"You're Afraid You'll Hate Everything Within a Month": An Interview with Lisa Hannigan

Photo: Nicholas LaClair

After scoring a Mercury Music Prize nomination for her first solo album after working with Damien Rice, Lisa Hannigan returns with an effort more sophisticated and mature than before, and tells PopMatters all about it ...

Certain voices for certain people have a way of burrowing into psyches, attaching onto something unknowable and leaving them forever changed. If you hear Lisa Hannigan's voice in the right way at the right time of day and the right time in your life, it will become a part of you.

She first made herself known as Damien Rice's back-up singer, responsible for many of the most memorable moments from his 2002 Shortlist Prize-winning album O. Personally, it was the first time I listened to that record all the way through, past the first hidden track, and I got to the second hidden track, Lisa's acapella reworking of "Silent Night". The track is hushed and her is voice is so honestly strained; never had I heard a recording so intimate. To this day, it sounds like she's sitting in the next chair over whispering it.

In the ten years since that recording, Lisa went solo and her voice grew more assured without losing that familiar tone. Her second album, Passenger, was released this month and is made up of ten understatedly pretty songs. The album was both written while and written about being on the road. Lisa: "Many of [the songs] were written while I was away from home or on the road, and the feeling of transience and nostalgia that this constant traveling evoked seemed to seep into every song." Recently, PopMatters got to speak with Lisa about Passenger, life away from home, and that recording of "Silent Night" ...

* * *

So when you were on The Colbert Report, he asked, "Do you sew your own instruments?" To which you responded, "I'm working on it for the next record." So did you?

Oh, no I haven't. Don't tell him.

When you spoke about the last record [2008's Mercury Prize nominated Sea Sew] you mentioned how you loved the craftiness of it, the embracing of ancillary noises. Would you say this record has the same feel?

Because we recorded very quickly again -- this one was done in a week -- I think it has that same live feel in that way. It is slightly less wheezy this time. It certainly has a very relaxed sort of feel. You know, all the songs we recorded in a room together and did a few takes and stopped when we knew we had one. So I certainly think that's a quality that is there on this one.

A lot of songs on this record talk about the road and traveling. Was there a point when you realized that was working its way through the album?

Yeah, I was writing the record most of the time on the road so I knew it was informing it quite seriously. Although, there is not many songs about the places I was in. More I suppose when you're away from home it brings the idea of home into sharper focus and the nostalgia that comes along with that. So a lot of songs are about that. Not even home being my Ireland home but a time of innocence that is not really there anymore. It seemed to inform the record quite a bit. I suppose as I was writing it it all started to hang together in that way.

Speaking to that idea of home: the albums opener, "Home", seems to actually be about leaving home and the last track "Nowhere to Go" seems to be about actually not having nowhere to go? There is a push and pull with your relationship to home. Was it important for you to contrast the idea of home and the idea of the road, and the idea of the road being your home as a touring musician?

Yes and no. The idea that home is people as well; "Nowhere to Go" sort of refers to that. A lot of the record is about stuff you carry with you everywhere and that is your home as well. People or things that happened years ago are things that you carry with you across time zones and years. The idea that everything you hold in your pockets, that you carry through life anywhere, are your passengers I suppose.

As you said, much of the record was written on tour. Did you take into consideration that the songs would be played over and over again when writing and recording the record?

I suppose the difference between the first record and the second record is you kind of know those things, which I suppose I didn't really think about before. So I'm very mindful to not let anything in that I didn't like, which I suppose happens before you know what lays ahead. When the band and I were arranging the songs, we knew we wanted to record it live and do it all in a room together, that affected the arrangement. With the instrumentation we brought in some extra players, horn players, but most of the arrangements are just the band as is and what they're playing. So yeah, I did keep it in mind.

Were there explicit sonic or lyrical things you wanted to do differently this time around?

