04/01/2014 01:18 pm ET Updated Jun 01, 2014

The Henry Girls on the Record: Three's a Plucky Charm From Ireland

The Henry Girls discovered America three years ago.

Now it's time for America to discover the Henry Girls.

The three sisters from County Donegal in Ireland -- Karen, Lorna and Joleen McLaughlin -- combined their love for their grandfather (Henry) and the Georgia duo of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers to come up with their group name when they finally decided to make music together.

"We're just still evolving," Karen McLaughlin said last week over the phone from her home in Derry, an Irish town that's about a 40-minute drive south of Malin, a scenic village on Trawbreaga Bay near the North Atlantic coast where the other two sisters live near their childhood home.

The McLaughlin trio probably wouldn't mind if they're called late bloomers, because all three of them have been making music since they were little girls. But now they're grown women -- ranging in age from 30 to nearly 40. With their mix of traditional Irish folk, pop, American country and Americana, they offer timeless, tight-knit harmonies that evoke sounds as charmingly nostalgic as the Andrews Sisters and as refreshingly contemporary as the Wailin' Jennys.

That gorgeous blend is heard on their fifth album, Louder Than Words, which was just released in the U.S., and December Moon, a 2011 record in Ireland that didn't arrive in the states until last year, when it made my Best of 2013 list.

"We've all just become a bit more confident at singing and we really realize that's the sound that distinguishes us now," Karen said. "Harmonies and that kind of mixture, like the Irish kind of folk sound, Irish folk instruments playing, I suppose, a bit more of an American sound. So it's something that's just a wee bit different, I think."

Even they would admit they're arriving late to the party, especially in the United States, where the sister act first performed at the Milwaukee Irish Festival in 2011. Two weeks ago, the Henry Girls wrapped up a brief U.S. tour that included three dates in Iowa before they returned home on St. Patrick's Day. But with the release of Louder Than Words, Ireland might have to finally share its pride and joy with the rest of us.

Karen (right), the oldest of the three who's considered the principal songwriter and a multi-instrumentalist (fiddle, banjo, ukulele, piano and guitar), is married (Matthew) with three children -- sons Oscar (10) and Lochlainn (8), and daughter Tegan (5) -- while Lorna and Joleen are single but involved in long-term relationships.

A former fiddle teacher, Karen recently started playing guitar when her oldest son took an interest in learning the instrument. "I don't play a lot of them that well," she said, laughing before adding, "It's all just making it up as I go along."

Lorna, 38, and Joleen, 30, who weren't able to participate in the phone interview, graciously spent some time answering subsequent questions via email, which will be incorporated into this article.

Making it big in America -- either with a hit record of as the result of an extended cross-country tour -- might seem like a worthy ambition for most musical artists, but achieving overseas success overnight was never the Henry Girls' primary objective.

"We just keep playing it by ear. My kids are all in primary school and so that's slightly easier because they're all in one place," said Karen, grateful for the help and support her husband, other family members and neighbors have offered to care for her children when the Henry Girls are on the road.

"We aren't a band that set goals!" said Lorna, whose best instrument might be her beautiful voice. "We are a band who has evolved in a very organic way over the last 10 years; we always seemed to just go with the flow and now we are here! These days we are a much busier band than we were a few years ago and we are playing in a lot more countries and to bigger audiences than ever before."

The family that plays together ...
There actually are six McLaughlin sisters, and music was always a way of life for them in a household where singing and playing was encouraged.

"We were really lucky enough to live in an area where there was a lot of good music teachers," Karen said. "And we had a great music teacher who came around to our school."

Their mother (Kathleen) ran the local choir, listened to the Everly Brothers and Andrews Sisters and sang for fun at home with her sister. Their dad (Joe) loved traditional and country music. "And he used to love socializing," Karen said. "And he'd always bring musicians back to the house and have lots of parties. So we were all really kind of brought up with a lot of music around. The other three (Clare, the eldest, Maureen and Anita) could all play the guitar and they could all sing."

Dreams of performing as a sextet temporarily turned to reality when a performance at a community carnival led to a date in the late 1990s at a medieval drama festival in the mountains of Italy at Camerino, where the sisters performed as Inish, an abbreviation of the Inishowen peninsula in County Donegal.

"It was really great," Karen said, recalling the biggest family road trip in years. "We even took our parents and a few friends to this festival. It really gave me, Lorna and Joleen a real appetite for it. We were like, 'Wow, this would be great. Imagine if you could just travel around and play music.' And the other three were like, 'Oh, I know it'd be great, but I don't really want to do it.'

"The whole work involved with all six of us, it was just definitely too many for that kind of thing. But with three of us, we seem to manage. And the other three were just happy enough to just sit back and watch."

Joleen, the McLaughlin baby who celebrated her 30th birthday on March 26 with a bash thrown by her family who "spoiled me rotten," got serious about playing music after being introduced to the harp, which is featured angelically in eight of the 10 songs on Louder Than Words.

"From the age of 8 or 9 I was fascinated with the instrument and never stopped talking about it!" said Joleen, who also plays mandolin on "No Matter What You Say," an uptempo song that easily could find a place on American country top 40 radio. "So eventually my parents saw an ad for a harp school in Derry and I took up lessons when I was 10. The harp is a beautiful instrument and it's also the national emblem of Ireland, so that is important, especially when we're away, as people are always interested in it and associate it with Ireland."

While Joleen was interested in forming a family act and, according to Lorna, developed as an "incredibly good musician" but was "shy about singing on her own," the youngest McLaughlin girl was still attending school at home when Karen (in Cork) and Lorna (in Northern Ireland) were finishing college.

In Cork, Karen met her future husband, who's from Australia. They decided to travel Down Under, and Karen and Lorna got work visas for a year.

"I had sort of taken up the fiddle for the year before we went over (in 1999)," Karen said. "Lorna had been doing a lot of singing and I always did a bit of harmony vocals on other different things, different choirs and vocal groups. But (other than an occasional appearance) we never really had played together. But when we went to Australia, we decided we should play music to make money because there's so many Irish pubs and opportunities to play."

They both were determined to busk in Sydney, so Lorna, who studied piano, classical singing and ethnomusicology, finally taught herself how to play the accordion after borrowing the instrument from her grandmother and reading Sardinian Chronicles by Bernard Lortat-Jakob. She often ventured out on her own, and one of the first songs she wrote, "King St. Waltz," was made up along one of the busiest thoroughfares in Sydney's central business district.

It was one of 12 songs on their 2003 debut, Between Us, which also included "James Monroe," given a face lift on the 2014 album with help from the Bog Neck Brass Band.

"We were just really learning how to play music," Karen said of the Australia visit. "We were really starting to realize you could do it and make money at it."

What was then an unofficial duo usually performed "typical Irish kind of songs" by popular artists like Mary Black, the Cranberries, the Corrs and Dervish, the traditional Irish supergroup that made Lorna's career highlight list this December, when the Henry Girls toured with them through Austria.

But it was the sisters' busking rendition of the Corrs' "Runaway" that led to a most memorable "gig" in Australia.

"This woman came along and she gave us loads of money," Karen recalled. "And she goes, 'Oh, that's lovely. I was wondering if you would come and sing that for my husband as a birthday present at his birthday party in our club (that the couple ran).' And she would pay us.

"And we were like, 'Wow, OK. This is great.' So it turns out it was actually a lap-dancing club. Oh, my God. We were freaking out."

The naked truth is that the stunning moment actually contributed to their musical education, "and then by the time we left Australia, we were really feeling confident," Karen said.

The Henry Girls (from left): Joleen, Lorna and Karen McLaughlin.

How do I get back home?
Upon their return to Ireland, Joleen remembers her two sisters coming up "with the idea that the three of us would make a demo recording together! They had written some songs when they were living there and had been playing in a band together, so they asked me if I was up for playing with them and I said yes!"

The early recordings were somewhat primitive and, Karen admitted, "weren't anywhere near as professional as these (most recent) two are." Yet those albums (Between Us, Morning Rush and Dawn) laid the groundwork for some of their most inspirational songs to date.

Launching Louder Than Words started with the generosity of their aunts Eilish and Greta, indirect influences during their nieces' formative years who often played -- sometimes loudly -- music for them by Donegal's Clannad, Loudon Wainwright III and two Canadian sisters, Kate and Anna McGarrigle.

Decades later, those same aunts, still living in the lovely countryside of Drumaville but in a newer house, allowed their place to serve as a recording studio for Louder Than Words. No wonder the album has such a warm feeling.

Just a five-minute walk from where the Henry Girls grew up and a three-minute walk from Joe and Kathleen McLaughlin's current residence, the makeshift studio was furnished with the comforts of home.

"We were so happy that all the musicians came to the house," Lorna said. "We cooked food for everyone, we wanted everyone to have a nice experience and feel very welcomed." 

Then there were the valuable musical contributions of Calum Malcolm, the Scottish producer they brought back after December Moon, and the Inishowen Gospel Choir.

The County Donegal group was co-founded in October 2005 by Lorna after she and a friend saw the Dublin Gospel Choir perform at a festival in Ireland.

"I remember the first night we had a practice, I had nothing prepared to teach as I wasn't sure if anyone would turn up!" said Lorna, whose busy schedule forced her to give up those duties in 2010. "But they did -- there were about 20 or 25 people there on the first night. ... I had never taught a choir before but I have an ear for harmony so over the following years I learned a lot about teaching."

The choir, which has performed at Glastonbury and collaborated with international artists such as Clannad"s Moya Brennan and Hothouse Flowers' Liam O Maonlai as well as quirky Belfast performer (and gramophone DJ) Duke Special (real name: Peter Wilson), now includes about 30-35 members.

They also sang live with the Henry Girls, but never on an album until Louder Than Words.

After performing last summer with the Inishtown group and a community choir from Holland in Utrecht, the Henry Girls decided to enlist their Carndonagh neighbors for three songs.

"Home," an emotional story raised to hymnal heights, was on the Henry Girls' second album; the closing "Here Beside Me," its a cappella opening giving way to a church-like Hammond organ and a grand chorus; and the Bruce Springsteen cover "Reason to Believe," his raw, sparse cut off 1982's Nebraska turned on its ear by sweet harmonies, along with the brassy notes by Donal McGuinness (trombone), Aidan Simpson (trumpet) and Sean McCarron (tenor saxophone).

"I really love Bruce Springsteen," Karen said. "Me and Lorna had been singing with another singer from Inishowen (Finbarr Doherty) before we kind of started to do the Henry Girls stuff. ... It was his stuff we were doing, but we threw in a few covers. And that was one of them. I just loved singing it."

With Malcolm's seal of approval on December Moon, the Henry Girls recorded a cute, inventive take on another cover -- Elvis Costello's "Watching the Detectives."

Lorna first performed it with the Inishown Gospel Choir, who were invited by Duke Special to come up with some detective-themed songs to sing in the Speigaltent at the 2008 Dublin Fringe Theatre Festival. Using the musical Chicago as their inspiration, the Henry Girls arranged the tune in a film noirish style, then refined it for their album.

Despite making several unsuccessful attempts to contact Costello after a friend of theirs gave him a copy of the album when he played the Sligo Live Festival in 2011, the Henry Girls still aren't sure if he's heard their version, but are proud of it. Even if some Elvis diehards don't appreciate the fresh spin on a 1977 classic.

"I think there's a couple of real hardcore Elvis fans who weren't too mad about it," Karen said, amused by the black-and-white music video that features three Derry dancers, a couple of actors and plenty of shadows. "You know, if you're a real big fan of somebody and somebody does a cover, it's like a sacrilege or something."

Those fanatical followers might take a tip from Costello, whose cover of Nick Lowe's
"(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" helped propel his own career.

Irish-American relations
Childhood memories of St. Patrick's Day for Karen McLaughlin included parades, going to Mass and wearing green while getting "a big lump of shamrock stuck on you."

Now it's not just Americans and Irish who use the religious and cultural holiday as a big excuse to drink. But in her homeland, Karen said she hasn't experienced anything like the celebrations in New York, Boston or Chicago, the Windy City where the river is dyed for one green day.

Karen thinks Dublin once considered carrying on that tradition, too, but joked, "It's very hard to tell what color (Dublin's) river is. It's not the healthiest looking river."

While the Henry Girls caught some of the flavor of St. Patrick's weekend in Boston this year, making a cameo appearance at radio host Brian O'Donovan's Sunday Celtic Sojourn at Harvard University's Sanders Theatre, Karen admitted, "We're not a typical St. Patrick's Day band I think people really want to hear."

While their soothing sounds may not represent the color of money or compete with the likes of Boston's rowdy Dropkick Murphys, the Henry Girls offer the perfect treatment for a hangover, no matter where they're playing.

Making only two previous trips to the U.S., the Henry Girls have some flight reservations that have nothing to do with boarding Aer Lingus. Especially since they work without a manager and, with Lorna responsible for most of the planning, still need a booking agent in the states who can sensibly organize tour routing on a modest budget.

"It's definitely a hard business, especially when it's folk music," Karen said. "You have to have a love for doing it. It's definitely taken us a while to get to feel like we can make a living from it. And even at that, we have to do subsidize it with a lot of other things," primarily with Lorna and Joleen continuing to take on teaching jobs.

Yet the Henry Girls are encouraged at the inroads they are making, coming off what Karen called "our best trip (to America) so far. ... We all felt very happy about it."

The Celtic Music Association based in Des Moines lined up three shows in Iowa, and the reaction there proved to be a pleasant surprise.

"We'd never been in Iowa before," Karen said. "We had no idea what to expect. ... We just thought we'd get there and there'd be a handful of people. But it was very nice. There were a lot of genuine music lovers out there."

Lorna had no complaints either, just finding it "hilarious" that, in her mind, Americans' biggest misconception about the Irish was revealed on their last visit when "someone asked us if we have the Internet."

However, she hastened to add, "Generally, we absolutely love being in America and getting the chance to tour there," finding their home away from home in the Cambridge-Boston area, where they know a number of musicians, including Ry Cavanaugh of Session Americana.

Now that their actions speak Louder Than Words -- and with a little pluck of the Irish -- the Henry Girls should get the green light when they leave the Emerald Isle to explore more of their world's colorful countryside.

Photos courtesy of the artist.