Sunday 17 December 2017

Life lessons with Lisa Hannigan: 'I had a crisis of confidence when it came to making this album. It's not fun having a blank page at the end of the day'

Lisa Hannigan had a crisis of confidence while working on 'At Swim', which is released on Friday
Lisa Hannigan had a crisis of confidence while working on 'At Swim', which is released on Friday
Class act: Lisa Hannigan and Aaron Dessner on stage in Boston
John Meagher

John Meagher

Lisa Hannigan (35), grew up in Co Meath and came to prominence as backing singer to then-boyfriend Damien Rice. She sung on his first two albums and spent seven years touring in his band. When their personal and professional union ended, Hannigan went out on her own, releasing a pair of acclaimed albums, Sea Sew and Passenger. Her latest album, At Swim, was recorded in upstate New York and was produced by Aaron Dessner, guitarist with The National. She divides her time between Dublin and London.

I don't remember a time when I wasn't singing and it was just always a part of my day. My mum would always sing in the house while she was doing things: more than music, there was always singing going on.

I got a notion as a young teenager that I wanted to be an opera singer. I was obsessed with Maria Callas. I got lessons for years but then I realised I just don't have those pipes and there's nothing you can do about it.

A hugely important moment for me was going to see Kristin Hersh at the Button Factory [in Dublin]. She writes very confessional music that's searingly honest and brutal and I loved her record Hips and Makers and I learnt to play songs off it. It changed the way I thought about singing. Then I started writing terrible songs that thankfully have been lost to the mists of time. I was quite shy and I wouldn't have been so bold to say that I would be a songwriter, but I know I wanted to sing in my life.

I learnt classical guitar and then sort of forgot it again. And even to this day, I can only really pick the guitar - I'm very bad at strumming, because I never really learnt it, although I tend to pick things up. I write on guitar or mandolin, but in a very skeletal way.

When I met Damien Rice, I was very lucky. It was the outlet I needed for my music and seven years working with him helped me come around to the idea that I could write my own songs. It was a case of building confidence. The song-writing came eventually.

It was frightening from a personal prospective to go out on the road after Damien. But I was lucky that people were very receptive to the idea of me being on my own. They were warm to me. Even physically, learning to sing for an hour-and-a-half was very different - it had its own kinetic energy. The really difficult bit didn't last that long - I feel like I had a very soft landing.

I wouldn't work with Damien again. I don't think that would be very good for either of us. He's doing his own thing and that's brilliant and I'm certainly doing my own thing and that's brilliant. We did some great work together that I will always remember fondly. And every so often a song will come on and I'll think, "Oh!" - but all that is very much in the past.

[Damien and I] don't really keep in contact. He emailed a couple of times when he was trying to finish his record but I've only seen him once in the past 10 years.

I think you have to write so many s*** songs before you have a really good one. That's certainly something I've learned on this record. If you want everything you do to be good, you're never going to write anything - it's like you've to wade through all this rubbish to get to the good stuff. But everybody goes through that.

I had a crisis of confidence when it came to making this album. It's not fun having a blank page at the end of the day. It's easy to get down on yourself when you don't have the fruits of your labours at a tangible form at the end of the day. A month or two of that would really get me down.

The album title [At Swim] is about the feeling I had, that I was sort of adrift. I had moved out of the house I lived in for 10 years here in Dublin - my flatmate was getting married - and, then, when I came back from tour, I didn't know where to go. I went to Paris and here and down the country and then London - I didn't feel at home anywhere and that fed into that slightly uneasy feeling which in turn fed into the songs.

I feel that by getting older, your perspective changes slightly and sometimes difficult situations can end up with you approaching life in a more positive way. And that's there in some of the songs, even something like We the Drowned which is about that self-sabotaging nature that's in all of us.

I think some questions [that journalists ask] are of a personal nature and I don't want to go there. Once you open that door you can't close it again and I really want to keep that door closed.

It's ridiculous that we haven't been given a vote to repeal the 8th [amendment on abortion]. I'm a woman of child-bearing age and I feel very angry that I can't exercise my democratic right. Amnesty International did a poll recently and the vast majority of Irish people want to see change so it's infuriating that just because politicians say they don't believe in it [abortion rights], they won't call a referendum. It's not a subject that's easy to write a song about, though!

Streaming is here to stay and that can be a little tough to accept for those who feel that music should be in physical form. There's no point in pretending that the horse hasn't left the stable, and I think [streaming] is a great way for people to hear music and discover new artists, but it's important that a way is found to pay musicians more fairly for their content, for want of a better word.

'At Swim' is released on Friday

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