When I interviewed Ross Ainslie and Jar Henderson, I did not know how deeply their shared musical and moral ethos would affect me. They are as true to their art as they are to their morals and it is invigorating more than refreshing.
The music they make is stunning, diverse and innovative. Ross and Jar have a talent that knows no bounds. I truly believe they can re-invent anything they play - just because they can.
His solo project, Remembering, a product of the Celtic Connections offshoot new voices is beyond good; an album of beautiful folk tunes, it features the voices and instruments of many of Scotland's greatest and it shows just how adept a creative artist Ross Ainslie is. He is currently working on a new album with another great multi-instrumentalist, Ali Hutton.
Jarlath has also just released a new album, Hearts Broken - Heads Turned. If for some reason you have not yet bought this album, buy it now. It will forever change your view of folk music.
In fact, it might just be that Jarlath Henderson has given birth to a new idiom of folk music...
ROSS Ainslie and Jarlath Henderson spend a ridiculous amount of their life playing music
together. A friendship built on a simple yet uncommon understanding of another human being’s
capacity for music; when they first met, at the William Kennedy Festival in Armagh in 2003, they immediately “got each other”. It is reflected in almost everything they do on stage and in the recording studio.
It is as if they share the same brain — a musical brain.
Both have an uncanny knack of anticipating the others next improvisation and seamlessly melding it to their next musical move. The fact they are often playing ‘cauld wind’ instruments that have a different range should only reinforce how brilliant their musicianship is.
That both are involved in countless other projects and musical groups, when they come together their music truly becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
Jarlath was born in Dungannon, County Tyrone, and although he boasts both one of the finest lineage of tutors possible, coming from the Armagh Pipers Club, it’s hardly surprising. He learned from Brian Vallely, Tiarnán Ó Duinnchinn, Mark Donnelly and Eamonn Curran — quite a pedigree. His musicality, though comes as easily from his home and his family as it does from these doyens of Irish piping.
He said: “I’d say my music comes from my parents being involved and us all being influenced by the folk movement in Ireland in the 1970s. My mother is a lover of song and the old heroes of the folk scene were always being played at our home. Everyone from Planxty and Paul Brady to local traditional singers like Paddy Tunney, Sarah Makem and Geordie Hannah. Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Nancy Griffith and Alison Krauss were all in there, so maybe it all just merged into one. There’s a really strong singing tradition in and around the area I’m from at home, too.”
Jarlath tells how he encountered Ross at a Gordon Duncan gig in Armagh: “When we first met in 2003, I think I was a bit bored. I’d met Gordon a few times before and it was always amazing hearing him play. I was in my last year of school, and Ross was already playing with Emily Smith, and after listening to Gordon play, we were introduced and ended sitting up all night for a few days playing tunes. I think, musically it saved the day for me.”
Ross was 11 when he began to take music seriously. Until he heard Gordon Duncan, he was only really interested in football and cooking and, like meeting Gordon, finding the musical connection with Jarlath was life-changing.
He said: “If I didn’t find someone like Gordon, someone that excited me musically, I would’ve risked just end up sitting in my room, playing in a pipe band and doing what I was told. When your imagination gets triggered, when you get the opportunity to treat your mind like an instrument (and also like a bagpipe should be treated), instead of just something to use for pipe band music… I’m very lucky Gordon was there. It’s a lucky thing we all met at the time we did.”
From those early days, whether it was Ross and Ali Hutton sitting in a bedroom messing around with guitars, whistles and pipes, or the building the musical friendship Ross and Jarlath developed, the way they played seems to be as much about the luck of finding a musical
partnership as lots of practise. Ross admitted there was no big plan. He said: “We never really sat down and said, ‘Let’s make a great album, let’s start a band’, it was more just music coming out and we’d just put a set together for a gig, and we’d both go to variations and play the same thing, in the same style. It was very organic.”
Today though, Jarlath laughs at their lack of practice on the road. He said: “We can go on a tour and be almost all the way through it, and sit down and say, ‘We should be really practising our new stuff…’ but there’s so much music to play and such great craic, that we don’t get to go there. As any tour progresses, though, the way we play changes throughout, so I guess it’s the way we do things and the changes that we make that keeps it going.”
