words and interview by maria sledmere
Ethereal is, funnily enough, a word often used lightly to describe bands that flirt with a dreamy style, but few musicians fit the term quite like Irish duo, Saint Sister. With their increasingly strong catalogue of tracks, Morgan MacIntyre and Gemma Doherty combine haunting vocals, electronic beats and celestial murmurs of harp, fusing traditional Celtic music with vintage sixties folk and the occasional trip of a hip-hop rhythm. Think: a more angelic take on the glitchy dissonance of Bon Iver; the heavenly accord of sweet-sounding synths and soothing arpeggios, mixed with lyrics steeped in mythology and romanticism as much as familiar themes of longing and heartache. On their existing releases, from 2015’s ‘Madrid’ EP to last year’s double single, ‘Tin Man / Corpses’, the duo veer effortlessly between lilting radiance and a broodier, gothic-toned atmosphere. You might call it experimental lullaby. Don’t let the label fool you, however; Saint Sister’s music allows for an enchanting live show as much as bedroom listening, and they recently headlined Dublin’s National Concert Hall.
Early in their career, the band described their sound as ‘atmosfolk’, and certainly it has that touch of the intimate, airy and otherworldly. With subtle textures and carefully layered instrumentation, influences ranging from Joni Mitchell to James Blake, Saint Sister conjure a complexity of moods, guiding us through sparse Celtic landscapes with rich streams of warm vocal harmonies. With songs like ‘Tin Man’, Saint Sister suggest a bittersweet sense of empathy, a need for connection, protection. Distant beats, lapidary melodies and soft percussion interweave and build like the milky glow of a long-coming dawn. Listening to their music is like arriving at the horizon after drifting for hours; there’s that expansive sense of a journey, the feeling of being both lost and swaddled in some form of hope. It’s as if music could take numbness and melt it, extract the pouring gold of emotion into something delicate, evocative, pure. Remind us of time and all of life’s transitory beauties.
On latest single, ‘Causing Trouble’, Saint Sister depict various kinds of crossroads and transitions: points in life where relationships, feelings and memories overlap or pass each other by, those chance exchanges between past and present framed by the light of the future. It’s a song inflected by shadows as much as the sweet allure of nostalgia; slick clicking beats are overlaid with tender arpeggios, soft production and soaring vocals which feel like waves breaking on faraway shores.
There’s a sense of those gossamer, nineties trip hop rhythms; the serene and sidereal chimes of Massive Attack mingling with the folk nuance of more traditional influences and the home comfort of a nod to Van Morrison. While the pre-chorus invites us into a transcendent atmosphere (“We swapped bodies for a while”), ultimately the song’s mood is one of reflection and reconciliation, the cathartic attempt to accept the place of one’s memories.
What makes Saint Sister shine that little bit brighter in the ambient galaxy of contemporary folktronica is their flair for a neat and pleasing lyric, the literary scope of the tales they tell in song. Poetic and redolent, ‘Causing Trouble’ draws us into its lushly harmonic passage, its ache for the beautiful past, at the same time as weaving a personal tale into its universal narrative of change and loss. As interviewees, MacIntyre and Doherty were equally lyrical and generous in their responses, taking a break from a busy summer gig circuit to share their thoughts on eclectic influences, nostalgia, the safe space of music and upcoming plans for live shows and releases.
Your new single ‘Causing Trouble’ is just lovely, so dreamy with those subtle R&B beats and deeper production and bass. How do you think your sound has expanded since you started and is there a particular direction you’re striving towards with the new material?
Gemma: Thank you! It’s never really been predetermined, once the seed of a song or an idea is planted, it’s a case of going with whatever sounds and textures feel right. With Causing Trouble, the melody came first, and we wanted to keep the verse pretty sparse and minimal, to give the chorus plenty of space to soar. Hopefully each time we write is a progression on the last. We’ve developed a really nice dynamic in the studio which has been so important. We’ve recorded all of our tracks with Alex Ryan, who’s produces with us too. The three of us head down to his studio in the hills of Kerry for a few weeks at a time and just try to switch off from everything else. As we’ve all gotten more comfortable in that working environment, we’re learning to trust each other’s instincts a bit more and keep pushing the boundaries.
As a genre, folk has undergone lots of hybridisations in recent years, an obvious example being Beth Orton’s ‘freak-folk’ with its electronic, trip-hop elements. There are obvious Celtic influences in your sound. What does the term ‘folk’ represent to you in terms of tradition and musical lineage?
Gemma: I grew up with traditional folk music, my background is undoubtedly rooted in the Irish tradition. I’ve always had a love for arranging old folk songs, or finding old texts and creating a melody. But when it comes to writing music, I try not to think too much about slotting into a particular genre, or attaching a label in hindsight to something we have made. What comes out is a unique blend of influences, and it’s not always easy to pin-point what these actually are or where they came from; I think there’s a certain magic in that. That said, at its core, our music can always be stripped back to our voices and the harp. The blend of acoustic instruments, the emphasis on the two voices, and the telling of a story gives it a place within the sphere of contemporary folk.
You’ve branded your musical style as ‘atmosfolk’, which seems pretty fitting. A lot of music coming out of an electronic-folk background right now has a haunted quality; for example Fionn Regan’s ‘Meetings of the Waters’ has this textured, atmospheric synth sound which feels sort of soaring and vulnerable at once. In Glasgow, Kelora are doing something pretty dark with keys, vocals and a stripped-back sort of desolate, transmundane brand of folk. I feel like it opens the space for some kind of longing that feels deep and universal yet very contemporary—I wonder if it might be some kind of uneasy millennial condition! Do you recognise any haunted elements in your own writing, and if so are they related to nostalgia or loss or perhaps something else?
