Interview | Lisa Hannigan

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"It always just had that magical feeling"

Interview: Anna Job | Photos: Rich Gilligan 

On a sleepy Other Voices’ Sunday morning, when most people were only beginning to rise, a fresh-faced, bright eyed Lisa Hannigan appeared in the lobby of Benner’s Hotel. It’s been several years since she last was in Dingle and there’s a lot to catch up on. We retreat to the couches in the back bar of Benners, where there is only the faint sound of a hoover and the cleaning of last night’s glasses tinkling and chiming in the background. 

Rewind twelve hours and Dingle town was aflutter as punters flocked into pubs en masse to watch the live stream of Lisa’s  highly anticipated return to St. James’ Church, where she performed material from her critically acclaimed third album ‘At Swim’. Described by the Guardian as a collection of “stunningly pretty songs with quietly powerful undercurrents” , NPR declared it “a triumph of Hannigan's understated versatility.”

Ironically, of all her albums to date, this was the one which was most difficult to bring to fruition. “I hadn’t put anything out in a long time and I found it very difficult to write. It took me ages and ages and ages.” Lisa explains. Long periods of frustration, homesickness and writers block dogged the process. A now famous email from The National’s Aaron Dessner landed in her inbox. This had the desired effect, ultimately steering the work back on track.  

“Aaron just emailed out of the blue. He’s the most open, enthusiastic and encouraging person. He asked if I wanted someone to write together with or needed someone to produce the record. It was just very relaxed and easy and we started sending music back and forth which helped get a bit of momentum into my brain.” 

Despite having mutual friends, Lisa and Aaron had not met prior to the email. Was it difficult to plunge headlong into a collaboration sharing personal ideas with a relative stranger?

“I think song writing is always an exercise in embarrassment. It’s the scarlifying thing. It’s like showing the world your knickers a little bit. When we started sending things back and forth, he would send over music and I would warble over it, so we knew each other a bit better before I sent actual lyrics.”

The result of these sessions with Dessner is ‘At Swim’, a sophisticated, delicately crafted collection of music, which marks a step in a new direction for Hannigan. Small details blossom into large musical moments and a newly adopted style of arranging, allows Hannigan's vocals and lyrics more space to breathe and simmer alongside beautiful instrumentation. 

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In the lead single 'Prayer For the Dying', Lisa's voice takes flight, carrying the listener through the swells and calms. A gentle lament. 'Your heart, my heart' is repeated over a gentle patter of drums and a bobbing guitar line until the song fades into darkness. She compares the initial period to fumbling around in the dark but is adamant that co-writing encouraged her to ‘open her mind’ to other methods such as composing music to lyrics given to her by friend, Joe Henry and transforming a Seamus Heaney poem into a song.

During Lisa’s phase of writer’s block, she began re-reading Seamus Heaney’s work. “I just wanted to tear my hair out and thought ‘try and fill up your brain with beautiful words instead of trying to squeeze out things you’re not feeling’ and so, she began working her way through his complete collection, which was given to her as a gift – “the best present ever”.

One evening, a poem about Seamus Heaney’s hometown in Derry appeared on the page before Lisa and she instantly thought it looked like a song. She sang some ideas into her phone, went to bed, got up again and continued with this yoyo process for some time until “basically by the end of the night, I had the melody done and made the harmonies afterwards. It brought the fun back into it which I had lost because I was gripping on so tightly trying to write instead of just… rocking out a jam. [laughs]”. The poem was Anahorish and Lisa’s musical interpretation of Seamus’ words came in the form of an acapella recording with beautiful harmonies to evoke Heaney’s vivid imagery. A standout track on the record.

“Actually - when we came up to Inch beach yesterday we stopped on the strand. We were parked while we were getting petrol and I played Heather [Lisa’s bassist] Seamus Heaney reading Postscript and just hearing him read his poetry is so perfect. It’s like that extra layer of solidity to hear his words in his accent and beautiful voice”. 

Last September Philip King dug out a recording of Seamus reading Anahorish and played it on his South Wind Blows radio show, followed by Lisa’s version – you can listen on the RTE Radio Player here at circa 00:44:00. 

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Since releasing the record last August, Lisa has toured all over the world and a highlight appears to be the Michelberger Music festival in Berlin last October. “I’ve never been to anything like it.  Everyone was staying in the Michelberger Hotel and then up on the fourth floor there’d be these mad, electronic rooms. Amazing, heavy going vibes and various people would be playing around the place. We’d get the bus out to the Funkhaus which is an old radio station in East Berlin. A stunning building.”

Musicians were brought together for a week of music and creativity in the German capital by Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Aaron Dessner. Festival producers provided the space and settings for artists to make new material and encouraged them to think outside the box. “It was the most extraordinary collaborative event. Hundreds of people doing various things. Aaron and Bryce would be in one room writing and people would come in and do their bit. Stargaze [Orchestra] were there and people could go in and do songs with them. Myself, The Staves, This Is The Kit and loads of the ladies got together and said ‘Why don’t we sing songs together acapella’. Brilliant exciting things like that’.

