Mercury is rising for our sensitive songbird
Lisa Hannigan has come into her own with a nomination for the UK's most prestigious music prize. Ed Power reports
Doe-eyed songbird Lisa Hannigan joined an exclusive club of Irish musicians this week when she was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize.
The Co Meath singer, whose ethereal Sea Sew album has floored critics, is the first artist from these shores to catch the ear of the Mercury judges since rumpled singer-songwriter Fionn Regan got the nod in 2007 (in the end, the prize that year controversially went to 'nu-rave' pranksters Klaxons).
If the bookies are correct, the 27-year-old probably won't win outright (Kate Bush-tinged belter Florence Welch and her band Florence and the Machine have been installed as favourites).
Whatever the outcome, however, the nomination is sure to do wonders for Hannigan, who first came to general attention as muse and backing singer to dewy-eyed strummer Damien Rice and has been romantically linked with Snow Patrol's lead singer Gary Lightbody.
That's because, in the pantheon of music prizes, the Mercury stands head and shoulders above the rest. Open to all Irish and UK acts, the Mercury markets itself as an upmarket alternative to the glitzy Brits. Rather than celebrating commercial success or buying into music industry hype, the Mercury -- awarded to the year's best album -- is a proudly tweedy affair, closer to the chin-stroking spirit of literary awards such as the Booker than the tawdry mainstream of music industry ceremonies. At the Mercurys, we are told, quality is what really counts (a similar independence of spirit informs its Irish equivalent, the Choice prize).
Certainly, bagging the Mercury can have a sensational impact on your profile in Ireland and Britain (whether the rest of the world actually cares is unclear: few Mercury winners have gone on to true international success). Consider 2008 winners, Elbow. Long seen as the nearly-men of heartfelt orchestral pop, the Mercury -- awarded for their fourth album, The Seldom Seen Kid -- elevated the Manchester band into genuine chart contenders.
Last month, thousands braved a downpour to see them perform (bundled up in raincoats) at Oxegen's wind-whipped main stage; and in a few weeks they will open for Coldplay at the Phoenix Park.
Without the Mercury, they might still be hawking their anthemic music around the unglamorous end of the club circuit.
For Hannigan, a Mercury nomination represents more than a career boost -- it's a vindication after two years of turmoil and uncertainty.
In March 2007, as she and Rice were preparing to perform in Munich, he delivered a bombshell: he wanted her to leave the band. In a subsequent statement, Rice announced their relationship "had run its creative course".
Speaking to journalists late last year, Hannigan talked frankly about the split from Rice.
"At the time, I was really upset," she recalled.
"Straight away, though, I threw myself into my own work. It was very therapeutic. It let me clear my mind of other things. Looking back with some healthy hindsight, I can say it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It forced me to move on, to develop as an artist."
Before she cracks open another bottle of champagne, Hannigan might reflect on the fact that not every Mercury nominee goes onto greater things.
Before Fionn Regan -- currently missing, presumed to be working on new material -- the most recent Republic of Ireland nominees were south Dublin soft poppers The Thrills and Co Tipperary singer Gemma Hayes, honoured for her 2002 LP Night On My Side.
Neither were able to sustain their early success. The Thrills are on hiatus following an underperforming third LP.
And all the hoopla over Night On My Side proved a little overwhelming for Hayes -- she came down with writer's block while trying to pen a sequel. Label-less and increasingly seen as an artist whose moment has passed, it's questionable how much of a commercial future she has.
Then there is the infamous 'curse' of the Mercury, which has struck down a series of winners in their prime.
Anglo-Asian artist Talvin Singh was dropped shortly after his 1999 victory; obscurity has similarly risen up to swallow winners Ms Dynamite (2002), Roni Size (1997) and M People, a disposable soul outfit who controversially got the nod at the height of Britpop in 1994, ahead of Blur's Parklife.
Heard much of 1998 recipients Gomez recently? Neither has anyone else. Even Klaxons seem to have come down with a case of the Mercury blues -- their new album was apparently rejected by their label on the grounds that it was far too bizarre.
It's also hard to get past the fact that Irish nominees tend to be unrepresentative of the overall state of music in the country.
Across the water, Hannigan is already being dismissed as this year's token folk nominee (one UK writer described her as a "truly obscure" nod towards the "moribund sensitive singer-songwriter genre").
Regan and Hayes were, similarly, in the tradition of misty-eyed Celtic strummers -- and in hindsight, neither really had a realistic chance of winning.
You've got to wonder how close this year's Choice music prize winner Jape, whose music flies in the face of mystical Irish stereotypes, came to receiving a Mercury nomination. Or, for that matter, how many of the judges had even heard of him.