When I was a gig promoter, attempting to carve out a little patch of territory in this most trying and financially ill-rewarding of careers. I had the pleasure of 'entertaining' Damien Rice, who was the tour support for Kathyrn Williams in 2001. A young singer songwriter who was developing a buzz in the still print and radio dominated pre-internet days, Rice was with Lisa Hannigan, his girlfriend and singing partner at the time. Having only hooked up earlier that year, and looking like they had just walked off a photoshoot for a bohemian fashion spread, they were inseparable that night, totally in-step with each other, laughing and enjoying each other’s company, like lovers in the glow of a new relationship. I initially mistook Hannigan for just his girlfriend. But when they did their short set, to an audience largely unaware of them (after all, they were here to see Kathyrn Wiliams), it was plain to hear that she had a wonderful, soulful and angelic voice all her own. I remind Lisa that she and Damien received the princely sum of £50 for their supporting role that night. "I'm sure we were very grateful for that £50!" she laughs.
Their relationship proved to be both fruitful and tumultuous. Rice's stock went through the roof with his debut album of 2002, which Hannigan appeared on, as she did on his follow up 9, singing lead vocals on '9 Crimes'. But on March 26, 2007, Damien Rice fired Hannigan from his band just as they were about to go on stage in Munich, Germany. Rice announced that his professional relationship with Lisa Hannigan had ended, saying it, "has run its creative course." "It wasn’t altogether pleasant," Lisa has said. "I wasn’t very happy. I’m sure people can relate to that, but you mightn’t actually resign. You don’t realise how hot the water is until you get out and so being fired ended up just being the best thing.”
Apparently fired in-between soundcheck and gig, it quickly proved to be in the best interests of Hannigan, giving her the impetus to develop her songs. “I had notions of having my own record but had never really been able to give it the time that I probably needed to because we were so busy. So then I sort of dusted myself off and then got my record together.
"It was something I wanted to do, even though I had hardly written any songs beforehand. The ones I had written I wasn't very happy with." Indeed, she had harboured ambitions to be an opera singer whilst in her teens. "I just don't have the volume," she says. "I love the music, but no one can hear me. When I discovered a microphone I thought, 'there you go'! My voice has more texture than volume which is really what a microphone is good at picking up. Even in a small room with people I have to push through to get heard. Who knows, maybe one day if a part requires a really small voice, maybe I'll realise my dream."
But, she did eventually realise her singing dreams. First with Damien Rice, and then as a solo artist, having gained enough traction through her relationship with him, getting a head start as it were by the time she released Sea Saw in 2008. A record oozing with raw intimacy and great songs, it was met with much acclaim. Being Irish, Sea Saw was nominated for best album for Ireland's Choice Music Prize. It was also subsequently nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. "Oh God, that was a total surprise. I really did not expect that. But, it helped me enormously," says Lisa.
The following album, Passenger, released in 2011, ended up number one in the Irish charts, and was another critical success for Hannigan, demonstrating once again her knack for a memorable, easy-on-the-ear melody, delivered by that simply beautiful voice. Like Sea Saw, Passenger was full of references to travelling, homesickness and the waters that surround Ireland, and indeed the UK. "Many of these songs were written while I was away from home, and the feeling of transience and nostalgia that this constant travelling evoked seemed to seep into every song."
Once referred to as the 'token folkie' by NME following that Mercury Music Prize nomination, Hannigan toured the world with Passenger for two years following its release. But it seemed that this life of travelling and subsequently having little in the way of home roots, started to take its toll, and for the next couple of years she struggled to find a direction with her music. In fact, it's been nearly five years since Passenger, but At Swim sees Hannigan once again delivering an exquisite album of ethereal folk, home spun acoustica, heartfelt meditations and bewitching melancholia. But it was a struggle to get this done. And it wasn't until The National's Aaron Dessner emailed her out of the blue that the ball started to roll with some purpose. "The ball had been rolling for a couple of years before I hooked up with Aaron, but it wasn't moving particularly fast and I was finding it hard to write songs," says Lisa. "It definitely felt a bit slow going, more than I had experienced before. So, it was limping along. I liked the stuff I had, but it seemed so far and few between. Then I got an email from him and we started writing together, like musical pen pals, and it helped get my confidence back with the whole thing. It was easy to feel a bit dismal when you're trying to write something and nothing comes. It's easy to fall into a trap. When things start to loom large in your mind it's hard to get out of the shadow of it. When I came off touring Passenger I was kind of exhausted. I'd been touring for two years and just felt a little bit empty. I also moved out of the house I had lived in for ten years. I just felt a little bit unsettled in general. And I was spending a little bit more time in London than I had done previously. I just felt isolated and slightly lost, which ended up being the kind of theme of the record actually, so all's well that ends well," she laughs.
Not that she was doing nothing. In between Passenger and At Swim she made her acting debut as a mermaid in the Oscar-nominated animation Song of the Sea, had done soundtrack work on Fargo and the Oscar-winning score for Gravity, and founded and co-hosted the Soundings podcast, which saw Lisa turn interviewer, and speak to guests such as Harry Shearer, Sharon Horgan and David Arnold. She's also got married recently, and is in the middle of an English Literature degree.