Ross added: “It feels like we could record an album every second month if we sat down and practised the music we keep writing and putting together but it’s great just to play and to appreciate the moment, so we just play…” Jarlath agreed: “Often we just pick up tunes
that work on both pipes or pipes and whistles, and it just happens. If it doesn’t, we rewrite tunes and put together sets that work.”
This understanding leads well into the breadth of experience these two formidable young musicians have. They come from different countries, different teaching styles and different cultures; and while they have a strong sense of working together for a common musical goal, they are careful not to try and control it too much.
Ross said: “We spend a lot of our time just playing and bouncing off each other, not being too controlled. If you try to control the creativity, you can kill it. When you find that place where the music just takes you over, that’s where it becomes brilliant. It’s almost harder to make a mistake when it’s like that, because it’s two of you playing as one. Gordon used to say the same thing, he’d lock in the drones and then just let the music come out. That’s when it just happens. If you think about it, you kill it. We’re really searching for the autopilot.”
Both of them have guested or been part of some of the greatest modern folk ensembles
of the last 10 years, and they show no sign of slowing down. They have played with Salsa Celtica, one of the great bands to come from the Scottish/world music crossover and Ross plays a leading role in Treacherous Orchestra, who can seem like a deranged musical anarcho-collective on stage.
Ross said “Treacherous Orchestra look like this crazy group, totally out of control, but it’s
not. Everyone sits around when we’re writing and it comes together as a collective but it’s completely controlled. The exact opposite of what Jar and I do on stage. You can’t have that
many musicians doing their own thing at a gig. It’d sound like rubbish.”
Maybe that’s the magic. Treacherous look out of control and yet brilliantly achieve this through collective precision. Ross and Jarlath are laid back and loose and achieve the same thing. Playing with Ali Hutton further explains the notion of this shared musical brain.
Ross said: “I’ve been playing with Ali for years. He’s a great piper in his own right and that makes it so easy when we gig together. He knows the music, he knows piping backwards. He knows us.”
Ali played pipes with Ross, Calum MacCrimmon and 80 of the finest musicians in Scotland under Greg Lawson. The opening night of Celtic Connections 2015 featured Nae Regrets, which commemorated both the 10th anniversary of Martyn Bennett’s earthshaking album GRIT and his passing. The concert was hailed by everyone who saw it as one of the finest musical ensemble pieces attempted. But it’s the musical pioneer who brought Ross and Jarlath together who continues to inspire and drive them to ensure Gordon Duncan’s legacy endures.
Jarlath said: “His influence on us was immeasurable. It feels that if you received something from Gordon, you’re duty bound to pay it forward. The Gordon Duncan Trust has that as its main goal. To foster youth and music, to give a hand to those who need one, whether it’s instruments or lessons or mentoring.”
Ross sometimes talks about music other than from a purist perspective of ‘a perfectly
controlled sound’, and although he and Jarlath have an undisputed mastery of their instruments,
he tells a story about Gordon and Allan MacDonald recording using the Degerpipe that brings the frustrations of the Highland bagpipe into sharp relief. He said: “Gordon actually wanted to record Thunderstruck on the Deger. He would have been happier, I think, with the ease of electronic pipes across a whole album. The whole tuning and control thing can really fry your brain. Getting the sound right, getting the thing to stay stable for a whole recording, or even just a whole gig can really mess with you. It can drain your soul when the pipes aren’t going... Jarlath uses electronic uilleann Vpipes for the same reason lots of Highland pipers use electronic pipes: just to concentrate on the music, to get as much solid time playing as possible.”
Allan MacDonald has said a similar thing to Ross. In Edinburgh a few years ago Allan lamented ‘the lack of the perfect reed’ as to why he hadn’t been playing much on the big pipes. He instead provided me with a masterclass at 3am on the Deger and the squeeze box, but that’s another story for another time.
When I spoke to Ross and Jarlath after their gig at the 2015 Brunswick Music Festival in Melbourne, both felt their pipes were uncomfortable with the temperature in the room. Gigs in Australia can be like that. The weather is changeable and the dryness of the climate and air conditioning in venues can make it hard for a consistent sound.
