Moving from Belfast to nearby Dublin’s Blessington Basin, Morgan MacIntyre met Gemma Doherty at a battle of the bands. Upon learning that Doherty played harp, MacIntyre immediately pursued her to make music together, and thus birthed Saint Sister.
Since 2014, they have performed extensively. The duo toured with Lisa Hannigan across Europe, supported The National and played to crowded fields at Glastonbury and Electric Picnic. They have also headlined shows at The National Concert Hall in Dublin along with a scatter of venues across London, Stockholm and to a sold out crowd in National Sawdust in Brooklyn earlier this year. Music legends, Yo La Tengo performed new material on the same stage a week prior.
Saint Sister’s trajectory is one that many bands aspire to. Their unique sound combines several enchanting elements; Celtic Harp, synthesizer, analogue drum-machine and celestial harmonies. Their haunting arrangements recently garnered acclaim from NPR Music following their latest appearance at SXSW festival in Austin, Texas.
As Saint Sister put the final touches on their debut album, set for an October release, they prepare for another prosperous year as one of the most captivating bands from our isle.
You’ve already had an amazing start to 2018 in terms of gigs, you played SXSW and received glowing praise from NPR All Songs Considered. How has it been playing to big crowds and in incredible venues?
Gemma: We’ve been playing a lot of shows in the last year! We feel like we’ve taken a long time to release new music, though. There are a lot of different sides to being in a band, at the the moment we’re in the headspace of releasing music and our finishing our album.
Getting out in front of people to perform is one of my favourite things to do. We’ve been so lucky with gigs in the last little while. We gigged a lot at the start, too. I remember we met our now manager (Conor Cusack, also a musician and member of Dublin band Spies) for a coffee to get some advice before we started doing anything. He told us to write loads and then start touring so that we’d have a bank of songs on reserve for when things became really busy. But we ignored that! We just launched straight into gigging and that has, in turn, really informed how we use our studio time. They feed into each other and it has been a huge part of us figuring out who we are as a band.
We were so lucky that we didn’t have go on a performing hiatus to write the album because we love doing it. Being able to do that continuously has been good for our heads.
Did you use touring as an opportunity to experiment with songs and expand arrangements from show to show?
G: We would test run ideas on the road, for sure. I think that if we had of locked ourselves away at the very start to write a load of music before venturing out on the road our music would be completely different.
Morgan: I think it’s been more about us finding out how we work and sing together. We’ve grown a lot since we started, I would hate to see our first performance now! I’d be so embarrassed to watch that back, especially when we opened for Will Butler (of Arcade Fire), we definitely were not ready for that show. I was a wreck with nerves during the initial Saint Sister gigs; I would be shaking before going on stage. I used to find it the most unnatural part of making music. For me, the natural part was writing music. I’ve gotten over that now though because we’ve played so much and I know how to perform for ourselves and not put on an act that you think will be perceived well. We always want to give an honest portrayal of both ourselves and our songs.
You really get to know a song when you perform it over and over. That gives you an opportunity to figure out what’s working. You want to be able to create an atmosphere on stage and we’ve been able to play with that with each night and see how it lends to a certain song. That’s such a pleasure to do because it’s nice to feel that those songs have been lived in and become the best form of themselves.
The first time I saw Saint Sister perform was three years ago in Workman’s, I was struck by how highly emotional your sets are. There are countless comments on YouTube under your videos of people sharing their experiences of listening to your music and how it makes them cry of people saying that your music has made them cry. How does seeing that reaction make you feel?
M: I think that is the highest compliment that you can be paid as a musician. I take a lot of pride in it, if someone has made an emotional connection to our music. We relay our emotional experiences onstage in the hope of opening a connection with the crowd. We’re both emotional people and it’s good to be sad, sometimes. I love somber songs, when I feel low I listen to even more sad songs. I don’t shy away from those feelings because it’s important to be able to feel emotion in music and if we’re able to do that to a listener then that’s amazing.
When I listen to music, I tend to liken sounds to seasons. ‘Causing Trouble’ and your latest single, ‘Twin Peaks’ both summon scenes of sunny Spring afternoons. They’re poppier than your previous releases which, to me, herald wintry imagery. Are you veering towards a brighter sound in your forthcoming debut record?
Gemma: That’s so funny because we always talk about our songs as seasons. ‘Blood Moon’ (from Saint Sister’s 2015 EP Madrid) is our Autumn song! On the record, however, those two songs are the only ones that lean towards that poppier style. There are songs that’re very introspective and musically quite spacious. We enjoyed exploring the spaces and letting things live in their own sound world, to certain extents.
Morgan: We wanted to continue exploring that darker soundscape in the more intimate songs to create lots of places to explore in the album. We actively tried to hit on those extreme points and sounds so that everything could come together as one complete body of work.
What themes do you address on the album?
M: The main theme that runs through our music is honest communication; whether it’s with one another or the person that’s being addressed in the song. Being able to speak honestly and openly to a person is so important to us and hopefully it comes across in our music. The album is going to be called Shape of Silence which is a lyric taken from ‘Tin Man’. The different facets of silence informed the album; the power of silence, how damaging it is and what can be said and heard when you’re not doing much at all was an interesting concept to us, particularly in this political climate. The Madrid EP focused on loneliness, so it feels like a natural progression, now, to look at silence.
Was there more pressure writing and recording the Madrid EP, because that was going to be the first impression audiences got of Saint Sister than say, working on your debut record which is, I suppose, another kind of first impression or continuation of that introduction but with a broader body of work.
G: It’s a similar kind of pressure. In the beginning, I was absolutely bricking it but at the same time, if it didn’t work it didn’t entirely matter. Now we have something to base our experiences off. Madrid was just four songs and it was our first venture so we thought, “Ah sure, we’ll record it, release it and see what happens.” Don’t get me wrong, we put a lot of work into it but with that behind us the stakes are higher now that we’re releasing an album. It’s a bigger undertaking.
