Photo by Veronika Faustmann
It will shock no one that the two women who make up Saint Sister are not sisters. (And if it does, wait until you hear about the Righteous and Walker Brothers, not to mention the Swing Out and Twisted Sisters. Oh boy!) Morgan MacIntyre and Gemma Doherty may both be from Northern Ireland – Belfast and Derry, respectively – and met while studying and working Dublin, but siblings they are not.
Nor are they saints exactly. Asked which one of them, to paraphrase a line from one of their songs, is most likely to be causing trouble, Doherty cheekily answers “It depends what sort of trouble.”
That said, it will also shock no one who hears the music of Saint Sister - with its entwined voices, its seamless blend of folk and mild electronica, its blurring of the line between the atmospheric and pop - that MacIntyre and Doherty are incredibly close and in some ways tighter than sisters.
“It’s funny that we’ve only been friends for four years because we have a lot the same ideas about things, and thoughts and instincts,” says MacIntyre, who is responsible for most of the melodies and lyrics, while Doherty is more the structural and production force.
“This is just very honest and very open and it goes through extremes in the day. If we had a friendship before it might have made it harder to get to that stage so quickly [with their musical relationship] because everything was about music and we didn’t have to be polite to each other. So now we have this brilliant thing that we both love to work on and a friendship on top of it that is so rooted in what we do.”
When they did meet four years ago, Doherty had been studying composition, and playing harp, while MacIntyre had been performing in bands and solo for a while. It wasn’t exactly obvious that they would form a perfect circle of two, which had me wondering if there were any rules at the beginning, some things that were ruled out? Someone declaring “no Ed Sheeran or I’m out”, for example.
“I think the only rule we had, was let’s keep things very equal,” says Doherty. “And I think that was really good advice because when we started, in my head [she says to MacIntyre ] you were a singer/songwriter and there was a sort in my head that maybe I was just going to play in your band.”
MacIntyre chuckles. “Gemma revealed to me later that [she had seen me] doing a gig with an orchestra and I had done some rapping in it. It was my first time ever rapping, and my last time. Gemma said, not really knowing what kind of music I was into, that she thought I was going to start rapping in our [first session].”
So white suburban kid rapping was right out? Actually, not necessarily.
“I definitely would have gone with it,” says Doherty.
If rapping is out for now, one thing that does define Saint Sister is space. There seems to be so much of it around everything they do, using Doherty’s love of minimalist composers such as Reich and Glass, as well as the sparseness of certain traditional Irish airs. Not to mention the fact they would usually write with two voices and harp.
The instrument adds to the duo’s mix of atmosphere, electronics and folk pop, which is hardly an uncommon combination these days, but Saint Sister add their own “sibling” ambience.
“I think we are trying to get to that space,” says MacIntyre. “I don’t know if we necessarily achieve it every time.” Doherty jumps in to say “there’s something in what you said, that the core of the song always has to be there, and we would never rely on the atmosphere. And vice versa.
“A lot of our music we would necessarily described as folk music but where there is the common ground is if you strip it back to its core it would still feel like a song.”
Which is a relief ahead of their November shows. Without needing to name names there are one or two Irish ambient-y/folk-y figures of some success whose atmospheres can leave some of us bored to tears due them missing actual song craft.
But then they were real siblings. Maybe the fake ones are best.
Saint Sister’s debut album, Shape Of Silence, is out on October 5.
Saint Sister will play:
The Sydney Irish Festival, Sydney Olympic Park, November 11.
Northcote Social Club, Melbourne, November 11
Lansdowne Hotel, Sydney, November 13
Mullum Music Festival, Mullumbimby, November 15