It’s not just the regular influx of high-profile, established acts – Lúnasa, Dervish, The Chieftains, Altan – that make Greater Boston such an Irish/Celtic music fan’s dream. Area venues also frequently host performers who have attained a solid following at home, and are looking to do the same in the US, like Róisín O, The Maguires, Connla, and JigJam.
Add Jarlath Henderson to that list. The multi-talented Armagh-born, Tyrone-bred, Glasgow-based uilleann piper and singer and his band came through town last month as part of his first-ever American tour, appearing at The Rockwell in Davis Square.
“I had an opportunity to play in New York City, and that was just too good to pass up,” said Henderson prior to his arrival in Boston. “So I decided to give [the tour] a go. I’ve made a lot of connections in the US, and thought people might be interested enough to come out and see us. We’ve had a grand time of it so far – standing ovations every night. Really enjoying ourselves.”
Henderson’s American audiences no doubt enjoyed themselves, too, as have audiences everywhere since he began playing in public during his teens. Yet for Henderson, music was more than a youthful pastime or extracurricular interest: It was a vital activity for a kid who had a difficult time finding his way, a fulfilling outlet for his considerable energy – to such an extent that, in addition to becoming an accomplished musician, he has successfully pursued a career as a doctor.
“I look on music as my salvation,” said Henderson. “I was written off in school as a ‘messer,’ a hyperactive kid always getting into trouble. I was under-stimulated, and nothing mattered to me – I needed something to give me focus. But once I really got into playing, I began to see what I was capable of doing, and it gave me a lot of confidence.”
Henderson’s track record bears that out. He won three All-Ireland titles in piping and in 2003 became the youngest musician – and first from Ireland, and first uilleann piper – to win the coveted BBC Young Folk Award, all of this before he was 20. He then embarked on a rewarding partnership with Scottish piper Ross Ainslie, whom he met through the famed Armagh Pipers Club, the duo releasing two albums. He also recorded with, among others, Wolfestone, the Peatbog Faeries ,and Deirdre Moynihan, and even had his music featured in the Disney/Pixar movie “Brave.”
Considerable though his instrumental prowess may be – he’s equally proficient on flute, whistle, guitar and cittern – Henderson attracted a different kind of attention when he released his first solo album, “Hearts Broken, Heads Turned,” in 2016 [jarlathhenderson.bandcamp.com]. Its eight traditional songs are a showcase for his vocals, with a phrasing, enunciation, and timbre often compared to another Northern Irish-born singer of note who also happened to pass through Boston earlier this fall: the legendary Paul Brady.
“Hearts Broken, Heads Turned” also shows an astonishing breadth of creativity and innovation, as Henderson and his cohorts – notably Hamish Napier (keyboards), Duncan Lyall (double bass, synthesizer), Innes Watson (fiddle, guitar) and engineer/mixer Andrea Gobbi – infuse the album with dashes of electronica, rock and jazz in a fashion that enhances, rather than subsumes the songs. “Courting Is a Pleasure,” for instance, is propelled by gritty electric keyboard riffs as well as sound effects sampled and sequenced from the bellows, bag, and valves of Henderson’s pipes. Similar electronic tinkering adds percussive character to “Farewell Lovely Nancy” and “The Mountain Streams Where the Moorcocks Grow.” Pipe drones combine with synthesizer flourishes and vocalized soundscapes to make for about as eerie and ominous a version you’ll hear of the murder ballad “Young Edmund in the Lowlands,” climaxed by a chilling rendition of the melody by Henderson’s pipes.
By contrast, the tender “Sweet Lemany” is gently supported by an enchanting arpeggio from Napier’s electric piano and the interlaced acoustic guitars of Henderson and Watson. “The Slighted Lover” glides along at a breezy, jazzy 3/4 to upright piano, electric guitar and double bass plus a small brass section, which also appears towards the end of the otherwise spare “Ye Rambling Boys of Pleasure” and, for good measure, as a backing (along with a beatboxing track) for Henderson’s pipes and Watson’s fiddle in the finale of “Mountain Streams Where the Moorcocks Grow,” which closes out the album.
“It’s a look inside my head, and all that I’ve been soaking up during the past decade or so,” said Henderson of the recording, which has drawn widespread critical acclaim (and was nominated for album of the year by the Scottish Music Industry Association). “There’s a strong electronic, modern feel to it, but the folk-acoustic-traditional roots are still very much in the mix. I wanted to put something out there that came across as a full expression of my interests, with a big red sound carpet. I’m very happy with the response it’s gotten.”
Henderson has heard the Paul Brady comparisons, of course, and is fine with them (“It’s a helluva compliment”), but he notes that he also has been influenced by the work of other venerable Northern Irish traditional singers like Sarah Makem, Paddy Tunney, and Geordie Hanna. Then again, Henderson had plenty of musical inspiration around him: His father plays the uilleann pipes, his mother sings and plays guitar, and both his sisters also are musically inclined – the younger of the two, Alanna, is an intriguing singer-songwriter and cellist who provided exquisite vocal harmonies on “Hearts Broken” (“Sweet Lemany” and “The Mountain Streams Where the Moorcock Grows”); she and Jarlath also did a cameo appearance during the live broadcast from this year’s Fleadh Cheoil.
When Henderson began taking an interest in the pipes at age 10, he went for classes at the Armagh Pipers Club and found a haven. “It was a different environment than school, where I took classical flute – that was the kind of thing you kept to yourself. At the club, there were kids who were interested in the same music I was. At the same time, I was relating to adults, people in their 60s and 70s who were real mentor figures. The social skills you gather in that setting are so positive, and it spreads to other areas of your life.”
But Henderson ultimately wound up studying medicine, not music: “I guess I thought of music as a release, not something that would be my ‘job.’ At the same time, I was always good at science, and the more I thought about it, the more I felt I would like to go into medicine.”
While music may be his “off switch” from the rigors of being a doctor, Henderson – who hopes to eventually work as a general practitioner with a special focus on emergency medicine – views it as a complement to his medical persona, in that both involve a certain amount of empathy and intuition. “I love trauma – that’s why I sing about it,” he quipped. “I may not have made it easy on myself to have two careers, but I really think it’s because of music that I’m not a typical burned-out doctor. I’m in a fortunate position in that I can come in feeling fresh and revived after playing somewhere.”
Perhaps one drawback to a dual-career life is that it may create a wrong impression. “Some people assume that, as a doctor and a musician, I must be loaded,” said Henderson slyly. “That’s not the case.”
Whatever the demands on his time, Henderson’s energy seems to be in fine shape. He’s already planning for three more albums, including one that’s more tunes-oriented as well as another in the vein of “Hearts Broken, Heads Turned.”
“There’s so much music happening out there, and I don’t listen to just one thing, so I get a lot going on in my mind,” he said. “That’s as true as it gets. Yeah, it makes for a busy life, but better that than being a Victorian monk.”
Jarlath Henderson’s website is jarlathhenderson.co.uk.