Jarlath Henderson

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Since becoming the youngest ever musician to win the prestigious BBC Young Folk Award – also the first from Ireland, and the first uilleann piper – Jarlath Henderson certainly hasn’t rushed into making his debut solo album. In fact it’s only now, more than a decade later, that this hotly-anticipated recording is finally in the bag, due out in autumn 2015.

Not that Henderson – also a triple All Ireland champion by the time he was 19 – has exactly been idle. Equally gifted on both pipes and whistles, he won huge critical plaudits for Partners in Crime, his 2008 duo release alongside Scottish co-instrumentalist Ross Ainslie, with whom he’s gigged extensively in both a trio and a six-piece, at international festivals including Celtic Connections, Cambridge, Tønder, Shetland, Lorient and Jodhpur in Rajasthan. Between times, he’s also appeared in such variously stellar company as The Transatlantic Sessions, Jack Bruce, Lau, Capercaillie, Paddy Keenan, Salsa Celtica, Phil Cunningham, Buille, Michael McGoldrick and the Earth Affair line-up, which performed for Nelson Mandela in 2005.

Now 29, Henderson featured on the soundtrack to Disney•Pixar’s 2013 hit Brave, while other recording work includes sessions with numerous folk luminaries including the Peatbog Faeries, Wolfstone, Luke Daniels, Maggie Reilly and Duncan Chisholm, plus genre-spanning Irish soprano/fiddler Deirdre Moynihan and award-winning Belfast poet Gearóid Mac Lochlainn. And in tandem with all this music, he’s somehow found time to qualify as a doctor, studying for five years at Aberdeen before moving to his current base of Glasgow, juggling gigs with hospital shifts to complete his pre-specialist training.

Born in Co. Armagh, the middle child between two sisters in a music-loving household (“Dad plays pipes, Mum sings and plays guitar; at home there’d be trad coming from one room, classical out of another – you couldn’t get away from it”), Henderson himself began playing aged 10, attending classes at the world-famous Armagh Pipers Club (APC).

“As soon as I started, it was like someone suddenly switched on the music button,” he recalls. “Music for me became like football was for most boys my age. By the time I was 12 or 13, I’d be waking up in the morning and putting on old LPs, or playing tunes before school, then coming home and putting more records on while I did homework. First and foremost I just loved the tunes, but also I was a pretty hyperactive kid, and music gave me an outlet for all that energy, plus the discipline to go with it.”

While classical flute lessons at secondary school added valuable skills like sight-reading to his toolkit, traditional music was Henderson’s primary passion, despite the fact that, among his classmates, “it definitely was not a cool thing to be doing – especially when you also didn’t play football.” Any such stigma, however, was more than outweighed by the craic and adventures to be had via the APC: “The teaching was all in groups, by ear, with loads of youngsters involved – we’d all meet up at fleadhs around the country, and the club did exchange trips to Skye each year – there was always tons of fun stuff happening.”

Nonetheless, as the time approached for leaving school, Henderson decided against studying music formally. “I don’t really know where wanting to do medicine came from,” he says. “No one in my family is a doctor, but I was always good at science, and I just clicked onto it pretty early as something I thought I’d like – which I do. I did think about going to music college, but playing had always been a way for me to switch off from studying, so it felt kind of risky to turn it into work, in case it destroyed it as a release.”

If his equanimity today at juggling two such contrastingly high-pressure careers seems impressive, it’s probably because the pressure will never again feel quite as intense as when he won the Young Folk Award, late in 2003 – six months before his qualifying exams for medical school. “That was meant to be the year I wasn’t looking for gigs,” he remembers. “I honestly hadn’t realised what a big deal the competition was – I just picked up a flyer at Pipers Club and thought I’d give it a go. Obviously it was for the best, but it caused me a few proper freakouts – people on the phone wanting me to play every weekend, wanting biogs and photos and stage specs and interviews; me checking flights for gigs to see if I could be back for school, meanwhile trying to knuckle down for exams. I literally got into medicine by the skin of my teeth – but it wasn’t because I was messing about.”

The requisite grades thankfully in the bag, a pre-university year out had always been part of the plan, not least to capitalise on those prizewinner opportunities. Shortly before the Young Folk final, too, Henderson and Ainslie had met playing sessions at the William Kennedy Piping Festival – hosted annually by the APC – and their pyrotechnic partnership was already being forged.

While the combination of Irish and Scottish bagpipes is unusual, the pair “hit it off straight away, musically and personally,” Henderson says. “We both played very intensely, going round and round with each individual tune maybe seven or eight times, and also doing similar things phrasing-wise, so when we played together it just fitted really nicely. And while the music was very intense, the chat and the craic were really easy and natural. We never sat down and decided to form a duo, but by the end of the festival we knew we’d do something together.”

