Love at first listen. It’s been a while since I last experienced this sensation and am so appreciative to have had the opportunity to stumble upon The Henry Girls. I had seen their name cross my news feed but hadn’t heard their music until recently. Their latest CD, Louder than Words, has been on repeat on my iPod since I got it.
The Henry Girls are Karen, Lorna and Joleen McLaughlin. (The name Henry comes from their grandfather.) These three women harmonize and play together in an amazingly organic manner. Maybe it’s genetics. All I know is that their music is mesmerizing, magical, and magnificent.
Learn more about The Henry Girls on their website.
Here’s a fun video of the band playing “The Weather.”
And here’s a great example of an acoustic rendering of them playing their song “Maybe.”
Your latest recording, Louder than Words, has made an impression on many music fans here the U.S. What was your tour earlier in the year like? What kind of venues did you play and what was your reception?
Our tour went really well, we enjoyed every minute! It was short but very sweet. We started in Iowa with three concerts, then on to Illinois for one. After this we flew over to the east coast and did six gigs there, mostly with Ry Cavanaugh.
Our concerts varied from playing in front of 400 people at the Celtic Music Association in Des Moines to playing at a house concert for about 60 people in Brooklyn.
We had the great thrill of singing a couple of songs in the beautiful Sanders Theatre in Harvard University as part of the St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn in front of an audience of about 700. We also did live sessions for a couple of radio stations when we were in the states, including Radio Boston, which was a lot of fun.
We absolutely love to tour in the States (this last one was our third) and we are always blown away by the warm reception we get. Plus we are starting to get used to driving on the other side of the road.
I understand that you’re friendly with Ry Cavanaugh from Session Americana. How did you meet and come to play together?
We are good friends with Ry and his wife Jennifer Kimball. We were introduced to them by our cousin Denise and her husband Finbarr who lived in Boston for a period in the 90s. Ry and Jennifer came to live in Inishowen, where we live, in 2009 for almost a year and it was then that we got to know them well. We did a lot of sessions in the local bars and generally played together a lot, we just clicked musically. Ry has since come on tour with us in Ireland and Scotland and we have done two tours in the states with Ry. We have gotten to know so many fantastic musicians from the east coast through Ry and Jen, like Jefferson Hamer, Laura Cortese and the guys from Session Americana.
I understand that there are actually six girls in the family but the three of you decided upon after much discussion that perhaps you could make a go of it as a career. What’s really fascinating is that you opted to follow Karen to Australia and learn the trade there. Was it less intimidating in a way to gain your musical sea legs more than halfway around the world than it would have been to stay in Ireland?
Well I’m not sure we ever made a decision to go for it as a career, not until recently anyway! Back then we just knew we liked playing music together and we did loads of fun things like playing in sessions, did backing vocals in other people’s bands, played at local carnivals etc. I went to Australia with Karen because it is a kind of rite of passage for a lot of young Irish people when they leave college, there is a special year-long work visa you can get. Karen followed her heart out there as her boyfriend at the time (now husband), who she met in Cork, was there and she wanted to go there to spend more time with him. We went there with no plans as such but our music and subsequently the band, just kind of evolved. We started to write songs and tunes in Sydney. We did a lot of busking and then shortly after started a band with a Sydney guitarist called Andy Reid. We had never done gigs before and we absolutely loved it. It was definitely the trigger for what we did next i.e. we returned to Ireland and started The Henry Girls. That was about 2001. I suppose we gained confidence as performers in Australia that we may not have developed at home–performing for strangers is much easier and less nerve wracking than performing for people you know!
However, it’s only really since 2011 that we started to do this more professionally. We did our first Irish tour in 2012! We have now given up most of our other work, teaching and working with other bands. Fingers crossed we did the right thing!
From what I’ve read, you have a wide range of influences but there are a couple that I’d like to ask about: The Andrew Sisters. I definitely hear this in “So Long But Not Goodbye.” The harmonies are terrific but the fiddle adds a western swing element to the song. Was this intentional?
