Lisa Han­ni­gan on writer’ s block, ‘At Swim’ and work­ing with Aaron Dess­ner

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

Lisa Han­ni­gan’s new al­bum is called At Swim and I am in­ter­view­ing her on a boat on the Lif­fey. Is that a lit­tle too on the nose? We board the St Brid­get and, find­ing the deck too crowded, aban­don the sun and blus­ter of sea chats and go in­side for cof­fee, talk­ing loudly over the din of the en­gine.

The night be­fore, Han­ni­gan sang on­stage with in­die rock­ers The Na­tional at Lon­gi­tude. The Amer­i­cans, she said, were “so gen­er­ous and easy with their col­lab­o­ra­tive spir­its”. In­deed, At Swim is the re­sult of a fate­ful col­lab­o­ra­tion with The Na­tional’s Aaron Dess­ner. It is a hard-won record, years in the mak­ing, with a ti­tle that is noth­ing to do with Flann O’Brien and ev­ery­thing to do with feel­ing all at sea.

Han­ni­gan had been tour­ing for more than two years with her 2011 al­bum Pas­sen­ger. The words, she says, just dried up. “I kinda thought, I’ll write some songs while it’s hap­pen­ing, and then I just ended up not writ­ing songs.”

But when the tour was done, it was time to get se­ri­ous. Han­ni­gan had de­cided she wanted to use her voice in a dif­fer­ent way. “I said to my band, you should go off and do dif­fer­ent things, be­cause I’m go­ing to go away and write and I feel like I’m go­ing to swerve some­where else,”

Han­ni­gan went to Paris for in­spi­ra­tion, then Lon­don: “I was kinda all over the shop. I was a bit stuck.” She was on her own and be­tween homes and coun­tries, “I didn’t feel rooted any­where. I just felt adrift in life.”

She was read­ing a lot of Sea­mus Heaney for a part-time de­gree in English lit­er­a­ture. “At one point in the process, I felt I didn’t have a word in my head to write, and thought I’d just read Sea­mus Heaney be­cause he has all the best words – as Trump might say.”

Songs on a page

One of the songs on At Swim is the haunt­ingly beau­ti­ful Ana­ho­r­ish. It is Han­ni­gan’s melody set to Heaney’s words, which “looked like a song on the page,” she says. “I just started singing it and over the course of a night I re­mem­ber run­ning out to the bath­room and singing the next line into my phone and then go­ing back and hear­ing the next line . . . like beads on a string.”

Still, the songs were emerg­ing too slowly. I asked if she was hav­ing a full-blown cri­sis.

“I was def­i­nitely veer­ing to­wards de­presh mode at times,” Han­ni­gan says. “I never really had that mo­ment where I would feel I had some shiny thing at the end of the day. A lot of days I would just feel like I had dust. I started to really lose sight of what the point of me was. I was think­ing, maybe I should go backto col­lege and be a vet or some­thing.”

Then, in an al­most ridicu­lous VH1 Be­hind the Mu­sic stroke of good luck, on a dark Jan­uary day she re­ceived an email from Dess­ner: “Hello. I’m in a band called The Na­tional.”

The email was a gen­eral de­sire to con­nect – to write to­gether, pro­duce, or even just jam. Han­ni­gan is not sure why Dess­ner con­tacted her ( Why meee? she sings) They had mu­tual friends in Aus­tralian band Lu­luc. “It was just this gift.”

Crafted lyrics

Dess­ner set the wheels in mo­tion, send­ing Han­ni­gan vi­gnettes of mu­sic, which she “would just sort of hum along, record­ing my­self”. Free from wor­ry­ing about the mu­sic, she “could just re­act to it melod­i­cally” and “stop cling­ing on so tightly to that idea that lyrics have to be really crafted”.

The two be­came “mu­si­cal pen­pals” and met when they could, in Copen­hagen and then in Lis­more Cas­tle, when Dess­ner was work­ing on Cork’s Sounds From a Safe Har­bour festival. Joe Hen- ry, Han­ni­gan’s pro­ducer friend, helped her with lyrics.

“Ihad this sort of desert of dif­fi­culty,” she says, “punc­tu­ated by a few songs that just sort of came out in five, 10 min­utes. I re­alised the in­dus­try in­volved in writ­ing a lot of shit songs is ac­tu­ally the scaf­fold­ing that you’re build­ing to be able to, one morn­ing when you are struck by a feel­ing, you can just trans­fer into a song. Like that DH Lawrence line: ‘Not I, Not I, but the wind that blows through me’.”

In New York they put down the ba­sic track­ing, which Dess­ner then took to his garage stu­dio. He’d email her: “‘I’ve put the trom­bone part on, lis­ten to this.’ So I’d have all these lovely lit­tle presents turn­ing up in my in­box.”

Han­ni­gan’s voice sounds dif­fer­ent on At Swim, fuller and deeper. From the be­gin­ning, she says, Dess­ner had “this no­tion that he wanted it to be sort of aus­tere sound­ing. He fo­cused on mak­ing the sounds really richly tex­tured as op­posed to melod­i­cally dex­trous, which I al­ways would’ve tended to­ward.”

