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Saturday 20 April 2019

Lisa's last waltz? Or is there still more to come?

Three years since her last album, a new recording of The Christmas Waltz for An Post's festive television ad has put Lisa Hannigan back on the musical radar. Here, Stephen Milton asks the singer whether there's more to come…

Lisa Hannigan
Lisa Hannigan
Lisa Hannigan on stage at the Electric Picnic in 2009
Lisa Hannigan and Damien Rice during the 2003 Sundance Film Festival
Lisa Hannigan on stage
Lisa Hannigan

Stephen Milton

Lisa Hannigan speaks in a sort of robust whisper. As if she's conveying a secret so juicy, the excitement's too much to contain.

It's soothing and entrancing, like the soft, creaking murmur in her songs. I find myself gliding along the ripple of her warm tones. And then, she breaks this pensive fluidity with a startling utterance.

"You know, I really don't feel like Rihanna," Hannigan says, laughing at herself. Well of course, I say, nobody would ever deign to compare the two. "I mean, I don't feel like Rihanna in the sense of having to get a number one album out. There's no rush. There's no pressure from record companies or any of that business.

"I just want make a record that I'm proud of. And I hope that will happen next year."

It's over three years since Hannigan's last album release, but thanks to her recording of Frank Sinatra's The Christmas Waltz for the An Post festive TV ad, there's fresh public demand for new material from the singer-songwriter. Proceeds from the song, which was sold as a single during November and December, went to the Simon Community.

So, can we expect a new album to follow? "I'm being quite slow about it. I don't know why. It's just moved in quite a laboured way.

"But it will definitely be next year. It has to be because I really want to get it out. I want to play shows again but I haven't been able to do that without a new record. "And it's weird," she says, "I'm in London right now and I just haven't found I've written a huge amount here. So who knows?"

Living in the city's North East for a year-and-a-half now, Hannigan moved for 'practicalities', as she puts it.

She hesitates when I press her further. "Emmmm… practicalities that my fella lives here and had a real job. And it made more sense for me to leave Dublin because I was writing songs and I can do that anywhere." Is this the comedian she previously alluded to in past interviews? "You know…" she replies, enjoying a thoughtful pause. "I'd rather not get into it."

The 33-year-old has been burned in the past - and on a very public stage. It's bred an internal hesitance.

And it all comes back to her former boyfriend, Damien Rice. The two met at a concert while she was studying art history at Trinity College and made beautiful music together. On the resulting album, 2002's O, Hannigan provided a sweet optimism to Rice's melancholic vulnerability.

Singles Volcano, Cannonball and The Blower's Daughter became instant classics. The album sold over a half a million copies in the States and went 14 times platinum in the UK and Ireland. The fans loved the real-life love story behind the songs.

By the time his album 9 was released in 2006, however, the romance had splintered. A song from the album, Accidental Babies, referenced the cracks in their relationship. Things came to a head while on tour. A heated argument between the lovers backstage in Germany resulted in Hannigan's immediate dismissal from Rice's band. There's been minimal contact since.

And while Lisa moved on with a successful solo career - she has released two albums, been nominated for the Mercury Prize, performed on the Jay Leno Show and toured with Jason Mraz - Rice's output ceased.

Much of his crash was down to missing his former girlfriend. During an interview in 2009, he poured his heart out, crying "I love her so much".

I ask Hannigan what their relationship is like now? "I mean, we're in..." she says, pausing and tiptoeing round her words carefully. "We're in contact very rarely."

Has she heard his new album, My Favourite Faded Fantasy? Released in October this year after an eight-year break from Rice, it's his first album not to feature Lisa.

"No, I haven't heard it yet," she says squarely.

Rice recently revealed that he'd asked his ex to contribute on the album, an offer she refused. He also said that he hoped that, even if they didn't work together in studio again, that they might perform live. Is this likely to happen?

"I don't think that will happen. I doubt it. I don't know. I know it wouldn't be on the cards at the moment but..."

Lisa trails off into silence. It's been eight years since the split. She's currently in another relationship. Do the questions about Damien irk?

