Electro-folk duo Saint Sister told David Hennessy about being on tour in America when the crisis hit, knowing Hozier was going to be ‘absolutely massive’ back when they were all in the Trinity Orchestra and about singing a poignant a capella version of Dreams at the funeral of murdered journalist Lyra McKee.
Described as a mix of early harp traditional, folk and electronic pop or simply ‘atmosfolk’, the Dublin-based duo Saint Sister were nominated for the Choice Music Prize for their debut album Shape of Silence in 2018.
Made up of Gemma Doherty from Derry and Morgan MacIntyre from Belfast, the electro-folk duo have been established since 2014. Prior to that they had both been part of the Trinity Orchestra that had also included the now world famous Hozier.
They were voted Best Irish Act by Irish Times readers while the newspaper said, “Their haunting performance is impeccable”, while Hot Press lauded their “tremendous vocal depth and vulnerability”. Their sound can be described as dreamy, a feeling that is created by their atmospheric sound and beautiful harmonies.
In March, the duo released the single Dynamite, the first taste their recorded second album. This was also when Morgan and Gemma were touring America with Keane when the pandemic meant this tour had to be curtailed.
Morgan told The Irish World: “We were four shows in and it was just starting to really click. We were really excited. We were just delighted and then we were sent home. At the time I don’t think I understood the severity of the situation. Then obviously everything went into lockdown, touring was the least of everyone’s worries. It’s okay as long as everybody is safe and home.”
Gemma adds: “Although it is sad to have to leave a tour it just felt much bigger than that. At the time I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m so annoyed we can’t play these shows’. I was just like, ‘The world is going crazy. We need to get home’. It was only a few months into the whole thing that I started to be like, ‘Woah, we really missed those shows’. You couldn’t really think about it at the time because it felt so outside of anything anyone had ever felt before.
These were bigger theatre shows. We have never done a run of shows that long in venues that big. It definitely would have been a new kind of stint for us. it would have been fun. There was definitely the anticlimactic part of it but then a new anxiety set in.”
Morgan continues to explain how quickly things took a turn: “We were going from city to city and it seemed like we were a day ahead of the shutdown. Every time we played a show we moved on and then would hear the city before had gone into a lockdown.
“Every day we were waiting on alerts and new. It was kind of panicky, I guess. We were waiting to be told what to do. it was a new feeling for us. overall just good to get home and good to stay safe and not be at gigs with thousands of people which is not a good time to be doing in the middle of a pandemic.”
Gemma adds: “The last show that we played, there was no sign of us having to go home anytime soon. Then we had two days to get to the next show and that was when travel restrictions to the US came in and that’s when a lot of big news broke.
“It didn’t seem like there was anything wrong at that point but then I feel like three days later we all would have felt really uncomfortable getting up there for that many people. It’s mad how fast the news was changing at that point. It was in those two days that thankfully we didn’t have gigs that everything came out and that’s when we were slowly reckoning with it all as we were driving through the desert trying to figure out what to do. It was very dramatic. I just remember being really glad to be back in Ireland and really glad to be not in an airport or on a plane and we’ve been here ever since which is the longest stint that we’ve be here in a while. It does feel like a bit of a blur that whole time.”
The duo have recorded the follow-up to their lauded debut Shape of Silence and tell us it will be a different offering with a lighter tone in places and, perhaps more importantly, Saint Sister producing it themselves. They released the single Dynamite in March but haven’t quite felt right about going ahead and releasing any more of the new music yet with things so uncertain.
Morgan says: “Just before Christmas last year we really wanted to record our album, the second album. We really put ourselves under pressure to get it done because we just felt it was right to get it done quickly and we wrote it quite quickly. It just felt like there was a nice momentum. We were just delighted to have done it so quickly just because I had got into my head anyway that I was a slow writer and that was the way it was always going to be and then all of a sudden, it wasn’t hard to write and was feeling good about it.
“We recorded it really quickly with a view to: ‘We’ll get it out there quickly’. It felt right to do that so we did that and then we had everything ready and waiting and started with Dynamite. Everything just changed so much.
“I don’t think there is a right answer. We could have continued along those lines and kept releasing stuff. It just felt like we weren’t sure what we should do and that maybe the best move was to hold onto it a little bit longer and just figure our plan out while everything was in flux. We’re still kind of doing that and I don’t think there will be an answer anytime soon.
“I’m sure sooner or later we will just have to go with our gut and go for it.
“It has been a little bit disruptive but it’s kind of been a nice break as well because I think before the Covid world hit, a lot of bands were on a bit of a treadmill and we just hadn’t stopped to think for a while about what what we wanted to be doing live or putting out there.”
While Shape of Silence was beautiful but had its bleak moments, Morgan says the follow-up will not be as heavy.
“I think it is quite different. We talk about some of our songs in terms of colours and for whatever reason using a colour lets the other person know what you’re thinking better than any other musical term so I think this album is full of different colours from the other one and I see them in completely different worlds.
“There’s a few songs that are much lighter in tone. We were laughing when we wrote them and kind of thinking, ‘This is a bit silly but is it okay? Is it funny? And will we go for it?’
