Interview: Lisa Hannigan

By on Monday, 19th September 2011 at 12:00 pm

In anticipation of her new album ‘Passenger’, the lovely Lisa Hannigan chatted with me over the phone to discuss maps, having the sniffles and Baltimore – both in Ireland and Maryland.

Hello Lisa, it’s lovely to talk to you. I wanted to ask you first off about the artwork for the new album ‘Passenger’. It looks like the lights of a city, is it a real city?
Well, it’s actually the three places that I wrote the record. Part of it is Dublin, part of it is Brooklyn, and part of it is a fishing village in West Cork, and I sort of blended them all together because that’s where I wrote the record mostly, in those three places. So that was sort of a map of the record, if you like. And then I perforated the map into paper and then photographed light shooting through it, in essence.

That’s fantastic. Is that something that’s going to be a continuing theme, that you are going to be doing your own album artwork for all of your albums?
I hope so. I think it’s a really nice part of it. You know it’s like making your own videos; it’s such a lovely aspect of it. I wouldn’t really like somebody else doing it. Not in a sort of mad controlling way, but it’s something that I really enjoy. I wouldn’t want anyone else to have the fun of it.

I did look at it several times and think, I can’t tell where it is, it didn’t look like it was near water and it didn’t look like a really large city. I’m really happy to know.
Yeah, Brooklyn is really ridged and Dublin is a bit more wibbly, and the fishing village just has one main street in it, it’s very crusty and jagged. It was fun trying to make them all fit together happily.

So with all the traveling that you’ve done, I know that’s kind of a theme with ‘Passenger’, do you have a favorite city?
Well, I suppose, the map. They would be my two favorite cities if I have to pick, Dublin and New York. I absolutely love New York and I went there for a little while last year to do some writing and ended up not doing any writing at the time because there was so much wandering around to be done. Then coming home and writing the songs once I had gotten home to the relatively boring Dublin.

Did you go to the Brooklyn Flea?

Yes, I was in the Brooklyn Flea, oh gosh I bought beautiful things that I couldn’t really afford. I think that was the best one I’ve been to.

The recording diary videos that you posted for us all to watch, it was fascinating to be able to see a glimpse into your musical process, but I’ve got tell you, that place looked awfully small. How did everybody get along?
Yeah, it was pretty tiny, it was. (laughs) Well, it wasn’t that small, it was small once we got we’d got all our bloody stuff in. It was probably more our fault than the studio’s.

How long were you there?
One week, we were there for 7 days. It was just a dream, actually. It was a really lovely experience. It was the depths of February, it was really cold, and crispy, and clear. And I had been struck down with a horrendous cold so I was just guzzling Lemsips and ginger and I don’t know what else. Everyone had a magic remedy for me.

Yeah, I saw a red hot water bottle at one point.
I was clutching the hot water bottle all the time. It was quite grim. The first couple of days, I remember thinking, “kind of bleak, I’ve got 7 days to make a record and I’m sniffling all the way through”. We did quite a lot of my singing towards the end. But it was a beautiful place in Snowdonia National Park. It was stunning countryside, which I didn’t really get to enjoy because of my cold. I was just shuffling from studio to the kitchen. But the boys all went out for pints. It was a wonderful place to go. I really wanted somewhere we would all get lost in together. You know if you are in a city, everyone goes home at the end and watches…

Yeah, everyone goes home and gets out of the atmosphere of the place and just gets on with their daily life and then they go back to work again. And I kind of wanted us all to fall down a rabbit hole together.

I did get a quick listen to the album this morning, is there any one song on ‘Passenger’ that you are particularly proud of? Because I can tell you, none of the sniffling comes across.
(laughs) Good, phew. You know, I really love all the songs on the record, which is a very heartening thing to be able to say. But I really do. Having played them for the summer around Ireland, there’s none that sort of wear on me. That does happen with songs, you know, after you’ve played them 20 times they kind of lose meaning, you know, and their failings sort of shine through, the bits that don’t ring true really kind of annoy you and it can be difficult. But with these ones, I really enjoy playing them and they still feel true to me. But I think the one I really enjoy playing, I think is ‘Little Bird’, which initially I found quite difficult to play in front of people. But over the course of the time that I played it with the band I feel much more comfortable playing it. I think that’s the one I’m proudest of because I feel…I think it’s true to me. I think that’s what I was really trying with this record, to be as brutally honest as I could with myself and I hope that I’ve achieved that.

You’ve sung with some really amazing people, I mean Ray La Montagne on this album, and I’ve heard you with Gary Lightbody and Glen Hansard. If you could pick a female artist to do a duet with who do you think you’d choose?

