Sister John – intrepid travellers of sound

Interviewing Sister John is like stepping into someone else’s wonderfully weird synergetic microcosm. Sophie, Jonathan, Amanda and Heather’s answers and statements undulated, looped and crisscrossed around and through the topics I put before them: cultural ties, heritage, roots, nostalgia, genre and tradition.

It quickly became clear that none of them had a straightforward “born and bred here” story to tell. Instead, as often is the case, they made their home by either adapting to or rejecting their cultural environment, by moving around and soaking up influences from friends and family, embracing some elements while abandoning others.

… 5 unsuccessful selfies later.

Sophie, the band’s “native drummer from Drumland”, moved to Scotland from England at the age of 2. “I feel Scottish,” she intones emphatically, “it’s all I’ve ever known” and recounts a musical path that started with percussion, the Indonesian gamelan, and playing in ceilidh and samba bands before eventually finding her way to the drum kit. Having also been involved with Celtic and traditional music as a viola player, the ties with all things “Celtic Connection” were quite strong.

“Sophie’s one of those people who drops into the conversation that she’s been on a John Peel session!” interrupts Amanda jovially, and Jonathan joins her: “My Dad’s Neil Young!”

“…there’s a way that Sophie plays that just fits. So she’s become annoyingly irreplaceable.”

Swinging us back on course, Sophie continues: “It’s definitely a ‘percussion first, drummer second’ kind of thing. Although it’s all the same thing really.” But Jonathan disagrees and adds “I do think that does change how you play drums though. Playing with a range of bands, you learn to listen and hear how everyone does it just a bit differently. It’s interesting with Amanda’s music because there’s a way that Sophie plays that just fits. So she’s become annoyingly irreplaceable.”

Working with the viola and violin has also put an emphasis on “melody first”, a theme that the band return to frequently. That, and the importance of feeling your way, maintaining an intuitive approach to music and a sense of togetherness when it came to performing (both for themselves and to others) underscored what they all had to say.

“I went completely the opposite way, away from Irishness, because of the political situation.”

If Sophie’s upbringing demonstrates an incorporation of the culture around her, then Jonathan’s past illustrates the opposite. “I grew up in Northern Ireland and during the 70s and 80s I went completely the opposite way, away from ‘Irishness’, because of the political situation. I mostly listened to 50s rock’n’roll, so when it comes to heritage, that’s what I think of: me and my friends listening to 50s rock’n’roll.”

“But then at the same time, the Troubles meant that you didn’t have any big bands perform here. Instead you had these show bands, these multifaceted entertainment bands that played early 50s and 60s, goodtime music. This escapism from what they were surrounded by lead to there being plenty of rock’n’roll and pop music about. I am generalising because I’m sure there were plenty of traditionalists around, but I actively avoided it. Then when I went to England, the way people viewed the Irish was quite stuck in the middle ages, and I distanced myself from it even more. It wasn’t until later that I found myself interested in things I heard during my travels, and the blends that happen between generations.”

“…it’s a bit of a mystery really, isn’t it?”

Families and generations also play a part in the way Amanda discovered her music. Born to an Egyptian father and English mother, Amanda, like Sophie, moved to Scotland at the age of 2. She was exposed to Egyptian pop music as well as traditional church music, but it was also her brother’s vinyl collection of 60s and 70s pop – “and the mixtapes he made to express his love instead of talking to me” she fondly recalls – that carved themselves a space into her musical memoirs. Having then also spent years listening to classical music, Amanda considers melody and lyric writing her starting point. “I don’t know whether any of that comes out in the music. I mean it’s a bit of a mystery really, isn’t it?” she muses, “I don’t even know what we’ll consider next.”

Hailing from Australia, Heather’s first really powerful experiences of music are tied to her evangelical upbringing: “I distinctively remember there was always music and these traditional hymns, and even today my love of music is about making it together with people. During high school there was punk, rock and grunge, there was Pearl Jam and Nirvana, and later I listened to was more pop. It was quite eclectic but it was always about making music, and making it with feeling.”

“… it was always about making music, and making it with feeling.”

And here Amanda elaborates: “I mean really, all that matters is that it takes you somewhere. As long as you have some kind of insight that you want to share, and that it makes you dance, or feel something, that’s what matters.” Which brings us back to Celtic Connections. It’s about music, it’s about folk and tradition, but what else? “I think the optimal word here with the festival is connection rather than Celtic,” says Jonathan.

“… all that matters is that it takes you somewhere. As long as you have some kind of insight that you want to share, and that it makes you dance, or feel something, that’s what matters.”

In terms of the festival itself, the band also considers how it has changed from when it first started: “The range of music performances now speaks volumes,” says Sophie, “it used to be more about Irish and Scottish music, and now it’s about so much more. They haven’t limited themselves to just Celtic, which is amazing. And some of the best bands I’ve seen have been from Africa or India.”

“I think the festival basically just includes any country that has an Irish pub in it. You have an Irish pub? You’re in!” adds Jonathan.

“The range of music performances now speaks volumes [about the festival itself].”

At this point Amanda reminds everyone that “it’s our own preconceptions in terms of what we consider our ‘roots’ or ‘traditional’. It might be hip-hop for some people. Storytelling and everything is so personal. I find myself asking these questions quite a lot: what makes a song, what’s the starting point? What are the parameters? What are you expressing? If you have drums, why do you have them? We [as a band] push that thought to its extreme. Sometimes I just sit down at the piano, or start singing a song and see what happens, and what comes out is what was supposed to come out. Like it’ll circumvent my consciousness and find its way to the surface.” (At this point Jonathan exclaims: “Oh my god! You’re an intrepid traveller of sound!” and Amanda laughs: “I mean most of the time it’s shit”)

“What do you take into the future? What maintains the essence of what you’re expressing?” she continues. So when it comes to tradition, is it always a good thing? Is categorising helpful? According to Amanda: “We [as a society] have become quite genre bound, and people get stuck. Sometimes you want to tackle different things in a different way, different emotions, feelings and experiences.” Sophie chimes in: “Bringing it back to the Celtic part, you have a lament, something really deep and emotional, but you can equally get that feeling from a lush string arrangement. You can have a core emotion that can then change across different styles.”

“We [as a society] have become quite genre bound, and people get stuck. Sometimes you want to tackle different things in a different way, different emotions and feelings and experiences.”

As much as I would love to include everything that was said – in fact I wish everyone could have just been there – there is a fair amount that has been left out, notes on Americana (“bit of a lazy thing to say”), music reviews (“When they say you sound like Fleetwood Mac, it’s because they know Fleetwood Mac…” “And the challenge is always going beyond what you know!”) and what, really, is ‘modern’ (“.. I mean [electronic and synths] were also started 40 years ago!”)? All I can say, or rather, all the band (in this particular instance, Jonathan) could say about their music is: “With a ceilidh band, you know it’s a ceilidh band, and you know exactly what it will sound like, what you’ll play, what you do with your instrument. With us we don’t know, Sophie and Heather don’t know whether it’s vocals, more bass heavy, more rocky, whether I’m on the piano. Everything’s in response to the song, to the melody, to the emotion, everything is about trying to pull out the emotion of the song.”

This interview has been edited and (somewhat) condensed.