wears the trousers magazine

lisa hannigan: what’s simple is true
September 8, 2009, 9:20 am
Filed under: feature, video, words in edgeways | Tags: , , , , ,


words in edgeways with lisa hannigan

It’s early on a Tuesday morning and from London to Dublin bellies are a-rumbling with prandial urges. “I’ll just go with the ol’ milk,” a sleepy Lisa Hannigan tells Wears The Trousers over the phone from her home as conversation lingers on the pertinent topic of breakfast. Lisa, you see, likes to keep things pure and simple. Bran flakes, no trimmings. “I’ll have the raspberries separate,” she laughs, her sole concession to extravagance throughout our chat.

I’ve caught her on her only day off in the middle of a mini Irish tour with Oscar-winning duo The Swell Season, aka Lisa’s “complete musical hero” Glen Hansard and Czech songstress Markéta Irglová. Lisa is tired after a long late-night drive back from a successful show in Ennis, County Clare over in the west, but she’s fizzing with a quiet kind of enthusiasm and the warm glow of a nice cup of tea. “It’s such a dream for me to play with them, a real honour,” she sighs contentedly. “Glen is like the High King of folk music and singer-songwritery stuff in Ireland. To me anyway.”

Some years before Hansard and Irglová were anointed as the country’s foremost music-making male/female duo, all eyes were on Lisa and her then musical partner Damien Rice. A chance meeting in a university bar led to a seven-year working relationship that became increasingly strained as the praise for Lisa’s dusky, yearning vocals began to muscle in on Rice’s kudos, and Lisa began to assert herself more within the context of the band. The friction finally erupted in a well publicised, if unceremonious, split in early 2007, in the middle of a European tour.

While the ins and outs of exactly what happened may have been diplomatically smoothed over by both parties, the fallout persists and nary a word has been exchanged between them since. Digging for some small bone of contention is of little interest to me; instead I wonder exactly what does one do when they’ve been thrown out in the cold in a foreign country; go straight home or find the nearest bar and drown their sorrows in the local ales? “I did get quite drunk!” laughs Lisa. “Actually, I flew over to New York as I had a friend who was there. I thought that if I went home I would be quite dismal, so I walked around New York for a long time, thinking and getting it together.”

When she finally braved the journey back to Ireland, it was with a positive mindset. She would start work immediately on writing songs for a solo album, she decided, something she had been too busy to really dive headlong into while working and touring with Rice. She didn’t distance herself from the past entirely, enlisting for the recording her ex-colleagues in Rice’s backing band: Vyvienne Long, Shane Fitzsimmons and Tom Osander, who also left Rice’s employ at the same time as Lisa. Asked whether she would have made her own record if she’d never crossed paths with Damien, her answer comes softly, pragmatically. “Yes, I think so. But it would have been a very different affair. I mean, if you change any parameter, anything about your ‘journey’, for want of a better word, you’re going to end up in a different place.”

Released in Ireland in September 2008 on Lisa’s own label Barp, the album Sea Sew was an instant critical hit and bagged her a nomination for the Choice Music Prize, an annual award given to the best Irish album as voted for by a panel of media professionals. She lost out to her good friend Richie Egan (aka Jape, “an incredible musician”), but it was nevertheless an enormously welcome validation of her self-belief. She’s been slowly charming the world into blissful submission one country at a time ever since, already succeeding where so many artists fall down, in the US, where she made a particularly strong impression on talk show host Stephen Colbert.

Well-versed in a life spent on the road, Lisa took to the long Transamerican drives in her van like maple syrup to a stack of pancakes, conquering each city along the way with the unstoppered sweetness of her songs and onstage banter. She also got to indulge in her passion of rummaging through piles of vintage clothing in the shops of backwater towns. “You always find very interesting stuff over in America,” she explains. “Great pawn shops, thrift shops. We dressed ourselves that way; three-piece suits, the lot! I mean, we worked very hard over there, and did as much as we could. But we had a lot of fun.”

As guests of multi-platinum artist Jason Mraz, Lisa and her band were spared the ordeal of playing toilet clubs in the arse end of nowhere, and when she returns there later this year as the support for David Gray she’ll be playing yet more “gorgeous rooms”; meanwhile, here she’s done Glastonbury, headlined such cherished venues as the Union Chapel in London, and has just announced a prestigious show at the Royal Festival Hall in November. But no matter the size of the venue, an evening in the company of Lisa invariably feels a bit like taking a walk with your big sister, or perhaps a favourite cousin. At its most soothing, her voice is like a luxurious armchair; at its most rousing, like an unbending ray of leavening joy.


