‘Saint Sister’s’ Gemma Doherty on her Derry roots and touring the world

Saint Sister have seen their star rising with a growing international following, critically acclaimed recordings and festival appearances and gigs across the world.

Friday, 8th March 2019, 2:00 pm
Gemma Doherty from Saint Sister with bandmate Morgan McIntyre.

As well as supporting Hozier and Lisa Hannigan on tour, they were nominated not only for ‘album of the year’ but also for the RTÉ ‘Choice Music Prize’ best single for Saint Sister’s Causing Trouble (Kormac Remix Feat. Jafaris).

The ‘Journal’ caught up with Gemma this week for a Q & A session about the band’s success and how it all began . . .

I was wondering how you found out you had been shortlisted and how it feels?

We’re so grateful to have been nominated, it’s a real milestone for us and just to be mentioned to alongside the amazing acts on the shortlist feels like a huge honour. I was at home in Derry with my folks when I found out about the nomination which was lovely.

Where did you grow up? What schools did you attend? Was music was always your number one subject?

I grew up on the Culmore Road, went to St. Patrick’s PS, Pennyburn, and then onto Lumen Christi. Music always came first growing up and I always hoped to take it to degree level. I went on to study Music at Trinity College, Dublin.

I heard that you began playing the harp at a young age. I was wondering how that came about and at what point you felt a connection with the instrument? Was your tutor a big inspiration?

I studied harp with Brenda O’Somochain at the Foyle Harp School from around the age of five, until I moved to Dublin at 18. I took so much from those lessons growing up and the harp has always been a huge part of my life. There was a real social aspect to the classes too, as Brenda taught in group lessons, which I think was really important. She is amazing and continues to be a huge inspiration.

I noted your songs described by yourselves as drawing from “early Celtic harp traditions, Sixties folk and electronic pop to create ‘atmosfolk’ - a mix of soulful vocal harmonies, dreamy synth and electro-acoustic harp.” Was this the type of music you were drawn to growing up or has your own taste in music changed much up to the present?

Morgan grew up in Belfast, and we only met towards the end of our time at college in Dublin. Our interests and influences are changing all the time, but we both took a lot from folk music and Irish traditional music growing up. I think of our music as having its roots in folk music; at their core the songs can be stripped back to our two voices and the harp.

Do you remember your first gig? Where was it and was it nerve wracking? And is it nerve wracking performing before a home crowd with family and friends?

Brenda was really great at encouraging us to get out and play in front of people. I think I got my first gig through Brenda when I was 12, playing background music for a function in the Millennium Forum! Learning an instrument in a lesson and performing in front of a crowd are very different experiences and that’s something she instilled in us from a young age which I’m very grateful for.

Coming home and playing in front of friends and family is still one of the most nerve wracking gigs to play!

‘Saint Sister’ have played with numerous artistes and in front of big crowds now, and are appearing at numerous festivals. Do you like both the studio and playing live and have other musicians you have played alongside left an impression or influence?

I love being in the studio, but getting to bring the music to life on stage is probably my favourite part. The community of musicians in Ireland is very close and encouraging, and we’ve met some incredible artistes. We’ve been lucky to have supported Lisa Hannigan and Hozier on their tours. Their inspiration and support has been invaluable to us.

‘Saint Sister’ seem to be going from strength to strength in terms of output, critical and audience acclaim and profile. What do you both make of it all and what has been the highlights for you personally to date.

We brought out our first album in October 2018, and were lucky enough to tour it around the US, Canada and Australia as well as at home and around Europe. Being able to do a tour of that length was a real highlight for us, and now we’re looking forward to getting stuck into album 2.

I was wondering if you get home often, what do you like to do when you do get back and also, just how difficult is it to travel the world with a harp!?

I try to get home as often as I can when we have a bit of a break. Most of my friends are living away from home, but everyone coming home at Christmas is very hard to beat! We all just head up town and it’s as if no time has passed.

It can be quite scary travelling around with instruments, particularly the harp as it’s so fragile and we do have to bring it on quite a few flights. Luckily, I have a great flight case for it, built by fellow Derry man (who is also based in Dublin) Ray Doherty, so that puts my mind at ease!