Interview | Electro-folk duo Saint Sister dish on their debut LP, ‘Shape of Silence’

Photo courtesy of ie:music

After a second straight South by Southwest appearance in Austin, Texas earlier this year, Irish electric-folk duo Saint Sister is ready for its close-up. Its long-awaited full-length debut Shape of Silence comes out 5 October, which the duo will support on a headlining world tour, including several stateside stops and a west coast swing, through year’s end.

Since forming in late 2014, Morgan MacIntyre (keyboard) and Gemma Doherty (harp) crafted a unique sound originally dubbed “atmosfolk.” But having shied away a bit from that term since the release of its debut EP Madrid two years ago, the duo has pushed its music into something less definable, but still irresistibly gorgeous nonetheless. 2016’s singles release of “Tin Man/Corpses” teased MacIntyre and Doherty’s progression and evolution as a songwriting team, so there is much to look forward to.

I’m fascinated by the origin of band names. I read an interview about how you describe the sweet story behind your band name. Did the question of whether or not Saint Sister sounded “cool” ever come up?

Morgan MacIntyre: We wanted to find a name that suited us, that would represent us well, and suggested a bit of ourselves before anyone heard the music. We were really drawn to the power of the word “sister” and all the things that are conveyed by that word. “Cool” never really came into it.

I caught you at SXSW earlier this year at Central Presbyterian Church, which was a gorgeous venue to see you perform. Contrast that to the much smaller Velveeta Room, which had a tiny stage, that you also performed later that week. Does performing in such different venues and spaces affect your music and/or show in any way?

Gemma Doherty: Definitely, the surroundings affect the show massively. I think at the start [there] was an element of playing live that seemed quite intimidating—that things could differ so drastically from night to night. Our set is quite quiet so we had to try and adapt to make the show work. Some songs don’t work so well on an outdoor festival stage, but [they] might be the best part of a more intimate show. I think the best performers are the ones who can react to the room and use the space to their advantage.

Photo: Tan the Man

You’ve performed at SXSW [for two years running], which makes you Austin veterans. How was it the second time around? Were there any surprises? What would be some advice you would give a first-time SXSW performer?

MacIntyre: SXSW can be a little intimidating [the] first time round. It’s so big, and there’s just so many acts playing—you can get a little lost. Coming back the second time was a real pleasure; we were able to bring the full band, and we weren’t so overwhelmed by everything.

For anyone heading there for the first time, I recommend going at your own pace and not worrying if you don’t make it to every gig. There are long queues of people trying to get into gigs all along the streets; it can make you feel like you’re missing out on everything.

You’ve mentioned your back-and-forth writing process in a few interviews. Have you ever tried it differently or is this a ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ kind of deal?

Doherty: We don’t have a method as such; we’re still trying to figure that out. Each time we write a song it seems to come about in a different way. What does stay the same is our dynamic and the roles that we bring: loosely speaking, Morgan on lyrics, and myself on arrangement/production. Most other things lay somewhere between the two of us—melody, harmony, structure, and everything in between. The seed of an idea rarely comes when we’re together, so that’s where the back-and-forth comes from.

You’ve released a few covers over the years, including Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’ and The Cranberries’ ‘Dreams’. Please describe your process of arranging such beloved songs with your own personality and style. I [assume] it’s nerve-wracking to try to reimagine such hits.

MacIntyre: It’s a little nerve-wracking, but it’s quite instinctive. Both of those songs are so gorgeous and such a pleasure to sing, you just have to hope you don’t ruin it for everyone else. We felt a little more nervous performing ‘Dreams’; for the first time. The Cranberries are so adored in Ireland and all over the world, and we just wanted to pay tribute to them and the incredible Dolores [O’Riordan].

Your debut album Shape of Silence comes out in October. In an interview with Billboard, you mention this is the “culmination of three years of writing and playing together.” How different is this upcoming album versus what could’ve been released earlier in your partnership?

Doherty: The logistics of the recording process have pretty much stayed the same, but hopefully there’s been a progression in the writing and in the production. We’ve learned to trust each other and our instincts a lot more, and the same goes for Alex [Ryan] who we’ve produced all of our music [with] so far with. It’s taken quite a while, but I’m glad of that. I think, if we had released this album a year or two ago, it would have been a very different piece of work.

Photo: Tan the Man

How has it been working with Alex Ryan?

MacIntyre: It’s been amazing. Over the last few years, we’ve developed a really brilliant dynamic between the three of us. Each time we head back to the studio, it feels better and better. We all have quite different instincts, but we’ve really learnt to trust each other, and I think the variety of taste and ideas in the studio has really stood [out] to us.

What do you hope listeners get out of Shape of Silence?

Doherty: Oh, that’s a tough one. It’s not really for us to determine. It’s a rare thing to really connect with an artist or a piece of music, so it’s too big of an ask to set any sort of precedent for how someone should feel. If you hear it and feel anything at all, to me, that’s a bonus.

On this upcoming world tour, you’ve said that you’ll be mixing it up with stripped-down sets and full band performances depending on the venue. What’s it like preparing for each and switching between the two?

MacIntyre: Up until recently, we were spending a lot of time honing the full band set while our two-piece setup kept getting put on the back burner. We’re much better now at sharing our energy between the two setups so that each are as strong as they can be. It’s been really enjoyable really getting into the more stripped back setup. We have less to play with so it’s forcing us to be a little more creative in order to achieve the same full sound.

Where are you most looking forward to performing for the first time [on this upcoming world tour]?

Doherty: Very excited about going to Canada and Australia. Also looking forward to seeing Portland, [Oregon], I’ve heard it’s a brilliant city.

Words/Photos: Tan The Man (@dorksandlosers)
Concert Photos Caption: Saint Sister at Central Presbyterian Church, SXSW 2018
Press Photo: ie:music