A Pub Conversation with Jarlath Henderson

A virtuosic Uillean pipes player, singer, master of several other instruments, and a medical doctor, Jarlath Henderson seems to be pursuing a life of edifying and enriching contrast. Hailing from County Armagh, Ireland, Jarlath Henderson combines modern, rhythmically intense, percussive electronics with his traditional singing style to create signature sound that is all his own. He will grace The Cedar’s stage this Sunday, October 7th, 2018.

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Robert Lehmann, Marketing and Booking Coordinator, caught a few minutes on the phone with Jarlath Henderson ahead of his show at The Cedar on October 7th, as Jarlath took a break from hanging with friends at a pub. They chatted about what Jarlath wants his music to communicate, his melding of traditional Irish songs and instrumentation with modern electronics and synthesizers, and his upcoming album with Duncan Lyall, Innes Watson, and Hamish Napier. Read the full interview below and get tickets and more information about the show here.

Robert: All set to go over here.

Jarlath: You fire away and I'll just talk rubbish

R: Alright, sounds like a plan.

J: (Laughs)

R: As an artist, what do you aim for the music to communicate to your listeners?

J: Straight in for the jugular, eh?

R: (Laughs) I had a few intro questions but I figured we’d skip them for time.

J: Hmm, it’s a bit of a variety of feelings. A lot of the songs are on a spoken word level or I'm trying to portray lots of emotions, really. In terms of structurally what I go for, it's sound carpets and really trying to create moods. I feel that there's a lot of preconceptions towards traditional music in general because of things like Riverdance and such things. There's a lot more to it than that. On one level, maybe it's musician's music. Some people could say it's not pop; it's for people who are interested in music itself. I'm not really playing for the normal six hits or seven hits, as people say. It's just music for people to really vibe out to, but obviously it's great the fact that people even connect with it, too, which is kind of relieving.

R: I think it's great.

J: Thanks!

R: Speaking about your music, so from Hearts Broken, Heads Turned, I could be wrong, but that seems like the moment where you started mixing more of the traditional Irish melodies and instruments while also having a lot of electronic influences. What influenced that mix?

J: I guess it's the bit of music that I've made that I'm the most proud of so far, because it definitely expressed me as a person and what I'm interested in musically rather than simply, I mean, you always do that to a degree, but I feel I really got to get across the sort of music that I'm interested in and the sort of music that I listen to from day to day.

I'm big into electronic music, moods, and people who are interested in using synthesizers and sound pillows. I'm really trying to mix things up. You can do that quite discreetly. There's lots of times in the past where that's been done and it seemed a bit enforced, but it was to try and do it in such a way that it felt more natural and that was really what I wanted to do.  I guess it's really a representation of, number one, the music that I'm into and the music that I'm interested in listening to, and two, in terms of what the songs were about, it represents, deep sentiment, and music and song sentiments that stand the test of time.

“Courting is a Pleasure” from Jarlath’s Hearts Broken, Heads Turned released in 2016.

There was something quite refreshing about the album; people knew that it was very traditional in some ways but also very modern in other ways.  Some of the songs are obviously very old, but they're perfectly relevant today, and feel like they could have been written yesterday, and it was a nice mix between doing all that. It's an album that is as paradoxical as my life seems to be in some ways. I love playing music all the time that I can, but I have another job that keeps me sane and keeps me grounded in some ways. Complex.

R: For some readers who might not know this, it's absolutely incredible that you are a full time, I guess, part-time musician, part-time doctor. Both of those professions require so much skill.

J:  Yeah, I guess they do. In very different ways, but both are all about communication skills which is really cool. Both of them on some levels use both sides of my brain - one uses one side, one uses the other, but sometimes it can be a bit of a cross to bear. Sometimes it's better to do one thing really well than stress yourself out trying to do two things you know and being massively stressed and messed up in some ways from doing it. That's life and that's the life I choose. I would go crazy if I did one and not the other at this stage.

R: That's really cool. Moving to a different strand, I read on your most recent blog post that you're in the midst of recording a new album with Duncan Lyall, Innes Watson, and Hamish Napier. If you want to, would you talk a little bit about that new album?

J: Of course, yeah! That's a really nice project. It's something really different and organic. In some ways it's the album that should have came out before Hearts Broken, Heads Turned did. It's very much tune-based, and it's a lot of compositions that I’ve come out with in the last 10 years. Also, there are a lot of versions of tunes that I myself have kind of adopted or been obsessed with over the years, and there are a few songs that will probably work their way onto the album as well.