We’ve invested a lot of time into the album. I associate Madrid with a time of anxiety in terms of not knowing exactly what to expect. I played music for years before we started Saint Sister but I didn’t know what was involved with a PR campaign or what it meant to put your song up online. I wasn’t sure how to follow that action and then what constituted a good or bad reaction.
M: It’s also three years since we did that and we haven’t really released anything in the last few years. The album is important to us and we’re so proud of it. It’s not that it’s more stressful but we really want people to feel the same way that we feel about it.
Working as a duo, do you have set roles within the creative process or are lyric writing and composing duties shared equally?
M: We work on different parts of a song, I think that has really helped us throughout our working relationship. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve been able to work quickly, also, because we don’t waste time competing over the same part. I write the lyrics and develop melodies to go with them. Gemma works on melody and invents the soundscape.
G: We generally don’t work together in one room. Once we have the seed of a lyric, we’ll work on ideas separately but we never let ourselves go too far down the path of development without letting the other in. I’ll have the lyrics roaming around in my head for a while, waiting for something to subconsciously come to me which obviously isn’t great for the work-flow. Once that comes, I go to Morgan and we piece it together. We’ve tried writing together in one room but it just didn’t work.
M: We went to Donegal for a week specifically to write and nothing happened except making lovely dinners each night and watching David Bowie documentaries because it was just after he passed away.
G: We literally didn’t write a single line during that week. What’s interesting, though, is that within a couple of days of being back in Dublin, Morgan went away wrote ‘Tin Man’ within a few days. I think that time in Donegal cleared something in us and gave us the space to write that song. It was important for us to establish how we work effectively together so, in that regard, it was a vital trip. Once we’re in the studio we work closely with our producer Alex Ryan. At that stage in the process we’re staring at each other intensely in one room for an extended period. So there’s, again, extremes to how we work on our songs!
Your lyrics usually contain several personal references from dancing to Elvis in the kitchen to watching an episode of Twin Peaks. These shared moments make the listener feel like a outsider to your friend-group purely through listening intently. Do personal experiences quickly transform into verses?
M: It depends. A lot of the references in ‘Twin Peaks’ came within a short space of time. That song, I guess, is a vast list of references. I wrote it as a response to someone who vocalised that they weren’t feeling great and needed support. My natural reaction was, “Ok, let’s close the curtains and for the next 24 hours I will only focus on you. We can do all of the amazing things that we like to do together; listen to music, watch tv and not engage with the problem.” It’s a song about denial, which is not exactly a healthy thing.
I worry, sometimes, of including a memory that is so specific to one moment because I don’t want that to isolate a listener. No one wants to hear a song that only the singer can relate to. People want to see their own experiences reflected, they want to relate to it. Or, certainly, I do whenever I listen to music. Big Thief do it extremely well in their songs. They’ll cite places around Midwest America that I’ve never been to but I feel like I’ve experienced it from Adrianne Lenker’s lyrics.There’s a fine balance in doing that and I’m cautious about going overboard with references but it’s good if people can relate and see the honesty in the songs.
You’ve shown your support and solidarity for the Repeal movement by playing numerous gigs campaigning on behalf of the cause. Do you feel a responsibility to use your platform and music as a means to get people involved in politics?
M: It’s not something we shy away from, but our songs aren’t politically charged. They’re emotional, I guess emotional can be political but I’ve found it difficult to adopt that tone in my lyrics. We’re both political people but anything that I have written hasn’t felt sincere.
Beyond that, we just try to be honest with anyone that engages with us either at gigs or over social media.
G: It’s vital to use your voice, especially now. We curated a gig last month with Eight Stories in The Tara Building and the best thing we felt we could do was talk to people and understand how they’re thinking instead of pushing our beliefs. It’s been so rewarding to be involved in Repeal events; to have had an opportunity to talk and listen to people in a way where they don’t feel isolated. We never want to make people feel uncomfortable, especially if they’re undecided. It’s the people that think they aren’t directly affected by the issue that we want to enlighten so that they’ve an awareness of the magnitude of the outcome, regardless.
Saint Sister has been a self-sufficient force from the beginning. Have you ever considered what the impact of being signed to a major label, especially in the lead up to releasing your album?
G: It’s definitely something that we have thought about. We worked on our album by ourselves, without seeking the help of a major label because we wanted to see the process through in the same way that we did with Madrid. Creatively it’s been great for us to be able to do that and to figure out who we are, without being interfered with. For better or for worse, we’ll never actually know if things would have been better had we been on a major.
We haven’t had the pressures that come with being on a major label like deadlines. We set our own deadlines, but it’s hard in different ways when we’re doing it ourselves. Knowing when to step away from a song, assured that it’s finished is hard when there’s no one there saying it has to be finished and released on a certain date. So there are definitely pros and cons to being on an independent label and also self-releasing singles.
It’s felt so important for us to work independently up until now and I guess in finding a label you have to find a right fit. Sometimes you crave someone to just tell you what to do because it’s so easy to second guess yourself when you’re doing it alone. I definitely think that this experience will stand to us in the long run.
Your debut album is due for an Autumn release date, will you be touring extensively for the rest of 2018?
G: Yeah, we’re going to be performing a lot for the rest of the year. This month we’ll be playing Body & Soul and we’ll be at a good few festivals over the Summer. We’re heading back to America in the Autumn and Australia at the end of the year. There’ll also be lots of Irish dates! We’re very excited!
‘Twin Peaks’ will be out on May 11th, Saint Sister’s debut album Shape of Silence is expected this October. For more information, tour dates and news updates, visit www.saintsisterband.com.
Words: Zara Hedderman