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The Sounds of Lisa Hannigan

The singer-songwriter from Dublin discusses her newest album At Swim and her favorite Irish tradition

Lisa Hannigan  just finished the North American leg of her tour promoting her third album At Swim. She curls up on the sofa with a huge cup of tea and explains to me that she has a bit of time on her own before getting back on the road with her band. “I’m thinking I might just get Chinese takeout and watch a few movies.” Her Irish brogue is quiet and charming, even when describing something as ordinary as Chinese takeout. 

Lisa began her career touring with Damien Rice as a background vocalist. For years, she remained on stage but out of the direct spotlight. “I didn’t have any confidence when I was younger. It was slightly terrifying when I began transitioning into a solo artist but now I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she said. 

We sat down with Lisa to chat about the bout of writer’s block she had while creating At Swim, her relationship with The National’s Aaron Dessner and her favorite Irish tradition.

How has it been performing songs off your new album, At Swim?

It’s always a challenge, recreating your record in a live setting. I really wanted it to sound just like the record, without using backing tracks. There is a song called “Undertow” that includes about six of me warbling away. For the live performance, everyone in the band volunteered to take a singing part. The audience is always really shocked to see so many of us singing at one time.

How did you connect with Aaron Dessner of The National?

Well, I was in a bit of dire straits with the record. I had written about half the songs and I was feeling stuck. Aaron reached out to me and wanted to help. We got on really well and became musical pen pals, pretty much. He was a beacon of light in the midst of my dark and stormy stage. 

He’s incredibly talented and musically inclined. He’s so cheerful about things, as trite as that sounds. I never had a nervous feeling when making At Swim. My friend says the best thing is when you can “rock out a jam” and that’s what I felt I could do with Aaron.

How did the creative process differ for this album compared to your last?

When I’m in charge I tend to throw the kitchen sink at things. I’ll include a violin line, a cello and have everything dancing around together. Aaron wanted the record to be stark and have me serve as the beating heart in the middle of the songs. 

It was nice to go against my natural tendencies, which is the best part about collaborating. It makes you realize how so much of what we do is automatic. We think it is instinctual but really it’s a pattern.

At Swim

Where did you find inspiration for the album?

It took me ages to write the songs. Once I would get started writing, the songs wrote themselves fairly quickly. It was the gaps in between that were hard. As a songwriter, if you’re not writing songs, you feel sort of useless. A lot of the songs on the record have a sense of being a drifter, feeling unsure, lost and not quite sure where you belong in the world. Not that the record is depressing, but it has a sense of unease.

Where did those feelings come from?

I finished touring with my last record and I came home to the house I had lived in for the last ten years. I didn’t know what to do so I thought I would just follow my nose for a bit. I traveled to Paris and London and then came back to Dublin. I didn’t write any songs but it was great fun. I would go to museums and parks and explore.

What was the most inspirational destination?

Dublin. I learned on my travels that as much as I love stomping around New York or Paris, being home is the best feeling. The particular size of Dublin and the social web that exists is very conducive to the creative process. Everyone is always making something or doing something. You get caught up in that current of creativity. It’s a big city but it’s also just a town. You walk down the road and you bump into so many people you know.

What is your favorite song on the album?

It’s called “Anahorish” and it’s sung a cappella. I love singing a cappella. I think it’s an Irish thing but I bloody love singing a cappella. In Ireland, there’s a tradition called the Noble Call that’s done at the end of a night. Someone will start reading a poem or singing and everyone must follow and give their parting piece. I always choose to sing a cappella. 

The song though, is a Seamus Heaney poem that I used to help get past my writer’s block. I set the poem to music and it resonated really well with the rest of the record so we kept it.

Lisa Hannigan

Are there any other artists you would want to collaborate with?

I just love collaborating with people in every different genre. Writing songs is very embarrassing. That’s probably the best word to use. You need to have a balance of enthusiasm and openness- that’s the petrol for a good collaboration.

What is a band or artist that fans would be surprised to hear you listen to? 

Well, I have a pretty scarlet running playlist. I guess everyone does though. It’s a bit of a different genre- a running playlist.