- 12 Feb 20
To celebrate Lisa Hannigan's 39th birthday, we're revisiting one of her classic interviews with Hot Press – originally published in 2008, shortly after the release of her Mercury and Choice Music Prize-nominated debut solo album, Sea Sew.
Lisa Hannigan’s star qualities are obvious from the moment you meet her. Tall, slim and elegant, she has a distinctive dress style, long dark hair and dark eyes set in a pale, beautiful face. She may be a singer first and foremost, but she has the charisma to be a movie star.
Hannigan was a member of Damien Rice’s band for seven years – “longer than the time you’re in secondary school,” she notes. But she was more than just a band member – she was his counterfoil, a feminine presence behind which he could on occasion hide his own style of machismo, the singer of the beautiful, sensual ‘Volcano’. They went their separate ways in spring 2007, Rice stating cooly that their professional relationship “had run its creative course”. So Lisa Hannigan became her own boss, working carefully and quietly to establish herself as a solo artist. The fruit of her labour since going out on her own is a lovely debut album Sea Sew, which hit the shops in Ireland last week. A beautifully modulated suite of 10 songs in the ‘folk-indie’ vein, some slow, some danceably fast, it is already a hit, climbing to No.3 in the charts in its first week on release.
Having spent years in a supporting role how does Lisa feel about her new status?
“It’s such a different thing,” she says. “The pressure is very different. Working with Damien, I always wanted to do well for the gig, and if I sang well I thought I had done well. Now I feel like we all have to do well, for me to feel that a gig went well, and everyone has to feel like they enjoyed it. I’m much more aware of the thing as a whole. I’m enjoying it now, having that responsibility. And I’ve nice boys around me.”
On the album, violin and cello are provided by the exceptionally gifted Lucy Wilkins and Vyvienne Long. Awe-filled when she describes the talent of the musicians she works with, Hannigan claims she herself is “crap at playing instruments”.
Surely not! “I can play a little bit of guitar and two-finger piano kinda thing,” she says. “I felt it held me back for years, thinking ‘I can’t really play, so how do I write?’ So I thought: 'I’ll just get really simple instruments and play them all really straightforwardly.' But they work together very nicely. And that’s the way it’s all written.”
Which are Lisa’s favourite tracks on Sea Sew?
“I really like ‘Ocean And A Rock’,” she answers. “It’s a cheerful song, and technically a good one to sing and get your teeth into. And I really like the single ‘Lille’, the one with Cathy Davey. She did the most beautiful backing vocals. She just came into the studio and got if right the first time.”
Sitting in Dublin’s Central Hotel, there’s an old-world charm that seems oddly appropriate. I mention to Lisa how ‘Ocean And A Rock’ – the way it describes knitting someone into your day – reminds me of what the author Virgina Woolf said about female creativity: that women tend to reach for apparently simple domestic imagery, using what’s around them in their homes, to express complex relationships and emotions. Is this female way of seeing things something that Lisa consciously cultivates?
“No, but it’s lovely,” she says. “It’s nice and it makes sense. I would definitely be that way inclined. My love for cooking, food, art, music – all the good things – is part of that.”
The artwork on Sea Sew (commendably, there’s no plastic whatsoever in the CD cover) is striking in the way it resists the trash aesthetic of so much pop. Instead, it reflects the domestic and feminine: Lisa and her mother Frances literally knitted and stitched the cover, sewing the credits and lyrics, which were then photographed to create the artwork.
The result is that, when you hold Sea Sew in your hands, it feels like a well-made piece of craft work.
It comes as no surprise, then, to discover that Lisa has a particular yen for beautifully-made vintage clothes – tea-dresses from the 1940s and 1950s being her hallmark – and that she’s just as handy with a needle and thread as she is with pencils and paint-brushes (Lisa studied art history briefly in Trinity College, Dublin, before becoming a full-time singer in Rice’s band and did much of the artwork on Damien Rice’s albums, O and 9.)
