A Conversation with Uilleann Piper Jarlath Henderson
For the world’s most exciting practitioners of traditional music, playing means looking backward and forward at the same time…diligently embracing and re-exposing musical roots while following artistic instincts that break new sonic ground.
Jarlath Henderson knows a thing or two about inhabiting that sacred space. Hailing from Northern Ireland, he’s as celebrated a uilleann piper as you’ll find, having won the 2003 BBC Young Folk Award at the record-setting early age of 17. And while he’s recorded with some of Celtic music’s biggest names, he’s also charged forward to explore how traditional Irish music can be voiced, releasing a daring and moving debut album in 2016, called Hearts Broken, Heads Turned, in which he incorporates electronic elements and varied instrumentation to give old songs new life and depth.
He’s truly one of the must-see artists at this year’s Richmond Folk Festival, which is set to bring three thrilling (and free, with a donation) days of music, arts and culture from near and far, starting on Friday, Oct. 12. Henderson and I spoke over the phone recently about his upcoming performance, his journey with his instrument, and what it means to honor the past while forging ahead into the future.
What will the arrangement be for your performance at the Richmond Folk Festival?
We’ll be touring this time as a three-piece, trying for a very dynamic sound with three people, so it’s going to be fun. I’m going to have a guy, Hamish Napier who plays keys, and he’s also a vocalist, a singer I respect and sing with a lot. He also plays flute, as do I. Hamish is great. And then I’ve also got a guy called Pablo Lafuente, a guitarist and violinist. Myself, I’ll be playing some guitar, some pipes and whistles and singing.
Do you enjoy the folk festival format — where you have an opportunity to connect educationally with an audience?
I do. It’s a really interesting one. I haven’t been to the festival before, so I’m really intrigued. I’m looking forward to seeing exactly how it all plays out. But I have gigged in North America, and it’s been really cool just how perceptive and interested the audiences are, and really keen to get some sort of an education as well as a musical performance.
Can you talk a little about the journey the uilleann pipes have been on since their invention?
The journey goes back to probably about 600 BC, [which] is one of the first documented forms of bagpipes. But the uilleann pipes themselves began to come to be as an instrument in the mid- to late-1700s. And since the 1960s, there’s been such a great rise. There are now pipers in Japan, pipe-makers in Japan and everywhere else around the world you can think of. And actually, this year it’s quite cool to be coming to Richmond because the instrument’s just been given UNESCO World Heritage status. That means I’m almost a museum piece. So there you go.
How were you introduced to the instrument?
My father played, so there was music in the house. My mom played too… I guess I was exposed to it in the house. And then I went to the Armagh Pipers Club, which is a really well-renowned organization not too far from where I grew up. And I was lucky enough to be taught there, and then I actually went on to be a tutor there. [They teach] all sorts of instruments, but uilleann pipes is one of the main ones.
Did your singing develop alongside your pipes playing?
In one way, it was before that. I have two sisters, and my mother sings and my father sings, so I was always aware of singing. We would sing all the time on car journeys. But when I started playing the uilleann pipes and traditional music in general, it wasn’t really that cool where I was… Although I did sing and I knew how to sing then, I kind of held off the singing for fear of making my life any harder [laughs]. You’re not exactly Mr. Popular going to school and playing the uilleann pipes… It was really only when I got to 18 to [my] 20s that I was more willing to sing publicly. That’s been my journey with singing. It was kind of a secretive one to start, and I never imagined that my debut album would be so song-heavy – or an album of songs – because I was more known as a piper first and foremost.
Can you describe the set of pipes you’ll be playing in Richmond?
I got these pipes in 2002. They were made by a man called Dave Williams, but sadly he died about eight months after finishing my set. I was lucky. There were about 12 years worth of people on his waiting list who were very, very, very disappointed, obviously, about his untimely death… They’re also a very beautiful set of pipes… [Williams] considered them to be the finest set that he’d made, or up there with the three finest sets that he’d ever made. So I’m very lucky to have them. I call them Eleanor, in a loving way, kind of the same as the Shelby Mustang from Gone in 60 Seconds. You literally develop a love-hate relationship with an instrument that you play all the time. Whenever you’re exposing seven reeds made of cane to all sorts of temperatures all over the world in all sorts of humidities and expecting them to work, you [have] an almost spoken dialogue with your instrument, where you’re going, “C’mon guys. You can do this. Don’t let me down now.”
Do you enjoy inhabiting that space between the past and future of traditional music?
As a musician, I think you move from either being very sure of yourself to very unsure of yourself constantly, and it’s very hard to be sure of yourself. But within the traditional music world, in general, just like in any niche market, like bluegrass, there are the hardcore fans who really want things to be the way they were. But after a certain amount of time, it becomes more of a historical representation of a time gone by rather than an accurate representation of now. At the end of the day, it’s just a form of folk music, and it has to be for the people. It’s an interesting place to be.