- 30 Jun 21
With the release of their hugely anticipated second album, Northern folk duo Saint Sister discuss the LP’s emotional directness, Stateside touring with Keane, and why they do actually feel like siblings.
My second meeting with Morgan MacIntyre and Gemma Doherty, aka folk duo Saint Sister, involves a detailed exploration of Zoom’s video permission settings.
Having first spoken to the pair at their Jameson Connects session six months ago, it’s unfortunate that face-to-face meetings are still off the agenda. Nonetheless, they are used to rolling with the lockdown punches at this stage: early last year, they were forced to return home from a 16-date Stateside support slot with English rockers Keane.
“The world started falling apart during the west coast dates,” Gemma recalls with palpable disappointment. “It was a shame, because it was our first tour in major venues, with a full band every night. We thought we’d be safe from the virus in America – which was so naive, thinking back. As soon as we landed, cases were appearing all around us. We were all living in denial.
“But the American crowds were brilliant. The final show we played was in the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles, where the Oscars are held. We had no idea that we’d be going home two days later, but we went out on a high.”
“It was particularly gut-wrenching when we had to go home, because we were massive Keane fans growing up,” Morgan notes. “Supporting them was incredibly nostalgic for us; it was like nothing we’d ever experienced before. We were just trying to get onto the right sleep pattern when Covid hit – suddenly we were looking up flights home from the middle of a desert.”
“We were on the way to Denver from LA, having dinner in Vegas,” Gemma adds. “I came back from the bathroom and Morgan said Trump had just banned travel from Europe to the US. Everything deteriorated after that. There turned out to be a tiny airport five minutes away from where we were. After a band meeting, we all booked three flights back to Ireland for the next morning.”
The Northern duo went back to Belfast and Derry for a few months, weathering the storm before returning to Dublin last summer.
“Where I Should End was finished by that point,” Morgan explains. “In our heads, it had taken us far too long to write Shape Of Silence. We wanted to start work on the next album as soon as our debut was released, but I found it so hard to write new music during lockdown – even though we had all the time in the world. It comes in waves, but I’ve found the things that inspire me have been taken away.
“The moments where I write music are on the way home from a party, or when you’re being over-stimulated by busy conversations. That’s when I sneak away to scribble a few lines. We’re being stimulated by stress at the minute instead. Phoebe Bridgers said your art should feel like you’re having an affair with it, quoting another writer. I’ve always felt the need to get time to myself whenever I have an idea blooming in my chest.”
With Hozier and Lisa Hannigan among their cheerleaders, there’s a huge sense of anticipation for Saint Sister’s sophomore offering, which has been trailed in recent months by a series of stunning singles, including ‘Oh My God Oh Canada’, ‘Dynamite’ and the Hannigan collaboration ‘The Place That I Work’. Layering synths and drum machines with harp, strings and piano, the album opens new sonic avenues for Saint Sister, who have also announced a series of UK and Ireland shows to promote the LP. The pair are clearly itching to get back on stage.
“Like everyone else, we’ve struggled not being able to play or go to gigs,” Gemma says. “Our first run of shows start in November, so hopefully everything will be back to some sort of normal by then.”
Being in each other’s pockets has created such a strong friendship, it would be easy to mistake the pair for blood relatives.
“We work very much like a sibling relationship,” Morgan agrees. “There’s a certain dynamic when you grow up with just one sibling, because sisters aren’t afraid to call you out when necessary. What’s amazing about sibling relationships is that unconditional element. No matter what disagreement happens, it’s never the end of the world.
“Gemma and I don’t have big arguments with our own sisters, it’s not in our nature to shout at one another. We just orbit around each other’s moods – otherwise we couldn’t be in a band together. It’s an unconscious thing with Saint Sister, but it’s not an accident that our band parallels real sister relationships.”
It’s almost strange to think of a time when Morgan and Gemma weren’t creating perfect vocal harmonies together.
