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By: Tim Forster
Citing influences that include Cocteau Twins, Fugazi and The Smiths, Sister Ghost from Derry and Belfast in NI create music that has been described as having “echoes of Sonic Youth, early nineties discord stuff…classic indie rock with no mucking about.”(1). They formed in November 2013 and released their debut single ‘Scent’ the following year. This was followed by four more tracks including the excellent ‘Growing Pains’ in May’16. This autumn they are touring including gigs in Derry, Belfast and Dublin to promote their October EP release (2,3).
Song writer and vocalist Shannon O’Neill has form with Echoes and Dust, her previous band Vanilla Gloom’s EP Vexed was favourably reviewed in April ‘13 by Sander van den Driesche. I contacted her to find out more about Sister Ghost, her experiences fronting a band and the music scene in Northern Ireland.
(((o))): You formed towards the end of 2013 and had your debut single ‘Scent’ out in July 2014! Had you all been in bands before and were therefore able to hit the ground running? Had any of you worked together before?
Yeah all of us had been in bands or played solo before – my first band was with a group of guys from my village when we were 12. None of us in Sister Ghost had been in projects together before though (although Jake and Stevie are brothers and would have played together in stuff no doubt). When my most recent band called it quits Sister Ghost was a bedroom solo project that then became a full band for performance reasons. ‘Scent’ was my first ever entirely solo track (I played everything on it and continue to write all the demos of Sister Ghost tracks this way).
(((o))): Your second single was an intriguing entwining of ‘Spellbound’ and ‘Don’t fear the Reaper’, does that give some clues to your influences?
So this was more of a fun Halloween gift kind of thing I wanted to do that year. They are two of my favourite songs (I am a classic rock and British punk fiend!) so I arranged them together in some bizarre tuning I made up. I recorded the guitars and vocals with Stevie in his old flat. The heating was broken or something so my clearest memory of the whole thing was how cold his bedroom was – you could see your breath!
(((o))): How would you describe Sister Ghost’s sound?
I think I’ve called it a spectral mess of all my influences at one point and I still think that rings true. It is growing and heading toward a heavier territory with the EP that is due in October, but will always have a melodic heart due to my being raised on 80s pop and rock radio stations.
(((o))): You’ve been getting some great reviews and Chordblossom.com wrote about your ‘always blistering live show’ (4), is it on stage that Sister Ghost are most at home or in the studio-or do the different situations emphasise different aspects? Which do you prefer?
Live! Always. I only really make music with the outcome to perform live – as much as recording is an exciting adventure, it can be stressful. Performance is such a release and there’s not much else that comes close to playing a great gig and sharing a collective experience with a room of people enjoying themselves. It’s a bit of a drug when it all comes together nicely.
(((o))): How does the creative process work within the band-is it collaborative or one writer per song?
I mentioned earlier how I make the demos of each song by myself before teaching them to the guys but I still think it’s important that each of them can bring a bit of themselves to their parts – everyone has their idiosyncrasies in music and I think it would be wrong to stifle that. It’s a respectful process and always feels special when I get to hear my attic demo become a full-sounding track with everyone on it.
(((o))): What sort of subjects do your lyrics engage with? Are they anecdotal or do you draw on a variety of sources, like books and films?
Absolutely a mix of all of that really. I have used phrases from characters in my favourite TV shows (‘Little Lamb’ has a line from Twin Peaks for example) or films before and more recently from novels too to inspire parts of the songs. I have always found animals to be very interesting and you will often find evidence of that in my lyrics. I also like word play and occasionally write down any memorable things people say to use in songs too.
(((o))): What is the alternative rock/punk scene like in Northern Ireland? Are there plenty of opportunities to play?
Sadly not as much as it did ten years ago when we had the likes of Fighting With Wire melting faces. I hope to see more punk bands forming in the coming years (especially that of women and girls!) – after all, Northern Ireland was a melting pot for punk at one point! I am very proud of our punk history and take pride that I and a handful of others (like Charlie Loane from Worm Hears) are helping to fly the flag for the new generation of punk here.
(((o))): Is there a good sense of community between the bands- thought I’d better ask after watching the video to ‘Growing Pains’!
Haha! Those pesky skater bands are ruining the scene for everyone! The scene just feels very small at this point in time but I think there’s a new influx of bands coming in (like Brand New Friend and Little Arcadia), and that young fresh blood and energy is going to do us all good.
(((o))): I saw in an interview (5) that your previous band, Vanilla Gloom, had played Hollaback Belfast-is that an organisation you have an ongoing involvement with?
It’s an organisation that I wholeheartedly back but haven’t done any gigs for with Sister Ghost. Could be a plan though! I am on the committee for the Women’s Work Festival ran here in Belfast that works to promote women in all areas of music and art in NI and further afield. I also run Girls Rock School NI in Belfast and we are in the process of organising our next sessions – exciting!
(((o))): Female musicians can experience at least casual sexism. What has your experience been like in the punk/alt rock scene? Do you think things are improving?
With Sister Ghost I’ve mostly seen stuff like 9 times out of 10, guys will come up to one of the boys in the band first to shake hands and say ‘great gig I really liked that song [whichever it is]’. Girls tend to be the first to come speak to me after a gig (which is obviously great because I love that they have enjoyed it and hopefully are/will go out and play too).
All I can say, from all that I’ve experienced so far, is that you must stick up for yourself and know that your place in music is important and valid. Make yourself heard and don’t let anyone make you feel inferior in your craft because of your gender or identity; whatever those terms mean for you.
We are in the middle of a new wave of Feminism at the minute and I can only hope that the music industry wises up, all the way to the dizzy and often sickeningly sexist top. Fighting for equality shouldn’t be this overwhelming and tiring responsibility for women when they choose to make or consume music – it should just be completely normal for us to be there in the first place! Imagine if everyone could just rock out and not ever have to worry, discuss or analyse gender issues? Not much to ask in my opinion.
(((o))): What bands and books have you been enjoying lately?
This week has been about revisiting the Cocteau Twins and shamelessly grooving to Go West and Johnny Hates Jazz. That should hit my music taste nail right on the head!
I need to read books more often like I did in school – this summer has been mostly involved reading Morrissey’s autobiography.
(((o))): What plans do you have? An album, any chance of seeing you on tour.
The EP will be out in October and we are playing across Ireland starting with Derry on the 15th of October. An album would be great some day, I’ll see what 2017 has in store and take it from there. Touring the rest of the UK, maybe starting with Scotland, is definitely on the cards in the near future. Of course I also plan on saying Sister Ghost are ‘bigger than Jesus’ at some point and go out in a haze of smoke and confetti.
- Steven Rainey, BBC Radio Ulster, https://www.facebook.com/sisterghost/about/?entry_point=page_nav_about_item&tab=page_info
- Cunningham, A (2016) ‘Watch: Sister Ghost-Growing Pains’ on http://www.chordblossom.com/fresh-northern-irish-music/watch-sister-ghost-growing-pains
- Female-identified musicians everywhere (2013) ‘Vanilla Gloom’ http://shesprettygoodforagirl.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/vanilla-gloom_27.html