Sister John Interview – “Make it sound painful”

Do you ever wish you could roll back time to that specific moment you realise you’re in love with a particular record? Meet Sister John who released their debut album Returned From  Sea earlier in 2017 through the Last Night From Glasgow label. It’s a record reminiscent of classic 60’s and 70’s songwriters through to contemporaries like Aimee Mann. Twelve beautifully crafted and folk-tinged songs all sprinkled with that elusive magic musical dust. No need for that time machine now.

Sister John are Amanda, Heather, Sophie and Jonathan who seemed to get together almost by accident as a vehicle to perform Amanda’s songs. “A couple of years ago I started writing from pretty much out of nowhere” explains Amanda, “One of our friends Warren, who runs nights at the Tron Theatre told me I should do this and I was thinking no, no, no. I just didn’t really want it to be just me doing it so I roped in these three guys and we rehearsed for that show. We always thought of it as a one off in a way.” Sophie laughs, “Never thought I’d be in a band for long but we really enjoyed it, we seemed to be a natural fit and it all came together really well.” Amanda picks the story back up, “after that we didn’t play for four months but I just kept writing. We got asked back and did it again. I think the last show we played was only our tenth show so we’re still kinda making rare appearances. It was the end of 2015 we played our first show so it was a slow start. Sophie, Jonathan and I met through the Parsonage Choir and Jonathan knew Heather.” “I was producing a record and needed a fiddler,” says Jonathan,” but everyone we arranged to meet never showed up. Heather turned up. She couldn’t play but…” The laughter that ensues gives an immediate impression of a gang of four who’re entirely at ease with one another, if you can call the formation of Sister John and accident it’s clearly a happy one.

Talk of the early days quickly turns into discussion about what each of them bring to the band. Sister John aren’t your classic line-up, they’re multi-instrumentalists and see that as an integral element of their chemistry. Amanda says “It’s not just like here’s a drummer. Sophie’s background in percussion brings a bag of tricks that’s interesting when we’re considering what songs could be. The other thing is that it’s not a lot of layering and piling on stuff, it’s more the opposite, trying to strip away things without meaning. It’s interesting when you hit on the thing that is the thing you actually want.” Sophie agrees, “I hadn’t played drums for about 10 years before this but I was like, well I can do a bit of percussion. For me it’s been a real joy just getting to play the drums again. I had the grounding, lots of percussion through world music but I just hadn’t been in a place to be playing for a long time.”

Developing this theme with the band is interesting. There’s a precise balance on this album through its arrangements, nothing seems too much or too little, everything is just so. “Often with bands the strings can be considered add-on sounds, afterthoughts for one or two songs but in our case they are core to the sound of Sister John.” says Amanda. “It felt right to consider strings in a different way, an integral part of the sound. I love records from the past that have done that really well and it’s a big inspiration for us.” Heather develops this idea, ““When Sophie and I are playing strings together it’s like trying to think what else can we do with this instrument to make it different, it can be rhythmic or all sorts of different sounds.” Amanda giggles, “Most of the time I’m telling them to play worse, they’ll be playing these beautiful strings and I’m like no, no, no, make it sound painful.”

There’s a lot of considerations to take into account when a band is a vehicle for one person’s songs. I exclude Amanda for a second and ask the others if they feel that it’s become more of a group thing now that they’re a couple of years down the line from that first show. Sophie immediately laughs, “I’m not a songwriter” she states with some determination. “I’d be terrified cos I can’t come up with this incredible music, these beautiful, beautiful lyrics. I’m an instrumental person. My musical world is about harmony, instrumentation and melody, that’s what I love. I don’t feel the need to write words, it’s just a pleasure to bring something, a texture, to these songs.” Jonathan picks this up, “Some of us play with different bands but here there’s a freedom that comes when it’s not your thing, it allows you to play differently. It feels great. The song is king, we want to all do it justice. It’s not about what we want, it’s about what the song wants.” Keeping things fresh certainly seems to help as Heather explains, “Amanda is constantly writing songs, it’s exciting coming into rehearsal and almost every week there’s a new one. There’s no sense of it ever getting boring rehearsing the same songs, there’s always something new on the table.” All very well, but have you ever had to tell Amanda that a song isn’t any good? “No” says Heather, “not yet!”

