When Where I Should End found its way to my email, so to speak, I welcomed it with a huge smile. I feel compelled to share my own personal connection, if you will, dear reader, with the talented duo. I first heard Saint Sister live in London, in a small but perfectly intimate setting of Union Church at Kings Cross. A reserved, shy Gemma Doherty took to the stage to announce themselves, accompanied by harpist Morgan MacIntyre. I was completely blown away by their voices. That union, both organic in sound yet electronically blissful in delivery for me resonated with what they were about. In an industry dominated by loud pop and often extreme alternative music, they definitely stand out without even trying, and I’m so thrilled to hear this come into full effect with their new album. Brace yourselves: it’s mind-blowingly beautiful; then again most Irish music is stunningly beautiful because of its often nostalgic and chaotically ethereal story.
To begin with, every track on the new album has been written, arranged and produced by the band – seeing Morgan and Gemma confidently evolving into their distinct roles as songwriter and producer. A kaleidoscope of layered synths, drum machines, vocal loops, strings (performed by the incredible Crash Ensemble), piano and other live components were recorded at The Meadow Studio, Co. Wicklow with Rian Trench and mixed in Berlin with Benedikt MacIsaac. Doherty and MacIntyre have managed to tackle all issues in this 10-track celebration of all things female and relevant. The opening track ‘My Brilliant Friend’ is an ecclesiastical tale of lost love, tracing where one should end and begin; a prelude, in effect, to ‘Dynamite’, with the duo confidently tackling a more passion-driven love affair, yet in sound still managing to sound ethereal.
The vocals take on a more layered approach here, transitioning nicely into a more pop ballad feel with ‘Karaoke Song’. It’s as if we’re briefly back in post-80s Northern Ireland, immersed in the synth sounds of a French Nouvelle Vague cinematic landscape. ‘The Place That I Work’ featuring Lisa Hannigan is a gut-wrenching song about rejection, showcasing the lighter, more raw timbres of both MacIntyre and Doherty. Performed over a beautiful drone like harmony, their vocals soar and I’m reminded of how much respect I have for them: their ability to pay homage to the traditional Irish sean-nós is remarkable. It’s as if I was transported to a romantic film set in Inis Óirr.
I have to agree with NPR’s All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen, who said of the duo: “[They make] the sort of music I’ve been fascinated with for much of my life, music that mixes the organic with the electronic […] That blend is at the heart of my passion for Saint Sister.” ‘Irish Hour’, the following track is nothing short of a masterpiece. Starting with a tale of Irish diaspora performed so delicately by the duo, the song evolves into a climactic orchestral string performance that reminds us of Irish resilience, formed out of an identity forged from beauty, and strength born out of hardship & resilience. ‘Date Night’, which follows, at first seems like a tale of disappointment, but the lyrics are especially crafty in this piece as they speak of disillusionment of youth, encapsulated so fantastically by begging the question to us all actually: “Why are you so fucking happy?”
Halfway through the album, and the duo have tackled identity, diaspora, love, and loss; ‘Oh My God Oh Canada ‘ is like an open love letter to all those things: the strain of managing a broken past, whilst trying to thrive in a strange, distanced society post-covid. In a way, ‘Canada’, often ‘that country that’s too far away’ suddenly seems approachable to us all, because we thrive in its epic vastness. The harp on this track adds to the whimsical nature of this duo, to remind us of hopeful thinking, culminating into a string session of the Irish-inhabited Nova Scotia.
I should pause here and remind you that at the very beginning of this review I remarked how Saint Sister were true to their Irish hearts by tackling themes that were otherwise silenced. ‘Manchester Air’, a song about a young couple’s journey to Manchester facing an unexpected pregnancy, is a painful reminder of the 2018 referendum on the Eighth Amendment in Ireland, which had effectively acted as a ban on abortions in the Republic.
Until its repeal by a historic, landslide majority, the act had forced generations of Irish women to travel to the UK mainland to access abortion services.
The song is defiant call for justice, a rebellious cry at what humanity took so long to recognise, a basic human right. It’s no wonder that MacIntyre recalls how they felt when performing this for the first time in Inis Oírr: “Writing this song felt like a cry for help. The weekend the results came through we celebrated by screaming into the sea, feeling the weight of it all wash off us. We performed the song for the first time that weekend and it no longer felt like a cry for help, but rather a cry for every woman who was betrayed by the state and simultaneously a cry of relief, a nod to the future.”
The following track, ‘House 9’ in my mind feels like a beautiful resolve to that pain. In an album otherwise beautifully introverted yet relatable, the ultimate track ‘Any Dreams?’ feels like the duo shift their attention to the listener and audience themselves. A refreshing rhythmic shift from the previous compositions, the vocals soar here in sonic prowess, begging for us all to coexist, or at least try to. Saint Sister are a duo that deserve recognition of the highest calibre. In this ever changing industry, I fail to understand what that means, but to me, they deserve to be appreciated as the young female-led powerhouse of heart, faith and resilience.
You can purchase this stunning album Where Should I End here.