even know we were collaborating on songs until we started doing it. She came over to my house and said, “let me play you this song I have written”. I wrote some lyrics for it and, after that, she kept coming to me with song ideas. After we’d written a few songs, we knew we should write an album (Crow Coyote Buffalo, 2009).
4 Don’t worry about the commerciality of a song
I had always written songs that had verses and choruses and usually a middle eight. Working with Zoë I learned that, as long as there is a structure, it doesn’t matter what the structure is. You don’t have to adhere to preconceived notions of which elements a song should have; you can be free.
5 Be open to inspiration
You can write a song about anything. All kinds of different things inspire me – an image, a phrase or an idea. The title track of the new album – If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous – that’s just something I heard myself saying to my son apropos a hole in the garden. It’s just a question of accessing the poetry.
McQuaid’s fifth album, If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous, is out now.