Ooooh, I’d love to sing with a lady. Well, I had the very lucky opportunity to sing with Emmylou Harris on a Kate McGarrigle tribute concert. It was very brief and we did one song and I would love to sing with her again. Another singer I really admire is Gillian Welch, she’s an extraordinary voice, and Martha Wainwright, and Cathy Davey, and oh there are so many. We should get a choir together.

That would be fantastic, just a whole album of female duets.
Wow, you’ve got me thinking now.

Is there anything you did for this album to kind of fight against the pick and choose nature of today’s download culture? Maybe something that encourages you to keep the album together as a piece rather than having people just choose songs to download?
Well, people are going to get the record in whatever shape or fashion that sort of suits them. I think that’s just the way that it is. But for me it was important to make a record that was a cohesive body of work. And I think, you know, even if people do take single songs, hopefully they stand on their own. I think they work to together as a body of work and that was important to me, to make something whole and solid.

A lot of the instruments you use are unusual like the harmonium, ukulele or such. Was it a conscious choice of yours to use old or odd instruments or was that kind of what you had around the first time you started making music?
It’s sort of what I had around. When I was traveling I was always checking pawn shops and secondhand shops for strange bits and bobs that would be around and then I think some things just fall into your lap. Like my friend got me a ukulele as a present. And it is, you know, the happiest of all instruments and the songs I ended up writing on it was not. It had these horrible twisted chords in it and it’s not a particularly happy song. It’s about a pretty fraught night out and I kind of like that juxtaposition of the slightly ridiculously happy instrument with a slightly twisty song. I just really play what’s around and those are the instruments that are around, that my band plays. And then the harmonium was something I consciously thought out because I loved the sound of it, that sort of nostalgic sadness. Because it’s such a lovely feel.

Anything really unusual on ‘Passenger’, like a saw or a typewriter?

No, but I did have a go with saw. It was a bit fraught with danger actually. I’d imagine that they’d be quite smooth but the one that I had was serrated. And you really have to hold it quite strongly.

It would be very hard to make it bend, I imagine.
Decapitating myself, it was too close for comfort, so I stepped away from the saw. So there’s nothing too strange, I don’t think.

Talking about strange, I really like the video of ‘I Don’t Know’, from ‘Sea Sew’ in the Dingle pub, rather than the actual commercial version. You seem to play in unusual places and have it recorded, like on the streets or in alleys, are you planning to do something like that for some of the songs on this album?
Yeah, we’ve got quite a few for this new record ‘cause we were down in West Cork, doing the EPK, the electronic press kit thing, and so we thought we’d make a few videos for these songs. They haven’t come out yet, but we have a beautiful set of songs around a campfire down by the sea, which worked really well. And as the sea was encroaching on our cases and things, we had to run up and away. Yeah, we did quite a few down there. I think it’s just nice to hear a live version of something, just something really simple, with no fancy production or recording techniques or anything. It’s just somebody playing on a boat.

Right, it does make it sound lovely. Do you have a favorite album of all time?
Oh my God. Ahm, I suppose I have a few. One that I would always turn to would be ‘Astral Weeks’ by Van Morrison. That’s been one of my favorite records, I just think it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of music that anyone’s ever made. It would definitely be up there very high. And then another record that I always go back to is Joni Mitchell’s ‘Ladies of the Canyon’. And Kristin Hersh, her record ‘Hips and Makers’, I always go back to. But it changes, doesn’t it? Everybody’s got those favorite records that they like to go back and put on.

Have any of those particularly influenced how you make music? Perhaps maybe the Van Morrison?

Well, what I loved about ‘Astral Weeks’ is that it was made in 2 days apparently. And I love the looseness of it, it’s so, oh, almost unfocused and relaxed in its execution. And it’s just exhilarating I think, to listen to, it’s so immediate and loose and you feel like you’re just listening to a moment in time as opposed to something that’s been sort of eked out…over months. And so I suppose, you know, I always like the idea of making a record pretty quickly. I don’t want to be sitting around thinking about it, I couldn’t be bothered really. So that would certainly influence my thinking, you don’t have to make a record in a month. It really is about capturing a moment.

I look forward to seeing you play in the United States in both Washington, DC and Baltimore.
All of those videos we made that I mentioned earlier, were made in Baltimore West Cork. Which is where they sailed from to get to Baltimore, Maryland, as far as I know. It’s the tiny fishing village where I wrote a chunk of the record. It’s very different from Baltimore, Maryland.

Yes, very different! Well, I’ll let you get to your day and I will see you next month.
Yes, in Baltimore – the big one!

Lisa Hannigan’s new album ‘Passenger’ will be released on the 10th of October in the UK and Ireland; America gets it a wee bit earlier, on the 20th of September (tomorrow).

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