“We both desperately wanted to be in music,” says Morgan, “so we would have found each other.”
“It was clear from day one that we both wanted a way into the industry,” adds Gemma. “That’s why we jumped in headfirst – we were searching for the same thing. The first time we played together was lovely. We slowly found our rhythm as a band, with no expectations, but it took us a while to figure out the writing process.”
As for the biggest stylistic change on the new album, Morgan cites one particular element.
“A lot of the lyrics on the debut album had been written before I met Gemma,” says Morgan. “When you’re singing together, you want both people to feel represented, like their contribution matters. That’s become more cohesive as we’ve spent more time together. The second album was written during a year where we spent every moment as a pair. Some tracks feature lyrics about Gemma’s experiences where I was a bystander, but the words encompass our joint lives.
“Once the songs are written and recorded, that’s only the start of their life. They’ll turn into a completely different thing when we play them onstage. I’m excited to watch how they’ll evolve over the years.”
The most recent single, ‘Manchester Air’, was written on Inis Oírr three years ago, in the week leading up to the Repeal referendum. Full of anger, panic and hope, Saint Sister dedicated the track to every woman who’s ever had to travel for basic healthcare. Compared to their debut, the subject matter on Where I Should End doesn’t pull any punches.
“This album is a lot more direct,” acknowledges Morgan. “But there’s also a lot more lightness and levity in it. It’s not that I didn’t want to have those moments before, but I was never drawn to them. I used to equate darkness and metaphors with clever writing, as if melancholy is some higher form of art.
“After growing up as a teenage girl, where pop music isn’t exactly revered, I had to learn that writing directly from the heart is the most engaging way. A lot of the time, the most beautiful lines are scrubbed off the floor of a nightclub.”
Recorded with sound engineer Rian Trench in Co. Wicklow’s Meadow Studio, Where I Should End is self-produced by Saint Sister.
“Our confidence and experience level has changed since Shape Of Silence,” says Gemma. “We pieced together our first album over the span of a few years, and it was very disjointed. With the second LP, we knew exactly what work was required and how to do it. We trusted ourselves more. We tested relationships with a few producers, but we already knew how we wanted it to sound and feel, so we invited a few other players into the studio and introduced strings to push it further.”
The album’s title comes from the lyrics on spine-tingling opening track ‘My Brilliant Friend’: “My brilliant friend traces where I should I end, and where I should begin”.
“Anything you want to say, you’ve already said it within the album,” says Morgan. “It’s about figuring out what line to put all of the importance onto. 'Where I Should End' is halfway through a sentence, but the context changes when you hear the full line. It’s nestled within another sentiment.
“When I look at this album, I see what Gemma and I built together but also what we went through together – the highs and lows. I see how dependent you can be on somebody, and how you can define yourself in relation to somebody else. It’s also about the uncertainty over whether something has a final stop or if it’s part of a wider loop.”
Morgan frequently digs into the relationship between two people – be it a romantic connection, a bond between relatives, or a deep friendship.
“‘Irish Air’ was actually written as a break-up song for Gemma,” Morgan confesses.
“We’d been on our first album tour, and we’d been on the road for a couple of months,” elaborates Gemma. “We were shattered because of the intensity. I went through a break-up, and it was really hard dealing with it while being on the road. It’s that thing of where one person ends and another begins, as Morgan said. It felt like that was the epitome of that dynamic.
“You’re living out of each other’s pockets for months when you’re dating, completely intertwined, but when something deeply personal like a break-up happens, everyone around you feels it too. A few months later, Morgan wrote a song for me, but it’s more about how Saint Sister dealt with it as friends. We very much coped together, because we had to. I found my way in through the string section, which is my way of getting these things out.”
Morgan smiles again, before adding, “I like that the song showcases both halves of Saint Sister, strings and lyrics. It epitomises our way of building art together.”
• Where I Should End is out now, via FUGA. Read the Hot Press verdict here