Music

Trad/Roots: Saint Sister's atmospheric songs of beauty will move you to tears

Robert McMillen

Saint Sister duo Gemma Doherty and Morgan McIntyre

FIRST there was Cara Dillon's There Were Roses, then The Testimony of Patience Kershaw by The Unthanks, followed by Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh's I See his Blood upon the Rose.

And now, The Place that I Work by Saint Sister makes it onto the list of songs that have brought actual tears to my eyes.

The song's beauty comes from the everyday setting - the Hodges Figgis bookshop in Dublin - and the ache of unrequited love which might or might not have been resolved as the song ends.

"I love you, won't you hang around, I get off at four." Lump in the throat, we are left to wonder.

This will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever heard Saint Sister - Gemma Doherty from Derry and Morgan McIntyre from Belfast - a duo with the ability to distil everyday emotions, gild them in beautiful harmonies and arrangements so stunningly atmospheric that, on listening to them, it's sometimes hard not to swoon.

And that, my friends, is true of the 10 songs that appear on Saint Sister's second album, Where I Should End - released today - although some of the tracks will also make you smile, dance or take a notion to kiss your partner.

The biog will tell you Morgan and Gemma met while at TCD, were voted the 'Best Irish Act' by Irish Times readers in 2016, that their debut album The Shape of Silence was nominated for the Choice Music Prize in 2018 and that they performed an a cappella version of the Cranberries song Dreams at Lyra McKee's funeral in 2019, but I'm always interested in where the deep desire to sing and make music comes from in people.

Gemma Doherty sees herself mainly as an instrumentalist having started learning the harp when she was just five years old, playing classical and traditional music, but nowadays her cláirseach comes with effects pedals.

"When I started college in Dublin I began playing and experimenting with different bands and a friend of mine gave me some pedals to mess about with and as soon as I realised you could do all this great stuff with the harp, my mind was totally blown," she recalls.

And that's where the soundscapes into which the lyrics of Morgan McIntyre, the daughter of two journalists and granddaughter of the late Irish playwright, Tom McIntyre, fit so naturally.

The title of the album comes from one of the first lines on the album - "My brilliant friend traces where I should end and where I should begin" - as Morgan explains.

"I guess it's a feeling of not knowing where you end and someone else begins. We wrote the album while we are on tour and living out of each other's pockets, so many of the songs are about things that happened to Gemma that I was a party to, or things that Gemma said and I feel that, more than on the last album where a lot of the moments were more singular and some of the words were written before we came together as a band, this album seems to encapsulate everything that we've been through - our relationship and the relationships that we've had with other people that we've helped each other through.

"It could be a romantic relationship or a friendship - that feeling is still there in all of them that there is a circular, symbiotic relationship between two people."

Saint Sister's second album Where I Should End is released today

With all these songs of love and friendships, I ask the girls a question I've always wanted to ask: Are songwriters particularly unlucky in love or are they just like the rest of us, except that they write songs about their heartbreaks while the rest of us get over lost loves by sitting in our pyjamas all day, eating biscuits and watching Countdown in a catatonic stupor?

They both laugh, thankfully.

"I think we are like everybody else but we might be a little more self-indulgent and a bit more prone to the dramatics," says Morgan, while Gemma is quick to point out that the songs aren't always autobiographical.

"You see things in other people so you're not just writing about your own woes," she says - and, let's face it, we all look to singers and musicians and songwriters to give us a space where we can look at ourselves, but Where I Should End lifts us up and guides us through the rich soundscapes of Dublin and Belfast and wherever else the girls found creative inspiration, noticing little vignettes and eavesdropping into little pieces of private conversation as we go along.

It's the kind of album you hear new things with each playing. For me, it is most definitely a modern folk album, because of the delivery of the lyrics, the way it tells a story, the (mainly) minimalist accompaniment. It's an album that breathes with the ups and downs of the life it portrays.

The honours are rigorously split evenly between Morgan and Gemma who co-wrote all the songs and produced the album. They did think about finding a co-producer for the album but decided (rightly) to go for it themselves.

"We brought in a lot of guest musicians and players but we would have been responsible for all the arrangements. Yeah, that was us," Gemma smiles.

"Sometimes a song starts off as a storyline that Morgan has come up with and we'd work on it together or sometimes it's the other way round so it really is an intertwined thing and that takes us back to the title of the album. This band, this project is so much part of both of us, I don't think any part would exist without the other one."

The feeling is obviously mutual.

"Gemma is so skilful at what she does," says Morgan. "She arranged all the scores on the album, including for a string quartet, but she gets uncomfortable when anyone mentions it. (At this point Gemma has her hands over her ears.)

"We need each other and were not in competition with each other because we trust each other so much."

And that trust shines through on the album, which includes three singles, The Place That I Work, Manchester Air and Dynamite.

Then there are the videos, works of art in themselves - again the girls were very hands-on - from the minimalist Dreams and The Place That I Work (with Lisa Hannigan) to the mesmerising Oh My God, Oh Canada.

I should also mention the fact that Morgan and Gemma have been quietly doing great work for charities, including Safe Ireland (as part of Irish Women in Harmony), Women's Aid and the Simon Community.

You can find out more about the band at www.saintsisterband.com but the great news is that Gemma and Morgan will be signing copies of Where I Should End at Cool Discs in Derry at 7pm on Monday (June 28); at Boneyard Records in Omagh the following day (Tuesday June 29) at 1pm and at Starr Records in Belfast on Tuesday at 7pm that evening. Full details are on the Saint Sister Instagram page.

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Music