Wednesday 7 December 2016

Lisa, in deep, swims off a sombre shore

Irish chanteuse Lisa Hannigan is one of our greatest singers, with a new album, At Swim, that goes deep and stirs up an emotional undertow in the listener

Published 29/08/2016 | 02:30

Lisa Hannigan is an extraordinary artist and woman who doesn’t do shallow
Lisa Hannigan is an extraordinary artist and woman who doesn’t do shallow

In an interview with the Observer's Gemma Kappala-Ramsamy in 2012, Lisa Hannigan revealed the record that made her want to play to an audience: For the Birds by The Frames in 2001. There was - unsurprisingly - a characteristically charismatic Lisa tale that came with it. . .

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"I was at college in Dublin and my friend said, 'Do you want to come and see this band called The Frames?' The gig was at this great venue called Vicar Street and it just blew my mind," Lisa recalled. "At one point, Glen Hansard dropped his harmonica and it fell straight down into his pint of Guinness. He downed the whole pint until it was dry, then took out the harmonica and held it aloft. I swooned and thought, 'That is the coolest thing I've ever seen.'

"It was the first time I really wanted to perform on stage. We bought this record there. Me and my house-mate used to lie on the floor and listen to the first song from it, In the Deep Shade, in the dark."

I don't doubt there will be quite a few people listening in the dark to some of the songs from Lisa's new album At Swim - shrieking soulfully along like Macbeth's witches

to Lisa on tracks like Prayer On For The Dying: "Your heart, my heart."

Those in the dark on their back listening will also be overwhelmed emotionally by the album's opus Fall - with its exquisite opening line "Hold your horses, hold your tongue/ Hang the rich but spare the young", or by the hymnal Undertow, where Lisa asks "to flow on every word you say". This is to say nothing of her stirring a cappella version of Seamus Heaney's poem of Anahorish.

Lisa Hannigan stopped being a mere Irish singer-songwriter years ago, probably just after she first emerged into our consciousness as that second voice on Damien Rice's debut O in 2002.

Produced by Aaron Dressler of The National, At Swim, her third album, is an elegiac (even sombre) collection of songs that uses words and sounds to create an ambient (even spiritual) atmosphere that will genuinely touch you.

However deep you want it to touch you will say as much about you as it will about At Swim, which the Daily Telegraph described, not inaccurately, as possessing "a sense of gorgeous transparency, all echoes and soft touches, subtly concocted from chiming guitars, isolated pianos, gently thumping drums, shivery guitars and looming strings, awash in the atmospheric ambience of sacred spaces."

Lisa sings on We, the Drowned like Sylvia Plath channelling Maria Callas channelling Nina Simone reading Moby Dick: "We, the ashes/ We spent our life like matches/ And burned our ships as black as the end. . .We sing and sing and the flames go higher." At Swim is an extraordinary album; Lisa Hannigan is an extraordinary artist, an extraordinary woman, one of our greatest singers. She doesn't do shallow.

In an interview with Andy Warhol's former magazine Interview in New York in 2011 to promote her then-new record Passenger, Lisa gave an intriguing, insightful answer about what really drives her - when asked about making it in America and why artists like Robbie Williams have never really cracked it stateside.

"I think people maybe have a skewed idea of what making it in America is," Lisa began. "As in, I'm getting to play music around the country, so I feel fully made.

"I imagine, with Robbie Williams, if you've got a thousand screaming girls chasing you down Oxford Street and then you're walking down Broadway and there are 10 screaming girls, maybe you feel like you've gone down a peg.

"I'm getting to play gigs here and that's all I ever wanted to do."

Long may she continue to do so.

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