That song was written by a man called John McBreen (who is now 83) from Ballyjamesduff, Co.Cavan. A girl who works in production in RTE (Ireland’s National Radio Station) knows his work and suggested that we consider doing this song so we tried it and instantly liked it. The original didn’t have an instrumental section but when we started working on it with our producer Calum Malcolm, we realised our version was crying out for one. We tried different instruments but when our friend Damien McGeehan came along one day to do a session for the album, he laid this solo down and we were like ‘wow’! It was perfect for the track. It turns out that the man who wrote the song is a really good swing fiddler and when we sent him a copy of our version, he wrote back and said he loved it and he particularly liked the solo, so we were delighted we got the seal of approval from the writer himself!
By the way we love the Andrews Sisters! Not only were they great singers and harmonisers but they were fabulous dancers and really funny women. We also love the Boswell Sisters.
Bruce Springsteen. What is it about his music that captivates you? Your take on “Reason to Believe” totally reinvents the song. Have you had people listen to it and not even realize it’s a Springsteen song?
Bruce Springsteen is undoubtedly one of the great songwriters of all time, we love his work and over the years, have sung other songs of his at gigs. We particularly like to sing ‘If I Should Fall Behind’.
We decided to record ‘Reason to Believe’ from his Nebraska album for a few reasons. Firstly, the theme of the song is very universal and contemplative, it speaks to a lot of people. It’s a haunting portrayal of people clinging to hope in the face of adversity. We were brought up in a rural part of Ireland where religion is very important; it passes along through the generations, often without question. The song resonates with us and so does it resonate with a lot of people who hear it. It’s a powerful song. Also, it is a fine piece of music, with a beautiful melody that lends itself so well to harmonies. The song is well known to Bruce fans but it wasn’t one of his big mainsteam hits and it hasn’t been covered a lot, which is another reason why we chose to do it. A lot of people don’t realize it’s a Springsteen song straight away – it’s very rare to meet someone who doesn’t like Bruce’s music and so when we tell audiences it is a Bruce song, it is always received warmly.
Speaking of covers, “Watching the Detectives” is another classic reinvention. The accordion and harp treatment is beyond brilliant. Do you find that the ability to take a song and transform it into something so different is the trademark of a great song?
Absolutely – “Watching the Detectives” is a wonderful song. Although this was one of Elvis Costello’s first big radio hits (brought out in 1977), it isn’t hugely known, especially with younger generations. It hasn’t been covered an awful lot, particularly of late. Some people hear our version and think it’s a song from the 1940s! Elvis Costello is an amazing songwriter and this song is so interesting, lyrically and musically. We had such fun coming up with the musical arrangement and also we had even more fun getting together with the dancers at Echo Echo Dance Company in Derry to make a video for it (which can now be seen on YouTube). The clip has a very film noir drama feel to it. You have to be so careful when you are doing covers of well loved songs and it’s important to make it your own whilst remaining respectful to the original. Although we’ve had some really positive feedback about our version, we maintain it isn’t a patch on the original. I have listened to the original so many times and never get bored with it, which is the sign of a really great song.
We’ve discovered when you do covers of a giant like Costello, you have to become quite thick skinned because there have been a couple of die hard Costello fans who don’t like our cover. I think perhaps they don’t like to see people covering their hero, they see it as sacrilegious or something! We just hope Elvis Costello likes our version, if he ever hears it!
Let’s talk about your songwriting. Do you get together and write or does one of you come up with an idea and share it with the others and you work it out to see how it feels?
We have no formula at all really. However one thing that all the songs have in common is that they are organic and each song we have written has a personal story behind it.
I don’t think any of us have ever sat down to intentionally write a song. Not that there is anything wrong with intentionally writing a song, it’s just not how we roll! However, sometimes one of us will have an idea and it will take the other one (or two) to convince the first person it’s a good idea. Sometimes one of us will have a verse and a chorus and the other two will write another verse and maybe add in some ideas for harmonies, chords etc. There is nothing special or unusual about the way we work I suppose!
We tend to work really well together and we still get excited about new ideas – we often dread the idea of someone seeing us working out ideas because sometimes we get very silly and giddy, and we have laughing fits, tears plus then the odd disagreement. We are sisters and we have seen the best and worst of ourselves, but no matter what we always bounce back. We have a lot of respect for each other.
