How It’s New York:  Lisa Hannigan says she would like to move here!  We think she’d fit right in.  The singer-songwriter has a loyal following, and she’s playing two dates in the area, promoting her sweet new CD Passenger.
How It’s Irish: Lisa is Irish and first became known through her work with Damien Rice.

Lisa Hannigan is playing two dates in NYC area this week (she’s also in Philly so check her site!):  at The Bell House, Brooklyn, October 18th, and at the Hiro Ballroom on Friday the 21st.

This interview first appeared in Irish Examiner USA.  Here on the blog we can also add video; catch it after the jump!

“I do like eating food, and therefore I like cooking food,” she says. “Who doesn’t love to eat cake?”

Tuesday October 11, 2011

Lisa Hannigan Steers Her Own Course with Passenger

Photo by Fiona Morgan

By Gwen Orel
Say her name around Irish alt-music lovers and players and you’ll hear a sigh.
Hearing I was to interview Lisa Hannigan  last month, before her album Passenger came out, Guggenheim Grotto’s Kevin May begged for a link. Facebook friends in Ireland emailed proposals.
Lisa used to sing with Damien Rice, but had a somewhat contentious split with him in 2007, and released her debut album Sea Sew in 2008 (2009 in the U.S.).
That album was praised by The Los Angeles Times, People Magazine and NPR, and nominated for a Mercury prize; Lisa appeared on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and “The Colbert Report.”
One of her songs even appeared on Grey’s Anatomy, the Indie Sensitive Seal of Approval.
When we spoke she was getting ready to record with the Chieftains.
Other notables she’s performed with include The Frames and Herbie Hancock.
Passenger is ethereal, gorgeous, and comforting. Occasionally it’s even bouncy.
It was produced by Grammy-winner Joe Henry.
The title reflects the singer’s touring life-many of the 10 songs were written while she was on the road, missing home, feeling nostalgic.
She recorded it with friends over a week in Wales. But the first song, “Home,” she tells me, was actually inspired by Paul Murray’s secondary school trilogy Skippy Dies (read Michelle Woods‘ review here!)

“He really creates a potent sort of atmosphere. I felt like I was a teenager again, awkwardness, frustration, a big mix of yearning, confusion, everything that goes along with it. It’s a time of change, a loss of innocence… I had this melody and a few words, and that book really helped me finish the song. It got under my skin.”

So it’s a mistake to take Lisa too much at face value. Sure, her last album was called Sea Sew, and its cover showed her own needlework, but while she can “darn a hole” she wouldn’t be whipping up curtains like her mother, she says.

And though she blogs about baking, and her bio at the Hiro Ballroom site (she’s playing there on the 21st of October) states that her operatic career was cut short because “her chances of playing a consumptive operatic heroine were severely hampered by both her naturally quiet voice and her insatiable love of cake,” she’s not really a domestic goddess.
“I do like eating food, and therefore I like cooking food,” she says. “Who doesn’t love to eat cake?”
So, she’s a homebody – who travels the globe. She lives in Dublin now, but she’d like to move to New York for a good chunk of time (let the sighing begin).
“It’s always been a dream of mine to do that,” she says.
She did spend a month in Brooklyn, while writing the record, but although she planned to write hundreds of songs, instead she went to galleries and shows and ended writing them at home. “Maybe New York is too exciting a place to get anything done.”
Her decision to go into music was more of “an awareness that that was where I was happiest. You naturally focus your time and energy on that which nourishes you most. God, I sound like I’ve been through too much yoga.” She had just finished a class when we spoke.
“You’re sounding very healthy,” I point out.

“Sometimes a big slice of chocolate cake is what nourishes you.”

As a teenager she was obsessed, for a while, with Maria Callas (as her funny bio suggests, she considered going into opera).
She joined choirs, took lessons. You can hear the range in her voice, though she more often uses a breathier delivery.

Photo by Fiona Morgan

Other musical influences include her father’s blues and Irish traditional music, and her mother’s recordings of Nina Simone and Joni Mitchell.
Actually, if you mix all of those things together you have a pretty good idea of what her music evokes. And it’s pretty hard to resist. Who doesn’t like cake?
“Safe Travels (Don’t Die)” has a kind of country twang to it, a “more Deadwood sort of vibe,” Lisa agrees.
A friend used to text that to her whenever she was going on the road and Lisa always saw it as a “very cheerful little thing. It’s so pure a sentiment. It’s not romantic, or platonic, it can be to anyone you really care about. Your main overarching feeling, is ‘please…. Just… watch it…'”
Another song with a country inspiration is “O Sleep,” which was inspired in part by Ralph Stanley’s “O Death.”
“I wanted a song addressing something intangible, and a proper duet. Not just harmonies, but people singing to each other.” She sings back and forth with Ray Lamontagne. It’s hard not to think of her duets with Damien Rice.
While the end was touchy, she speaks of him with appreciation. “When I met him I was a mere pup; I didn’t know anything about anything,” Lisa says.
Not only did she learn about singing and travel the world, “when I did have a solo record, people were interested in it.”  Going out on her own was scary. For the first time, she was really center stage-in every way.

When I first started by myself the stupidest things would frighten me, what if somebody breaks a string and I have to banter for a couple of minutes. That would be my responsibility. I remember initially thinking what happens if someone in the audience shouts something! Before nobody would expect me to do anything. A few strings broken and a few heckles before you realize, it’s fine.”

Dancing through the fear is the vibe of “What’ll I Do”-the song that really earns the adjective bouncy, with a chorus of “oh oh oh oh, eh eh, ah ah ah, eh eh” and claps.
Though its lyrics are sad, the song is irrepressibly gleeful.

What’ll I do without you around, 
my words wont pun,
my pennies won’t pound, oh and my frisbee flies to the ground, 
what’ll I do without you.

“I was dancing, singing along trying to explain what I meant,” Lisa says about composing it with guitar player Gavin Glass.

“It can only be explained through the medium of dancing. Musically I was just humming a tune that I had. I didn’t know how to fit music around it – it was a bouncy tune, what’ll I do, thinking of all the things that aren’t that much fun by yourself. It’s not a desperately lonely song, just someone thinking this is way more fun when I’m not by myself.” 

A kind of mopey song that makes you want to dance – it’s a quirky contradiction that makes perfect sense. It will make you smile.
Or even sigh.

Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.