Lisa Hannigan speaks to Saoirse Ní Charagáin about dream duets, spray can paint drums and maturing as an artist
Home-grown singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan has come a long way. Far from her days of gracing Damien Rice’s tracks with her distinctive vocals, she has established herself as an artist of note in her own right with her unique brand of “plinky plonk rock”, a term coined by Hannigan herself. Speaking to Otwo however, she’s quick to admit that the decision to go solo wasn’t an easy one to make. “It was daunting. I’d never been the leader of a band or recorded in a studio before. So it was daunting, but nothing worth doing isn’t.”
Now, three years on since the release of her debut album and currently touring with her latest record, Passenger, she exudes confidence and an unwavering sense of dedication to her work. “I just want to write better and better songs. I think as a songwriter you’re always chasing the elusive perfect song. It’s a wonderful craft to dedicate your life to.”
Passenger has already received high praise in the press and looks set to earn the Mercury Prize-nominated singer greater exposure. The album’s first single and current radio favourite ‘Knots’ is indicative of a change in Hannigan’s style, something which is apparent throughout Passenger as a whole. Though boasting the intricate layers of instrumentation we’ve come to expect from her music, the tempo and tone mark something of a departure from previous work. “I feel like it’s a very natural progression. I don’t know whether it’s more polished than Sea Sew,” she says, before laughing and adding “I feel I’m just better now than I was.”
Her new confidence isn’t unwarranted either. As a musician she continues to push herself outside her comfort zone, taking on such projects as writing music for Neil Jordan’s 2009 film, Ondine. “He asked me to write a song for the end of the movie, for the wedding scene, just a pure love song. So that was interesting for me to be writing a song not from my own experience. It was a different process.”
Having briefly studied Art History in Trinity College (though insistent that music was always her true passion), Lisa’s creativity has never been limited to songwriting alone. From the lovingly hand-stitched artwork for her debut, to the current video for “Knots”, she displays a creative imagination unafraid to explore different media. “The video was great fun. I had this idea that all of the instruments would be played with paint. So the drums are like the metallic spray cans down the bottom, the bass is a big purple super soaker, and then the horns are a big orange streak that comes in halfway through. That was the idea, anyway. I’m not sure that translated in the video.”
One of the most striking things, perhaps, about her growing independence and confidence as an artist was her decision to self-release Passenger on her own label, Hoop Records. “I just wanted to put out my record myself. I wanted to own it and own the copyright, instead of a record company owning it. So now I do own it and I can license it to people. It felt better to me to work with people, rather than work for people.”
This desire for collaboration is nothing new in Hannigan’s work. In the past she’s worked with esteemed musical acts such as Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody, Cathy Davey and, most recently, with Ray LaMontagne on stand-out track ‘O, Sleep’.
“I really wanted to have a proper duet on the record. Not just to have people singing harmonies, but properly singing together,” she explains. “So I wrote ‘O, Sleep’ and Ray was the top of my people to ask, but I didn’t think he’d be available.” By a pure stroke of luck LaMontagne just so happened to be free, lending his vocals to the track while Hannigan and her band were in the process of over-dubbing Passenger. When asked who she might collaborate with in the near future, she simply laughs and states, “Obviously, I’d love to do a song with Tony Bennett.”
With the warm reception Passenger has been receiving on the US leg of her tour, Hannigan looks forward to returning to Ireland in the winter to perform her new material. “It’s been really nice over the course of the tour to see how people started to know the words to all the songs. The songs seem to really work well live, which is always a worry when you write something and you record it and you think maybe it just won’t work; that it might not translate in that way.” Though usually at home in small, intimate venues, her homecoming gigs promise to be slightly larger scale. “In December we’ll be playing Vicar Street and hopefully the Savoy in Cork, so it’ll be bigger venues come Christmas time.”
Lisa Hannigan tours Ireland this December, playing the Button Factory on the 20th, Vicar St. on the 22nd and Whelan’s on the 23rd. Passenger is out now.