The recording method and mechanism of that album has been really different. It was a case of: we've rehearsed, we've gigged it, and we usually gig these sets and almost include them as a tonic in some of the Hearts Broken gigs. Sometimes we can gig the whole album song by song as the album runs. Sometimes, we like to break it up with some tune sets and these sets that we use, but it was really just a case of three or four of us getting in the studio with some really good quality mics and just going for it, and just recording it acoustically as well as we could, as well as we wanted to, and really trying to use the pipes as a rhythmic as well as a chordal instrument, as well as a melody instrument and trying to get it quite tight with the chordal things that were going on with the guitar and the bass, which is something that hasn't been done before.

A lot of people play solo pipes where you accompany yourself with your drones and regulators or else you get people who play the melody on pipes and then let other instruments do the chordal accompaniment. So I tried in this record to use the regulators, the chordal part of the pipes, much more closely with the bass and guitar, and it's just been a really fun project. It's a nice hark back to the music that I love to make and have loved to make since I was twelve years of age. But different again.

I would say, people may be surprised after Hearts Broken, Heads Turned. The new record falls into a different category, and I hate using that term because everyone's so obsessed with categories these days you know. If people have heard Hearts Broken, Heads Turned and they're imagining that I'm just going down that route in my life, I'm not. There will be another album which will be a more obvious follow-up to Hearts Broken, Heads Turned, but this isn't it. This is something totally different.

I'm still thinking at the same time, I've got all the gear I need to simply sit in a room and just do a pure solo pipe album as well which I'd love to do. I've been writing some stuff, some lyrics, to do something that's again not related at all: to put something out that's kind of contemporary and totally different than anything I've done before. To keep trying to make different music is the long-term plan. That's the album that I've been working on recently, so that's fun.

R: I'm very interested to listen to that new record when it comes out!

J: Oh thanks, thanks! Yeah, I mean you might be, but the other thing is I'm really quite aware that it could be an album that really only tune players love, but I'm cool with that. If it's coming on the back of Hearts Broken, Heads Turned and some people buy this one and don't expect it to be like this but I introduce more people into tunes, I'm happy with that. As I said,  so many people just go for one genre or one category these days so it's nice to find some ways of expanding people's minds on my own.

R: I have maybe about two more questions, would that be okay?

J: Of course! Fire away.

R: Okay, cool! So in terms of the performance at The Cedar, what would you want audience members there to know before they see you?

J: To know before my performance? Good question ... I don't know, maybe the one thing I'd like them to know would be to not come with any major preconceptions. That doesn't seem like a massively weird thing to say. I don't really know The Cedar audience which is one interesting thing. I don't know if they're purists or if they're traditionally aware or whether they're all coming to it from a totally open-minded background. I'll explain some stuff and I will do a mix of stuff from Hearts Broken, Heads Turned, and some stuff that's never been on any album and then some tunes, so hopefully there will be something there that everyone likes; I would like to hope so.

R: Cool. I'm excited for it! Well, I guess the last question that I had was a life question: what outside of music and medicine do you like to do?

J: What do I like to do ...  I like to cycle and I like to run. Those are the two things that I like to do when I'm back in Scotland. I like to get up hills, as well. Hopefully, I'll get a chance to do a little bit of those things when I'm here. And if I'm not doing that, then I'm usually listening to music or going to gigs. Getting out of town is a good one for me recently. I drive a camper van back home. Between that and liking to cycle and liking to run, I guess I like to just get out, get up hills, get off to the coast, swim in the sea. Anything that kind of gets you away from stuff. Surfing, as well, I love to surf when I get the chance, I don't get to do that too much. There's not that many waves close to Glasgow, so you have to travel for an hour or two to try and get any. And it's pretty cold, but yeah, that's the stuff I do to try and switch off.

R:  Okay I had a random other question, if you had time?

J: Go for it!

R:  So you just said Glasgow, and there's a concert this week that I'll actually be attending with my younger sister. They’re one of my favorite groups, probably one of the most famous bands that’s based out of Glasgow, Chvrches.

J: Oh Chvrches! Didn't know they were touring out here in Minnesota.

R: Yeah! They'll be playing here tomorrow night on the third. What do you think about them?

J: Love them, love them. Amazing people. Really cool their use of synthesizers, again, is up my street. A couple of the guys I play with went to University with them. On a really straight up political level, I think Lauren Mayberry is great what she does for feminism and for music and for women's representation within the music industry. She's amazing, she did a really cool underground paper back in Glasgow. It goes under the abbreviation TYCI. She tackles stuff head on, And she's massively aware. Yeah, a great band, so yeah, good taste, you and your sister.

R: Thanks, thanks! You as well. Anything else that you want to say?

J: I'm really looking forward to getting into town. I've never been before, so it'll be really cool to get in. We're three guys traveling around in a car. We've traveled all the way from New Mexico, and we're currently in Detroit. Get in touch when people come to the gig, say hello, tell us what we should do after the gig. We're up for having some fun. Looking forward to it! Yeah, just wanted to get that across.

R: Looking forward to it as well! Thanks for your time!

J: No, thank you. Cheers, Rob. I'll see you at the gig!