“And that’s the kind of thing that wouldnt have happened with the first album at all and even when we were recording some of the vocal lines, it was a lot of fun not that the other one wasn’t fun but the songs were more serious. That was a nice relief, knowing that that was in us.
“But of course there’s always going to be some sad lines in there as well. It’s not all fun and games. I think that will also translate a little bit onstage in that I can imagine myself singing some of these lines with a big smile on my face. I’m looking forward to that, what that might feel like on stage.”
Shape of Silence was produced by Alex Ryan who plays bass with Hozier. Morgan and Gemma knew Alex from playing together in the Trinity Orchestra which is where they also met the world-conquering singer-songwriter then known to more people as simply Andrew Hozier-Byrne.
Gemma says that she and everyone else knew early on that he was exceptionally talented: “We all met through Trinity Orchestra. We were all involved in that it as singers and we all did these covers gigs, played at festivals and they were all so much fun, met so many amazing people and it was a really great experience.
“That was where I first met Andrew and although he was Hozier at that point, he had been working on his own music for years, I met him through that lens as a singer and as soon as he got up and started to sing into that mic, everybody was like, ‘Oh my God’. There was no doubt at that point that he could be absolutely massive.
“We were doing a Queen covers gig and he sang Somebody to Love and he just hit every note and he just had this insane range. Every time he took to the mic, although he wasn’t superstar Andrew that we know now, he still kind of was within that group. Everyone knew the things that he could do and the voice that he has was always incredible but he was always just like the soundest, most humble person and always has been as well.
“It’s been amazing to see. It’s been incredible just to watch his journey and we were really fortunate to have supported him a few times as well over the last couple of years so we’re really grateful to him for that opportunity and I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next as well.”
The pair sang a poignant a capella version of Dreams by The Cranberries at the funearal of the murdered journalist Lyra McKee last year. Lyra McKee was shot dead in April last year when during rioting in the Creggan area. The New IRA admitted responsibility and a 52-year-old man was charged with her murder in February this year.
Morgan says they sang for Lyra’s family who she knows: “It was quite an emotional moment. My family was friends with her so it was kind of for them and her family as much as anything else. It was quite an overwhelming moment to be a witness to that and to know people who knew her very well: We were just thinking of them really and trying to hold it together for them.
“She was just an amazing person that had a lot of light about her and had been doing amazing things. She was bound to shake up the world and affect change and bring light into a lot of people’s lives as she had been doing. It’s a massive loss to everybody in our community and in the North. She was incredibly powerful as a person. It just feels like a real travesty.”
Gemma adds: “Morgan, you knew her and had the family association but as someone who had never met her, you could still see just from the funeral and how people spoke of her, whether it was friends or colleagues or the priest who was also a close friend of hers, you could just tell she was really an exceptional person and such a great loss. It was incredibly sad. It was a very poignant thing to witness.”
Both from Northern Ireland but based in Dublin, Morgan and Gemma have been worried by Brexit and what it could mean for the border.
Morgan says: “Being from the North, it would be remiss if you weren’t paying attention. We have been paying attention from when we were young because you have to be. I guess Brexit was the big thing and then it was Covid and now it feels like it’s still happening but we’re not talking about it as much.
“The world is going through some big mad changes and it can be overwhelming when you kind of think of how they’re going to impact you and your life and crossing the border and all that kind of stuff. I guess we’ll see. No one knows. That’s the problem, I guess. We don’t know really what’s down the line for us.
“It’s very frustrating. I guess not feeling like you know is very frustrating as someone who participates in society as a voter. Not feeling like you would be listened to if you spoke up is very frustrating. We don’t really know how to egage with it almost because when those things are taken away from you, it can feel frustrating. I think the most frustrating thing is it doesn’t feel like there’s a way out of what’s going on.”
Saint Sister recently appeared on The Late Late Show along with RuthAnne, Una Healy and more there to represent Irish Women in Harmony after contributing to the successful charity cover of Dreams earlier this summer.
This was their first time to meet some of their fellow collaborators but Morgan had already met RuthAnne many years ago when she gave her some advice as a budding songwriter.
Morgan says: “It was lovely because I had gone to an IMRO (Irish Music Rights Organisation) workshop she held years ago when I was in college. My cousin took me to it because he was really supportive of me so we went along. She was just really inspiring then and picked a few songs to play afterwards randomly and mine just happened to be one of them. She gave me some lovely advice and some lovely feedback and it’s nice then years later to be collaborating with her in this way and just getting to know her in a different way and also still learning from her. That was a nice circle of events.
“She’s an amazing artist and an incredibly impressive songwriter as well so I was just delighted to be in the same room as her at that point. And then to connect online and then to meet her in person again was lovely. It was a lovely thing to be a part of.”
Gemma adds: “We hadn’t done the Late Late before so that was really fun. It was such a great day, just getting to all be in the same room, although we were quite far away from each other. It was really great given that these are people you would hope to be hanging out with backstage at festivals or bumping into at gigs. That’s what has really been pulled from this year. That’s what we’re missing and that felt like the closest we’re going to get to that for a while: Just sharing a gig or a live thing with other artists.”
Dynamite is out now.
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