"I might have a little snooze"

“We just have a cup of tea and tell some jokes,” she explains when asked how she relaxes into her performance mode. “Nothing too strange.” Her favourite joke? “A seal walks into a club…That’s it!” she laughs as I’m momentarily flummoxed, expecting more to it, and I get the nagging sensation that we both feel slightly self-conscious and stupid all of a sudden. “It’s actually not that good of a joke,” she offers apologetically. “But it’s the only one I ever remember – because it’s so short!…I’m terrible at telling jokes. Really really bad.”

Where once her career was described as the “classic always the bridesmaid, never the bride” scenario, Sea Sew has proposed great changes for Lisa, not least with her recent surprise nomination for the 2009 Barclaycard Mercury Prize. Does she feel married to the media now, I ask? She laughs. “That’s a great way of putting it! I suppose so, yes. I’m definitely one of the artists in the group that a lot of people have never heard of, so it’s completely fascinating.”

Though she says she hasn’t given a huge number of interviews since the nominations were announced on July 21st, she’s already experienced the downside of the surge in interest in this year’s “token folkie”. Some journalists, she says, have little regard for private matters, often worming in with intensely personal questions about her relationship with Rice and rumoured romance with Snow Patrol singer Gary Lightbody. “I like chatting to people, so thankfully those who are not so nice are very rare. But it’s like, ‘Wow, how bizarre that you think that’s okay’ – no, it’s not!”

That Lisa has erected this conversational vallum is good to know; survival in the music industry relies just as much on tact as it does on having a thick skin, and walking the indistinct line that lies somewhere between Pollyanna-like illusions and the jaded cynicism best reserved for veterans of a much older vintage than Lisa. Still, it’s quite endearing when she admits she didn’t even know that there was a cash prize of £20,000 waiting for the winner of the Mercury Prize, announced later on today. “I thought just to win the Mercury would be the most exciting thing ever!” she giggles. “What would I spend it on? Oh, a very boring answer I’m afraid. It would have to go back to the record company to pay for lots of stuff. It would be like shhoooop!, gone, thanks very much! But we’d definitely have to go out for a few beers afterwards.”

Despite a small, vocal bunch of celebrity backers, Lisa doesn’t really expect to win the Mercury. Putting herself in the judges’ shoes, she says, she’d probably vote for Bat For Lashes, whose nominated album Two Suns she describes as “an incredible record”. “I thought she was going to win last time [in 2007 with her debut Fur & Gold], so hopefully she’ll win this time. I love the new album. I think she’s amazing.”

We’ll have to wait until 10 o’clock tonight to find out whether Natasha Khan, or indeed Lisa, will take home the Prize. It certainly seems like a woman’s year – and about time too as the last female winner was Ms Dynamite way back in 2002. It’s been some source of amusement among the Wears The Trousers team that publications all over have been proclaiming that female solo artists “dominate” this year’s shortlist, despite the fact that there are just as many all-male bands in the running (plus mixed-sex band Glasvegas and the anomalous Sweet Billy Pilgrim), and the overall percentage of female performers is actually down on last year’s figure. (Also, technically, La Roux is not a solo artist.)

Though she seconds our desire for true equality, Lisa is just grateful for the media’s spotlight on the women. As she rightly points out, “There’s a lot of women who could have been nominated who aren’t. I can think of probably eight or nine women who could have been nominated this year, and it’s absolutely brilliant that people are noticing that. Women are always making records, great records! And the range of women, the music they’re making, in this year’s list is fantastic.”

Beyond today’s Mercury Prize announcement, beyond the David Gray tour, and beyond the Royal Festival Hall show – a true mark of how far she has come – Lisa’s focus remains on keeping things pure and simple. A full European release of Sea Sew and accompanying tour is one goal for the future, but for now a much smaller objective awaits.

“I might have a little snooze,” she yawns. “Go get yourself something yummy!”

Alan Pedder
Sea Sew is out now on Absolute/Hoop Recordings; www.myspace.com/lisahannigan

‘I Don’t Know’



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[…] Wears The Trousers magazine to talk about her life and career since the release of Sea Sew. You can read the article in Wears The Trousers online edition. Published Friday, September 11, 2009 7:38 PM by Beverly […]

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