A new Celtic sound
Saint Sister's Gemma Doherty and Morgan MacIntyre have come a long way in a short time and their distinct brand of 'atmosfolk' is earning them an adoring audience outside Ireland
It may be our national emblem, but you're more likely to see a hurdy-gurdy played on stage than a harp these days. Outside the realm of the National Concert Hall, this remarkable instrument - which has been a symbol of Ireland for centuries and was played by the country's first music superstar, Turlough O'Carolan, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries - is almost never seen.
It's certainly not been a key part of the sound of an acclaimed band - at least until now. But Saint Sister are changing that and offering a reminder why the harp is on the obverse of our coins, on government letterheads and, indeed, on the masthead of the Irish Independent.
Derry's Gemma Doherty has long played the instrument and now, as one-half of Saint Sister with Belfast's Morgan MacIntryre, she is demonstrating just how remarkable the harp can be.
A lot of people are very excited about this group - and with good reason. They sound quite unlike any of their contemporaries thanks to the vintage folk leanings, a judicious ear for engaging electronica and meshed vocals that get under your skin. They offer a perfect description of their sound on their own website, when they write about songs drawing from "early Celtic harp traditions, 60s folk and electronic pop to create 'atmosfolk' - a mix of soulful vocal harmonies, dreamy synth and electro-acoustic harp".
They may have just two EPs to their name, but already the duo have played the Introducing Stage at Glastonbury, a much-praised slot at the most recent instalment of Other Voices and an acclaimed show at Dublin's National Concert Hall. They have also spent several weeks this year supporting Lisa Hannigan on her European tour.
"It's been really exciting for us," MacIntyre says. "One thing has led to another and we've had some really cool opportunities that we've been only too happy to take. It's been so cool to being able to go on the road with Lisa, because she's someone we really admire. And the people who go to see her have been really kind to us, too."
Listen to Saint Sister's slim output to date - or attend one of their shows - and it's difficult not to be bewitched. In the Spotify age where so much music is designed to grab your attention from the opening seconds, the pair's work unfurls slowly and delicately. It's slow-burning fare - in the very best sense of the word - and there's considerable sophistication at play. It's little wonder that Hannigan and others have been so enamoured with their songs.
"We have different musical interests," Doherty tells me, "but similar ones, too, and we've found that we have a really good artistic connection."
They are clearly very good friends, too, sometimes finishing each other's sentences. They met towards the end of their time at Trinity College Dublin. Doherty was studying music while MacIntryre was reading history and politics. The latter thought about becoming a journalist - both her parents are in the trade and her father, Darragh MacIntyre, is a respected reporter whose credits include BBC's Panorama.
It was through a musical society that they crossed paths - and both speak fondly of reinterpreting the Gorillaz album, Demon Days. Damon Albarn's side project could hardly be more different to Saint Sister, but it sent the pair on the road to discovery.
"It's exciting to collaborate like this," MacIntyre says, "and to find that common ground." It is she who chiefly writes the lyrics, while Doherty crafts the lion's share of the music.
Saint Sister began life in 2014 and the pair - who are both 25 - have tried to devote themselves to it full-time since then. They meet every day and work on some aspect of their band, whether it's fleshing out fledging songs, refining the visual aesthetic or preparing for shows.
"Our families have been really supportive," says MacIntyre, who's the chattier of the two. "And that's been really important because when you're trying to find your feet, you need as much support as you can get."
Residing in a city as expensive as Dublin is a challenge for many 20-somethings, and especially those in the creative fields where money can be very tight indeed. For these musicians, it is a drawback but one that has been surmountable so far.
They have avoided hefty studio costs by recording music elsewhere - much of it done in the foothills of the Kerry mountains. Alex Ryan has been a regular producer and seems to be an ideal foil - he worked on their debut EP, Madrid, and helped them deliver its otherworldly atmosphere. Ryan's day job is as Hozier's bassist, but he appears to be just as accomplished behind the mixing desk.
That EP's title track was more about a state of mind than an ode to the Spanish capital, and was penned before the pair had visited the city. They finally got to see Madrid for themselves when they supported Hannigan at the Teatro Lara in April. MacIntyre says they were excited to introduce their song to the local audience before realising that they may have been expecting a tune about the Bernabeu and Chueca.
Playing to larger theatres, especially overseas, has helped them hone the experience in a way that constantly playing the smaller Irish circuit never would. But neither woman wants to think too far into the future - they're happy to live in the moment and work on the next song or show without being overly fixated about a career plan.
An album release is certainly on the cards for early next year, however, and they hope to have it in the bag by year-end.
The pair have recently returned from playing the Galway Arts Festival and will be among the must-see acts at the Kilkenny Arts Festival later this month. Such seasoned cultural events tend to have a more balanced gender split than many of the rock and pop festivals seeking your money this summer. Longitude came in for particular criticism in that regard. And sexism can rear its ugly head in other aspects of the music business. But Saint Sister have not experienced such prejudice.
"We haven't experienced any sexism to date," MacIntyre says. "We've worked with a small team of people - women and men - and there have been no problems. If we even got a whiff of that from anyone we worked with, it would be the last time."
For now, it's about moving onwards and upwards. "We feel lucky that we're in a position to get to do something we love," Doherty says, "and it means so much to us that people are responding to our music in such a positive way."
Saint Sister play the Set Theatre, Kilkenny, on August 13. See www.kilkennyarts.ie