In the event, Henderson spent much of his gap year based at Ainslie’s mum’s guest house in Perthshire, helping with the cooking between gigs, while also starting work on what would – eventually – become Partners in Crime. “I was in my third year at Aberdeen by the time it finally came out,” Henderson observes. “That gives an idea of how much we had to learn about recording – and how much partying there was along the way. It wasn’t the most economical album to make, but we had a hell of a lot of fun doing it.”

Henderson’s dual musical/medical career has continued ever since. After he moved to Glasgow in 2010, performing and recording slotted in around his schedule as a junior hospital doctor, rotating through departments from A&E to psychiatry. While these twin vocations might seem to demand diametrically opposite lifestyles and mindsets, for Henderson they complement rather than conflict.

“I’m forever being asked if I won’t have to choose between them,” he says, “but so far I’ve been able to choose both. I think if I did music all the time, I’d probably be pretty crazy by now, and the same with medicine. It can get a bit crazy as it is – in between two blocks of shifts, I might be playing on two different continents – but doing both definitely helps level me out. It does feel like they use different parts of my brain, but I’m exactly the same guy in either job: I like the fact that I can take myself into them both, get across who I am as a person. There is a definite switch, though, as soon as I’m putting the scrubs on, from Jarlath Henderson to Dr Henderson – because five minutes later I might be dealing with someone coming down off a really bad heroin trip, or someone having a miscarriage, and that needs a very different focus.

“But medicine gives a lot of inspiration, too,” he continues. “You see all different sides of life, get all these wee glimpses into what happens in other people’s days – and you realise how lucky you are. You see the awful situations people get into with drink and drugs, or how for some people, being in hospital is the only human interaction they get apart from TV – you see it all; all the human fundamentals, which gives plenty to reflect on.”

Following a second duo album with Ainslie, 2013’s rave-reviewed Air-Fix, Henderson’s reflective side is firmly to the fore on his solo debut recording – which will surprise as well as delight existing fans, being comprised entirely of traditional songs. The odd vocal number has been featuring for a while in his live sets with Ainslie, mostly contemporary folk covers, revealing a warm, fervently expressive voice that’s won comparisons to Paul Brady. The new album, though, marks a more decisive broadening of his creative and expressive range, as well as a means of reconnecting with traditions close to home.

“I’ve sung since I was a kid – there was always loads of singing in the house,” he says. “It’s a whole other way of relating to an audience: you can conjure a mood or a feeling with a tune, but telling a story in words and music communicates with people in a different way. Plus I don’t want to be put in a box as a piper – I’d like to be seen simply as a musician.”

Most of the chosen songs have direct connections with Henderson’s native turf in Northern Ireland, an area renowned for its rich vocal heritage. He’s drawn on the repertoire of such leading tradition-bearers as Paddy Tunney, Sarah Makem, Roisín White and Geordie Hanna, as well as on versions of some material which have journeyed considerably from their roots. “There’s one really old song, ‘The Slighted Lover’, that’s originally from Armagh, but was first written down in London,” he explains. “I also do a really dark version of ‘The Two Brothers’, which I got from Brian Mullen, who does a show on Radio Ulster, but the original recording, back in the day, was by Elizabeth Stewart from Aberdeen. I really like those kinds of connections – and at a time when the barriers seem to be going up between people and countries, I love the way songs just cut across borders like that.”

While the material is wholly traditional, Henderson’s arrangements on the album are a characteristically bold yet sensitive synthesis of old and new. Besides lead vocals, he himself contributes pipes, whistles, cittern and guitar, with fiddle, flute and double bass also in the mix, courtesy of fellow Glasgow folk luminaries Hamish Napier, Innes Watson and Duncan Lyall. As well as backing vocals from Henderson’s s sister Alana, further instrumentation includes electric guitar, a three-piece brass section, Rhodes, Moog and Wurlitzer keyboards, and percussion/soundscaping by acclaimed beatboxer and “vocal sculptor” Jason Singh. At the controls in the studio was Andrea Gobbi, of Scottish ‘folktronica’ heroes Laki Mera, who – among myriad other magic technical tricks – recorded Henderson’s pipes right up close and personal, creating sundry looped and sampled effects from the sounds of creaking leather and closing valves.

“I didn’t consciously set out to make it sound un-traditional,” Henderson says of the album. “It’s not experimental in that sense – all the ideas for arrangements came from what I heard in the songs. I was aiming for a kind of 70s-style analogue sound – we recorded quite a lot on ribbon microphones, plus all those vintage keyboards – so there’s still a definite traditional vibe or vein running through it.”

Since finishing his first postgraduate phase of medical training, Henderson is currently dovetailing musical projects with locum work, as he ponders his options for further training. The duo and band with Ainslie remain ongoing, while a solo pipes and whistle recording is also in his sights – perhaps next year – but right now, it’s all about the songs. “It’s lovely to have done something that’s purely me, that shows something of how I’ve developed over the last ten years or so,” he says. “These are all songs that really got to me the first time I heard them, and have stayed with me ever since – it has to strike true for me to want to sing it.”

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