“THEIR MUSIC IS ETHEREAL BUT SAINT SISTER ARE DOWN TO EARTH”
THE TIMES UK
“DELICATE, FULL, DESPERATE VOCAL SHINE”
“IT’S EASY TO GET LOST IN THE MINIMAL, CHASMIC, BUT BEAUTIFULLY ARRANGED SOUNDSCAPES
“THE THICK, EERIE ELECTRO-FOLK OF IRELAND’S SAINT SISTER, NOT SO MUCH HAUNTED AS DELICATELY POSSESSED”
Self-produced and self-released, every inch of Saint Sister’s second record, Where I Should End, belongs to them. Driving through California with the album just finished, the view from their tour van last March could hardly have been brighter. Fresh off their NPR Tiny Desk performance, they were on tour with UK Indie royalty Keane, opening each of the
20 shows on their coast to coast tour. Playing to 4,000 people a night, they had invested all they had to be there. They were betting on themselves.
Four shows in, they were in Los Angeles, playing the Dolby Theatre where the Oscars had been held just the month before. Afterwards, they were wined and dined by a record label who were drawing up a contract for them to sign. Things were falling into place, but the spectre of Covid-19 was chasing them. Packing up after each show, states of emergency were being declared in their wake. They were in the desert, somewhere between LA and Denver, when they made the decision to go home. Within 24 hours, Keane pulled their shows and Saint Sister joined the scramble for last minute flights back to Dublin. The biggest tour they nearly got to play was over.
Back in Ireland, the band in significant debt, the world ground to a halt. With the music industry in turmoil, their deal stalled. After months spent negotiating, the duo were forced to respectfully decline. This was their third time in as many years to walk away from a record deal that didn’t feel right for them.
Having already made the decision the year previous to produce the record themselves, they came full circle, firmly embracing the empowerment that comes with owning their masters and making their own creative decisions. Finally articulating what they knew all along; not only that they could release it on their own, but that they should.
This is where we find them. This is where they begin again.
Where I Should End was written on and off the tour cycles following the release of their 2018 debut album, Shape of Silence, and recorded in The Meadow, County Wicklow in the winter of 2019 with Rian Trench and mixed in Berlin with Benedikt MacIsaac. Although the stories behind the songs stem from the unravelling and rebuilding of relationships on the road, Saint Sister’s second album finds Gemma Doherty and Morgana MacIntyre, who met in Dublin in 2014, in a place of great certainty.
Feeling contained by the genre descriptor “atmosfolk” – a term coined for Saint Sister as their Madrid EP was released in 2015 – Doherty and MacIntyre break away from what’s expected of them and find new ways to express themselves, presenting a more honest outline of who they are. Where their first record weaves its way through a magical world, Where I Should End gives more importance to the magic found in everyday life.
“Some of these songs wouldn’t have fitted on the last record because they’re too specific,” adds MacIntyre. “There are lines of dialogue in there that aren’t necessarily very pretty or poetic but I think the song’s power is in the reality of it. I think I understood that this time around, that rather than feeling like you have to push something into a dream world for it to be beautiful you can let it live in the shitty bar in which you found it. Because sometimes, that’s the best place for it.”
There’s a playfulness, a messiness that wasn’t there before and where vulnerability is laid out in broad daylight, subtle jokes pierce the darkness. Retaining layered, folk-driven harmonies in shared verses and traditional music in melodies, they go bigger in their instrumentation; adding their own string arrangements (performed by Crash Ensemble), live band, synthesisers and drum machines. Doherty’s multi-instrumentalism and sharp producer’s ear has seen their musical artillery expand, and MacIntyre’s ever more personal songwriting allows the listener to step in closer to them as she steps out from behind the keyboard and closes the gap.
Reflecting on the period between albums, harpist Doherty, who takes the reins with the production, says “We spent a good part of that time going into studios and trying different producers, but we didn’t find the right fit. We knew how we wanted this record to sound and feel, it just took some time to find the confidence to go ahead and do it ourselves.”
The decision to go it alone was supported by the duo’s legendary London-based management company ie: music, where independence is part of their DNA. The company has a track record of backing winners, Massive Attack, Robbie Williams, Passenger and now through their ie: to imprint, Saint Sister.
Released in a year where time is on pause or wasting away, depending on your viewpoint, Where I Should End reminds us that nothing is permanent. Sadness steers into strength and happiness, although fleeting in its nature, can hold the glow on even the darkest of days. If you feel frozen in routine, set your eyes on the horizon. And your dreams? “Keep them fixed.”
Still living in the momentum of album number one in 2019, the pressure to move onto the next resulted in the brutally honest and bittersweet Oh My God Oh Canada, a song that tightropes the fondness and frustration we can carry for those closest to us, painting a clear picture of the care that goes into maintaining relationships when you’re living out of a suitcase.
Addressing their own co-dependency on the road – “Yes, I know you’re not my father” – they discover that if their relationships at home suffer, the monotony and privilege of touring means that there is only so much that they can do until they return. On tour, they know what each facial tic means in the other but for those at home, birthday cards remain unsent and late night calls ring out: “Left a message for you yesterday. Said I feel like we’re losing touch. You said you’re the one who goes away”. As they move from city to city, we go with them but they always find their way back home.
Oh My God Oh Canada is about the intricacies within your most cherished and complicated relationships,” MacIntyre explains. “It’s about not knowing where the line is, finding yourself on the wrong side of it and spending months trying to find your way back to the right place. It’s about saying too much and at the same time, nothing at all, giving too much of yourself in one moment but not showing up when you’re needed most. I wrote it about wanting to be a better friend, but knowing I never would be.”
