Saint Sister: The last thing we want is for our music to feel contrived

Saint Sister have been making waves south of the border but both 'siblings' are from the north. With gigs in Belfast and Derry this weekend, Lorraine Wylie chatted to Morgan McIntyre and Gemma Doherty about their musical journey

Lucy Foster Photography
Lorraine Wylie

EVER since Morgan McIntyre and Gemma Doherty, collectively known as Saint Sister, piqued the interest of the southern press with their EP Madrid, they've been working flat out, travelling to gigs all over Ireland and introducing audiences to their unique sound.

Now three years later, their debut album, Shape of Silence, is another milestone in that musical odyssey. Ahead of their performances in Belfast and Derry this weekend, I caught up with Morgan and Gemma, who told me about their music and the influences that have helped shape it.

They first met in 2012 when, as students at Trinity College, Dublin, they played against each other in Battle of the Bands – neither won.

“I was actually born in Dundonald,” Morgan told me. “But then when I was around six, my parents moved to Donegal, so we spent a couple of years there before coming back to Belfast. Later I decided to study at Trinity College in Dublin. Gemma is also from Northern Ireland; she grew up in Derry but, like me, chose to go to Trinity, which is how we met.”

Growing up, Morgan and Gemma had very different tastes in music.

“My dad is a huge music fan,” Gemma explained. “There was always music in the house. Both my sister and I had piano lessons. But my mum worked with Brenda O'Somochain who ran the Foyle Harp School, so I had the opportunity to learn to play and that's how the harp came about. In my teens I was mostly influenced by Irish traditional and folk music. I'd have to say that Scottish harper Caitriona McKay was a huge influence and a real masterclass in the instrument.”

In contrast, Morgan was more of a wordsmith.

“Gemma is an incredible multi-instrumentalist and great musician whereas I was totally obsessed with lyrics. Still am!” she laughed. “I was really into all the great songwriters, like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. I've always loved playing with words. We each bring different things to the table.”

Conversation turns to the album, which I found to be a beautiful blend of instrumentals, especially the ethereal beauty of Gemma's harp and vocal harmonies. I asked Morgan for a brief run-down of the story it tells.

“It's really about the break-down and fracturing of a relationship. It starts off quite upbeat. For example, the first track The Beginning is meant to convey that warm, fuzzy stage of a relationship, as its just starting out. That part where you meet and think, yes, this could be good.

"Then, as it goes on, it tracks the decline; the songs kind of fracture as well, becoming less succinct, turning into interludes, then flowing into each other. Then by the last song, it's as though you're finally able to articulate what you haven't been able to say all along. In fact, the last track, Mater, is my favourite. It's the most emotional on the album and probably, the loneliest and the darkest.”

The second half of the album, which includes the voice and words of author Kevin Breathnach, a friend of Morgan, reflects the final stages of a dying romance in the song Steady which is Gemma's favourite.

“That's probably because it's the last to be written and so still feels relatively fresh to me,” she explained.

How would they describe their music?

“We do make quite atmospheric music but we've always been determined that each song could be played on its own,” Morgan said. "The atmosphere and song hold each other up.”

Some have described Shape of Silence as a "subtle insight into broken Ireland" but while the artists, like many Irish musicians, including Hozier and Kojaque, have reputedly taken to the streets in peaceful protest against various social issues, such as Ireland's housing crisis, they deny their music is political.

“The last thing we want is for our music to feel contrived,” Morgan told me. “Honesty is what we strive for.”

On a lighter note, what is the story behind the name, Saint Sister?

“Well, my mum came up with part of it,” Morgan who seems the more vocal of the two, said. “But originally, she suggested ‘Oh sister' so we went with that for a while but then we discovered that there already was someone using that so, to avoid a lot of hassle we came up with another name.

"Gemma suggested ‘Saint Sister' and I thought it sounded good. I liked the alliteration; it works so we kept it.”

With such a hectic schedule, it's hard to find time to relax but Morgan has been known to get ‘antsy' when she isn't working.

“It is addictive," she admitted, laughing. “It's really hard to switch off, especially as Gemma and I are together all the time. The subject always comes round to music. But sometimes we do take a day off and watch a movie or something. My favourite thing is a good book. I love to find a nice phrase that would work into a lyric..."

It seems that for Saint Sister, all roads lead to music.

:: Saint Sister perform at The Black Box, Belfast, on Saturday October 20 and The Glassworks, Derry, on Sunday October 21. See for info, tickets and tour dates. Shape of Silence is out now.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe from just £1 for the first month to get full access


Today's horoscope


See a different horoscope: