Features - Interviews

The First Time: Alana Henderson


In the very first installment of The First Time, we ask fast-rising, cello-wielding, Dungannon-derived songstress Alana Henderson to cast her minds eye back to pivotal ‘firsts’ in her music-listening, discovering and making life. Next week: Mojo Fury’s Mike Mormecha.

First album you bought?

Lets be honest shall we? It was a Shania Twain album. Come On Over. I was off school sick and I remember gathering the money together and sending my mum to go and buy me it in Woolworths in Dungannon. I’m pretty sure I loved it. The first album I remember buying myself was Anthony & The Johnsons I Am A Bird Now. I became completely obsessed with it – his voice, the sleeve, the lyrics. But I guess that still doesn’t undo the Shania thing.

First single you bought?

I didn’t buy singles. As a youngest child I think I got quite lucky. I just stole and borrowed most of my music taste from my older siblings even if I was’t sure what to make of it at first I would face myself to try to listen to it because I thought it was cooler than what my friends were listening to. Counting Crows’ Colorblind comes to mind – stolen from my sister. I remember thinking it was really beautiful but sadder than I could get my head around at the time. I ended up really loving Counting Crows for a long time actually…

First live concert/gig?

The first concert that stands out in my head (if I can erase all memory of the Westlife concerts i attended as a 12 year old) was a Crooked Still concert in The Black Box as part of the first Open House Festival. They are like a bluegrassy rootsy Americana band with amazing cello and husky vocals and banjo and double bass – just yum! I still love Crooked Still. Their lineup has changed but they are a band I always go back to.

First album you properly loved?

Maybe Jeff Buckley’s Grace. I went on a ski holiday with my older sister and her friends when I was – eh, actually lets not say my age – but it was my first time ever drinking. I got so ill that I couldn’t ski. they had to leave me in the hotel room with someones CD collection and so I was just lying in bed for 3 days listening to Jeff Buckley and falling in love with that album.

First artist/band to change your music-listening/making life?

Arthur Russell. Hearing Arthur Russell’s music changed everything. Initially I just loved the sound because it was so open and echoey and everything sounded slightly underwater. Then I realised he played the cello and sang and I started listening to his cello songs more carefully and trying to play some of those. I don’t think it had really crossed my mind to do that before. I watched an amazing documentary about his life and music. His lyrics are really simple but they just work.

First local band you really got into?

It would have been local traditional bands first. Flook probably was the main one. The frontman Brian Finnegan was my flute teacher growing up. Their music was folky but with an experimental slant. The tunes were newly composed and often really fast. I got really in to Duke Special in my teens too. I overplayed the Adventures in Gramophone CD so much between about 16 and 18 that it makes me feel a wee bit woozy when I hear it now.

First festival experience?

Oxygen ’07. Finished school and everyone was going – what a washout. I swore I’d never camp again. I remember very little of musical interest and seeing Maximo Park and being very into them at the time. Since then I’ve definitely had a lot more pleasant festival experiences. My favourite is one called The Insider in Aviemore in Scotland. I went to Cambridge folk festival last year too and it was unbelievable.

First favourite film soundtrack?

Romeo & Juliet. It’s still a favourite.

First band t-shirt/jumper?

I wasn’t really a band T-shirt kind of girl. I did have an Lau t-shirt that i used to wear…? Lau are a really great Scottish contemporary folk trio. They are amazing and were on Late With Jools Holland recently. They’ve been getting some amazing coverage – I love their music.

First song to make you cry?

I didn’t ever used to cry at songs or films or anything that’s not real life, but I went to see Ane Brun last year at Vicar street and she played about 2 bars of her song ‘One Last Try’ and I was sat there in the dark hoping nobody could see or hear me with tears running down my cheeks weeping. It surprised me. Her lyrics are powerful.

First time you knew you wanted to make music?

I think I always knew i wanted to make music but I felt pressure to follow a more academic ‘reliable’ career path instead. Then that turned out to be very unreliable, so thankfully I was forced to turn back to what I love. I think about 2 years ago I attended a few folky festivals during the summer and I kept getting a bit jealous of the acts on stage and wanting to be where they were. I had written lots of songs but I wasn’t confident performing them just yet.

First instrument you learned to play?

Tin whistle. I started going to the Armagh Pipers Club when i was 7. I now teach tin whistle to 7 year olds for the APC myself. Its a pretty grim starting instrument but it’s a good starting point. I started playing the cello when i was 9. My teacher was an American guy called Mr Wise. I often wonder if he’s heard what I’m doing on the cello and if he would approve or not.

First riff/song/piece you learnt from start to finish?

I played the in whistle first so we’re talking about ‘The Kerry Polka’ or something. I remember singing a great ‘Galway Shawl’ when I was about 5 with a shawl and I had actions.

First original song you wrote?

It was ‘The Tower’, which you can find on my EP. I wrote it in the first month of being at University in Belfast. It was to a different melody to what I sing now, but the lyrics haven’t changed much at all. It was a very sudden start. I sometimes wish I’d been ready to start singing my songs in public a bit sooner but it took me a while to get here.

First gig or performance of your own?

I’ve been performing traditional music all my life but the first time I properly sat down and played my own songs to an audience was back in November 2012 on The Belfast Barge as part of a ‘Warm Beer & Cold Women’ night. It was a friend organising it and a nice way to test my songs out in a relaxed crowd.

First musical hero/idol you ever met?

Rushad Eggleston – American cello God (used to play with Crooked Still). I met him in 2006 I think and persuaded him to give me a masterclass. He agreed after some persuasion and he gave me a few hours of playing riffs and chops. It was inspiring. He wouldn’t take any money from me or anything but he took a lizard print cuff that I was wearing. He heard ‘Song about a Song’ last year and said it made him cry and called me an Irish cello witch.

First music magazine you ever bought?

Smash Hits, of course!

‘First Of The Gang To Die’ by Morrissey – great song, right?

Damn right.


Portrait photo by Joe Laverty

is the editor of The Thin Air. Talk to him about Philip Glass and/or follow him on Twitter @brianconey.