What was it like working with such a variety of musicians on the new CD? I’m especially fond of the orchestration of Bog Neck Brass Band on the opening song “James Monroe.” (An aside, I’ve got to say that is absolutely fantastic that your website provides a clickable drop-down menu with the names of each musician on each track. Kudos to your webmaster!) How much fun was it was to play with a brass band?
It was great to work with all these musicians, most of them are people we know and have worked with before. In fact, Karen’s husband plays saxophone in the brass ensemble!
The line up of musicians we had for this album was very similar to the line up we had for our last album December Moon. The big difference was having the choir on this recording, which was a massive bonus.
That’s nice that you noticed that we have a clickable drop-down option to have all the musicians listed on the website. We have major respect for these musicians so it’s only right to give them credit – they are as much a part of the album as we are really.
When we tour it’s mostly just the three of us for financial and logistical reasons. However, sometimes when we play in Ireland we bring the brass players along plus the bass, drums etc. The choir has even joined us on a few occasions. That is such a treat for us, it’s a magical feeling and we would absolutely love to get the chance to do shows with them in other countries but we’re not sure that day will ever come. We’ll keep wishing and hoping!
Tell us about the experience of singing with a gospel choir as well. How many songs did they contribute their voices to and how did you go about orchestrating that many parts?
The Inishowen Choir was started by me (Lorna) and a friend called Siobhan Shiels. That was back in 2005 and I had just broken up with my boyfriend at the time and wanted to distract myself so the choir became my focus. I worked with the choir more or less full time for 4 years. Joleen was the keyboard player with the choir during that time too.
We didn’t do much Henry Girls stuff during that period (2005-2009) because Karen was busy with her family (she had 3 children between 2003 and 2008).
The choir was a brilliant experience, it was so much fun. We worked really hard at it and ended up on National Irish TV, performing at numerous festivals including Glastonbury and others in Poland and France, and collaborated with amazing artists such as Moya Brennan (Clannad), Cara Dillon and Foy Vance. I am crazy about harmonies so this was a total blessing for me for me to get a chance to indulge like this. I didn’t make much money but I had loads of fun and totally got over the break up (I’m now in a very happy relationship).
I no longer work with the choir but they are still going strong and we invited them to perform on three of the tracks on Louder Than Words. The parts they do on this are very simple; we didn’t have to work out arrangements or anything. They basically came down to our aunts house in Malin where we were recording and we sang through the songs with them, suggested a couple of harmonies and then hit the record button. Then we all had tea and buns. It was a very lovely experience; they are a really great group of people.
You got to sing with Mary Black and Imelda May. What was that experience like?
When we were recording the back up vocals for Mary’s album up in a studio in Ramelton, Donegal, she was there with us. She is a really lovely, down to earth and humble person. It was the first time we met her so we were a little star struck but when we left the studio that day we felt like we had made a new friend. Unfortunately, Imelda May laid down her vocal on a different day in a different studio (somewhere in Dublin I think). We went to the album launch in Dublin, Mary gave us a copy of it and we listened on our way back up the road to Donegal. It was really surreal to hear our voices mixed in with Mary Black and Imelda May. We are so proud as we admire these women so much; they are national treasures.
You’ve got a busy summer ahead including a big gig at the Glastonbury Festival. Have you ever attended this world renowned festival as an audience member? If so, what were your memories of it? And if you haven’t been to it, what do you expect it be like?
Joleen and I (Lorna) attended the Festival in 2008 with The Inishowen Gospel Choir when we performed at the Green Fields section of the Festival. It is a truly amazing festival, a real celebration of music, arts, people, nature, food – all the good things in life. We really loved it and we always wanted to return, we really didn’t expect that we would be returning to perform there on one of the main stages. It’s a big honour for us and we are very much looking forward to it.
Karen’s 3 kids are now a little older (between 5 and 10) and we are delighted that they are coming along to the festival with us. It’s a very kid friendly festival plus those three are really into music and we are all excited to be there with them and just soak it all in. It’s going to be a special weekend for us as a family. Our sister Clare is coming too plus we are bringing 4 band members and a couple of friends.
Two words – can’t wait!