The dimmed disco of Karaoke Song – an ode to indulging in the ridiculous – finds Saint Sister at their most carefree. Combining their signature ethereal vocals with a fresh, pop-driven melody, and using Britpop anthems and Tom Jones songs to serenade down on two knees, drunk devotion is let loose in the familiar settings of a basement karaoke bar. With no room for silent attraction or sober shyness, they’re footloose and fanciful, spilling their desire into choruses that are written out for everyone to see on television screens. A love story in three minutes, the weight of a crush comes crashing down to the classic ultimatum of it’s now or never: “and just like that the karaoke’s over. Lights come on, we’re standing on the sofa. I wish that I could call you when I’m sober.” When they’re finished using someone else’s lyrics, they eventually find their own.
Delivered with a wink, Karaoke Song is a declaration of love wrapped up in a good time. “I was kind of stuck on this song for a while. Gemma had this gorgeous instrumental and I was trying to work in a load of grandiose lyrics that always felt clunky and out of place,” explains MacIntyre. “At the end of a particularly tiring day spent writing, I started using the song as a way to make fun of the night we had recently shared singing karaoke.
“Every time I wrote a line, I sang it to Gemma with a wee laugh thinking that sooner or later I’d replace all the words with something a bit less frivolous,” she admits. “I kept thinking ‘No one will take this seriously’ and then I realised maybe I don’t want them to. Maybe that’s not the point of this song.” Directed by Janna Kemperman and Kevin Freeney, the cheeky accompanying video, with visuals spanning ABBA, through ’80s rocker chic to a homage to the golden age of ’90s MTV, was directed by Algorithm Productions.
For all of the whimsy and wildness in Date Night and Karaoke Song, this fun-loving freedom was born from the heartache in Irish Hour, a song of two halves that also acts as the midpoint on the album. Delivered with cinematic grandeur, it is arranged so that the effects of a long-distance breakup are initially expressed through lyrics and ultimately build into an instrumental explosion. MacIntyre’s lyrics – “You lay down on the bed sheets and I pretended not to see the way you gripped the edges” – act as a starting point for Doherty’s string arrangements, which funnel the pain to a point where words are simply not enough.
Written in the weeks leading up to the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment in Ireland, which had effectively acted as a ban on abortions in the Republic, Manchester Air tells the story of a young couple who are dealing with an unexpected pregnancy. “And bearing in mind we are so good together,” they decide to fly to the United Kingdom for an abortion, a choice that was made especially difficult by airport queues and archaic legalities.
More folk and traditional sounding in its structure, MacIntyre says that the song “harks back to the old Irish ballads of leaving home, the constant tramp of the Irish across the water.”
“All the personal shit we were going through didn’t seem to matter as much,” she recalls of the weekend that the Yes vote won by a landslide 66.4 per cent, the same weekend they performed Manchester Air for the first time on Inis Oírr, the smallest of Galway’s Aran Islands.
“Writing this song felt like a cry for help. The weekend the results came through we celebrated by screaming into the sea, feeling the weight of it all wash off us. We performed the song for the first time that weekend and it no longer felt like a cry for help, but rather a cry for every woman who was betrayed by the state and simultaneously a cry of relief, a nod to the future. On top of everyone trying to live their lives, all the emotions and the energy that came with Repeal – I don’t know how the women of Ireland managed with all that weight.”
“And I know I am angry most of the time” is a line that rings so true for the generations of women who have been – and continue to be – burdened by a shame that was not their own. A steady sorrow accompanies each beat and moments lost staring into space jolt back into the mundanity of now. “But whatever happened to dinner in Cabra? Roll me up, sit me down. I’m the talk of the town…”
Closing the album with Any Dreams?, a song that marks the start and end of an emotionally fallow year, Saint Sister leave us with a message of hope. Written in the pits of despair, Any Dreams? is a melancholy tour of a familiar city drained of all life and colour. As our misguided narrator switches to autopilot, they prefer to feel nothing rather than the severity of a broken heart: “…and never mind the late night calls. I make them from the city walls but I’ve decided not to go there for a while.”
“The song moves along at a concentrated pace. It’s quite focused and forensic in its dissection of what you’ve been clinging on to, what’s been keeping you alive,” MacIntyre explains of the intentionally chaotic synths that drive this song. “All of a sudden the pace runs away with itself. You can’t keep up, you can’t cope and you’re about to fucking spin out of control.”
Culminating in the repetition of “I just can’t keep up”, she explains that at some point, we find our limits. “It’s an ‘everything on the table’ kind of moment, equal parts measured, trying to get to the resolve but what happens when you realise ‘I can’t actually can’t deal with anything.'”
But, in a quick line – “go to weddings, go to funerals. Any dreams? Keep them fixed” – the fog lifts.
Where I Should End is what happens when we readjust our focus. We may not be where we thought we’d be but the important thing is that we keep going.
The distinctive suits worn by Dublin-based duo of songwriter Morgana MacIntyre and harpist and producer Gemma Doherty – Saint Sister – in the photograph at the top of this release were specially commissioned from rising fashion designer Aideen Gaynor, who took inspiration from a collection of work housed in the National Gallery by Susan and Elizabeth Yeats, pioneers of the Irish Arts and Crafts movement at the turn of the 20th century and sisters of renowned Irish poet W.B. and painter Jack B. Yeats.
The second album, Where I Should End, by Saint Sister is released June 25, 2021