It all seems a con­scious move away from her self-pro­fessed “plinky-plonky” sound. Song ti­tles in­clude Funeral Suit, We the Drowned and Prayer for the Dy­ing. Lisa, u ok hun? “I don’t think the al­bum is de­press­ing,” she says laugh­ing, but ad­mits that she was “feel­ing ex­is­ten­tially a bit raw at the time.”

I won­der if Han­ni­gan takes com­fort in col­lab­o­rat­ing, it be­ing the place where she started. “Get­ting back in a room with peo­ple” was key for her, and “I think it takes a cer­tain amount let­ting go of con­trol”.

Each of Han­ni­gan’s three records point­edly cor­re­spond to dif­fer­ent stages of her life. With Sea Sew (2008), she had some­thing to prove. Han­ni­gan’s voice was a vi­tal el­e­ment on Damien Rice’s first two al­bums, O and 9 but after Rice un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously fired Han­ni­gan while on tour in 2007, their pro­fes­sional and ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship ended for good.

Bright and strong

“When I lis­ten to it now, I mean, I love that record, but I can feel my own . . . I really wanted to ap­pear happy be­cause I am happy, but I wanted to project that in a very – I mean, even just from the art­work I wanted a bright and strong feel­ing.”

Why? “Be­cause I was com­ing out blink­ing into the light from a slightly dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion and I wanted to feel dif­fer­ent and I wanted to feel like me, as op­posed to at­tached to some­thing else.” I com­pli­ment Han­ni­gan on her diplo­macy. “Oh, ever diplo­matic,” she says.

Pas­sen­ger (2011) rep­re­sented a big leap in con­fi­dence. And with this one? At 35, “this record just has more ofa sense of that ma­tu­rity,” she says. “And it is a bit darker, but then life is a bit darker than it prob­a­bly was when I was 27. Just in a re­al­is­tic way.”

Read­ing Han­ni­gan’s re­views and in­ter­views, you of­ten sense the jour­nal­ists fall­ing down a well of manic pixie fawn­ing. Han­ni­gan says she doesn’t read any of it – “even some­thing am­bigu­ous sticks to you like a burr”. Words like “fey” and “win­some” are some­times used.

“I’m quirky,” she says, in a faux-quirky voice. “I’m twee. That’s the thing I have to el­bow my way out of. I hon­estly think it’s the first record cover, so it’s my own fault. I feel like that has a cer­tain aes­thetic to it, which I didn’t mean in that way. But I think it sort of res­onates in that way for peo­ple. But I feel very un-twee in my­self.”

But peo­ple won’t find any­thing twee on At Swim. “That was just nat­u­ral, that was just how it sort of came out. Twee is the worst.”

So you’re not at home do­ing arts and crafts? “No! Not that there’s any­thing wrong with arts and crafts. I mean, look, we’ve all dab­bled.”

Think­ing about her con­tem­po­raries, she says: “No one would call Conor O’Brien quirky. It’s a par­tic­u­lar fem­i­nine ad­jec­tive that peo­ple use to put you in your box. I’m get­ting out of my box.”

Han­ni­gan is still liv­ing be­tween Lon­don and Dublin, but her heart is here. “Like I don’t use the NHS or any­thing; I al­ways feel bad about us­ing it. If I was ill I’d think, I bet­ter save it up ’til I get home.” She loves how ac­ci­den­tally so­cial Dublin is. “With­out any ef­fort on your part you can just sort of brush up against peo­ple, find out how they’re do­ing.” Lon­don re­quires lots of ad­vance plan­ning, which makes her anx­ious.

Avoid­ing Dublin

Did she per­haps want to stay away from Dublin un­til she had some new work ready to go? Was she hid­ing in Lon­don? “Maybe that’s true.” Her part­ner works in Lon­don, but plans to move here.

“The think­ing was, I’m go­ing to make my record, and then I’m go­ing to tour and then I’m go­ing to move to Dublin. But ac­tu­ally it is just that I need to get this thing done and then I’m mov­ing into a dif­fer­ent time of my life. But, yeah, I did want to bring it home.”

She’s re­cently fin­ished a tour of Ire­land to “flex my mus­cles or rather find if I had any mus­cles left”. Europe is next, though not be­fore she heads off to Wisconsin’s Eaux Claires festival, to play with Dess­ner.

Han­ni­gan is back in her stride. “So much of that time I was like, I’m not mak­ing an­other record, that’s me now.” It was an em­bar­rass­ment that felt like “in­ter­nal sun­burn. I had that very strong feel­ing for a cou­ple of years. Now with the record and I’m back tour­ing again, I’m like, yeah this is what I’m for.” At Swim is out Au­gust 19th

No one would call Conor O’Brien quirky. It’s a par­tic­u­lar fem­i­nine ad­jec­tive that peo­ple use to put you in your box. I’m get­ting out of my box

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