By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of Alana Henderson.
It’s been a busy day already for Alana Henderson, but her voice belies no hint of strain. The singer-songwriter cellist has just flown into London from Munich to play on the radio before capping it all off with the two final shows of her tour. It’s been a fortnight since Henderson arrived in Europe, and she has performed her blend of soulful roots music for audiences across the continent.
“I love that I get to share my songs with all of these different cultures and people,” Henderson says, barely able to contain her excitement. “Munich was probably my favorite so far–a really wild crowd, but also really respectful too. The best kind of audience.”
By contrast, in Brussels she claims you could hear a pin drop. The quiet almost made the band think listeners might not have enjoyed themselves, but congratulatory applause and post-show encouragement suggested otherwise.
Henderson is endlessly grateful for the opportunity that allows her to do what she always dreamed of: get paid to travel the world and perform live music. When the Irish artist Hozier of the group Wicklow asked Henderson to join him on tour, she didn’t hesitate. The road introduced her to most of America (something she revels in experiencing–even if from the back of a tour bus) and carried the musicians to renowned stages such as Letterman and the Ellen DeGeneres Show.
At her heart, the young songwriter realizes this journey will ultimately provide the inspiration and experience to set sails for her own tour years down the road.
It’s a calling decades in the making, tracing back to Henderson’s upbringing in Dungannon, Ireland. Her family originated from Armagh and carried with them a rich heaping of traditional music to immerse their children in. Joined by her brothers and sisters, Henderson started singing and dancing from a very young age.
“My brother is a musician and a doctor living in Glasgow, so he’s really pressed for time,” she explains, “but he’s still my number one collaborator and confidant when it comes to writing and arranging. My sister plays well too, but my brother took the production role into his hands with my first album and really taught me how to assemble the pieces and put it out into the world.”
The album is Wax & Wane, and it’s a tender testimonial about succumbing to the throes of love, and perhaps more importantly, the reverie of the aftermath. You can hear the heart-throb of cello strings stretch beneath a voice that ebbs with joyful melancholy. The slap of knuckles on wood echo and keep the time, like a clock that ticks ever onward to eventual reckoning.
“I pretty much lay it all bare,” Henderson says of the lyrics. “I fell pretty hard and pretty fast. I guess you can say that I was a bit of a softie.”
The songwriter isn’t afraid, however, to wear her heart on her sleeve. She recognizes the danger in doing so, but also realizes that it can build a bridge of healing for those listening who feel the same pain. It reminds them that they are not alone.
These days Henderson’s songs are becoming less and less about personal matters and more rooted in her adventures afar. Her steady structure of writing within the confines of her house was traded in exchange for the instability of the open road. It’s a welcome new tide for Henderson, who has been keeping a musical diary ever since she was a little girl.
“At the moment, I feel like I’m writing more from a character’s perspective,” she says. “It’s been more about family since I’ve been missing them lately, and more about all of the interesting people I’ve met along the way. With all of these places, I feel like the search to find a place I can call home has been a big theme.”
Home is the musical backbone to Henderson’s budding career as a songwriter. When she was still a child, the Northern Ireland School System she attended required that every student pick an instrument to learn. More often than not, the student was assigned to whatever instrument the school had available (“not as romantic as it might sound,” she laughs).
When Henderson found out that she would be assigned to the cello, she wasn’t even entirely sure what the instrument was. She had an inkling that it was stringed, but that was about it. It wasn’t until she returned home to tell her father that the magic first sparked.
“He was truly overjoyed,” she remembers. “He used to play double bass, so he really helped me out during those early days.”
She was immediately taken with the cello–despite how large and unwieldy it was for her at first. A large portion of credit she relegates to phenomenal teachers that encouraged her to “bend the rules.”
While Henderson knows how to read music and understands the fundamental conventions of music theory, she prefers to play by ear. Part of her believes that knowing too much theory can trap a musician in their own mind, rather than feeling a piece and moving with it. Playing with Hozier has only reaffirmed this notion; she admits demanding sheet music from him during collaborations would have felt a little ridiculous.
“I’m more than willing to jam on something and get it wrong the first time around,” she says. “But by the end of the second or third time it becomes a part of you. It makes everything more free.”
To hear the rest of the interview, tune into this week’s Discovery Corner.
Or find your own way to interpret Alana Henderson by clicking here.