Words: Dylan Murphy
Photography: Ellius Grace
Words: Dylan Murphy
Photography: Ellius Grace
Following the release of their sophomore album Where I Should End and ahead of their innovative live stream performance, Saint Sister spoke to Dylan Murphy about how an Italian novel informed their writing and examining music through a fresh lens.
Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend charts the powerful and winding friendship of Elena and Lila. The Napolitano pair’s respective paths inform each other as much as they intertwine throughout the story and the messiness that forms their bond stands in stark contrast to the Instagrammable captions of today. It’s imperfect, but it’s real and it’s easy to see the parallels between the seminal Italian work and the airtight bond that grounds Irish duo, Saint Sister.
Sat around a barrel in a Belfast beer garden, Gemma Doherty and Morgan MacIntyre are tired, but it’s a welcome kind of fatigue that comes with a hard day’s work. Fresh from same-day record store signings in Omagh and Derry, the pair’s week-long road-tripping finishes up in Belfast tonight.
Though punctuated by some restrictions and carrying a weight of caution, their Ireland-wide trip marks a return of sorts to the lifestyle they’d become accustomed to prior to March 2020. It’s one where they spent weeks meandering through unfamiliar cities and more or less living on top of each other in a tour van.
Having spent the majority of their adult life working together in close quarters, it’s inevitable that some of their opinions, mannerisms and outlooks bleed into one another and boundaries become blurred. It’s through this idea their sophomore album Where I Should End leans into the brain fog that results from trying to establish the contours of your being without compromising equally important close relationships.
It’s a classic coming-of-age conundrum that is threaded throughout their latest record, but distilled so vividly in its aptly named opening track ‘My Brilliant Friend’.
“You are existing in this circle and so is everyone else,” Gemma tells me as the sun beats down on a sea of people enjoying post work pints.
“So many of the songs are from the first person and they are indulgent but they are also like ‘how do you figure out where you are and where someone else is and how not to absorb their problems?’. Or how to absorb them and help the person. Maybe giving up too much of yourself and then at times giving away not enough…”
For Gemma and Morgan, this is where Elena Ferrante’s work is most potent. Often the difficulties in close relationships lie in finding a balance and Gemma elaborates, saying, “One of her characters talks about her boundaries dissolving and like she is basically having a breakdown and not knowing where she exists in relation to the world and dissociation.”
“It’s a real familiar feeling when you are overstimulated and I guess in your twenties and thirties trying to figure out who you are. That’s changing all the time and it changes when you are with different people”, she says as a tray of cold drinks put a pause on her explanation.
Taking a sip before bookending Gemma’s sentiments, Morgan explains it’s about “trying to retain your own self-identity or your own idea of yourself and not letting that be too confused”.
Saint Sister’s album was completed before lockdown. Though given the themes of trying to establish boundaries and exploring your own self you could be forgiven for thinking it was written within the four walls of a crowded home during the peak of the pandemic.
“A few people have asked about ‘Any Dreams‘ being a song about lockdown”, Gemma tells me.
“About the mundanities of life – ‘go to weddings, go to funerals'”, she says quoting the lyrics of the album’s closing song.
“It’s funny how you can just put a different lens on something after – that’s what songs do.”
Likewise, the passage of time has provided a new lens to view their song ‘Manchester Air’. Though it was crafted with the Repeal The 8th movement in mind in 2018, the reluctance of the DUP in the north to make abortion services accessible means it still retains relevance to the swathes of people that cross the Irish sea every year.
“It was written very immediately at that moment and then I guess we always think about the north when we sing it”, Morgan explains.
“Not that repeal is done and dusted – it’s not. There’s so much more work to be done, but it wouldn’t be right to sing it and not have your mind on the north because of what is going on. But it was an of the moment kind of thing and it’s only cause of covid that it got put out now.”
“Not that repeal is done and dusted – it’s not. There’s so much more work to be doneMorgan MacIntyre
Picking up where Morgan left off, Gemma notes that the song lives and breathes beyond the moment it was conceived and it will continue to have relevance as long as things remain imperfect.
“It is completely cyclical because it is for anyone that has ever gone through that. It’s still not a perfect system here or in the south.”
While Where I Should End searches for internal clarity in increasingly muddied waters, paradoxically, in music having a neat conception of oneself can mean being boxed in. Though their latest effort is adventurous and flirts with a myriad of sounds, it was something that crossed their minds after its release. Serendipitously it plays into the cyclical notion they’d nodded to already.
“There is a bit of loop there where you put something out and people have a perception of it and then how much are you feeding back into that?” Gemma muses.
“What is informing the other thing?”
“With this album, we didn’t want to riff off what we did before or anything but also we weren’t trying to do anything different it was just doing what felt natural. You can’t control whether people are going to like it or what they are going to think or what they are going to say about it anyway.”
“It’s trying not to get too wrapped in it”, she asserts as the shadows of seagulls dance around our feet.
“I definitely put too much stock in what people think about it, but mostly at the time of the release. You can’t really take that into the recording or the writing, it’s not like it is really direct advice. There’s not really a formula you can repeat. If someone likes the song, you just can’t repeat that song…”
It’s not easy to create with the background hum of Twitter timelines and album reviews in the back of your mind, but the previous years of experience have given the pair the added steel to come front and centre.
In the year and a half that finished tracks were awaiting release, both Morgan and Gemma focused on tweaking their creative direction to be more visibly present. For their album artwork, the pair donned bespoke suits and took centre stage in the music videos for ‘Karaoke Song’ and ‘Any Dreams‘. Additionally, they embarked on a ‘Stories Behind the Songs‘ series to personally extend a hand to curious fans. It’s a welcome move that elevates a relatable album littered with personal and emotive anecdotes.
“The first time [Creating an album] we were a bit afraid of it, to be honest,” Gemma admits.
“Not being anywhere near the artwork, trying to have the confidence or thinking it’s cooler to be bit more mysterious… you end up in press shots anyway and you are there on stage,” Gemma says jovially, with the benefit of hindsight.
“We just tried to lean into it rather than shy away from something that is already there”.
While the stories of Elena and Lila struck a chord with the pair, in the end, it was their own experiences that led them to where they are now. Separated during lockdown, Saint Sister perfected an album that traced the outline of their own existence, but in the process, they learnt to champion what brought them together.
Saint Sister play their album Where I Should End in its entirety live Thursday 8 July on Youtube. The show is free and they are joined by the full force of the musicians who played on the record, as well as Crash Ensemble and Lisa Hannigan.