The women’s choir drew material from a wealth of influences and created impeccable sounds including covers of Bon Iver’s 22 (OVER S∞∞N), performances of chants such as ‘De Pacem Domine’ and a choral rendition of Lisa’s own work, best described by The Staves:

 “We were a group of complete strangers, united by the fact that we could all sing and we created our own sound. It was very freeing and exciting. Singing Lisa's song, Undertow, was a real highlight - a swelling sea of female voices with her crystal notes floating on top of it all. We're hoping to bring some of the collaborative elements of the Michelberger Music experience to Forbidden Fruit.” – The Staves

The work created during the week in Berlin was then performed for festival attendees in various areas deep in the labryinthine Funkhaus complex. Ticketholders were encouraged to explore and  discover different sounds within the grounds. “For the audience too it was a really exciting experience. Illuminating and different. It was extraordinary. Such a mad crucible. So much creativity it was almost overwhelming and I think it’ll take a long time to distil it.” 

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Following a whirlwind week in Berlin, Lisa embarked on a tour around Europe, finally arriving in Dingle in the middle of winter to record a performance for the fifteenth series of Other Voices.

For many Irish music fans, Lisa Hannigan first appeared on their TV screens sitting cross legged on-stage in St. James’ Church performing with Damien Rice. There was a strong contrast between Lisa’s somewhat unassuming stage presence and her magnificently delicate, soaring, vocals which became such essential moments in Damien’s work. “Lisa gives wings to his songs” declared former Other Voices presenter Glen Hansard in his introduction that night.

‘I hadn’t been singing a huge amount of time.” Lisa explains.  “We sat on the floor of the church. It was so quiet, small and magical. There were no perspex hearts – the church was completely unadorned and it was jammed with people.”

Lisa Hannigan met Damien Rice on the first day of Freshers Week in Trinity College Dublin in the autumn of 2000. Following months of bumping into each other around Dublin they began performing together. The music that made it’s way down the Wild Atlantic Way to the tiny Church of Saint James’ fifteen years ago went on to form Damien Rice’s multi platinum selling record ‘O’, which spent 30 weeks in the US album chart and catapulted the band into a hectic touring schedule. 

“We made a record and then it just did better than anyone expected including us. It took us two years to make the record from when we started. A long time… I don’t think his record was out when we did Other Voices first. I’d say it was about to come out. It was just sort of the luck of that really. It was very serendipitous.”

Lisa recalls sitting in Benners at the first Other Voices watching wide-eyed as incredible sessions took place in the bar after the shows. “There were so many brilliant singers and musicians. Just to watch that happen as a very young singer starting out was really extraordinary.” 

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Since playing the first year of the show, Lisa has become part of the Other Voices family. Amidst all the work with Damien, there was always an underlying expectation that Lisa would emerge and thrive as a solo artist. With each release she has steadily raised the bar higher and higher; her debut album Sea Sew was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize, while Passenger and At Swim have both entered the Irish album charts at number one. Over the last few years Lisa has also been involved in various projects – she lent her voice to the Academy Award nominated Song of the Sea and recorded songs for various TV programmes including Fargo and a cover of David Bowie’s 'Oh! You Pretty Things' for Legion. More recently there were prominent US performances on the Late Late Show with James Cordon.

“Every time Lisa visits Dingle for Other Voices she reveals s little more of her amazing talent to us. When she first arrived she was an outstanding singer. She can now add performer, writer and remarkable artist to the list. I remember seeing her sing solo for the first time in the front of Kathleen McAuliffe's shop on the Main Street. There she was, full of the promise, now realised for all to hear.” – Philip King

Lisa’s Other Voices performances are consistently among the most watched on our YouTube Channel. ‘Tonight You Belong To Me’ with John Smith, ‘Lille’ and ‘Little Bird’ are firm favourites with Other Voices viewers, so I’m keen to know what her personal favourite musical memories have been since she started coming to Dingle. She begins a tale of begging Music Producer Aoife Woodlock to let her and Tour Manager Una Molloy in to the packed church to see Elbow and it seeming completely impossible until finally “when the doors were closed, Aoife said ‘Okay, follow me!’.  We snuck up the stairs and crouched down with our faces pressed up in between the bannisters on the balcony like some Victorian prison. Hearing Guy Garvey sing in such a small space - I just couldn’t believe we were in the room watching it happen. That was extraordinary. I’ve been lucky enough to squeeze into the church for a good few things but that’s my most vivid memory because of how excited we were and how crammed in we were like little sardines.”

How has it all changed since the first year?

“It still feels really intimate and we’re all in this mad ship together, but now it’s so much more muscular with all of the stuff and the people and the bands. The excitement is the same but it’s just sort of expanded to fit the space – like a gas. [giggles]. It always just really had that magical feeling.”

As the interview draws to a close Lisa takes out a Music Trail schedule and asks for recommendations. She has taken a day off between gigs to ‘Dingle-it-up’ and catch up with old friends. As we say goodbye she takes off up the road to catch Jack O’Rourke and friend David Kitt’s gig in the Dingle Brewing Company.

Lisa Hannigan will perform at Forbidden Fruit on Monday 5th of June alongside Bon Iver, The Staves, Rusangano Family. Flying Lotus and more.