But singing and music is where her heart really lies, and with the help of Dessner they fashioned At Swim over a long period. "He would send me pieces of music he was working on and I would write music and lyrics to them. And we sent them back and forth and bash them around a bit. I went to a place called Future Past in Hudson (a New York-based, analogue studio housed in a 19th century church), a place that Aaron had worked previously and thought it would really suit the sound we were going for. We went there with Ross Turner (drums) and Cormac Curran (keys) and met a double bass player, Logan Coale, and spent a week getting all the songs down. I then came back with very rough mixes, loosely shaped, and over the next few months – because Aaron was working on so many projects at the time; if he had a spare day he would get his friend Dave in who would play trombone, or get someone in to play violin, so I would get these updated mixes. And it was wonderful, a moment of discovery when I would open an email to find these songs. Not re-arranged – they were set in stone – but with added colour. It was nice to have this distance. When you listen to a thing over and over again your ears are somewhat blunted, and my ears are fairly blunt to begin with. It was really helpful for me to have a little bit of space from the sounds, so I could hear them properly."
Poetic ruminations on friendship, bereavement, homesickness and a new life in London have all inspired the album's songs, with the overriding theme being one of struggle, epitomised by the lead track, 'Fall,' which was written by her close friend and producer of Passenger, Joe Henry. I wrote to Joe when I was having a little bit of difficulty and asked his advice because he's very good at giving advice in many areas! “I just jokingly asked if he had any lyrics lying around. And he wrote the words to 'Fall' and sent them to me the next morning. I then wrote the music to it. It took ten minutes. In my experience when it did happen it would happen fast, it's just the time in-between," she laughs. "We know each other very well. It was easy for us to think along the same lines. It ('Fall') resonate with me. It was very immediate and I connected with the words in my way, whatever that was," she say rather obliquely.
Where previously Hannigan would sometimes indulge in a playful musicality and sunny optimism on songs that littered her previous albums, here she's deadly serious, an undercurrent of sadness and nostalgia prevalent throughout. And never more so than on the quite simply beautiful 'Prayer for the Dying', a song inspired by the passing of a friend's mother, as Hannigan really gets her angelic, multi-layered voice out, all elongated notes, and subtly tremulous. "It's about a very good friend of mine, and his mother. She had a terminal diagnosis and her and her husband of 40 years faced it with stoicism and dignity. The song sort of fell out. It was a tribute to them, but from his point of view."
And then there's her on-going love affair with poetry, particularly Irish poetry, and that of Seamus Heany. She decided to tackle his poem 'Anahorish', translating his written word into a musical setting, albeit voice only. "When I was in my 'difficulties' I tried to read a lot of poetry, to develop my brain. It felt like I didn't have any of my own. I just felt emptied out. I love the way he had a quietness and poise, which really resonated with me. I was reading his books and I came to 'Anahorish' and I just thought maybe I'll set this to music as an exercise to help me. I was trying to write songs every day, and I thought here I have beautiful words and I tried to find a melody to express them. I found it easy – if that is the right word – and enjoyable. I did it over night, I didn't want to wake up my partner; I kept on creeping to the loo to record a line, and then go back to bed, and then creep back again… and by morning I had the whole thing. I loved singing it so much and it sat so well with the other songs," she says.
And then there is the lullaby-like 'Ora', a song about dreams and memories, and one of her many songs that contains references to the sea and water. "That was one of the first ones that Aaron and I wrote together. He sent me the piano part. And I remember I was folding the washing when I first listened to it. When he sent me things I would always record my humming along to it. I always found that very helpful; your first reaction is often the most useful, but also distracting myself while I'm doing that, so I'm not thinking about it too much. So, I remember I was folding the washing and when that song came on I immediately started singing the melody as it ended up being. It felt to me, not a sea shanty, but it had that push and pull of an 'oar', slowing down and speeding up. It was done on a creaky old piano, so it had an interior lurch to it and that became the world of the song really, that notion of crossing an ocean to get home. It was very quick to write that one, too."
So after her so-called 'difficulties' in realising At Swim, Hannigan is almost back in tour mode. She did a few dates in Ireland before the release of the album, and has been performing solo here and there, but this will be her first proper tour of Britain in three years. "I did an Irish tour in June before the record came out (which again went to number one in the Irish charts), to remember how to do it, I suppose," she laughs. "You never know how a song is going to go down until you play it in front of people. We're just about to go into rehearsals, to figure out how to recreate some of the other songs which are more tricky. There are a few that have like eight vocals on them," she laughs. "I have Cormac and Ross who played on the record, a wonderful double bass player called Caimin Gilmore, and Heather Woods-Broderick, who is an amazing American singer songwriter. She will be playing support and then singing and playing in the band, too. We're going to try and create the feel of the record as best we can."
Whilst touring and promoting the album, Hannigan has also recently embarked on a part-time course in literature via The Open University. "Ha ha, yes!" she exclaims. "It's going really well. I kind of felt I needed some structure in my life. This was a year ago. And now I've got some structure in my life… But, as a touring musician, you do spend an awful amount of time in vans, and waiting in airports, and waiting for people to change their strings. So, I'm hoping to be able to fit it in my touring life. I have to cut down on staring out the window," she laughs. "I mean, I get to read books! Although I am slightly restricted in the books I can read. I don't necessarily have the time to read what I would choose to read, but that is no harm at all." What has she been reading? "Paul McCann is my favourite writer. And Paul Murray, who actually ended up writing the biog for the record. He wrote an amazing book called Skippy Dies, which I wrote a song about on my last record ('Home')."
And what about her formative years. Apart from her love of opera, does anything stand out musically? "Kirstin Hersh," she says. “It's that whole record, actually. Hits and Makers was very formative for me, in that I did swerve off when I was a teenager and only listened to opera for a few years. And then I heard 'Your Ghost' on the radio and had my tape in the radio. You know where you press play and record at the same time… It reached out and grabbed me by the throat and I was completely transfixed, by the directness of her communication. And I listened to it to death, and I still return to it… It's so beautiful, there's such an incredibly dense and strong atmosphere to it, that whole record. I was obsessed with it, as you do when you're 15 or 16. I turn to it a lot, even now.”