Ireland-based duo Saint Sister aren’t inherently political, but in a dystopian climate like this one, it’s hard not to be. The songs in their just-released debut album Shape of Silence are reflective of that. Each track offers a subtle insight into the confused mindset of a politically fractured nation. Drawing from their own experiences, listeners can hear problems of unemployment, a broken-down relationship and feelings of isolation. All in all what it captures is the state of a cloudy and confident generation. Though the music draws inspiration from Celtic harp traditions and 60s folk, the themes that weave through each song are a poignant reminder certain issues will always be cross-generational.
The bewitching duo has crafted songs meant to transcend a lifetime. In simpler terms, the girls are otherworldly and carry with them a witchy vibe. Even though we chatted over emails, it’s easy to tell this band has a pure love of the music they create. Get a chance to see this magic live and go see Morgan and Gemma at King’s Place in London on December 12.
First things first, how did Saint Sister form?
Gemma: We met around 4 years ago in Dublin, we had both just finished studying there. Morgan had been performing as a solo artist at the time and was looking for someone to collaborate with and reached out to me. We’d done a small bit of singing together in college though we didn’t really know each other, but it so happened that we were both looking for the same thing at the same time and it just took off from there; we started writing together and something clicked.
Where did the name come from?
Morgan: We were originally O Sister, but we soon came across another act of the same name and decided to change it. It took us a while but Gemma came up with the ‘Saint’ part. It was important for us to have a name that represented our friendship and the sisterhood that we feel in each other and our close friends.
How did you both get into music?
G: I started playing piano first and then harp soon after, when I was around 5 or 6. Very grateful to have been given the chance to learn at such a young age.
M: I have been singing and writing songs for as long as I can remember but I guess it only started becoming real for me in my late teens. I’m not a very theory minded musician or a particularly good player so I threw all my energy into writing songs, hoping that the songs would be my way in.
Your debut album Shape of Silence has been released to rave reviews, how does it feel to have it out?
M: For so long the album didn’t feel real, like it only existed in our heads. Having it out now is a massive relief and a weight of our shoulders. It feels very freeing to put a lid on that chapter of our lives and let our heads wander towards the next album. We’re very proud of what we’ve made and even prouder when other people take anything at all from any of the songs.
What was the best part of making the record?
G: Finishing it! The songs go through so many stages before they feel like they make sense, and for a long time they’re still active, in that they keep evolving and changing. It’s so hard to decide when something is finished, but the moment it feels like you should stop adding and start letting go is the most satisfying part.
As a group, can you describe the process of creating the record? Does each person bring different bits and pieces or is it more collaborative?
M: Myself and Gemma have very distinct roles in the writing process – I tend to focus on lyrics and melody and Gemma creates the sound world. Because of that separation, we’re never really in competition with each other and are instead always trying to add something to what the other has created, trying to prop each other up. Any time I hear a piece of music Gemma has written my first thought is; how can I add something worthwhile to this.
Who were some of the influences for this record?
G: We listened to a lot of James Blake when we first started making music together. And James Vincent McMorrow too, who we got to work with this year when he remixed one of the singles, which was a huge honour for us. We bonded over a love of Bon Iver’s music with Alex who produced and made the record with us.
How does the record differ from your EP Madrid?
M: When we were recording the EP, we weren’t exactly sure what we were making. It was only when we were en route back home that we realised we had the bones of an EP recorded. The record was a much more considered undertaking. We wanted it to make sense as one whole piece of work as opposed to just a bunch of our favourite songs thrown together. The process itself hasn’t changed much but over the last few years myself, Gemma and Alex have grown to trust each other’s instincts and become a little braver when recording. We spent a few years finding our feet and getting to know each other until we felt we were ready to record the album.
I’m a big fan of the song ‘Steady’, can you pick a favourite track and tell us why?
G: I think ‘Steady’ may be one of my favourites at the moment aswell. It was pretty much the last one to be written, so maybe it feels the freshest in that sense. I’m enjoying the intimacy and change of pace of ‘Tír Eile’, in the live show as well as on the album.
There seems to be political turmoil going on all over the world today and you manage to subtly weave that subject through many of the songs, is that intentional?
M: I’m a very political person but I don’t really view the songs we write as political. In fact, any time I’ve tried to write something with an obvious political message it always ends up feeling very contrived. I’m just not very good at it. Most of our lyrics are reflections of very personal lived experiences. That said, I’m a strong believer in the personal being the political and vice versa. There’s a very powerful energy in Ireland at the moment, especially amongst young women who were instrumental in repealing the 8th amendment and paving the way for the legalisation of abortion. Perhaps my experience of that infectious energy is pouring out into the songs in some way.
You’re currently on a big European tour, how do you plan to bring your songs alive?
G: We’re halfway through the tour; we’ve spent the last couple of months in North America and Ireland and will finish the year in Australia and Europe. For some of the bigger shows we’ve had the full band with us which is great, and we get to realise the recordings as best we can. Some of the shows further afield are just the two of us, which is a more stripped-back set up. The show is a bit more intimate but it’s nice to be able to bring the songs to life in a different way too.
What excites you the most about touring?
M: The best part about the tour we’re in the middle of now is that I’ve never been to a lot of the places we’re playing. It’s been so enjoyable exploring places for the first time and working with locals and really getting a sense of all the different cities and cultures.
Last thing, if you could collaborate with anyone, dead or alive, who it would be?
G: In a crazy dream scenario, I’m going to say Steve Reich or Justin Vernon.