Singer Sarah McGuinness releases first album: 'You get to a certain age and it's now or never'

With a successful career behind the camera the Derry native was hesitant about stepping into the spotlight, but finally now feels it's time to fulfil her lifelong musical ambition

This week sees the release of Unbroken, a daring debut album by the Derry-born artist Sarah McGuinness. Allowing for the false starts, the doubts and fears that attend the writing of deeply personal material, it has taken 20 years for this multi-talented singer-songwriter to take the bull by the horns, to have the courage of her own convictions and finally complete a polished collection of nine tracks each of which will be illustrated by a mini movie directed by Sarah Townsend.

For the avoidance of doubt the singer and the movie director are one and the same person. The glamorous brunette pictured on the album cover is the musical alter ego of the blonde producer and screenwriter whose most notable works include the Emmy-nominated documentary Believe – The Eddie Izzard Story and the award-winning Noma: Forgiving Apartheid. Launched in London at the Union Private Members Club in Greek Street, Unbroken will go on sale from November 17.

Born into an artistic family (her aunt Maureen Hegarty was a popular singer and aunt Sheila McClean an accomplished visual artist) Sarah Townsend grew up in Derry~Londonderry in the 1970s and ‘80s and attended Mount Carmel school in Strabane. She sang in choirs and played violin in a youth orchestra in Omagh every week.

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'I didn’t have the greatest time doing that but the fact of doing it grounded me in classical music,' explains Sarah. She enjoyed listening to John Barry film soundtracks and David Bowie and Iggy Pop helped her escape the day to day realities of those troubled times in Northern Ireland. 'I felt transported by those songs to another place and time. For me the music of that era still has a fairytale quality about it.'

It is appropriate then that the songs which Sarah wrote on her home midi system have been arranged with a big band score by Guy Barker, a classical musician, and composer and recorded in the historic Dean Street studios in Soho where Bowie and so many of the ‘80s pop musicians once performed. 'When you are in that magnificent studio you are fully aware of those legendary stars,' affirms Sarah.

Looking back Sarah Townsend couldn’t wait to leave Northern Ireland but leave she did to study English and Drama at Holloway College in London. She always wanted to be involved in music yet her sideways moves into theatre production and documentary film making were eminently successful and she is now using those skills to create short films for the Unbroken project.

In Edinburgh where Sarah set up a festival fringe venue in a former soup kitchen, she promoted some soon to be famous stand-up comedians, notably Ardal O’Hanlon and Eddie Izzard, who became her real life partner for a time and is the subject of her first full length documentary. In Edinburgh she also met Noma Dumezweni whom she cast in a play by Moliere and with whom she made a documentary filmed in South Africa.

The most moving sequence in Believe – the Eddie Izzard Story comes when the comedy star and actor reveals how the loss of his mother, who fell ill with cancer when the family lived in Ashford Drive in Bangor, County Down and died when he was just six years old, had affected his entire life. Letting go of feelings he had buried for years he finally realised that the drive to achieve success, or run 48 marathons in 51 days for charity, were all about her. As the tears welled up, he admitted, 'If I do enough things maybe she’ll come back, I think that is what I am doing.'

Similarly, in Johannesburg, when Noma Dumezweni who had fled South Africa during the apartheid era met up once again with her father, a former political activist, the actress was able to come to terms with her enforced exile.

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'Finding the truth about herself and being able to express it meant she was able to let her light shine and changed the course of her entire life,' says Sarah, who believes that the presence of a camera provoked those extraordinary moments of revelation for both Eddie and Noma. 'I love the healing power of what creativity can do to give you back to yourself.' Within three months of the film’s release, Noma was offered the part of Hermione Granger in the West End production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Sarah McGuinness, who is credited with the original music for Sarah Townsend’s Eddie Izzard film, has also been searching for her truth. 'It was a struggle to learn to write a song, a struggle to grow up, and it took years to learn to tell the truth but people respond to truth more than anything, more than perfection, because it reflects human experience.'

When writing a song, Sarah describes how she narrows everything down to the absolute essence of what she was feeling at the time. She begins to tell the story with one phrase or melody. In the case of this album, the stories are about finding love, feeling betrayed, the pain of breaking up, the resolve to move on, Unbroken.

'You get to a certain age and it is now or never. I thought if I don’t do this now all of that effort will not have any legacy. I just opened up and created a set of songs that reflect my age and any age and now I can say if I can do this anyone can.'

The lyrics are for the most part couched in rhyming couplets: 'I remember every little word you say, every little game you play… You tore me up inside, all the tears I’ve tried to hide,' ('I’m Glad You’re Gone'). 'Do you know how much I want you, do you know how much I care, when you put your arms around me there is nothing I wouldn’t dare,' ('Obvious'). Kicking drum patterns drive the message in 'Wake Up and See How You Are Losing Me'. Punchy horns give a syncopated kick in the ass to 'Pack Up Your Bags (of Trouble)'.

The press release for Unbroken describes Sarah McGuinness as a 'seductive, strong, sassy and steely woman of mystery who plucks at snapshots of her real life and delivers them melodically with all the strength and glamour of a 1950s movie goddess.' The PR consultant who wrote it inadvertently committed Sarah Townsend to directing all of the video clips for the album even though she only intended to make one.

'It was the best thing that could have happened to me for now I am living my dream of writing scripts and creating my own screen characters with the help of long time collaborators, Director of Photography (DP) David Corfield and editor Angela Vargos. Digital technology allows us to make short films quickly on a shoestring budget. In the south of France the 'No Tears' video became a tribute to Hitchcock. The DP dangled an iPhone on a fishing pole to get certain shots; we borrowed a beautiful sports car and, dressed in a slinky red suit à la Janet Leigh and singing the lines 'never come back, never ever come back', I boarded a boat and, in contrast to Marion Crane in Psycho, made my get away with the heist money. The classy images in 'Glad You’re Gone' portray a proud woman who wipes away her tears, slips on her stilettos, paints her pouting lips and gets ready to take on the world on her own terms.  

The video for 'No More Sad Songs' was filmed in an around Sarah’s house in Greencastle, Donegal. Since the community has a long seafaring tradition, the Christmas Eve story is one of joyous anticipation and tension as a child awaits the arrival of her fisherman father following a storm. Local children form a Christmas choir to sing along in this seasonal celebration of love.

Produced by Ed Buller (Suede, Pulp, The Raincoats and Courteeners) Unbroken is available on the G&T label and is distributed by Right Track and Universal Music Operations. The album can be purchased digitally on iTunes and Amazon from November 17.