“When I was a kid,” recalls Hannigan, “I used to get teddy bears belonging to me and my friends, and they’d get married, so I’d make little tuxedos and wedding dresses for all of the teddies. I really liked that kind of thing. I used to work in A Store Is Born, this lovely vintage clothes shop in Dublin. That was my favourite job, apart from this one. But, then, I don’t really count this as a job – so that was the best job ever! I used to darn all the cashmere jumpers. I was supposed to be getting 50 quid or whatever for the day, but I’d be wandering around going, ‘ooh, that’s nice, and that’s nice’… So I hardly ever got paid, because – through the course of the day – I’d just pick out clothes.”
So, yes, she is a bit of a vintage junkie: “I really like old clothes. I’m quite old-fashioned in the way I love properly made things, things that have been made with care.”
It could be a mission statement for her art...
Lisa grew up outside Dunshaughlin on the Meath, Kildare, Dublin border. “It was full-on countryside,” she recalls. “My mother is a very keen gardener, and I’m sure I will be at some point. When my brother and I were growing up, we spent a lot of time playing flower fairies on the grass. I think spending so much time in the garden has affected my sensibility. I’m a bit rural at heart.”
Hannigan waxes lyrical about the musical influences of her childhood – Nina Simone, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. “My mum was really into Joni Mitchell. We used to drive down to West Cork, where she’s from, singing along to Joni songs. I’d be in the back seat, doing backing vocals, and she’d be doing vocals. My mum always had long fair hair. I always thought she was Joni Mitchell.”
Mitchell’s confessional songwriting is a clear influence on Sea Sew: “A lot of the songs on the record are about friends and friendships, and then there’s a couple of ‘boyfriendy’ ones as well. But a lot of it is to do with me and my friends and stuff that’s happening to us. I don’t know how to be any less vague,” she laughs. “‘Keep It All’, that’s about myself and my mates, we used to live in this fantastic, tiny, cramped flat along the canal near The Barge pub in Dublin. People would always drop in on their way home because it was at a crossroads, and it was near Whelan’s and other music venues and near where people worked. It was this amazing flat where somebody would drop in on a Thursday and you’d wave them off on a Monday morning…”
Some songs probe deeper waters however. “Like ‘Venn Diagram’ is about a particular time with a …” Lisa cuts herself off and laughs awkwardly. She’s not the type to give chapter and verse on her past romantic liaisons. “I don’t like being too specific because everyone has their own interpretation,” she adds. “It’s always a bit crap when you hear a songwriter say ‘Oh, it’s about my pet rat’ and you thought it was the most beautiful love song ever… The listener might think it’s really romantic when it wasn’t intended like that at all. And you don’t want to close a song off like that for people, because you are putting something in a box then, you’re fencing it in. So the songs are mostly about the goings-on in my gang of friends, and then personally, any romances that I might have had.”
Might have had? Everybody assumed that, along the way, Damien Rice and Lisa were an item, but it’s clearly not something that she wants to discuss. Apologies, curious readers: Hannigan is polite but firm in skirting discussion of anything personal, including the famous people she’s undoubtedly met.
“There’s nothing interesting to be said,” she says. “I’ve no excitement, I’m afraid. I wonder do people just make stuff up to sound interesting? Maybe I’ll have to start making up some excitement. It must sell stuff. I suppose it’s natural.”
You have to admire Lisa’s temperance in holding back. Instead we chat much more broadly about how romance has always been such an inspiring subject for songwriters, to the point where some seem to get addicted to that first initial rush of love – because it’s such a useful spring-board for their art.
“And possibly the drama as well, of something not working out,” adds Lisa. “The pain and the sorrow. But I wonder do songwriters recognise that process happening when it’s actually happening? It gets such beautiful songs! I’d say a lot of singer-songwriters are very prone to romance. They’d be very open to a look across a room; whereas most people would be like, ‘What’s your one looking at?!’ They’re always open to romance in general.”