"To be honest, you're the first to ask me about that in five years. But yeah, I'm fairly relaxed about it. It really doesn't bother me at all."

I'm not quite convinced by the reply, but it's a commendable performance of nonchalance. One that can perhaps be chalked up to the skills acquired from her acting debut in Song of the Sea - an animated gem from Tomm Moore's Cartoon Saloon, home of Oscar-nominated epic, The Secret of Kells. And the reason we speak today.

Boasting the same lush hand-drawn visuals and fascination with Celtic legends, not to mention glaring awards potential, the classic animation spins a magic-infused yarn against a present-day backdrop.

Lisa voices Bronagh, a mystical 'Selkie' - half-human, half-seal - who disappears into the waves one night, leaving behind her husband (Brendan Gleeson) and two young children.

Years later, Ben (Moone Boy's David Rawle) and his silent little sister, Saoirse, set out to solve the family mystery, encountering a host of mythical creatures voiced by stalwarts of the Irish film industry including Fionnula Flanagan, Jon Kenny and Pat Shortt.

For a neophyte like Hannigan, the offer of a part in the film came as a shock.

"I got a call from the guys about doing some singing in the film and that was a no-brainer for me because I loved The Secret of Kells and I loved the music by Kíla and Bruno Coulais. But then they mentioned the possibility of doing a little bit of talking as well, which I was a bit more nervous about.

"The thought of that got my heart thumping with fear but I'm glad I did it. It's such a beautiful film. I'm proud to be a part of it."

Is this the beginning of a new career path for the dainty chanteuse?

"Oh no, I couldn't be acting with my face," she laughs. "It's one thing with the voice and they beautifully tailor it around that. But I don't know if I'd be able for any Love/Hate or anything like that. I think I'll be sticking to music in general. That's where my heart is."

"Mind you," she adds. "If Game of Thrones came calling… I mean, maybe."

Over a decade since the release of O, Lisa's carved out a unique niche and a strong solo brand. And while gaining confidence over the years, she admits the nerves remain. "It's funny because I actually think I get more nervous now than I used to. And I don't know why.

"I had a really great education when I was very young. And seeing David [Rawle], who plays Ben in Song of the Sea and who also plays Moone Boy, when people are really young, they just kind of accept things and are quite brave, but they don't realise that they're supposed to be nervous.

"So I just ended up doing things with Damien where I was like: 'Okay, let's go for this, no problem.'

"Whereas now, I'm like freaking out about going on a TV show or lending my voice to an animated film. There's something about doing things with an open heart and an excitement which is very useful. And the nerves, yeah, they still remain. I don't think they'll ever go away."

Is it possible for the singer to pinpoint a moment where she felt her most anxious? "The very first time I played at the Electric Picnic with my own record [in 2009] just before it came out, that was the most nervous I've ever been. And also one of my favourite shows ever, which is strange."

"I had felt very shaken by my experiences before I released my own thing. And to be so welcomed and warmly received gave me an amount of confidence to go forward with what I was doing. That will always stick out as one of the moments where I changed the way I felt about what I was doing. I felt comfortable up there."

Watching Hannigan perform, you would never identity anxiety. Throwing her face up to the ceiling, producing a cleansing, delicate moan of pointed strength and stirring warmth, she was simply born for this. The stage is her second home. "Perhaps, even my first," she adds, "and that's why I need to start touring again."

And why she needs to finish the new album. Is Lisa blocked, perhaps? Or is London really the problem? "I just don't love anything I've written in the last while. As I said, there's no pressure from anyone but myself really. I simply want to make a better record than my last. So that's pressure. Internal pressure.

"To be perfectly honest, it really hasn't been flowing easy in London. Maybe that's it. I've really enjoyed my time here and it's such a wonderful place but I miss home every day. Ultimately, I'm from the country so it's a bit hectic for me living here. Don't a lot of people say that?"

She sighs and chuckles softly. "Maybe they do. Or maybe I just need to cop on to myself and get it finished. Stop with the excuses." I can certainly think of worse New Year's resolutions…

Song of the Sea is in cinemas in 2015.

Irish Independent

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