Saint Sister is a name you need to know. They were hailed as one of NPR's favourite discoveries at SXSW this past year, and they are about to release their debut album, Shape of Silence. A prevailing motif throughout Saint Sister's music is the notion of Sisterhood. This strong feminine bond is evident in everything they do, from the music they create to the way they speak about their lives. It's something that heavily informs their sound, which can only be described as ethereal electro-pop grounded heavily in modern Celtic folk. As the duo prepare to embark on their first North American tour, I had the chance to catch up with them and learn more about these inspiring up-and-coming female artists.
I'm greeted by two warm Northern Irish accents, belonging to Gemma Doherty and Morgan Macintyre (Saint Sister). We quickly chat about how much I miss Ireland myself before jumping into the interview. There's a cohesive singular voice between the two of them—as if it were one person sharing answers in two different voices. Which makes sense knowing the duo first met in a singing group back in college had been playing together ever since. Doherty jokingly shares that it was actuallyMacintyre who had the idea of first formulating a band. "We were both in that phase of not knowing what to do next," Doherty says. "Morgan reached out to me out of the blue and asked if I'd be up for meeting for a chat...of course I was because I wasn't doing anything much. We found each other at a good time." The rest, they say, is history.
The girls have a remarkable harmonic blend—when two voices blend together this seamlessly, it is often called a blood harmony—it mostly appears when two immediate family members sing together. This makes me curious about their name: "Coming up with a name is one of the hardest things to do as a band. Especially if you don't know someone very well," explains Macintyre. "My mum came up with 'Oh Sister'. It's a Bob Dylan song, but we also loved the reference to sisterhood. We both have one sister each. That kind of two-woman dynamic is something we've lived with our whole lives. Then we found another artist working under 'Oh Sister' and felt it wasn't worth tramping on anyone's toes. Gemma came up with the 'Saint.' We felt it added a solemn, spiritual weight to the sisterhood."
I found that the track that most stunningly reflects the duo's ethereal but majestic sound is called "Tir Eile." In Irish, this means "other place" or "other land." A hauntingly beautiful track, it has a deeply Celtic energy. Built on a hum, with lush, layered vocals and a lilting melody, it is only made modern by the smallest hint of electric instrumentation. Although the song is in English, the duo shared that they're experimenting with Irish translations to their lyrics. "We haven't released it yet, but we decided to see how it would sound in Irish. So it just felt right to have a hint at Irish in the title. This song is all about history and tradition and family, and figuring out what it means to be free in relation to your own identity and your identity with someone else," they say.
Doherty and Macintyre have spent the last few months playing the Irish festival circuit and collaborating with other artists, gearing up to their headline tour. The most unexpected video the girls have released to date was a collaboration with Irish rapper Jafaris and DJ Kormac, who each put a verse and a remix on their single "Causing Trouble."
"We were all doing this kind of video campaign together, so we were all thrown together by another organization...when [a collaboration] is not artist-led, sometimes it doesn't feel right or genuine. But they're both lovely people. We're of course big fans of their music, so it was brilliant that they decided to use "Causing Trouble" as a base...we played together the first day we met. It was really fun and a big departure for us. We were singing the same lines, but in a different way." The energy is palpable and underlines the raw potential of Saint Sister as a group.
When it came to making decisions about the album, the two are adamant that there was no argument needed. "I think we were both really dreading the time we had to do it," Doherty says with a nervous laughter. Macintyre agrees, but is quick to add "when it came to it, though, it was this amazing conversation. We just felt that these songs were the best we had, but also fit together in a narrative." Shape of Silence was produced by Alex Ryan (Hozier), and recorded in a small studio in Ireland. "We had the same set up for the album as we did for the Madrid EP," Gemma says. "It was very organic, there was no pressure. After [the EP], everything was geared toward the album. We essentially recorded whenever we had the chance."
Shape of Silence should be viewed as a continuation of their previous work, they say. "We all grew together even though the logistics didn't change. Our relationships with each other grew a lot, that's what has been nice about it. Our writing relationship has been growing as well." This album has an effortless ebb and flow. There are more anthemic tracks, like "You Never Call," which builds, swells, and overflows, making heavier use of electronics than most of the others. Then there are tracks like "Corpses," which revels in its image-heavy lyricism and sweet instrumentation. It's a debut that is unpretentious and beautifully honest.
Shape of Silence is due to be released on October 5th, 2018, and you can find live dates here.