There’s a strong sense of cohesion across Returned From Sea, like the songs were born in a very natural way as if they always existed but they just needed the right group of people to transform them from the ether into sound. Kristen Hersh speaks about how her music just arrives from the air into her head and it’s her job to translate them. In Sister John’s case I’m quickly recognising the chemistry within the band that helps develop this sound but I’m keen to know more from Amanda’s point of view about where these songs come from. “There’s lots of different ways,” she starts, “I write words, lyrics quite a bit. I know a lot of other writers write music first but I don’t really. It might come from a chord I’ve discovered and stored. Usually it’s about a single emotion or feeling or thought and trying to find a way to describe it. Often I’m just writing about stuff for no apparent reason. Imagery is a big thing for me, I was always interested in my brother’s record collection growing up and people like Dylan and Cohen, people who had used imagery in a really vivid way. It all comes back to that initial thought and how you match sounds to the images they convey to arrive back at that original single feeling. I write quite quickly and I think that’s because I’m trying to arrive back at the thought or feeling before it goes away.”

Lyrically the album seems to have a lot to do with physical place, land, air, water, rivers and seas. How does Amanda recognise the themes she’s communicating within the songs and do the rest of the band see these differently? “Those themes are all very much in there, they’re fundamental to our environment, fundamental to my approach to the world.” Amanda then gets more specific, “When I look back on it there are some strong feelings in there, lyrically and emotionally there is one strong theme, the tangibility of the past in the present, where we’ve come from and how past experience informs the present. It’s past, present and renewal, the idea of your place in relation to everyone else in the world, the different colours, positive or negative, that are involved in that.” Mention of colour triggers something with Heather, “What Amanda says about different colours, when we’re given a new song there’s no instruction of this is how it feels, this is what it’s about. We don’t digest the words and meaning. What I pick up from it is the colour. The beautiful thing about this album is that it’s open, there’s a seed in every song, its open for everyone to take away from it what they will.”

Returned From The Sea Album Cover

We consider the physical product that this music is presented on. I explain that when I first encountered Sister John I never really gave them a second thought. As a member of Last Night From Glasgow I was handed the record and experienced that rare sense of recognition that I felt connected to it, that I was going to love it before I’d even heard it. Jonathan explains “If it wasn’t important we could’ve just put out a CD or download but the era we come from and what we all love about it makes the product very important.” Amanda considers this and the cover art which is hanging on the wall of the room we’re sitting in, “The photographs, we were really lucky to get these images. We had a day with Brian Sweeney running about Glasgow and I’d found that dress in a charity shop on Hyndland Road and just loved it’s yellowness. There’s a sense of mystery that the image captures that invites people to be me. There’s paintings by Friedrich, they’re often of a landscape with a figure from the back and it’s sort of, it’s inviting the listener to look where I’m looking or to be part of that. It’s the combination of this along with the music that makes it all and it’s not really until the owner / listener is consuming it that it all becomes complete. It’s also very much about Glasgow, we’re not all from here but we’re here now and it’s very much the musical place for us to be.

Last Night From Glasgow, the membership led label that’s been doing great things for nearly two years now, feels like a very comfortable home for Sister John. Heather is quick to share the love, “Amazing, Fabulous. The knowledge and passion they have about music and the support we’ve had, it’s just been an incredible thing.” We’re getting gushy now as Sophie picks up, “It’s a label for musicians and music lovers by music lovers and it’s a real feeling of community.” Jonathan considers some of the clear and tangible benefits, “All the stuff that goes with being in a band, all the admin, trying to find a gig, an audience, constant phone calls, it can all be really dominating and cause it to lose it’s fun. Being part of LNFG and having Ian (Smith, one of the labels founders) take the reins allows us to focus on the music. Also, the members feel ownership of it and bring their skills and backgrounds to help. It all makes you feel elevated. It makes you care more and hopefully the result is people care more as well. Plus, Amanda makes us all pay fifty quid a year to be members.”

There’s a strong sense of contentment around Sister John, a genuine humility as they realise just how thrilling it is for them to be woven together as artists and to find themselves in their current position. Where will this lead to? What’s the ambition? Amanda babbles like a kid in a sweet shop, “I’ll be keeping on writing. I feel like I’ve just begun on that journey. It’s a really exciting thing, I don’t really know what might happen next, I’ve got nothing to compare this to. I feel like there’s so much to learn and discover. What’s interesting is that I can now not only look back on what’s happened but I now have it recorded in this odd way through songs. It’s a constant source of amazement and wonder to me. To be able to keep doing that going forward is kinda magical.” Her final words are right on point, “It’s about trying to find the people that are trying to find us.” If you’re one of those people looking for something new to love then congratulations, you and Sister John have found each other.

Sister John’s debut album Returned From The Sea was released in September 2017 on Last Night From Glasgow. It’s available on 180g gatefold vinyl right here

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