As consummate professionals do, they worried about the sound and there were a few moments when you could feel their frustration on stage. Such was the strength of their performance, though, especially with the skill of Ali to back them up with guitar, that the very few that did notice a moment or two of tuning, didn’t care. The quality of music was the key and sheer musicality won the day. ‘It feels that if you received something from Gordon, you’re duty bound to pay it forward. The Gordon Duncan Trust has that as its main goal.
The crowd wanted to enjoy themselves and wanted the guys to be brilliant. They were.
Ross asked: “The question is, when we find that extra 5%, do the audience get that? Do the audience feel you having more fun?” Jarlath answered: “I think they do. We probably talk more rubbish and have more fun on stage when it’s all going along like a train. It’s like that with some musicians; when it’s on the edge of falling apart, you can get moments of genius. It’s a great rush. I sometimes think I’d rather play 10 rubbish performances for the chance to play that one brilliant gig.” Ross added: “I love the not knowing. There’s great pipers out there, they may make a hash of it sometimes, but then follow it with some inspired genius… Wow.”
Jarlath speaks of performance the same way he does about his day job as a locum doctor in Accident and Emergency and general medicine. Life in A&E is a mix of routine and sleep deprivation crossed with periods of intense activity and high stress — much like live performance around the globe.
He said: “The adrenaline rush of being in the emergency department can be addictive. The feeling of being right on the edge of controlling an uncontrolled situation; it is a lot like live gigs where you push right to that edge. It’s strange but you really feel alive, but also, like living on a perpetual high doesn’t work, nor does being completely safe with your music. You need the highs and lows, whether it’s performance or life.” He has a point. Together, Ross and Jarlath feed off each other and the crowd sees and experiences the interplay, feels part of it and gets on board the musical train. Both musicians spread their time across many bands and collectives. Some they do together, some on their own. Another thing they share is a love of experimenting with pipes across a range of styles. Ross plays with India Alba, Jarlath has played with Capercaillie and has just come back from a UK tour with Duncan Chisholm, one of Scotland’s most respected fiddle players and composers.
It throws into relief somewhat that competition piping seems to dominate many peoples thinking. Ross came through The Vale of Atholl and enjoyed his time there but both he and Jarlath look at the obsession with competing and winning and come away a little perplexed. Jarlath thinks it isn’t just a pipe band thing, however. He said: “It’s funny, some guys look at competition as the only thing. It’s the same as the guys who only play on their own.
When you’ve competed, in a band or even solo, wouldn’t you want to see what it’s like to play with another instrument? Wouldn’t you get bored with doing the same thing over and over? Aren’t you curious? Competition can be a total subculture.
“There’s guys out there that can tell me what tunes I competed with and in what year. I haven’t competed for over 10 years. I haven’t a clue what I played, when or where.” It might be flattering for some to have that level of interest in their music, however, there is a dark side. Jarlath finds that coming up to competition time, guys who had been playing tunes in the pub together suddenly stop talking to each other.
He’s pretty blunt about it: “I couldn’t wait to finish with that world.”
The influence they have garnered from musical luminaries such as Gordon Duncan, Mike McGoldrick, Martyn Bennett and Duncan Chisholm; they also count among their bands: Salsa Celtica, India Alba, Capercaillie, Dougie MacLean and Treacherous Orchestra.
Both Jarlath and Ross have a healthy social justice leaning and both barrack for the underdog.
Both share a love for an almost epicurean lifestyle and a desire to explore the culture of the places they play. Both have come from different cultures, different arenas of piping; yet both have gravitated towards the folk end of the spectrum, not from nostalgia, but innovation...
and risk taking.
At the gig in Melbourne, Jarlath surprised a few people by singing several songs throughout the set. He has a beautiful voice and an ability with lyrics that matches his piping. He said: “My family was always singing, it was always around the house. My sister plays cello, and sings too. Currently she’s touring with Hozier (the Irish singer who released Take me to Church to worldwide acclaim)." Jarlath and Ross both have new albums in production.
The desire to expand their music is obvious; both with the voice as the extension of their art.
“We’ve just started to work on an album that turned into half piping and half songs. In uilleann piping, the pipe is supposed to replicate the voice. It’s the same with canntaireachd. The voice came before the pipe, so why don’t we utilise it more? We play tunes and sing songs that are modern, generally because we’re modern musicians. Why shouldn’t we have songs on piping albums?”
