Lisa Hannigan’s new album was inspired the beauty and menace of the sea around her mother’s home in West Cork, writes Ed Power
WHEN Lisa Hannigan was a child, she would holiday with her family in Baltimore, West Cork. She adored the beauty and tranquility of this picturesque costal village — but even then understood the sea, often calm, sometimes stormy, was not to be trifled with. It was beautiful — but dangerous too.
She drew on those half-formed memories writing her third album, At Swim. The open water became a metaphor for the limitless horizon of our lives and also for the riptides just beneath the surface, waiting to drag us off course or pull us under. The result is the Co Meath songwriter’s finest record to date — a by turns gorgeous and haunting collection of dirges and wide-eyed shanties.
“Mum is from Baltimore,” says Hannigan. “Most of our summers were spent down there. It’s great — even as an adult, but especially as a child. You spend your whole days looking in rock pools, swimming, rowing. Heaven — but, of course, the sea is other things as well. It is a rich metaphorical landscape.”
At Swim is Hannigan’s most assured outing — confident even when it departs from songwriting convention to tiptoe through tidal swells of minimalism or experimental folk. The vistas it traverses are often strange — never boring or predictable. It is the sound of an artist coming fully into their own.
Yet behind this self-possession are years of heartache and self questioning. Blindsided by writer’s block — the first she had suffered in her career — Hannigan questioned whether she had any more songs in her. Perhaps this was it — her life’s work unspooling with a whimper. She began to contemplate a life after music.
“I had never experienced anything like this before,” she says. “Normally I just get into the flow and write a load of songs in a day. It was slow going, days and months of not writing… Well, I was writing — just nothing I enjoyed. It was hard and chipped at whatever confidence you have. Self-belief isn’t an issue when you are propelling yourself along. When you are struggling it becomes upsetting.”
Hannigan’s existential crisis was triggered by a reluctant move to London. The singer had spent most of her adult life in Dublin (she attended Trinity College and, before that, exclusive King’s Hospital private school in Palmerston). When she started a relationship with someone who had relocated to the UK she felt the right thing to do was to make the journey with them.
Britain was not to her liking. She found London impersonal, asphyxiating, uninspiring. Her creative well ran dry. It was a dark period.
“I had moved out of my house where I had lived for ten years. It flattened me a bit. I felt displaced and uneasy — out of my safe Dublin world. Now I’ve come through the other side that feeling has abated. A lot of the time I felt lost.”
At her lowest ebb, Hannigan was approached by animator Tomm Moore, who wanted to cast her as a doomed mermaid-figure in his Oscar-nominated animation Song Of The Sea.
“It was in the middle of all of that and an absolute breath of fresh air,” she says. “It was great — and it was also fascinating to go and see the final results and discover how beautiful it was.”
Hannigan performed early versions of material from At Swim at the Songs From A Safe Harbour festival in Cork last year. She was joined on stage by Aaron Dessner of The National and returned the favour when she sang with the band at the recent Longitude Festival in Dublin. Their creative partnership was sparked when he emailed her out of the blue wondering if they might work together. Before she had quite taken it all in, she was in upstate New York and Dessner was producing her album.
“I didn’t know him. He heard one of my songs and got in touch. Was it intimidating to work with someone from The National? Aaron was so lovely and kind and generous. What I learned from him was how to approach things in a different way — to employ a different musical language.”
It wasn’t the first occasion Hannigan has cast a spell from afar. American talk show host Stephen Colbert had her on in 2009; last year she was contacted by the producers of acclaimed drama Fargo to perform a dark fairy-tail version of ‘Danny Boy’.
“That’s the internet for you. Your stuff gets out there. You don’t know who might be listening. You exist out there and these doors can open. It’s strange and exciting. Stuff comes out of the blue.”
SOFT AND SPIKY
Aaargh! Here they are. Spending the morning signing these for those who have pre-ordered. Thank you! pic.twitter.com/5m5Dhec9Ym— Lisa Hannigan (@LisaHannigan) July 28, 2016
Hannigan in person resembles a living manifestation of her sweet, lulling songs. Her speaking voice is even softer than the gossamer coo she deploys on her records. Yet there’s a spikiness just beneath the surface and, at 35 and after 14 years in the music business, she has learned not to suffer fools.
She became famous, of course, as backing singer, muse, and romantic partner to Damien Rice. But they had a fractious breakup backstage in Munich in 2007 and haven’t collaborated since.
She doesn’t relish questions about Rice — understandably reluctant to be defined by a relationship that ended a decade ago. Still, when she looks back, she will allow that their first flush of success was extraordinary — two young people carried aloft by a surge of popularity.
“At that age, you are so naive, you are really accepting of things. Now being older, I’d be a lot more freaked out. When you are young you just go with it and take events as they come because you don’t know any better.”
Even now, she says, it is hard to actively plan.
She may set goals and work towards definitive ends. And yet life has a habit of catching you unawares.
“You try and steer it as best you can. But often the things that throw you sideways you didn’t see coming. You try to take the opportunities as they come. If you make a plan, life often finds of way of thwarting you.”
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