Morgan: I definitely enjoy playing with very dark elements within a song and nostalgia plays a big part in the cultivation of those ideas. I’m dangerously nostalgic. I mourn for childhoods I didn’t have, things that don’t exist or could never have existed for me, and in mourning them I create a love for them and a place in which I can discuss my perceived loss. Most of all I think the haunted elements can be found in the gaps in between nostalgia and reality. The grey silvery area where everything’s out of reach and yet uncomfortably close. For me, those are the spaces where the most interesting images are conjured from.
Gemma: The term atmosfolk was thrown around very lightly at the beginning. It’s not something we’re really trying to put out there but people do keep coming back to it. I guess if it fits, it fits!
On the topic of ‘atmosfolk’, what would your dream bill be if you could put on a gig with some of your contemporaries right now?
Morgan: I wouldn’t call them contemporaries because the artists on this list are all heroes of mine but my dream bill would include Lisa Hannigan, The Staves and Bon Iver. Funny enough, all three acts played back to back at a festival in Dublin not too long ago. When Gemma sent me the lineup a few months back, I thought it was a joke because it was so in line with our tastes. We were lucky enough to open for Lisa on her last European tour. We learned so much from her, as a performer, as a musician and as a person.
How important is mythology or narrative to your songwriting process?
Morgan: Mythology is something I’m very interested in, something I try to weave into our songs here and there but I like it best when it’s related to a truth that we’re living today. There’s a certain magic that occurs when the modern and the traditional are intertwined seamlessly so you’re not sure which is which. Narrative also plays a part but only in so far as it facilitates the exploration of an honest emotion. It’s incredibly important to me that people feel like they can see their own story in the words we sing. I watched an interview with Joni Mitchell recently where she said, “if you listen to the music and you see me, you’re not getting anything out of it.” She nailed it, as per usual.
I was really struck by what you said in an interview with gigslutz.com about Madrid being ‘symbolic of a dream-like, euphoric space […] one which is always just out of reach’. With the internet, faraway places seem ever-closer and we can access them with a few mouse-clicks. Do you think music has some kind of role in maintaining the aura or mystery of things? If so, how?
Morgan: I used to think the Internet made the world seem smaller but recently I’ve noticed it’s not actually removing any mystery at all, it’s kind of just adding to the confusion. Everything is so constructed on the Internet and you only ever get a specific interpretation of something so any sense of a reality is further than ever. By contrast, I think music can offer a safe space within the chaos. What’s so special about music is that people can take different things from the same songs and can create their own truths and everyone can be right. I like playing with metaphors and abstract ideas but there’s nothing more beautiful than common words delivered in a new way which tell a simple truth, whether it’s my truth or someone else’s.
There’s something so enchanting about female harmonies that your music really captures. You see it in, for example, The Staves as well. Do you think it’s just something timeless about that element of folk, that need for soothing in a harsh world? It strikes me that your music is able to talk about contradictory themes—transitions, broken relationships, loneliness—all the while melding these with really lush and harmonious otherworldly instrumentals. Do you consciously seek out that cathartic balance or is it just natural to your process?
Morgan: Our sound is just a product of our natural inclinations. It’s a simple enough process, we’re just using the voices we have to tell our stories. I grew up listening to a lot of incredible female musicians and singing with my friends and my sister so I don’t think twice when I hear a lot of female voices together. I guess that’s why myself and Gemma gravitated towards each other and why we’ve managed to work and write together with relative ease.
What have you been listening to lately? Any other native talents we should keep an eye on across the water?
Morgan: I’m really enjoying Bad Sea’s music these days. Their songs are all perfectly formed and they’re so charismatic on stage.
Gemma: Our good buddies Wyvern Lingo are just about to release their debut record. Their voices are heavenly. They’ve just released the first album single ‘I Love You Sadie’, it’s a real tune.
How is 2017 shaping up so far – have you played any really special shows lately?
Morgan: This year we finally made it to Madrid! We opened the stage for Lisa Hannigan in the gorgeous Teatro Lara. It was amazing to perform in the city we had been singing about for the last two years. It was even more beautiful than we imagined it would be.
Gemma: We also played a headline show in the National Concert Hall in Dublin last month, which was an obvious highlight. It was a real honour to play our own music on such a prestigious stage. We took the opportunity to expand the band a bit too, adding six extra voices and a brass section, which was a lot of fun.
What do we have to look forward to next, release-wise?
Gemma: We’ve been busy with live shows the past few months so we’re really looking forward to getting back into the studio this summer and working on the album. That’s our priority for the next couple of months, though we hope to release a couple of tunes over the summer too.
Can you give us a flavour of what you’ve been working on recently? Describe it as a colour, a place and a mood if you can.
Morgan: We’ve just finished a song called Tir Eile which in Irish means ‘Other Land’. For me; It’s blue green, the north coast of Ireland and incredibly confused. It’s a song about what it means to be free and whether that’s a worthy pursuit at the expense of happiness.
29 July – Galway Arts Festival – Ireland
1-3 Sep – Other Voices @ Electric Picnic – Ireland
1 Oct – 7 Layers Festival – Amsterdam, Netherlands