I can’t remember who first put me on to Sarah MacDougall (I know it was quite a while after the release of her wonderful second album The Greatest Ones Alive about five years ago), but I owe them thanks, especially after last year’s equally lovely album Grand Canyon. The songs still have their sparse, desolate feel, full of the open spaces of the far north of Canada (Sarah’s home country, if you can call anywhere home for someone who seems to live on tour) and Sweden, the country of her birth. But this time the arrangements are fuller, the sound rounder. So it was a pleasure to hear the songs at The Green Note in Camden earlier this week. She performed them solo, having left the band behind somewhere on a long European tour, and they were as affecting in their simple, intimate, fingerpicked forms as their bigger cousins on the recordings.
Two that stood out in particular on the evening were the defiant ‘It’s A Storm’, in which the words of the verse come tumbling out so fast that she had to stop and start again; and, as a finale, her ode in Swedish to Malmo where she grew up, ‘Malmö i mitt hjärta’, which on the record comes with a vast orchestra and massed choir, but this time was performed just as movingly with slow drumbeats on her guitar and boots on the wooden stage. All the while, we heard the little stories behind the songs, and about the trials and tribulations of touring with them (apparently laundry is a big problem, as is running out of copies of the new album before you reach the UK).
I had noticed recently (again at The Great Escape, for example) how well the Canadian authorities and industry bodies seem to support their bands and musicians while they are ambassadors abroad, and I found myself reflecting on the job Sarah does in return. We were taken during her set to her home in the Yukon, where grizzlies stalk you on your way to the outside shower, and to Saskatchewan, where the prairies have waves like the sea. Soon the packed room was chanting ‘Manitoba’ back to her as if it were as familiar as Camden. She even mentioned her aim to move to Toronto, which seemed surprising for someone who sounds so little like a city girl: the only song she sang set in a city was inspired by a neo-Nazi serial killer in Malmo who only stalked those with dark hair. Maybe, after all, Malmo has less to thank her for than the Canadian provinces…
It was a wonderful evening of delicate, strong songs from the North and the pictures she paints with them. Perhaps Sarah MacDougall hasn’t flown under your radar as she had under mine until that recommendation, but if she has, look out for her in November when she plans to be back in the UK. She might even bring some copies of the album next time. And the band.
Words: James Garvin