Article by Kerry Dexter
It has been nearly five centuries since Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury — more informally known as Bess of Hardwick — put her fortune and her imagination to work to commission the building of Hardwick Hall in the midlands of England. Still the hall stands, noted especially for its extensive use of large windows, unusual for buildings in the Renaissance. What’s also prominent in the design is the recurrence of Bess of Hardwick’s initials, ES for Elizabeth of Shrewsbury (Note: Clearly seen in photo above), worked into the stonework on the roof line.
All these things got singer and songwriter Sarah McQuaid thinking about what sort of person Bess of Hardwick might have been, and what sort of life she led. In history books she’s usually mentioned for great wealth and power, but McQuaid took a more personal focus for her song Hardwick’s Lofty Towers, which proves a thoughtful and illuminating idea of a woman’s life that connects across the centuries in just a few short verses.
McQuaid is well qualified to tell such a story: born in Spain, raised in Chicago, living for more than a decade in Ireland and now raising her family in the southwest of England, she brings a poet’s ear and a songwriter’s voice to the music she has chosen for The Plum Tree and the Rose. There are songs she’s written and songs from several sources recent and past that she covers. Some have to do with or are inspired by ideas from history, often English history, while others are more personal. Rather than offering history lessons only by fact, through all the songs McQuaid invites listeners to consider permanence and impermanence, and what may last and carry on after we are gone.
These ideas and questions play out in the title track, as McQuaid intertwines the legacy of memory with nature and family in The Plum Tree and The Rose, and considers the changes and uncertainties of love in the song So Much Rain. History takes its places again through reflection in the song In Derby Cathedral, and there is a meditation on the loving and letting go that comes with parenthood in Lift You Up and Let You Fly. Though that focus on time and change is perhaps less explicit through the other songs, it is there, as McQuaid looks at Robert Dudley’s courting of the first Queen Elizabeth in the song Kenilworth, covers songs by John Martyn and John Dowland, and closes with a six part canon called In Gratitude I Sing. Through the album, McQuaid’s many hued alto voice and creative guitar work are well supported by Trevor Hutchinson on double bass, Gerry O O’Beirne (who produced the album) on guitar, Rosie Shipley on fiddle, Niamh Parsons on voice, and others.
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