“I feel that my music is soul-baring, it is very personal and intimate, and in a way, I can’t pretend to be anyone else.”
Paris is melting. It’s June, and the temperature is off the scale. Lisa Hannigan is on the other end of the phone, watching the world go by, and patiently enduring some slightly random questions from myself. She is light of spirit, receptive and seems to be expert at turning an incoherent question into something meaningful. Not only is she perceptive, she is a great conversationalist, as our chat meanders from the poetry of Seamus Heaney to the tribulations of breathing underwater in her parent’s bathtub (but more on that later) and overcoming writer’s block.
Lisa Hannigan first came to the world’s attention, when she collaborated alongside Damien Rice for his debut record, O, released in 2002. Some fifteen years later, and with a Mercury Prize nominated debut album, Sea Sew in 2008, an enviable list of film soundtrack credits and her third solo album released last year, At Swim, with some positively well-deserved reviews, showcasing Lisa’s intuition as a songwriter and emotive impetus. Recorded after a long hiatus, due to creative burn-out having been on the road for almost two years with her previous record, 2011’s Passenger, Lisa looked to other sources to gather up the inspiration needed to write At Swim.
“I just found that I didn’t know what to write about, I sort of came home and felt empty. So I wrote sporadically but not in the way that I normally would have, and it became a stressful snowball over time.” Lisa tells me.
It was poet, Seamus Heaney who pulled Lisa out of her creative rut, as well as a chance meeting with producer, Aaron Dressner – both of which proved to be catalysts to unlocking the magic that had always existed, yet seemed to be a tad elusive and dormant at that time. Taking Seamus’ poem, Anahorish, named after the primary school that Seamus himself attended, Lisa set the poem down to music.
“Anahorish just looked like a song on the page, so I thought I would set it to music as an exercise, but it was so freeing, it brought the fun back into the whole business.” Lisa adds.
Meeting up with Aaron in Copenhagen to anchor down the finer details of the album, though Lisa did not mention whether they ventured to the infamously named Seamus Heaney Stræde (aptly named, after Heaney was awarded Artist of Honour in Østermarie, Denmark), their communications continued, with Aaron sending Lisa snippets of music virtually before eventually recording the songs at Future Past studios in Hudson, New York, enlisting Ross Turner (drums), Cormac Curran (keys) and Logan Coale (double bass). Over time, Aaron added instrumentation and production, bringing the songs to life.
“I was a fan of Aaron’s work on both sides of the coin. We were musical pen pals for a while. I think that’s important in creativity, to just enjoy what you’re doing.” Lisa says.
Growing up in County Meath in Ireland, Lisa’s parents actively encouraged her to nurture her creative impulses from an early age. Lisa began a degree course in History of Art before joining Damien Rice, mid-way through her course, to tour his album featuring the tracks ‘The Blower’s Daughter’, ‘Cold Water’ and ‘Volcano’. Lisa often returns to her home, and her parents’ house has acted as the backdrop to many of her music videos. You might recall one particular film, for Lisa’s song ‘Little Bird’ taken from her 2011 album, Passenger – a fragile, yet determined act of defiance, a truthfulness and strength permeates through her vocals.
“Little Bird was filmed in my parent’s bathtub – I had the idea for that video, but it took a while to figure out how to do it. All of my videos were completely on a shoe string. I think there’s a peacefulness to it, but it’s so claustrophobic to watch. You just sense that there has been no breathing! It worked really well, because it is quite peaceful and resonant but also deeply uncomfortable. I had to practice, in the bath, and I think that concerned my mother when there was silence for three minutes and then more silence.” Lisa laughs.
Lisa’s latest album features several co-writes, including opening track ‘Fall’, written by good friend and producer Joe Henry (whom worked with Lisa for her previous record, Passenger) and a beautiful music video to accompany the piano driven track, ‘Ora’, produced by Lisa and her brother Jamie, filmed at her parents’ home in Ireland with the aid of a crankie.
“Ora was done with my brother and a wonderful paper artist called Maeve Clancy. We made this big contraption, to tell the story, at my parents’ house. They have more space than me, so we always use the house for things like that. It was beautiful, a real form of storytelling. It’s basically a comic strip and you’d wind it, and the story passes in front of the fire.” Lisa explains the workings behind her ‘Ora’ music video.
Listening to Joni Mitchell at a young age, on road trips with her family, before discovering classical music and setting her heart on becoming an opera singer and later, discovering a kindred spirit in the guise of Kristin Hersh, when Lisa happened upon a song playing over the radio as a teenager, it tapped into her own musical instincts and evolution as a person and ultimately, as a songwriter.
“Sometimes people come into your life, and out of your life too. Certainly with Kristin Hersh I remember hearing her song, ‘Your Ghost’ on the radio, and it was just the exact right moment for me to hear a song like that, and burrow into my brain. As a fifteen year old, it was like a connection into my soul, it resonated with me so much. I didn’t know anything about her, where she was from, and I just remember I had a tape machine and I just rushed to record it, and it took me ages to find it. That whole journey of discovery. It was just the right age for me, creatively. Those things happened at the perfect time, as things always do.” Lisa remembers the impact Kristin Hersh had on her formative years as a teenager.
Equally enamoured by the artists who take on an alter-ego on stage, something that Lisa herself does not have a whole lot of experience in, though she admits it has crossed her mind.
“Sometimes I feel vulnerable, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The thought of writing songs and performing to people used to terrify me. I definitely like writing for other people, because you’re not trying to represent your inner feelings, you’re trying to make the song so it can breathe. I saw Sia perform at a festival here, and I thought it was the most extraordinary thing. I do really like the idea of having this separate persona that is not your daily life.” Lisa reflects.
“But I feel that my music is soul-baring, it is very personal and intimate, and in a way, I can’t pretend to be anyone else. I do wish I were more like that creatively, it’s like being in a cartoon, there are no rules.” She adds.
Taking inspiration, too, from Glen Hansard, the raw, uninhibited emotion giving permission to find that core truth within her, left its mark as well, leading to several collaborations between the two musicians. Glen wrote and appeared in independent film, Once, based on the serendipitous meeting of two lost souls in Dublin, brought together by music, when a passing listener becomes more than a random stranger, to a busking musician, and the fusion of their voices paves the way for a new creative impulse:
“I love that film. I just thought it was so beautiful, so perfectly done. Just heaven. The power of his voice, the connection that he has with the audience, there’s an otherworldly side of him when he’s performing. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Lisa Hannigan has written probably some of the most subtly moving songs, which would seem indicative of her natural tendency to observe life, as it is, as it could be, and with a hopeful yet realist perspective. With her latest record, At Swim, probably her most uncensored in terms of emotional depth and instinctive insight into the universal yet painfully personal truths behind loss, loneliness, and ultimately, our own mortality, the resulting record is the culmination of much soul searching and acceptance.
“Your own idea of perfect is not necessarily what will connect with somebody. When the take (in the studio) is finished, you feel the air in the room changes. If you’re worrying about all the details of technique, it only weighs you down. I let myself be guided by that feeling. Singing live helps you to be brave in that way. With a song, it has to come from your heart and your instincts.” Lisa explains.
Oh, and also? Don’t ever be afraid to sing out of tune (not that Lisa makes a habit of doing so), because this can lead to breakthroughs, musically and otherwise. After all, it’s the artists who fearlessly break their limitations, rejecting any sort of expectations, that are recognised for their courage and conviction, as Lisa Hannigan knows only too well.
“I always think of ‘Cat Power’, on her record The Greatest, there’s a bonus track, and the whole thing is so out of tune. It’s wildly out of tune – and it just sounds so incredible. It’s just this perfect feeling, the song is like this mad time capsule, and everything is so perfect, and it wouldn’t feel the same way without it. You just must be brave with that stuff, be guided by your instincts.”
Check out the video for ‘Ora’ below.