Saint Sister’s Morgana MacIntyre and Gemma Doherty are ready, once this call is over to head up from Dublin to Doherty’s hometown of Derry for some outside-of-stores appearances (the inside of stores still off-limits in Ireland and the UK).
More than ready actually. Consider them very eager.
“We’ve been doing a bit of singing and a bit of playing together but the first time we actually heard noise back for a long time was Friday when we sang on the street, busking basically,” says MacIntyre, the Belfast-born, singing/songwriting half of the team. “We got a few claps.”
It was a bit more than claps though for MacIntyre. “I knew that I missed gigs and I knew that I missed the band, but that little moment of actually hearing something back, after you’ve paused, was amazing.”
Just how out of practice the Dublin-based Northern Irelanders are becomes clear when I ask how much money they made from the busking and they confess that they didn’t put a hat or case down.
“We are the worst buskers ever,” says Doherty, the singing/harp playing/production half of the duo.
They can’t blame anyone else, and not just for the busking money failure either, the pair now fully responsible for the release of their new album, the second as Saint Sister, as their own label/management/artist/producer.
“The important thing for us is musically we get to make the decisions that we want, and it’s just between the two of us how things go,” says Doherty. “We are really grateful to be in that position, and that has to be where it all starts. Everything after that is a bonus.”
That is definitely where it all starts for the album, Where I Should End, as being in charge of their destiny has made a clear difference to the record - its diversity and expansion into areas not previously associated with their style of folk-meeting-electronics the kind of thing that might give pause to a suit at a label. This time around they’ve got outright pop, for example, in one song, and more complex arrangements and orchestration.
“There is quite a diverse palette on the album, in terms of instrumentation and the way each song lives in its own world a little,” says Doherty. “It’s the freedom to go into the space in the studio and see how things go, in you’re not locked into anything before you go in there. We had no idea where we wanted to go but there is still that freedom in the room.”
It was the freedom to sometimes cut against the stories being told, or to play against the innate attractiveness of their combined voices. This is an album that has anger and hurt in it but lyrically and sonically you could easily slide by it on an individual listen, just revelling instead in the gentle sweetness and deceptively simple surface.
“One thing that we didn’t know, and I don’t think we were consciously doing it at the time, but on reflection I think it’s something we got right, is the moments that I think are the angriest or the saddest in terms of the lyrics, are kind of actually the most stripped back in terms of the production,” says MacIntyre. “And then there are moments, in terms of the arrangement, and I’m thinking mostly of when the strings do their thing, there’s very little crossover in terms of the storytelling of the lyrics and the instrumental underneath.
“I think that helped us reach a little balance where neither one is overhanging the other into over-dramatics. For example, Manchester Air, that’s probably the saddest, the verses at the end of that, but after that the strings do their thing as a response rather than building up the lyrics too early.”
One thing that that doesn’t happen on the album is the obvious route - in lyrics, arrangement or sound, and Manchester Air is a good example. It’s not just the deployment of the strings long after most would have brought them in to amp up emotion, or simply tell us how to feel, but the way the story of crossing the Irish Sea to procure an abortion – a story familiar to generations of Irish women - does not hit the expected marks, nor is its anger and despair ever explicit.
It takes a bit of nerve to not do the expected, especially with a story like this.
“With Manchester Air, Morgan wrote that full set of lyrics and melody before there was any question of arrangement or anything like that,” says Doherty. “They were so beautiful and powerful and tell their own story and it’s in verse structure and a song like that, and like The Place That I Work [which they sing with Irish singer Lisa Hannigan] that’s how they should be.
"They are folk songs in structure and it felt really important to honour that, to give the words the space and then the music and the words don’t have to be shouting over each other.”
Another of the fascinating things about Manchester Air, and the choices Doherty and MacIntyre made, is the context in which it was created. The song was written in the period leading up to the Irish republic’s 2018 referendum on repeal of the eighth amendment of the constitution, which in effect barred abortion. Furthermore, Doherty and MacIntyre were intimately aware of the entrenched conservatism of their native Northern Ireland which had much more restrictive policies on things like marriage equality and abortion than the rest of the UK.
Given the strong feelings held by the pair, and the long history of stories of thousands of young and not so young women forced to take such a journey, it could have easily gone into dark and angry territory. It certainly would have been justified.
Instead, while there is a haunting tenor to it all, the central character is not alone, her supportive partner there with her; it’s not entirely clear what happens as the song ends; and we are never really directed into how we our supposed to feel. You could say it works as a folk tale might, the story unfurling before us without comment.
“I think there’s a number of reasons why the song took that course,” says MacIntyre. “First of all, I feel angry and frustrated about a load of different political things, and I try to write about them from that standpoint, but it’s never quite worked. There are a lot of amazing angry political protest songs but I’m not a very good angry political protest songwriter.”
While she says she would love to hear a song about the shameful history and the many modern stories around this done with the heat of anger “what I like to do is write from the personal and paint little vignettes rather than trying to broad strokes of a whole movement”.
“The people who are affected by the eighth amendment, and across the world the people who are affected by these kind of healthcare struggles, they are not always angry all the time,” MacIntyre explains. “They’ve led complicated lives and they’ve had moments of joy and moments of sadness and it’s all wrapped up, that’s what each person is, all those things, and that’s the way in for me.”
Long-time residents of the Republic since each moved to Dublin to study, Doherty and MacIntyre weren’t passive observers in 2018, and like the song and the album on which it appears, their experience went in unexpected directions.
“It was a strange time in the lead up [to the vote on the amendment] and we were feeling very angry, but there was also an amazing sense of community when we were out canvassing and going door to door,” MacIntyre says. “The week [of the vote] itself, we were on an island canvassing there and each of us had someone who was fluent in Irish, and that in itself there were some incredible moments of sharing.
“I don’t think [Manchester Air] would have made sense any other way for me.”
Saint Sister will play Where I Should End all the way through at two separate live-to-air shows on July 8, 8pm and 12am Dublin time, featuring the band who played on the record, along with guest vocalist Lisa Hannigan, and Crash Ensemble. The concerts are free via YouTube (but they’ll accept donations you know).
Where I Should End is out now through ie.too