Lisa looks sideways and smiles mischievously. “It must be exhausting, I’d say…”
While it’d be silly to underestimate the inherent power and beauty of her vocals, there’s no doubt that her involvement with Damien Rice has placed Hannigan in a hugely advantageous position when it comes to her own solo career. Singing on Rice’s albums O and 9 – including a lead vocal on the latter’s first single, ‘9 Crimes’ – and accompanying him internationally on his live performances, have brought Lisa a wealth of experiences, and also of contacts. She’s been guest vocalist on recordings by The Frames and Mic Christopher, and performed ‘Don’t Explain’ with Rice on the legendary Herbie Hancock’s album Possibilities. She appeared in an Oxfam ‘Make Trade Fair’ ad, drenched in melted chocolate, and as part of the same campaign she contributed vocals to the Irish musical collective, The Cake Sale – including lead vocals on ‘Last Leaf’ and ‘Some Surprise’, written by Bell X1’s Paul Noonan and David Geraghty respectively, (and with Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody, with whom she has also been rumoured to have a romantic liaison, sharing vocal duties).
“It was amazing with Damien,” says Lisa. “We met lots of great people and toured for years. I was only 19 or 20 when I started in the band. For the first couple of gigs we did, I couldn’t even look at the microphone, let alone know how to work it to your advantage. We were really lucky that things went so well, just to get to go and do wonderful gigs around the world. The album did surprisingly well; we didn’t expect it to do anything at all.”
What a wealth of experience for your own future career, I suggest. An amazing foundation to build off…
Lisa nods vigorously. “Absolutely. I came in not knowing how gigs worked, or how you put out a record. But I got to see every aspect of the music industry: how to record, how to set up a record company, how people dealt with each other. And through it all I met my manager Bernadette Barrett, who’s an absolute genius.”
Indeed, Lisa is refreshingly upfront about what a spectacularly good calling-card her background with Damien Rice is, for her own solo career.
“If it wasn’t for that,” says Lisa, “I wouldn’t be talking to you. Nobody would be interested in me having a record. You know, why would people be interested?”
Do you expect a listening ear in many countries around the world when you say you’re the female voice on that album? The female voice of O?
“Well hopefully, yeah,” says Lisa. “But I’m sure for some people it might have negative connotations.”
“It’s just great to be in a position to hope that people will listen to the record, because they’ll maybe know my name,” she says. “There are so many artists out there with amazing records, but there’s a huge pile of them. So I just feel that it’s a gift really, to get people to listen, and then they can make their own opinions.”
As someone who doesn’t want to discuss your personal life in public, are you bracing yourself for questions about your artistic split with Rice last year?
“I imagine people will ask now, with this record,” says Lisa, “then hopefully that will be that. Then I’ll be doing gigs and that will be what people are interested in. I’d rather focus on what’s happening now… I understand that my time with Damien will be the focus for a while, but I hope that after a while, it won’t. I just have to weather it out. And it’s not that much hassle, really. I mean you couldn’t call this a job. I get to sing for a living, which is ridiculously brilliant. So in the grand scheme of things, somebody asking you slightly awkward questions really isn’t that much of a problem. I always wanted to sing, but so do a lot of people. And I’ve been incredibly lucky to be able to do what I do, and for people to like it. I mean, I’d be doing what I do anyway, but that people like it is an added bonus.”
Are you friends with Damien still? Do you ever hang out together?
“No,” says Lisa firmly, “we don’t hang out any more. But it’s kind of like a new phase now, for me, and I’m sure for him. It’s a different world again.”
Do you feel nervous about how Sea Sew will to be received?
“I do and I don’t. I hope people like it, but I like it, and I’m having lots of fun going around the country doing gigs with my friends, and we’re off to the US and Canada in October to support Jason Mraz… So if people don’t like the record, it’s a shame, but you know, I’m still having fun – I’m sure some people will like it, but not everybody will like it. At the end of the day, you can only like it yourself, and if you do that, then you’ll be fine.”
Friendship and having fun are what keeps Lisa Hannigan upbeat. “I went through a few tough times – as everybody does – where I didn’t really have that much fun,” says Lisa, laughing at the understatement. “When you’re going through one of those phases, you can’t really imagine not feeling that way. So it’s been great to suddenly discover, ‘oh, I’m actually really happy at the moment’. I feel that now and it’s lovely. Long may it last!”