Joleen, Lorna, and Karen McLaughlin, the Henry Girls
Before three of them became “The Henry Girls,” a rising Irish folk and trad trio who will be appearing next week in the Philadelphia area, they were known as the Henry sisters, six girls named McLaughlin brought up by music-loving parents in the countryside around Malin, a pretty little town on Trawbreaga Bay on the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal, the northernmost point of Ireland.
The “Henry” honors their grandfather, but the name comes from a practice common in Inishowen, a tiny, remote spot with a small pool of surnames. Like all the Dohertys, Divers, and McDaids—common names on this rural peninsula—the McLaughlins acquired a nickname to distinguish them from all the other McLaughlins they’re not related to. They became the Henry McLaughlins, after their grandad.
The music was familial too. Their mother Kathleen sang around the house, their father Joe played the button accordion and mouth organ, and all six girls took music lessons “and Irish dancing as well,” says Lorna McLaughlin, who taught herself to play the accordion so she could busk with older sister, Karen, in Australia, where they lived for a time after college.
But only three of the girls made music a career. There’s Karen, who is 40, a fiddler, Joleen, the youngest of all the Henry sisters at 30, who plays harp, and Lorna, 38, who also plays the keyboard.
They were raised on a mélange of music from Donegal’s Altan (“the first band I saw live,” says Lorna) and Clannad to Queen, Beck, the Everly Brothers, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and the Andrews Sisters, whose tight harmonies are often used to describe the Donegal sisters’ own vocal blending, the kind of exquisitely close melodic interplay only siblings and can achieve.
“I can see how our voices just clicked,” says Lorna. “Karen has a deeper voice, Joleen has a higher voice and mine is in the middle. We also have similar speaking voices. Our voices are similar in tone so when we sing together it sounds like one voice.” (Listen to those harmonies on this live version of “Sweet Dreams.“)
One thing that didn’t come naturally to them was the idea that they could become well known and acclaimed for doing what they love to do. “When you grow up in rural Ireland, you never imagine you’re going to become a recording artist,” says Lorna who, along with Joleen, still lives in Malin. “It was not something that was encouraged. We were encouraged to love music and to enjoy playing it, but we never pushed ourselves in that direction.”
In fact, the Henry Girls are the epitome of the old saying, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” They had no strategic plan. When Lorna and Karen returned from their Australia sojourn, the three sisters hatched the idea of making a recording. Lorna and Karen had written a few songs while they were away and had played in a band together. “We didn’t know what we were doing and we hadn’t even any gigs,” laughs Lorna. “We got help from the rural development board and then, suddenly it began getting played on the radio. We started getting more coverage. People picked us up in Germany. It’s all a bit of a mystery how it evolved.”
Despite the warm welcome to the field of folk music, it still didn’t occur to the McLaughlin sisters that this might be the start of something big.
“We really weren’t focused on it. We all had different things going on. I was busy teaching community music,” says Lorna, who is co-founder of the Inishowen Gospel Choir, modeled on the Dublin Gospel Choir. The community choir, which she says “came together like magic” when she and friend Siobhan Shields advertised for singers, backs the trio on several tracks on their latest CD, “Louder Than Words” and has since performed all over Europe.
At the time, “Joleen was just finishing her degree and Karen had gotten married and started having kids,” Lorna explains. None of that kept from a nomination for an Irish Film and Television award for best original score for the film, The Shine of Rainbows, starring Aidan Quinn which featured songs from their roots-influenced first album, “Dawn.” Or from joining Irish music icon Mary Black on her album, “Stories from the Steeples” and doing a song with Dublin singer-songwriter Imelda May. Or from recording a second album, “December Moon.”
“But I suppose we didn’t focus on things until we were invited to the Milwaukee Irish Festival (in 2011). We got such great reactions, that’s when we realized that this could be something we could do. Something we could do seriously.”
The Henry Girls have produced three CDs that reflect their eclectic musical influences and wrap everything in those killer sisterly harmonies. For lovers of trad, “Dawn,” their first, showcases their loving familiarity with Irish roots music. You can hear Joleen’s sharp harp playing on tunes like An Portan Beag, Lorna’s sweet accordion tones on Glashedy Boat Song, and their harmonies, as precise as a murmuration of birds, on Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day.”
“December Morn,” their second offering, is the first of likely many singer-songwriter albums, mixing their own work with brilliant covers, like their cute version of Elvis Costello’s reggae-rhythmed “Watching the Detectives.” (Hear the Henry Girls’ take on the tune on this video.)
“That seemed like an unlikely song for an Irish group to do,” says Lorna of the Costello tune. “But it’s an amazing song. We just liked it. When we do it live, we don’t introduce it anymore. When we get to the chorus, people just go, “ahhhh. I know that song.’”
“Louder Than Words” again showcases the Girls’ own work along with reworkings of songs they previously recorded, like “ James Monroe,” a song, “Reason to Believe,” that they picked up from the Inishowen Gospel Choir, which sings along on the track, and what sounds like an Andrews Sisters throwback, “So Long but Not Goodbye.”
The Henry Girls have already started a whirlwind tour of the US—10 gigs in 10 days—starting in Massachusetts and ending in Madison, NJ, on March 21 at Drew University. They’ll be appearing at Burlap and Bean, 204 South Newtown Street, in Newtown Square on Friday, March 20, starting at 7:30 PM.
They still have no strategic plan. Not only that, but they do their own business management and booking, Lorna’s job. But they are more focused on being and growing The Henry Girls as a musical entity.
“Chatting to our mother early on about what we were doing, she said, ‘God, girls, you are living the dream,’” laughs Lorna. “We feel lucky to where we’re at at the moment, having the opportunity to go overseas and play at all these lovely venues, writing music. Of course, you never really think you’ve done your best. You feel your best is yet to come, and that’s what drives you, keeps you from getting too settled. Because once you think you’re a success, you’re done, aren’t you? We’re still developing our sounds. We want to keep growing musically. But we want to keep enjoying it so we’re not going to push ourselves too hard.”
So far, for The Henry Girls, that no-push non-plan has been working. There’s no reason to change it now.
You can see and hear more of The Henry Girls on their YouTube Channel.