I feel like on this record I was better at the instruments I was playing than the first record. During the first record, I could play the guitar but if I was playing it live, I'd probably bugger it up and ruin it. It was freeing to have that time of constantly playing to get more comfortable on the various instruments I was working with. Sonically, that affected the record quite a bit. That particular rolling picking thing is a thread that runs through most of the songs

And lyrically was there anything that you wanted to try or you realized after the fact manifested itself?

I noticed from the first record if there is a line you don't think is particularly good, it haunts you every night. And every time you sing it it looms a bit larger in your mind as something that is not ringing true. I spent more time this time getting the lyrics the way I really wanted them so I wouldn't have this awful, slightly cringe-y moment. I mean everyone's got those bloody lines where they think, "Why? Why did I? Why?" I hope this record has less of them [laughs].

Before the release of the official "Knots" video, you released one of you performing the song on a sailboat. You've done a few of these types of live videos, in untraditional spaces. Is there a reason you like doing these so much?

The real "Knots" video is coming out in the next couple days and it was so much fun, involving an awful lot of paint being thrown at my face.

There this is this wonderful man Myles O' Reilly and he does beautiful almost La Blogotheque style videos. I don't know, the record will soon exist for people and I just like to play, we all like to play. In that situation, we were staying in West Cork and just did a gig and had been there for a few days and we needed to make an EPK so my natural tendency was like, "Why don't we make a video?"

Certainly on the last record I made a video similar to that -- the one in the pub -- and that was the one Stephen Colbert saw when looking up Sean Hannity or something. Those videos capture a moment of something real that I think is sorely lacking these days. It's nice to see people just sitting in a room playing a tune. I think there is something ever intriguing about that. But you know I just like playing. If we get in a room, and Myles is around, we tend to dash out a video.

While looking at your videos, I looked at some of the older ones you did while working with Damien Rice. You were so apparently young when you started with him. Now that you've been around do you feel like you're more mature as a singer and as a songwriter?

Yeah, definitely. I mean I was such a pup and now I'm slightly more old and haggard [laughs]. Certainly, with the singing though. Singing and writing songs is a lifelong path of figuring it out. I definitely feel like I've made a leap from that time. Even though, there is a beautiful sort of innocence about that time as well that is not around anymore. But I've grown up a lot and there is a lot more heft behind what I'm doing now.

To talk about that era briefly. O as a whole was a really great record, but that one moment at the end when you sing "Silent Night" burned itself into my brain a little bit. It is so incredibly intimate so I wanted to ask you about the process of recording it. How did you decide to do that somewhat cover and what was in your head while recording it?

I remember it actually. I remember it quite vividly. We had been recording the record for ages because Damien was doing it in his house. It was sort of amplified the whole thing. It was such a long and exciting process but very much homemade and home grown.

We were coming to the end and were going to go master it -- mixing and master it at the same time -- and I was on the train going back to Damien's house to do to the last day of work. I was just humming it. It wasn't nearly Christmas time so I have no idea why I was doing it. I was just humming away and just started singing these words. By the time I got to his house I had all the words done. I remember I just said to him, "Oh, I did some new words for 'Silent Night'." And he went "Oh, sure just lay it down and we'll just record it so you don't forget." So we just recorded it. And he said, "Maybe we'll just put it on as a hidden track."

And I didn't know why he would do that. But it was great. It was nice. But it's a funny one. It's a funny little thing.

You are about to go on tour. Are you excited for that? Especially considering you have all these songs about being on tour.

Oh yeah, I can't wait. I really cannot wait. I feel very comfortable traveling with the guys in the band and playing music. I mean that's all I've ever really wanted to do. So it's going to be amazing to sing these songs for people. We've been playing the record here, going around Ireland this summer and it's been really immediate. We started off playing half and half, but very quickly we started playing more from the new record and a couple of old songs. They haven't diminished over time, which has been heartening. You're afraid you'll hate everything within a month but we've just been able to go deeper and deeper into the tunes and it's been really amazing. So yeah, I cannot wait to come and play them in America.

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