The Henry Girls - still in perfect harmony

Donegal sisters The Henry Girls will be bringing their beautiful harmonies to Belfast's Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival next month

The Henry Girls - the McLaughlin sisters Karen, Lorna and Joleen - play at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival next month
Robert McMillen

YAYYYY, it's back again. Yes, the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival 2021 had a very, very long gestation period this year thanks to the Puritanical malignancy that is Covid but the beloved balance of music, drama, spoken word, comedy, film, visual arts, talks and tours has come through the pandemic vortex screaming and kicking.

And for folk, trad and roots fans there is a cornucopia of fab music to feed the soul.

Running between September 2-12 , the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival will feature Ciaran Lavery (4th), Bronagh Gallagher (4th), Luka Bloom (5th), Sharon Shannon (5th), Lisa Hannigan (8th), The Handsome Family (10th) and Kila on the 12th.

Unsurprisingly, some of these shows are already sold out as is another, that of the Henry Girls whose September 11 gig has had a 'house full' sign on it twice - the first time when the Donegal sisters were to grace the CQAF in April and now for the resurrected festival next month.

Last week, I was lucky enough to chat to Karen McLaughlin who along with her sisters Lorna and Joleen have been winning over fans worldwide as a trio for the past two decades, with their beautiful harmonies, self-penned and traditional songs from Ireland, the USA and elsewhere.

That global reach started off in Malin, a small town on Donegal's Inishowen peninsula.

"Well, we actually lived outside of the village so we're proper culchies," Karen laughs.

"We spent a lot of time outside and running around and had a lot of freedom. And the beach was a big part of our lives but musically, as young people growing up, we were really, really lucky in that where we lived was very, very near Culdaff which was where the famous McGrory's Hotel was."

It was in the backroom of McGrory's, one of the best music venues in Ireland – despite or maybe because of its diminutive size – that the Henry Girls got their early grounding in music.

"I would say it played a huge part of our musical influences because we heard so much great music, whether it was world music, jazz, reggae, soul, trad, everything going, and we just went to all of it. In our late teens and early 20s that had a big impact," says Karen.

But the McLaughlin sisters also had other influences near to hand.

"Yeah, our family were really big into music, and our Mum came from Scotland and she and her sister would sing harmonies all the time," recalls Karen.

"And then our Dad would have been really, really into traditional music and country music and so there was just always a lot of music around.

"Even my grandmother, my father's mother, who lived a few fields over from us, loved collecting the lyrics of old songs and kept them in scrapbooks."

It is little wonder then that the Henry Girls developed what they learnt from home – the eclecticism of the music, the ability to play any instrument – and those gorgeous harmonies.

Does Karen think the ability to harmonise comes naturally to sisters or do they have to work hard at them?

"Yeah, quite a lot of it comes naturally to us, I have to say, but quite often we do have to work at it as well," she explains.

"My mother just naturally harmonised and she also ran the choirs at the local church and the local school and we had to do harmonies in the choir," says Karen with a nostalgic laugh.

There have been some incredible tight harmony female trios for decades - the Andrews Sisters, the Fontaine Sisters, the Dinning Sisters, the King Sisters, the McGuire sisters, but a favourite of the Henrys are the Boswell Sisters, so much so that in April 2020 they released a live tribute album called Shout Sister Shout to pay homage to these musical stars of the 1920s and 1930s.

"Back then, you had to be really, really, really tight and really good to go into a recording studio. Nowadays you can tweak things and fix things and because everything is digital, you can keep doing it over and over and you don't have to work about the tape running out."

(Covid put paid to any live shows but you can see the girls performing St Louis Blues as part of the Earagail Arts Festival on YouTube)

The Boswell album came on the heels of the Henry Girls' six previously highly-acclaimed albums – Between Us (2003); Morning Rush (2007); Dawn (2009); December Moon (2011); Louder Than Words (2014); and 2017's Far Beyond The Stars.

The Henry Girls are also known for songs that could be described as Americana and they were an integral part of Kevin Toolis's The Wonders of the Wake show which looks at the long lost art of keening the dead in days gone by and the songs associated with it but for a while now, they've been performing much of their own material.

"Over the last few albums, we've been singing mainly original songs and we're now actually in the process of writing a new album so we'll be recording that over the next couple of months, but I don't think songwriting comes as easily to us as performing songs," Karen tells me.

"For some people it will be the opposite, I find it just a wee bit more exposing. It's taken us a while, I suppose, to get the confidence to do that."

With Covid seemingly on the wane but with serious outbreaks forecast for the future as the killjoy mutates, Karen things it's now time for the Henry Girls to bring their unique blend of styles to live audiences again.

As well as the CQAF, Karen, Lorna and Joleen are playing in Derry's Studio 2, a multi-disciplinary Community Arts Centre, in a cabaret-type show on August 27, and they'll also be playing in Saint Augustine's in Derry – "the wee church on the walls" – on December 16 as part of a series that Musical Capital are organising.

In between are performances at the Clifden and Portumna festivals in September.

We're heading towards the early autumn but the music scene is beginning to bloom again for the Henry Girls in this strangest of years.

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