Both Ross and Jarlath describe themselves as hyperactive, and draw on that feature of
their personality when they compose, and how they compose. Jarlath often ‘finds his muse’ at
work, and through that work in the Emergency Department, it allows the music to come out.
He said: “I couldn’t see myself as just a musician all the time. It’d kill the creativity. The ED
is mad, and in that madness, music often comes to you. It’s like the adrenaline rush you get on
stage. I cycle too, and that gives me space to create. We both experiment with instruments,
neither of us really knowing what we’re doing, but we’re discovering and creating new sounds,
Ross agreed: “When I sit on the couch and do nothing I sometimes feel guilty. I don’t drink or anything like that any more; but before when I did, I just sat and it was OK, cause I was drinking, and that’s what you did when you were hungover. When you stop drinking, you find you have a lot more free time on your hands, because you’re not hungover.
“Drink is a terrible waster of time. Now, I cook — I love to cook. It clears my head, and gives me the same space that Jar talks about. It lets me be precise, to create and be clear. I’ve started to write songs, too, but I don’t sing them. It’s great to work through issues and get rid of stuff. I’ve been working on the album from the New Voices commission at Celtic Connections; it’s a great concept. The idea is that you do something outside your comfort zone and really try to push your boundaries.”
Creativity is an elusive beast, and Jarlath tells a story about Neil Young. He said: “Neil insisted that everything be recorded, because you never know when the genius part is going to emerge and you don’t want to miss it. Toward the end of the session, Neil turns to the sound engineer and asks THE question... ‘You got that, right...?’ Anyway, the sound guy forgot to hit record on that one part of the rehearsal. Neil apparently went crazy...”
Ross went up to Lewis to write for a week with Dougie MacLean and got one tune off.
One. He said: “It was a waste. I find it better if you just go and switch off, and when you get back you can really get into it. Inspiration comes in the most random places. Write it down or record it, move on and then come back later.”
I asked Ross and Jarlath whether the process is organic or scientific. They surprised me by saying, almost simultaneously: who cares? Jarlath said: “You could write 20,000 words on it being organic and then write 20,000 about it being scientific. It doesn’t matter. Just write.”
Ross had the same experience with his girlfriend Laura. He said: “Laura was writing a piece for a string quartet. We were talking for ages about a whole bunch of stuff about patterns and music and theory, and in the end, I just said, ‘Go and play for a bit…’
"I think we think about music way too much. Just play!”
Ross and Jarlath both ascribe to the same musical ethos, however, "When you find that place where the music just takes you over, that’s where it becomes brilliant. If you think about it too much, you kill it. We’re really searching for the autopilot.”
Their combined CV is beyond impressive: India Alba, The Vale of Atholl, BBC Young Musician of the Year, Dougie MacLean, Treacherous Orchestra, Salsa Celtica, Phil Cunnigham, Duncan Chisholm, Capercaillie and movie soundtracks… The freedom to do what these two guys from a very folky tradition get to do is down to adaptability and respect.
Ross explained: “Salsa Celtica gave both of us a chance to improvise. We didn’t really understand how to do that at the start, and on my rehearsal notes there’d be a written note, ‘Improvise HERE’… “India Alba was an eye opener. Lots of room for a melody instrument, then the drummer would come through, another instrument would improvise and then everyone would come back together. That’s where it’s great, you have so much room to move.
“Gigging with Dougie MacLean is completely different, same with Duncan Chisholm. It’s privilege to play with them, you just play to fit in and respect the voice, whether it is Dougie when he’s singing, or Duncan when he’s playing. You get to sit back and make the audience feel as comfortable as you can. We need both types of gig, otherwise we’d get bored.”
You could write more on these two young men, the albums they have produced and the experiences they have had all over the world. You could write of the respect that is given to them by everyone who has worked with them and how their ability to play together was forged when Gordon pointed them along the one true path. It’s enough to say that Jarlath Henderson and Ross Ainslie play wonderful music brilliantly and maybe they really do share one very large musical brain.
However, that would be too much to write and it might be easier to say: they play from the heart, for the soul — together.