Hearts Broken, Heads Turned? Uilleann piper Jarlath Henderson has just the cure

Award-winning Dungannon piper Jarlath Henderson divides his time between music and medicine, his new album, Hearts Broken, Heads Turned, sounding as if it might indeed combine the two

Jarlath Henderson was born in Armagh but grew up in Dungannon and was lucky enough to be surrounded by music at home
Robert McMillen

WHEN Jarlath Henderson isn’t playing the uilleann pipes or the guitar or the flute, or singing and arranging songs or producing and recording albums or featuring on the soundtrack of the Disney/Pixar’s hit film Brave or winning awards such as the prestigious BBC Young Folk Award – the first Irish person do do so – he might be dealing with someone coming down off a really bad heroin trip or someone having a miscarriage.

Yes, so far Jarlath has been able to combine the seemingly incompatable lifestyles of a traditional musician and a medical doctor.

Born in Armagh but growing up in Dungannon, Jarlath was lucky enough to be surrounded by music at home, with his father playing the pipes and a mother who sings and plays guitar.

His sisters, Alanna and Laura, are also very talented with Alanna a cellist who was seen in the BBC series Seacht and Laura being head of music at a private school in London.

As for Jarlath, he early on made the musical and physical journey from Dungannon to Armagh to attend the Pipers Club and it was the making of him.

“I started off on the whistle but went straight onto the pipes,” the 30-year old recalls.

“I was a bit of a hyperactive kid when I was growing up and couldn’t settle very well at the start and after a bit of a telling off from Brian Vallely for not doing my homework, I almost lost it.

“I was told I could pack it in or take up something easy like the accordion so I decided to knuckle down and then the pipes and the music became what I lived for. I even think it helped me out at school and helped me to settle and to apply myself to learning.”

The hard graft of mastering such a physical instrument as the uilleann pipes (pronounced ‘illen’, the word comes from the Irish for elbow, which is what powers the instrument) was offset by the social side of music-making, with Jarlath playing with other young musicians, getting into other kinds of music, from classical to rock and going on tour with the Pipers Club, especially to Scotland.

After finishing school, Jarlath moved to Scotland, taking a year out to play and record music, and it’s there he met up with Ross Ainslie with whom he made his first few albums.

“Glasgow was great at the time because there was so much traditional music going on as well as blues, funk, jazz, classical all on top of each other and there were so many musicians from different genres playing together and cohabiting together that it really was a great vibe and still is,” he says.

While in Scotland Jarlath got interested in medicine and moved to Dundee to spend six years studying to become a doctor – although he adds guiltily that he had to repeat a year because of his music playing!

Still, with the help of people in the music world and fellow doctors he got through the course and moved back to Glasgow to become a junior doctor – and work on a new album.

It’s obvious now the aural path that Jarlath has taken to end up making his superb debut solo album, Hearts Broken, Heads Turned, eight traditional songs but not as we know them. He wanted to create an album that was a complete unit, a soundscape, rather than a collection of songs.

“I wanted to use songs that were thematically linked to things we see today – loss, heartbreak, love, joy. I wanted to make it about the personal: we still fancy people and get dumped; people still die and families still feud – these are things that we all feel regardless of where we’re from or which century we live in,” says Jarlath.

Indeed, the sentiments in the songs are still valid today – the language might be old school but the sentiments are as vital and alive in an 18th century song as they are in a 21st century song.

"The oldest song on the album, The Slighted Lover, is from 1625 and has existed in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales so these songs transcend borders,” Jarlath explains.

So the pretty fair maiden of the folk song is now “mo bitch” in a rap song and that explains why all the percussion on the album is done by Jason Singh’s beatboxing and the percussive sounds Jarlath could get out of the pipes.

The rest of the effects come from Innes Watson, Hamish Napier, Andrea Gobbi and Duncan Lyall, all multi-instrmentalists, all hugely knowledgeable about all kinds of music and great peformers to boot. Together they have produced an album that could be perhaps better played in a night club than in a traditional folk venue.

So good is the Hearts Broken, Heads Turned is that is has been nominated for album of the year at the Scottish trad music awards. It previously made the list for the Scottish album of the year (SAY) awards alongside Chvrches, Franz Ferdinand and others, and was voted 30th out of more than 200 albums reviewed by the Guardian, putting it 10 places above Beyoncé, between Radiohead and James Blake.

Jarlath is of course delighted.

“I think we’ve created a fairly new, fresh sound and its reviews have been great and that’s good for trad music in general – and for relations between Ireland and Scotland. As long as it's getting young folk listening to old and new music I'm happy.”

Jarlath is going out now with a totally solo supporting Grammy-nominated Anais Mitchell when she's touring over this side of the pond, and staying in his camper van for it.

It may be a little cold but the warmth of the album and the enthusiastic response to it should keep Jarlath Henderson nice and cozy.

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