“Is it too early to leave this party?” Morgan McIntyre and Gemma Doherty, collectively known as Saint Sister, question throughout their latest single Is It Too Early? (Kilmainham) – A melancholic track that deals with homesickness, anxiety and the pressures that come with the touring lifestyle. The duo who have now been making music together for four years, are well-versed in being away from their Northern Ireland home, spending 12-months of last year on a worldwide tour, inspiring this warming ode to their homeland.
Describing the bands sound as ‘atmosfolk,’ earlier in their career, Gemma admits that’s not a term they’re very attached to anymore. “It’s one that was thrown around a bit in the early days when we started out and it sort of stuck, but we wouldn’t necessarily use it ourselves. Our music draws from folk and ambient electronica, with two-part harmony and the Irish harp at the core,” a description that sounds as heavenly as their music itself.
Since meeting one another in 2014, the duo have hardly wasted any time establishing themselves as one of the best Irish bands on the scene, releasing their haunting debut EP ‘Madrid,’ in 2015 and captivating double single ‘Tin Man / Corpses,’ in 2016, before unveiling their remarkable debut album ‘Shape of Silence,’ in 2018, that beautifully showcased their alluring harmonies and evolving songwriting talents.
“The first album was really a process of getting to know one another and figuring out our writing dynamic alongside building a friendship,” Gemma declared. “Now at the beginning of album two, we’ve spent the best part of the past four years together, and probably know each other better than we know ourselves. We’re starting to trust our own and each other’s instincts a lot more.” With a lot of crossover amongst their writing duties, Gemma explained that in general, Morgan brings the lyrics to the table, while she focuses on arrangement and production, with the two then meeting somewhere in the middle on melody, structure, and everything in between.
“I’m constantly mining my own life for inspiration,” Morgan explained of her songwriting process. “At the very beginning, when I lacked any subtlety, that process often left myself and others quite vulnerable. I think I’m getting a little better at harnessing the emotions but skewing the details so that no one feels too exposed,” she confessed. “At the start it felt like I had to tear my life apart to get a few good lyrics, but I’m getting better at finding songs in the more mundane aspects of life. Writing on the road is a little trickier but some of my favourite songs have come from little bursts on tour. For example, the lyrics for The Mater were written in Bilbao while we were waiting to soundcheck,” she concluded.
“Gemma first showed me her rough ideas for ‘Is it too early? (Kilmainham)’ while we were driving across America last year,” Morgan acknowledged. “At the time it was called Kilmainham because Gemma got into a habit of naming ideas of hers after wherever she was writing them. I immediately fell in love with the music and maybe because of the title she had given it, I started thinking of home.”
“We were on our first proper headline tour and we were getting a lot of messages from friends and family wishing us luck on our big adventure, thinking we were having the time of our lives,” Gemma continued. “In reality, the massive change in pace, the endless travelling without ever really getting to enjoy the cities we passed through, and the fact that we were all living on top of each other was hard to adjust to. This song was borne out of the friction that occurs between the pressure to be having a great time and the reality of wishing you could just go home.”
“It definitely helps that there are are two of us, and as time goes on we’re learning more and more about how to support one another on tour. Everyone’s trying to mind each other and at the same time mind themselves,” Gemma said of life on the road. “One misconception might be how little time you spend in any one place; we pass through so many towns and cities without really experiencing them. The pace is so fast, I often don’t have time to reflect on where we’ve been until the tour ends.”
Admitting that this doesn’t take away from getting to travel around the world, “it’s still incredible to see new places,” Gemma reassured, “but it’s just a different perspective on what it means to visit a city. People are sometimes surprised when we say we didn’t get to see a certain sight or get some sense of the place, but often we arrive just in time for soundcheck and might leave straight after the show.”
The delicate instrumentation and lyrics alone offer a beautiful dose of fragility and emotion, but the duo’s recently released music video adds another level of significance to the sentimental theme of the song.
“We were very fortunate to work with Ellius Grace for the video,” Morgan acknowledged. “We worked with him previously on the video for You Never Call, so it was a pleasure to revisit that relationship. He came over to Gemma’s house in Kilmainham and we talked over the themes explored in the song while he took some shots that would go on to become the artwork for the song. We loved the treatment that Ellius developed which as he describes it, charts “a trip behind closed doors in Dublin with an invisible man.” We loved how he captured the heart of Dublin and its people alongside the universal pain of wanting to belong.”
It was another trip in a van driving around the States that also inspired their dreamy cover of The Bangles, ‘Eternal Flame,’ released earlier this year. “It came on the radio and we were both hit with a big wave of nostalgia,” Gemma recounted the experience. “The Atomic Kitten cover was a big part of my soundtrack at nine years old! It’s such a beautiful song. We thought then that it would be a nice cover one day, and ended up singing it at karaoke a few months later. A few weeks later we recorded the cover.”
There’s certainly no mistaking that they’re both very proud to call Ireland their home and be included within the country’s growing music scene. “We feel very lucky to be a small part of what is a very strong and supportive community,” Morgan acknowledged. “We’re in awe of our fellow Irish artists, in particular recently Rachael Lavelle, Junior Brother and Pillow Queens.”
But when it comes to being a woman in today’s music industry, Morgan admit it’s exhausting. “It means manoeuvering around often subtle, sometimes explicit sexism, which is particularly exhausting when it’s less obvious and can often make you second guess yourself. But with that said, there are many incredible Irish women who are making waves and improving the climate for everyone else. In particular, Lisa Hannigan has been an incredible role model for us.”
Now focused on spending as much time in the studio between shows to work on their second album, the pair happily conclude that with a bit of luck, they’ll make it to New Zealand one day soon. So we’re left hanging onto that hope with everything we’ve got, watching their recent NPR Tiny Desk Concert performance on repeat until then.