Sarah McGuinness is one of the best-kept secrets in the music business. Her most palpable hit, the searing anthem ‘Mama Can You See Me Now’, provided the soundtrack to her 2010 Emmy-nominated documentary, Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story - with whom she has collaborated as director and designer for over 20 years – and warranted stunning remixes by legendary producers, William Orbit and Mickey Petralia. In 2015, she wrote and recorded the soundtrack to her BAFTA shortlisted film Noma: Forgiving Apartheid with the Soweto Gospel Choir in South Africa and garnered enviable UK radio interest with the shamelessly seasonal stomp, ‘No More Sad Songs’. Now, together with some illustrious guests, producer Ed Buller and bandleader Guy Barker, she gifts the world her long-awaited debut album, ‘Unbroken’.
‘Unbroken’ has been spitting embers at McGuinness for years. While she was going hammer and tongs at her film and stage work, the still small voice inside grew so loud she literally had to down tools on a stand-up comedy musical (Say Something Funny) and commit her backlog of songs to an album. ‘Unbroken’ naturally plays psychic host to a restless creative spirit spooked by the ghosts of John Barry, Lalo Schifrin, Scott Walker and Abba as well as a pack of worthless lovers, broken promises, missed opportunities and snarling regrets. It also showcases a passionate artist with a timeless devotion to the oft broken art of song. A mighty big band behind her, she belts and blisters her way through an album's worth of incendiary self-penned torch songs that burn and smoulder with intent.
Sarah McGuinness began her musical career in Derry, Northern Ireland, where she grew up singing harmonies with her mother and sisters on long Sunday drives around County Donegal; apart from at Christmas when she sang carols with a young Peter Cunnah (D:ream). Moved by the harmonies of Motown as much as the choral classics, she was composing songs at 11 inspired by Bowie, Bolan, Velvets and Iggy while also admiring the aesthetics of The Avengers and The Prisoner and the cinematic scores of Barry, Hermann and Schifrin.
Moving back to London at 18, McGuinness studied English and drama, worked with Grammy award winner Ben Bartlett (of Walking With Dinosaurs fame), formed a band and began writing incidental music, notably for the films Whacked by horror director Jake West and Secrets by Paul Hills as well as for her old friend Eddie Izzard. Her first single release, Mandy Says, was produced by fellow Derry musician John O'Neill (The Undertones and That Petrol Emotion) and was roundly applauded upon its 1994 release by the music press.
Over 20 years and numerous writing, directorial and design credits later, you can still hear traces of her classical sensibilities in the detailed and multi-layered vocal compositions. But, what McGuinness has is a penchant for the big orchestral atmospheric sweep of a Bond theme. Imagine a clash between the Eurythmics and Portishead in their pomp, set to a Barry score and you have some idea of the scope of Unbroken.
Recorded at Dean Street Studios, once owned by legendary Bolan and Bowie producer, Tony Visconti, Unbroken finds McGuinness in a lush soundscape of strings and brass provided by the Guy Barker Orchestra, The production may be swish but the songs are stark naked in their emotional honesty and the atmosphere can be also be thrilling. Vocals are multi-tracked and to the fore and the harmonies and vocal arrangements are as smart and theatrical as vintage Abba.
There are at least three sure-fire hits in Glad You’re Gone – a chilling revenge thriller with a killer melody, punctuated by brass and strings astride a relentless disco beat worthy of Giorgio Moroder – Don’t Let Our Love Go – a shameless homage to Motown and a devotional love tract – and What Do I Do which sees the end of the affair on the banks of the Seine in the rain. But it’s the album’s closing track, I Believed, that steals the show. Everything is stripped back to a simple but haunting four note piano refrain and cello, a half-spoken, half choked vocal confessing its love and belief in an impossible romance. The ticking metronome that underpins it calls time on both the illusion and the album to somewhat devastating effect.
McGuinness, last seen in public at the former Pigalle Club on Piccadilly and ever resplendent in dark bob and evening dress, stepped out from the shadow of her writer, director and designer self and walked into the spotlight witnessed by an admiring audience of friends and family. Backed by Guy Barker and his band and the London Soul Choir led by Abi Gilchrist, with special guests from her various films, soundtracks and shows, McGuinness breezed through the songs on Unbroken and in doing so lit a torch for the hidden talent and creative spirit in us all.